Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Three years after the I-35W bridge collapse, and still three questions not (yet) answered.

Today's post is by Patrick Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life Program in the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Nunnally is editor of the forthcoming collection The City, the River, the Bridge: Before and after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse, which will be available in January 2011.

Three years ago this Sunday, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and seriously injuring more than 100. After 13 hectic months, a new bridge was opened on the alignment of the older one, a new bridge that is bigger, safer, and has direct connections to the university’s Civil Engineering Department for purposes of research and monitoring.

Most of us have put the new bridge out of our minds, perhaps whipping over it as thoughtlessly as we did the old one. Of course, families of victims still face the aftermath of that horrible evening every day, but the new bridge is simply background to our lives for most of us, an unquestioned part of our urban environment.

But I would like to argue that there remain three (at least three) questions that should not be out of our minds, that should be addressed by policymakers, scholars, community leaders, and neighbors who are concerned with the future of our city. My reflections are based on work colleagues and I did for a symposium in October 2008, “The City, the River, the Bridge,” which is the basis for a book forthcoming from U of M Press.

My questions, in no particular order of importance and scale:

Whatever happened to the plans to memorialize the victims, and to create suitable public space underneath the new bridge for bikes and pedestrian trails and for river overlooks?

There was a very schematic sketch of a memorial, which was to have been constructed in Gold Medal Park, near the Guthrie, but those plans dropped from sight almost immediately. Nothing further has been said about bike and pedestrian planning, or public space either, to my knowledge. I’ll grant that the economy has been in the tank for two years, but it looks like instead of the promised elegant public space we simply got another bridge.

What is the state of our public infrastructure, which includes hundreds of miles of water pipes, gas and electric mains, and thousands of miles of streets, in addition to bridges?

Immediately after the collapse, state departments of transportation all over the country rushed to examine bridges similar in structure to the one that fell. A lot of people paid attention to questions about bridges for a little while. I’ve not seen any systematic study of water pipes or other infrastructure components at the local, state, or national scale. Well, I guess we can hope it all works, eh?

When (or will?) we stop building our cities and lives around automobile transportation?

It seems the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brings this question home more forcefully than ever, but there does not seem to be serious change in the offing. After years of unnecessary political delays, it looks like there will be another leg of the regional light rail system coming online soon, but the vast majority of us still buzz around in cars, racking up hundreds of miles a week and pouring dollars into our gas tank.

All of which leaves me wondering:
Did we really, ultimately, learn anything at all?


Read more about Nunnally's edited collection The City, the River, the Bridge.

Image on this post is from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mary Lethert Wingerd unlocks the complex origins of the state of Minnesota on MPR

Historian Mary Lethert Wingerd, associate professor of history at St. Cloud State University and author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota, appeared on MPR's Midday today to talk about the complex origins of Minnesota and the relationships between indigenous peoples and European settlers. Wingerd answers questions and helps unlock truths about Minnesota's formative years, truths that have often been ignored in favor of legend and a far more benign narrative of immigration, settlement, and cultural exchange.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Then and Now: The Guthrie — A Tale of Two Theaters

"Then and Now" is a monthlong series by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. He is author of Minnesota Architects and Churches of Minnesota.


Sir Tyrone Guthrie brought Broadway-caliber theater to the Twin Cities, and for that a host of theater lovers, past and present, are forever in his debt. He spent years searching for a suitable location for his repertory theater and selected Minneapolis in 1960.

A site was found adjacent to the Walker Art Center, on Vineland Place, across the street from Parade Stadium. (Parade Stadium, and the Parade Ground before it, was the former site of the first Minneapolis Armory. The land under it was marshy and soon after the Armory was finished in 1888, it began sinking, causing so many structural weaknesses that the building finally had to be abandoned in 1929. A new Armory was constructed on South Sixth Street in 1935 on firmer ground. It still stands today.) The Walker had built a model house on the site (model homes were popular in the 1950s), then demolished it. Noted local architect Ralph Rapson, head of architecture at the University of Minnesota for many years, was chosen as architect of the theater. He produced a classy, graceful, intimate structure that opened in 1963.

