Accidents Will Happen

November 28, 2011 · Print This Article

Two weeks ago, I wrote here about one relationship between art and album jackets, specifically The Beatles’ White Album and Paul McCartney’s Thrillington, released under a pseudonym. That same week, I was asked to give a talk on the broadly interpreted theme of “jackets” and so I followed the album jacket vein. Along the way I rediscovered Barney Bubbles, the long forgotten graphic artist who designed incredible jackets for many of the quirkier members of Britain’s punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s. Most of his work was deliberately uncredited. Some examples of his work and my experience rediscovering Bubbles for myself follows.

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Who among us hasn’t burned off a drizzling afternoon in Wikipedia limbo racking with tab after tab of hyperlinked articles? Often enough its done out of boredom, you could be stuck behind a desk at work and have nothing else to do, but that doesn’t exactly mean that you read these articles without interest. You could start an afternoon on the entry for Operation Barbarossa and easily end up reading about the Latvian hockey team. With your interest and your time, you create the proper conditions for an accident to happen. In my experience, research is not a method with clear steps to follow. It’s closer to a test of interest and patience as well as the faith it takes to believe those two qualities combined will bear fruit.

Before the turn of this century, when computers lurched and gurgled as they connected to the Internet, I regularly spent hours in front of a grey Compaq desktop in my family’s living room browsing disc after disc of the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. I would do this after a full day at Central Junior High, where rudderless classes like Mrs. Crutcher’s Honors Biology would routinely devolve into unsupervised poker games. My brain was not fed at school and so I filled it at home, aided by the interactive gizmos of Grolier’s
CD-ROMS. I watched animated maps of the Marshall Plan and learned about the founders of Adelaide. I discovered the Celtic words for the Irish potato famine and found out that the county I grew up in was originally called Mosquito.

Nothing much seemed to happen in Mosquito County. Sitting as it does on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Salty air and tropical weeds wipe out signs of the past that tourism and the aerospace industry haven’t already eclipsed. With Grolier, all the history hidden from
me in person was suddenly laid out at home on a computer, made all the more attractive by its digital glitz. In my wanderings through the encyclopedia, I came upon an entry titled “History of Rock and Roll.” It was in this article that I was first exposed to
Elvis Costello, the musician who would become the musical touchstone for the remainder of my teenage years. A thirty second audio clip of Costello’s 1978 song “Pump It Up,” his sixth single for the iconoclastic British punk label Stiff Records, played through the puny computer speakers in my family’s living room.

After hearing “Pump It Up,” I got a ride to Barnes and Noble and bought a best of CD. In its liner notes, I scrutinized the one square inch images of albums I had never known existed. By the time I finished High School, I had heard them all. Through Internet
browsing, I learned of and heard the music of Costello’s early label mates at Stiff: Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe. Barnes and Noble didn’t sell these musicians’ albums. They wouldn’t even order them for me.

This was all, of course, before iTunes displayed a handy thumbnail image of the album you’re listening to in the bottom corner of your screen. If I had downloaded an album, probably from Napster, my knowledge of its cover was cursory at best. CDs weren’t much better. As I wouldn’t appreciate until I began collecting records AFTER I’d already amassed piles of compact discs, much is lost in the journey from twelve inch LP to five inch jewel case. What a terrible name, jewel case. Now that most of us save things to our hard drives and beam music to our cars’ stereos through iPods, it’s absurd to glorify those obsolete plastic discs by comparing them to jewels. The things that vinyl LPs come in have a much better name. They’re called album jackets.

Because I wasn’t experiencing albums by Costello and his label mates on vinyl LPs, I didn’t understand that there was one designer behind what seemed like wildly different jacket designs. That designer was Colin Fulcher, known better for most of his career as Barney Bubbles. His designs did not stop at compelling imagery, they creatively engaged with the form of records themselves—from packaging conventions through to mass manufacturing techniques. Without handling the jackets yourself, pulling out the disc, and rifling through the liners, the core qualities of Bubbles designs are lost. Here are a few examples.

Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Do It Yourself, 1979.