Rapson’s design proved workable and attracted audiences. Its biggest failure was a screen punctuated with random openings through which the theater behind it peeked out seductively at the world. Rapson and Sir Tyrone clashed on several issues concerning the design, the climax coming over a disagreement about the color of the fabric on the seats. Rapson wanted multiple colors that would add warmth and variety to the matte black of the theater interior; Sir Tyrone argued for one color. When he made a trip back to Ireland, Rapson ordered multi-colored fabrics and the seats were installed by the time Sir Tyrone returned. He is reported to have blown his top and fumed for days afterwards. In retrospect, Rapson’s choice was absolutely correct. However, for the rest of his life, he would find a way to work a drawing he made of Sir Tyrone with Devil’s horns protruding from the sides of his head into slide presentations of the Guthrie Theater.

The new theater, designed by Jean Nouvel of France, has had both high praise and sharp criticism heaped on it by admirers and detractors. Admittedly, it was built to be iconic, and the building’s huge scale is more in keeping with the historic industrial landscape of the riverfront. The dark skin evokes the night when playhouses come to life, its interior subtly lit through yellow glass windows, as if it were illuminated by candle light. It presents mainly a blank wall to the outside world, punctuated with a few windows, as if it wants to keep its activities secret and away from the general public. The large walls are quietly illustrated by images of past productions and playwrights, and the building and its nearby parking ramp (housing the scene shop) are surmounted by two light towers that advertise current plays, all in an effort to break the monotony of the big blue block.

Present-day theater architecture is going the other way. The Lincoln Center, for example, has recently remodeled and replaced its solid walls with glass in an attempt to give the sense of activities invitingly flowing from outside to inside. Only in the Guthrie’s street-level bar and restaurant area does one feel this kind of transition. Interior lobby spaces are unnecessarily dim and gloomy even though lighting has been upgraded, and traffic flow continues to be confusing. “Postcard view” yellow glass windows offer intriguing peeks at the Falls of St. Anthony, an intriguing idea that (intentionally or unintentionally) serves to isolate the viewer from the scene, leaving it remote and unattainable as if one were watching a play in which participation is impossible. Seat colors in the theaters are monochrome. A parking ramp across the street is connected to the theater by a skyway, but it is not a public skyway; it serves to shuttle sets from the design shop to the shallow backstage areas.

As an icon, the building works, but the overall feeling is one of oppressive heaviness. The old Guthrie always felt light, airy, comfortable, and inviting. Unfortunately, the new one does not convey those sensations, although a deeper concern is whether the new building will stand the test of time. It might need to undergo major alterations and adaptations, as did the old one, to make it continue to be attractive and functional. Time will tell.


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003).

Also in the series:
-The Metropolitan Building.
-The Hollywood, Uptown, and Varsity theaters in Minneapolis.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to

Photos on this post are from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 23, 2010

In The New Yorker — this image look familiar?

The New Yorker's Frames from Fiction blog this week features a brief slideshow on the publication's research of recent work in photography in relation to Karen Russell's fiction story, "The Dredgeman's Revelation."

Of the 8 photos featured and discussed, one—the second—is the photo that appears on the cover of What Is Posthumanism? by Cary Wolfe, the eighth installment in UMP's Posthumanities Series. See what photographer Allison Hunter had to say here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Same as it Ever Was: Rebranding the YMCA

Today's post is by architectural historian Paula Lupkin, who is in the American Culture Studies department at Washington University in St. Louis. Lupkin is author of Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture.


It isn’t often that conservative Christians and the Village People find themselves in agreement, but marketing strategies can make for strange bedfellows. Both groups have objected to the YMCA of the USA’s recent announcement that it was dropping the M, C, and A from its corporate name. Henceforth the social service organization, best known for its gym and swim facilities, will be called “The Y.” This shortened name, as well as an extensive rebranding campaign complete with new logo, typeface, and a bright colorful palette, is meant to help the public re-imagine the organization’s identity as a modern, dynamic institution for the 21st century.

For most people this change is no big deal; after all, people have been calling it "The Y" for decades. Others feel that quite a lot is at stake. Left behind is the Y’s historical commitment to the C, which displeases religious groups like the American Family Association. For the Village People the suppression of the M is a repudiation of the gay culture that once flourished in YMCA buildings. Both groups are suffering from nostalgia. Their wildly divergent perceptions are longings for earlier iterations of an organization that is moving, as it has always done, inexorably towards the future. Ever since its founding more than one hundred and fifty years ago the YMCA has nimbly retained its social relevance by adapting its mission and methods to contemporary conditions. This re-naming is just the latest in a long line of market-driven strategies the organization has employed over the years.