For this album, Bubbles suggested that Stiff buy up reams of actual Crown wallpaper and print the title information over it. Dave Robinson, Stiff’s owner, actually negotiated a deal with the wallpaper company to get the product for free. Crown agreed to the deal as long as Stiff left the catalog numbers of specific designs on the paper. The cover features a character called Tommy the Talking Toolbox and a Stiff Records logo redesigned to look like a hammer from a home toolkit.

Nick Lowe, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, 1978.

For this design, Bubbles simultaneously quotes a dadaist motif from the portfolio of artist Theo van Doesburg and, applying a classic Bauhaus photogram technique, quotes the tools of his own trade. Laid out on the jacket are some of the tools Bubbles would use to assemble his designs: a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, an x-acto blade, and a paperclip. One of the more raucous elements of the studio’s atmosphere makes in into the image in the form of a pull-tab from a beer can.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year’s Model, 1978.

The instantly recognizable cover of Costello’s second album shows him behind a medium format camera, peeping out at the viewer and directing you to shift just a little bit to his right. Where Costello was the subject of the photo on the cover of his debut album My Aim Is True, here he IS the photographer. Jake Riviera, the owner of Stiff spin-off Radar Records, wanted to make a bold gesture to Radar’s distributor—Warner Music—that Riviera was serious about making album jackets his own way with no interference. He made this clear to Bubbles, who ran with the idea. Working from the image of Elvis as a photographer, Bubbles continued the photography theme. He designed the cover as a misprinted proof, with the normally present color test bars running down the right hand side. The bars take up enough space to push the first letters of both Elvis and the album’s name off the cover completely. It’s a tiny tweak, but completely in line with the album’s sneering impertinence.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Accidents Will Happen, 1979.

Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton—pioneers of early computer graphics—generated the imagery for this single. But as with This Year’s Model and Do It Yourself, Bubbles intervened in the printing process. He had the factory print the seven inch sleeve inside out. It looks blank until you take the disc out and peep inside. Then you get the joke: seemingly, during manufacture, an accident has happened. It’s a strange moment in anti-marketing. As with Dury’s Do It Yourself, the managers were not only prepared to indulge Bubbles’ designs, but were enthusiastic about doing so. It served the manager’s purposes by giving Stiff and Radar recording artists an edge of “cool.” But the design choices Bubbles made on these jackets were hardly market-researched or audience-tested. They were made in the midst of a chaotic office environment, where Bubbles, the quiet, tidy craftsman, would listen to the songs on the record he was designing for and, drawing upon his own knowledge of art history and personal reserve of eclectic interests, respond directly to the music he outfitted.

Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, 1978.

Barney Bubbles’ jackets effortlessly complement the aesthetic impulses of the artists whose music they contain. For Costello, he responded to the joy Elvis takes in playing with words, even snide and cynical ones. For Ian Dury, who was a college art professor before his music career took off, Bubbles designed jackets that played to the singer’s taste for Bauhaus and evoked the solid core of principles often disguised by a man and music frayed around the edges. And nowhere is Nick Lowe’s sensibility summarized so effectively as the jacket for Jesus of Cool, below, where Lowe dressed up as a number of rock archetypes: lounge act, new waver, pub rocker.

Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool, 1978

What’s even more remarkable is that even on labels as central obsessed with personality driven music as Stiff and Radar, Bubbles humbly toiled behind the curtain. By the mid 70s, Bubbles had stopped crediting himself on jackets, leaving the work of attribution up to die-hard fans. It’s part of the reason that people are only now beginning to take notice of his designs’ wit. They stand on their own without the aid of a personality cult.

Bubbles’ jackets are seeds that have lain fallow for years only to bloom now. His work is a repository of modest charm and small moves with delightful delayed payoffs. At least for me, that describes the process of research pretty well too. It’s less the result of one person’s skill and more a collusion between the right atmospheric conditions. Of course, it takes putting oneself out there in those conditions again and again over long periods of time before the flower blooms, the fruit ripens, and you get what you didn’t even know you were looking for and hadn’t even realized you needed. The generous attention you give to something when you’re in the research mode is a frame of mind applicable to the world at-large, not just the world in books, or the world on the Internet. That doesn’t mean putting everything under the microscope, but allowing that the people, places, and things that populate our everyday lives don’t necessarily reveal their gold on first, second, or fifth glance. Often enough, they’re time-release capsules that only burst open to reveal themselves in the presence of those two essential components of research: time and attention. And with patient, smoldering curiosity, accidents will happen.


Thanks to Anthony Stepter, Amber Yared, and Nate Dorotiak.

Paul McCartney Between Art and Pop

November 14, 2011 · Print This Article

As Paul McCartney played “Paperback Writer” during his concerts at Wrigley Field this past July, details from Richard Prince’s nurse paintings flashed behind him on stage four stories high. I was confused.

For a concert with tens of thousands in attendance, the connection is subtle. The images in Prince’s nurse paintings come from pulpy dime-store paperback novels and the song is, of course, about a writer of paperbacks. If—after years studying contemporary art and much longer as a Beatles fan—the connection was lost on me, I’d guess it was lost on much of the audience as well. If it was lost, it didn’t seem to matter much. The Baby Boomers around me still bopped along. We can only assume that Paul, or maybe the tour’s art director, got a little kick out of the embellishment.

Either way, juxtapositions like this are nothing new in McCartney’s career. He’s been nuzzling up to contemporary art since at least the mid sixties. He has both collaborated with visual artists and produced artwork himself. Many of these associations are chronicled in Ian Peel’s 2002 book The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde. He’s made albums of concrete music and masqueraded under pseudonyms. In 1977, a conductor named Percy “Thrills” Thrillington released the album Thrillington, an orchestral version of McCartney’s 1971 solo album Ram.

Prior to its release, Thrillington took out announcements in the society pages of English newspapers that seem as much like Fluxus provocations as buzz marketing. These snippets mention the album, but also describe Thrillington’s whimsical adventures in high society, including highlights from a ski trip in Switzerland. The album’s provenance remained mysterious even though the back cover shows McCartney reflected in the studio glass. No one could say for sure that Paul was behind it. It wasn’t until 1989 that McCartney revealed it had been him all along. He’d produced the album a month after Ram’s release. With wife Linda McCartney, he wrote the ads for the society pages as a lark. Old copies of Thrillington immediately tripled in value.

McCartney’s art gestures will attract attention from people whether the work merits it or not. He is, after all, a millionaire, one of the most recongnizable human beings alive, and a knight of the British Empire. But there are also instances where McCartney has collaborated with artists directly, and the interest the work generates does not derive primarily from his celebrity. For example, he enlisted his friend, the artist Richard Hamilton, to design the sleeve for The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album, better known today as The White Album.

Think about that for a moment—because of an artist’s design, we refer to an album by the biggest band in the history of the world by the way it looks rather than what the band named it. What’s more, the design itself apes the aesthetics of conceptual and minimalist art emerging at the time. “The Beatles,” the only words on the album’s front, are not printed but are simply embossed into the object itself. Sleeves were manufactured with seemingly unique serial numbers. By some estimates, there are over three million copies. Especially now that seriality has been recognized by art historians as a primary concern of late sixties artworks, Hamilton’s serial edition of three million spread in homes, record stores, and radio stations across the world comes off as a prescient joke on a massive scale.

As an artist, Hamilton brought more than simple imagery to the album jacket. Visual artists’ work had appeared on album jackets before The White Album and continues to do so today. Hamilton’s design focuses attention on both the album’s construction process and the circulation of the album itself. It makes us acknowledge the album’s birthplace in a factory, printed plainly and efficiently and stamped finished with a serial number. The serial number also makes tacit the existence of all the other Beatlemaniacs out there. We’re both the owner of a unique artifact (“No. 0382937 is all mine!”) and an object that’s come off the assembly line. What you make of this contradiction built into the album’s design depends on your point-of-view. It could just as easily be a perverse illustration of commodity fetishism as a light-hearted prank meant to give fans a laugh. It’s easy to think of the legions of Beatles fans as simpletons who could swallow the inscrutability of The White Album because their devotion to the group was forged during the mop-top years. But to know the real truth of that assumption, you’d have to interview a lot of Beatles fans. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the group never let any presumptions about their fanbase’s intelligence or sophistication get in the way of unconventional aesthetic maneuvers. The cover is a white canvas to project on anyway, the possible interpretations as numerous as the copies in circulation: it’s an aesthetic retreat from the Pop art cover of Sgt. Pepper’s released the previous year, an absurdist quantitative measurement of the world’s Beatles fans, and a comic skewering of the concept of originality in art.