"The Y" was first founded in the United States in 1854 to meet the needs of a new and growing population: young, single, urban white-collar workers. The mass migration of young men from countryside search of jobs in growing industrial cities resulted in social dislocation and active concern among evangelical Christians like John Wanamaker and J.P. Morgan. Young men, adrift from the moral oversight of their families and footloose in the city’s saloons and theaters, were in need of guidance and education. The YMCA stepped in to help produce an ethical and efficient workforce for modern America. At first this was accomplished through traditional evangelical methods, including bible classes, tract distribution, and attempts to pass laws against the sale of pornographic literature. It quickly became apparent that these means were not winning over enough young men and the group was quick to try new approaches. To remain competitive in the age of vaudeville, movie theatres, burlesque, and other new urban attractions they were forced to change their methods of persuasion.

Central to this adaptation was the development of the YMCA building as a “manhood factory” that incorporated popular activities like sports and vocational training. Up through the Depression the Y constantly made adjustments in their equipment and programming to maintain a competitive advantage with commercial mass culture for the souls of young men, adding swimming pools, basketball courts, dormitory rooms, and even (gasp!) billiards tables. The organization used the latest advertising techniques, including billboards and electric signs, to attract members, and pioneered the short-term fund-raising campaign (best known through NPR’s regular on-air appeals) to raise money for new buildings. Seeking greater societal influence, the Y also evolved in the nineteenth century to serve a much broader constituency. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s it opened special Y buildings for railroad men, university students, factory workers, military men, African-Americans, and young boys. As time went on they admitted non-evangelicals (even Catholics and Jews) to membership and focused less on saving souls and more on building character and physical strength.

The loss of its traditional religious identity, which dates back even into the nineteenth century, was disturbing to many old-time Y leaders, who fought to keep the C in the YMCA. It was, unfortunately, a losing battle. The constant process of negotiation between the traditional Protestant ethic they hoped to uphold and the consumer culture that fueled growth and modernization always resulted in compromises that moved the organization farther from its religious roots and toward a more ecumenical role as a provider of social services and facilities.

The mission of the organization and its role in American life continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century, often in ways unanticipated by its leaders. During the First World War it provided recreational facilities and canteen service to soldiers of all faiths in the European theater. This reinforced the Y’s increasingly ecumenical role into the interwar years. At about this time gay men grew increasingly attracted to the Y precisely because it was an all-male environment and sheltered a homosocial lifestyle. Leaders attempted to leave this unsavory identity behind in the 1950s by moving away from its traditional mission to single urban men to serve families, including women and children, in new suburban community centers. Since then the focus has been a more general, secular mission of building strong bodies and minds and serving communities, both urban and suburban.

The result of the Y’s extended process of secularization and constant investment in new facilities is its contemporary identity as a building, not an organization. Research suggests that most people only think of the YMCA as a gym, even though many of its branches had extensive programs in daycare for working parents, education for new citizens, and public health programs. Thus the need for a new name and a new logo—to highlight dedication to its newly reformulated goals: “commitment to nurturing the potential of kids, promoting healthy living, and fostering a sense of social responsibility.”

In a pragmatic and inclusive move, Y leaders do acknowledge the importance of heritage in their new identity. The redesigned logo incorporates the organization’s original triangular symbol of mind, body, and spirit into its “Y." New marketing materials include a highly sanitized reference to the Village People’s song and dance. Perhaps the best-known thing about the YMCA, it is regularly performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and sporting events even thirty years after its release. The sly double entendre of the song is probably lost on most of those who do the dance today, including the fresh faced, athletically dressed young men and women who pose in the shape of the four letters on the Y’s new website.

The decision to incorporate the popular dance into its new identity simultaneously acknowledges the song’s potency and suppresses the original meaning in favor of a perky and wholesome image. I think of it as a canny and bold role reversal for the organization. No longer is it passively responding to popular culture to remain relevant. Instead, it is coopting the phenomenon for its own purposes. The Y’s use of contemporary advertising strategies like rebranding and the soi-disant hipness of a shortened name (like KFC) is not a repudiation of its heritage. It is in keeping with the Y’s history as an institution that evolves, changes, and embraces new ways to accomplish its goals.


Paula Lupkin is author of Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture. She can be reached at

Monday, July 19, 2010

Then and Now: The Metropolitan Building

Today we begin a monthlong series about popular Minnesota landmarks, their architectural histories, little-known details, and their present situations. Each anecdote will be published on Mondays throughout the next few weeks. This series is written by Alan K. Lathrop, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Minnesota Libraries from 1970 to 2008. You can find more details about the buildings and architects discussed in brief here in Lathrop's book Minnesota Architects.


At one time, the tallest office building between Chicago and the West Coast stood in downtown Minneapolis. It was the Guaranty Loan Building, erected at the corner of 2nd Avenue South and 3rd Street South in 1889-90 by the local entrepreneur, Louis Menage. More commonly known as the Metropolitan Building (renamed after Menage's financial shenanigans forced the bankruptcy of his firm and sale of the building to Metropolitan Life Insurance Company), the magnificent structure was designed by Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee. Mix had previously designed the grand William Washburn residence (1883) near the present location of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as well as Temple Court (1886) and the Globe Printing Company buildings in Minneapolis and St. Paul (1888 and 1887 respectively).

All of Mix's office buildings featured a central light court, but that of the Metropolitan Building was the most spectacular. Daylight was brought in through a skylight over an atrium which extended virtually the entire 10-story height of the building. To further enhance the effect, the floors ringing the atrium were made of thick translucent glass to both convey and diffuse light into otherwise dimly lit hallways.

Today, not one of Mix's Twin Cities structures survives (although his Dodge County Courthouse in Mantorville [1871], the oldest of his Minnesota Commissions, is still standing). The Metropolitan Building was, sadly, demolished in 1962, the victim of the urban renewal zeal that gripped the Twin Cities and many other areas. Ever since its demise, historic preservationists, architectural historians, and members of the general public have mourned its loss. Its replacement, the Galaxy Building (and now the Towle Building), is a far cry from the charm and stateliness of the Metropolitan, which is considered by some to be the city's first skyscraper.


Alan K. Lathrop is author of Minnesota Architects (2010) and Churches of Minnesota (2003). Read more of his blog posts here.

Want to know the architectural history of your favorite Minnesota building? E-mail suggestions about content you would like to see here to

Friday, July 16, 2010

MN Senate Recount (aka Indecision 2008?): Controversy over felon votes shows GOP to be fast and loose with facts.

Today's post is by Jay Weiner, who reported on the 2008 U.S. Senate recount and election contest for For his coverage, he received Minnesota’s prestigious Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award.


I have watched from afar — and with lots of bemusement — the recent dustup over the alleged number of supposed felons who maybe registered and perhaps voted on November 4, 2008, in the U.S. Senate race.

After all, my life has been immersed in the Al Franken-Norm Coleman recount for nearly two years, and my book, This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount, is completed and going to be released in a few months. Had I the chance, I would have made this current controversy a tiny footnote in my conclusions. One point I make in the book is that various panels of judges and even former Sen. Coleman’s lawyer in court said there was no widespread fraud in the election.

Still, Minnesota Majority, a very conservative “watchdog” group, released a report on June 28 that claims a lot of things. But when you get to the bottom line, the group seems to be saying that according to its research, 341 felons in Hennepin and Ramsey counties who should have been ineligible to vote actually cast votes in the Franken-Coleman election.

The report, flawed in the opinion of most legal analysts, got legs and wings and Internet echo chamber reverberations from — who else? — Fox News earlier this week, and then other news organizations chased it, and right-wing blogs jumped on it, and the Minnesota Republican Party called for a statewide investigation and Coleman called Franken “an accidental senator” and Gov. Tim Pawlenty said there was “credible evidence” that the alleged felons who maybe voted possibly could have flipped the election’s final result. Breathless.

Franken, if you remember, won by 312 votes.

Let’s drill down a little bit. First, let’s look at the reporting. Fox News, which has its agenda, of course, topped its online story with this screaming headline: Felons Voting Illegally May Have Put Franken Over the Top in Minnesota, Study Finds. Fox News also quoted Ramsey County prosecutor Phil Carruthers as saying that as his office looks into the matter, “There is a good chance we may match or even exceed their numbers."

But days later, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Kevin Diaz — a former colleague whom I tend to trust more than Faux News — quoted Carruthers as saying of the Minnesota Majority investigation: "Overwhelmingly, their statistics were not accurate.” Hmmm. Something changed.