I am a fan of the austere gestures of conceptual art as well as the sophisticated humor of popular music. Historically both sides, although not without exceptions, have tended to avoid the contamination of the other. Side A thinks Side B is poisoned by the market. Side B thinks Side A is willfully pretentious. With this stand-off the status-quo, the occasions of overlap are jarring. When Richard Prince’s paintings appeared fifty feet high on screen at Wrigley Field, I was jolted. I thought I’d come to the concert as a McCartney fan, not as someone trained to recognize an artist’s work from memory. But my knowledge of Prince’s work and my reserve of Beatles trivia reside in the same brain, maybe they even share neurons. The same goes for my understanding of early conceptual art and the story behind The White Album. Both emerged at the same time in like places involving similar people. It would be silly to pretend that they didn’t share some common stock. At least in this case, the less boundaries I have between professional interest and private enthusiasm, the more I might see where the two fields overlap and, consequently, enrich my understanding of the instances where open-minded cross-pollinatation has produced curious hybrids that exist in the world without much concern for what club they belong to.

Interview with The Mythological Quarter

October 31, 2011 · Print This Article

Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom are artists and former Chicagoans that make their home in Copenhagen these days. While many artists lend the same creative abilities to their homes as their practice, we rarely get a glimpse of what goes on there. Often, what goes on locally at home—the apartment, the neighborhood, the city—can feed back into a practice until the boundaries of artwork and lifework are comfortably confused. Fortune and Bloom use their blog Mythological Quarter to share their experience of making a home in a new place. This includes reviewing books about homesteading, recounting experiences making work in a new place, documenting instances of neighborhood ingenuity, and sharing creative experiments made in their apartment. Bonnie and Brett’s blog impressed me with the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment brought to all of their projects, whether it’s meant for an art festival or the living room. I sent Bonnie a few questions to chew on over email.

Passive herb watering system. Credit: Mythological Quarter

Bryce Dwyer: Where does the name “Mythological Quarter” come from?

Bonnie Fortune: Mythological Quarter is the name of a group of streets in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen that are all named for Norse gods. Our street is Baldersgade. Balder was the son of Odin. Because our blog is primarily about hyper-local ecology and what people can do to live closer to and learn about their local environment, we thought it was a good idea to name it after our neighborhood. We also liked the imaginative possibility of the name, which is good because in the few short months since we started the blog it has morphed beyond the initial mission statement and intent. We started by detailing a lot of projects that we were doing in our home but have since evolved beyond that. We’ll return to that on occasion, but the focus is now a little broader.

BD: I don’t think it’s a leap of faith to believe that some of the same creative experimentation that happens in a conventional artist’s studio is at play in the home of an ecologically-oriented urban homesteader. Of course, the output of these impulses varies. In one scenario you might end up with a presentable art project, in the other, a batch of worm castings to feed your houseplants. How do you think of these different outcomes of artful living in relation to one another? 

BF: This is a good question because it relates to the slow morphing of the blog’s purview. I have a reluctant affection for the idea of urban homesteading. Certainly, I look at and am inspired by those authors that would put themselves in that category, but I also question their efficacy having tried, and continue to try, many of their DIY projects. My interest in homesteading ideas is research into how to become more connected to my immediate environment.

So many of us live in cities now that the question becomes how can one deal more directly with where one lives rather than put the environment or an idea of the natural world at a distance—as something that exists elsewhere.

I am very interested in incorporating ecological thinking (i.e. considering how we are part of rather than separate from the environment we live in) into my daily life and routines. Sometimes it’s achieved and sometimes I feel alienated by what living in a city really means—being removed from your food production, waste disposal, electricity, natural gas, etc.

Because I am trained as an artist, I automatically look at things from the perspective of producing culture. I think about how I can use my skills to make an improvement in the overall environment of the world. What does that look like if one of my main skills is cultural production? Making posters, writing, connecting people, making exhibitions, and making projects. The blog gives me a focused research platform that allows me to connect with other artists, but also scientists and those working with the contemporary environmental movement. But there are times when MQ veers off topic and focuses solely on art projects. Just as there are times when we can’t figure out the perfect indoor compost system and end up throwing away our table scraps.

BD: Do domestic experiments ever leave the house and become projects-at-large?

BF: Yes, our domestic experiments do become projects outside of the home. To start with MQ is a project somewhat outside of the home in that it is in the public sphere of the Internet. Currently we are planning a way to frame certain aspects of our research on MQ to make a book. MQ, as a project, is more about research and development—talking to others, reading, trying things and documenting those experiments. It is a testing ground for larger projects. For example, through an interview project for MQ, I met a group of local naturalists and biologists who helped me immeasurably in making a recent poster project for the local art fair.

BD: You and Brett have been collecting great resource books and making them freely available for a while now. What are some of your “desert island” books?

BF:
How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
The Book of the New Alchemist, Edited by Nancy Jack Todd and E. P. Dutton
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
Ecology textbook, Edited by Began, Harper, and Townsend
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison

I started collaborating with Brett on a project called the Library of Radiant Optimism for Let’s Re-make the World. The project collected books from the late 60s and early 70s. Several of these books like the The New Alchemists, The Environmental Design Primer, and How to Build Your Own Living Structures focused on how to transfer ideas from the environmental movement to daily living—the beginnings of the green design movement.

Reading these books, collecting them together, and writing reviews led us to wonder about what people were doing now or how we could make our own experiments.  MQ stems directly from that collaboration. It is a more streamlined, less nostalgic version of that project.

What to take to a desert island? The problem here is that I think too literally about this. I would say How to Build Your Own Living Structures, but you need a hardware store to build some of these things and that’s not on a desert island. In fact when we moved to Denmark we had to leave a huge part of our library at home, so in a sense it was moving to a desert island (well, Copenhagen’s on an island anyway). Leaving our books at home was a hard decision but one determined by the economics of international flight. We’ve since started to rebuild our collection. As we do, I’m adding to the Book Reviews portion of the blog.

BD: What are the things that you’ve learned through amateur pursuit of useful knowledge that you might not have acquired anywhere else? Where might people have acquired this knowledge previously and can you speculate on some reasons for the change?

BF: I consider my artistic practice to be a research-based endeavor. Part of this is having gone through an academic system of art training, part of it is the way contemporary art making has evolved. I make art about what I am interested in, what I care about, and what I am passionate about. This is amateur in a sense, but also a professional pursuit of knowledge. For example, it has lead me to talk to scientists about how to properly conduct a survey of the biodiversity of an inner city empty lot so that I can make a poster about the process. I am not a scientist, I’m an amateur there, but I am still approaching the project with a level of professionalism. And I am genuinely curious about making sense of the world around me, in that sense it’s not an amateur pursuit of knowledge.

Another example: before moving to Copenhagen, Brett and I did a public art project for the city of Urbana where we built bat houses. We were interested in how to encourage wild habitats that are within and more integrated with the built environment of a city or town. We didn’t know what bats liked before starting the project, so we learned about them and their habitat needs to fully realize the project.

As to where people acquired knowledge previously: The Internet has obviously changed how we gather and share knowledge. This makes me think of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. First of all, he suggests that our planet needs a new name, Eaarth, because global warming has reached a point of irrevocably shifting the planet we knew as Earth. For the rest of the book he lays out how climate change happened and how it’s shaping the world. He concludes with what is being done and what can be done in the present day environmental movement. McKibben suggests that small-scale initiatives—things like Community Supported Agriculture, bartering systems, and generally doing things on a smaller scale—is the way to acclimate to living on Eaarth. Within all of this, he points out that the Internet is something that will continue to be a useful tool for connecting and sharing information between the world of self-sufficient and small-scale communities he imagines as the answer. This conclusion stuck with me because it was not what I expected him to write because he had already written about supporting hyper local initiatives (local farming, food sharing, etc) and the Internet seemed the exact opposite of this. Introducing the Internet into the system contradicts focusing on the local and also, by McKibben’s way of looking at it, a way to support and encourage the system.

We began Mythological Quarter (and other projects) trying to think about our immediate environment—the apartment, the neighborhood, etc. that we live in—the hyper-local. It is now a means for us to research, gather information, and share it with others. It’s a knowledge project on the edge of local and global.

“What is this obsession people have with books?”

October 17, 2011 · Print This Article

A week or so before the recent NY Art Book Fair at PS1, Nicholas Gottlund of independent publisher Gottlund Verlag posted a ten-second clip from Seinfeld to his blog. “What is this obsession people have with books?” Jerry asks George, “They put them in their houses like they’re trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?”

George’s response—”They’re my books!”—is typical of George and probably plenty of other bibliophiles out there. But, even as many people (including my own parents) do the lion’s share of their reading on a Kindle these days, there are plenty of other less selfish reasons to go on clinging to the printed page. At the NY Art Book Fair, the profusion of independent publishers made a fine case for clearing out space on the shelves for books, whether they’re destined to be trophies or not.

Established in 2007, Gottlund Verlag is one of them. “Verlag” is the German word for “publisher,” and although Gottlund isn’t based in Germany (he works out of studios in Baltimore, MD and Kutztown, PA) the Teutonic flavoring is no mere affectation. The studio is housed in a picturesque nineteenth century Pennsylvania Dutch barn. There’s even hex signs painted on the walls. From this enchanting space, Gottlund collaborates with artists like photographers Coley Brown and Ed Panar on every step of the book’s design before producing them by hand in the studio. He and many of the other publishers were on hand at the fair to sell their wares and talk shop.

The entire fair was ripe with confabbing. I tripped into it myself in a corner room of PS1 given over to Werkplaats Typografie, a graduate design program in Arnhem, The Netherlands. The room had been turned into the “Mary Shelley Facsimile Library” of print media scanned and reproduced by current students in the program. As one of the students, Laure Giletti, explained to me, each student compiled a list of sources they’re interested in and wrote a text stringing them together. These “Frankensteined” annotated bibliographies were bound into nifty booklets and sold for three bucks each. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, the booklets are held together by glue, not stitching. The room was outfitted with coffee and cookies to encourage fellow bookworms to hang out and swap more references. Giletti reminded me of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and I went on and on about the Whole Earth Catalog I had pored over earlier in the day.

Other folks were sharing their reference points too. Golden Age was also at the fair with their book Reference Work, published during a recent exhibition at the MCA Chicago. In it, proprietors Martine Syms and Marco Kane Braunschweiler share their favorite business books, self-help resources, a business course syllabus, and personal notes on operating their store in Chicago. As they note, there’s no clear roadmap for running a successful art book shop. This makes searching out business aids that do exist—think of that aisle in any chain bookstore with the cringe-inducing covers—a necessity. The unapologetically commercial world of business self-help publishing might seem like the last place artists might look to for value, but Syms and Braunschweiler make the case that, if properly distilled, the references gathered in their book might actually prove helpful. It seems to me that this is the most any bibliophile could ask of the shelves sagging under the weight of his or her books. Rather than becoming trophies, one might hope that some volatile drops of wisdom might seep out from the shelves and, pooling together, set off sparks that bring the monster to life.

via flickr.com/photos/jonathanpberger/

A Catalog of Goods

October 3, 2011 · Print This Article

Far from the crowds flocking to the De Kooning retrospective on its top floor, a modest but exciting show on the basement level of the Museum of Modern Art’s education wing charts the evolution of The Whole Earth Catalog. Published in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s, its goal was to give a swelling generation of politicized back-to-the-landers and flower children “access to tools,” to show them where to go to buy the things they needed to live a life in sync with the ecology around them. Goods and services weren’t sold through the catalog, although it did list where one might buy them.

In the show, visitors can sit at a big table and browse a few editions of The Whole Earth Catalog cleverly secured to a large, immovable rock that evokes the landscapes of the American West where many of the Catalog‘s users retreated from mainstream society. Flipping through these big, heavy editions feels like a trip to a history museum. On display: arc welders, build-it-yourself domes, dairy goats, and dutch ovens alongside books on un-schooling, the global population explosion, and Buddhist Economics. All of the design and type were set by hand and, in the last edition of the Catalog, its founder Stewart Brand reviews and explains the tools–things like an IBM Selectric typewriter, beeswax adhesives, and daily post-lunch volleyball games–that had a role in shaping the look and process of publishing the catalog.

At the same table, a facsimile of an article from Rolling Stone reports on the Whole Earth Catalog “Demise Party” held at San Francisco’s Exploratorium to mark Brand’s self-appointed end to the publication. After all of its accounts were settled, the Catalog was left with a surplus of $20,000–the same amount as the investment it started out with. At the party, Brand announced that he was giving it all away. The fifteen hundred people in attendance were to collectively decide what to do with the money. Near chaos ensued, with some people taking bills then later giving them back. Some proposed to either burn all the cash or give it to Native Americans. In the wee hours, it was decided that a man who had been there through all the votes and discussions would leave with the cash so that it could be put in a bank and a decision could be made what to do with it later. It never made it to the bank, but he eventually gave it away to “worthy groups.” The Catalog may have provided access to tools, but it didn’t always recommend what to do with them. The tool needed at the “Demise Party,” a way to make decisions with a large group of people, simply didn’t have the time to emerge.

Right now, also in New York, a movement that shares an ethos with The Whole Earth Catalog is gathered in the Financial District and may just have their hands on such a tool. At Occupy Wall Street, no organization provides the services that city governments and non-profits do, people provide for themselves. To say that the square lacks these official organizations does not mean that the mass of people gathered there aren’t organized. In fact, there’s plenty of organization: food donations and dish-outs, a library, a staffed info booth, a mailing address at a nearby UPS Store, legal aid, and a sanitation committee to name a few. By occupying a space for over two weeks and not containing themselves to one afternoon of protest, the protestors have taken for themselves what seems to be in short supply for all of us: time.

from Josh MacPhee of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative

The most striking organizing in the square is the General Assembly. Twice a day, everyone in the square gathers for one large meeting helped along by facilitators. Facilitators are trained in a method of running large meetings in a horizontal, democratic fashion that was used earlier this year during mass protests in Spain. Facilitators rotate between meetings and everyone can become one. A collection of hand gestures allows people to nonverbally communicate a variety of things. These run from the basic agreement, ambivalence, and disagreement to signals like “point of process,” used when someone feels an imminent decision needs further discussion or more information. There are also ways to indicate someone has information relevant to the matter at-hand or that if a specific motion passes, it will cause someone to leave the movement. This last gesture, called a “block,” is treated gravely by all and used only as a last resort. The overall process enables a large group of people to make decisions together in real time. Many excerpts from General Assemblies are on YouTube, you can see the process in action in one of them below. People repeat what each speaker says because megaphones have been banned in the square and repetition is the only way to ensure everybody can hear.

Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been around long enough to reach as many people as The Whole Earth Catalog has, but for anyone who has been able to drop by so far, it provides a compelling glimpse of human-scale democracy. It’s no utopia, but in Liberty Square, tools for getting along with other human beings are both tried out and invented. In this sense, the square echoes one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catalog: its product reviews. Because the publishers hadn’t tried every product the Catalog listed, they solicited reviews from people who had. These reviews patched together a network of expert amateurs in order to figure out what tools work well. They’re by turn informative, funny, poetic, and passionate. The product reviews led Brand to state that Whole Earth was “a catalog of goods that owed nothing to its suppliers and everything to its users.” This isn’t to say the protestors must look to the Catalog as a model, but that we might productively think of the “users” of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupation movements now building around the US as fellow reviewers. They’re out there creating spaces that inventory peer-reviewed and field-tested social goods that would serve us well and keep us whole in a more just, more democratic society.