Now, let’s take one key stat that Minnesota Majority focuses on, that 341 alleged felons from heavily Democratic Hennepin and Ramsey counties voted. For the moment, take that at face value.

That would mean, based on voter turnout numbers, about 70% of them (240) would be from Hennepin and 30% (101) would be from Ramsey. Taking into account the percentages for Franken, Coleman and others in each of those counties, Franken would net 51 votes.

Remember, he won by 312. Let’s take away those 51 in this silly game. That still isn’t enough to switch the result.

The report has been the stuff of high-level discussion at The Election Law Blog run by respected Prof. Rick Hasen at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. There, Prof. Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University shoots down the Minnesota Majority report when answering Hasen’s opening question: “Did enough illegal felons vote in Minnesota to tip the balance to Al Franken?”

A few other things: What makes anyone think felons would only vote for Franken? Indeed, it was Franken’s legal team during the recount’s election contest trial that raised the prospect that felons voted in the election; Franken’s lawyers found one such voter in a northern Minnesota county who voted for Coleman. Dare I ask, if Franken opened the door on such an avenue, why didn’t Coleman’s lawyers pursue this felon-voting issue then? They had their chance. And why does the Minnesota Majority report focus on the core city counties?

When you read my book, you will see a handful of flubs made by both sides in the recount legal battle.

A couple of other things gnaw at me in this story.

1. First is the implication that if voter ID cards were used on Election Day, felons wouldn’t be able to vote. This is a longstanding Republican issue to limit voting among the disenfranchised. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer has used this controversy to call for picture IDs for voters. But guess what? Convicted felons have driver licenses. They have photo IDs. Voter photo IDs wouldn’t halt felons from voting. This Minnesota Majority report is being used for other political reasons.

2. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, just instructive, but I’d like to comment on the comments of Sen. Coleman and Gov. Pawlenty. As we know, Coleman won the 2002 Senate election 11 days after incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. Polls showed Wellstone was going to win that election. For Coleman to call Franken “an accidental senator” is tragically ironic, for there are some who believe Coleman was the original accidental senator.

As for the governor, he has spoken three times about the recount and he’s been a bit fast and loose with his facts. First, in the early days of the recount, he spread — on Fox News — the completely untrue story about Minneapolis ballots that were supposedly being driven around in the alleged trunk of an unknown and non-existent elections official. He spoke of this days after it was reported that the story was a fable.

Later, in a call with reporters, he overstated by thousands of percentage points the increase of absentee voters in 2008, trying to say that Franken won the election because of that.

In fact, Franken won the recount by 49 votes BEFORE absentee ballots were counted.

Now, there are his comments — on Fox News — about the Minnesota Majority report and how it’s “quite possible” felon voting tipped the election. The facts aren’t there.

3. The central fact that real felons whose voting rights were legally taken away and not restored might have voted in 2008 — that is serious. That matter should be examined closely by state and county officials. There’s no argument there.

4. If there is any doubt that the 2014 Franken re-election campaign against anyone — Pawlenty? — is going to be nasty and heated and ugly, this latest scuffle confirms it. Sen. Franken will forever be a target for the Republicans, and if it is close again, be certain that Republican recount strategies and legal tactics will be different from 2008-09.

You can read how they did this time 'round in This Is Not Florida. But be assured the Coleman-Franken recount and legal fight — a huge defeat for the Republicans — will be a rallying cry for the GOP in any future recount tussle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Advice for first-time authors

We recommend checking out today's post on the First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies blog. It offers some great advice for first-time authors on getting published. Look for a quote from UMP editor Jason Weidemann.

Jeanne Halgren Kilde reveals how Macalester College's religious connections have changed.

In case you missed it ...

Last week Jeanne Halgren Kilde, director of religious studies at the University of Minnesota, interviewed with MPR with regard to the U.S. Presbyterian Church's largest decision-making meeting last week, which was held in Minneapolis. One little-known Minnesota trivia fact: Macalester College, one of the state's most prominent liberal arts colleges, was founded by a Presbyterian minister in 1874. It has since shed much of its connections to the church, not unlike other liberal arts colleges in Minnesota, as MPR notes.

Kilde's book, Nature and Revelation: A History of Macalester College, documents the declining role of religion at the college and highlights the college's balancing act between religious conviction and the pursuit of empirical knowledge. Here is her interview with MPR:

Monday, July 12, 2010

How will South Africa subsist in the public's memory now that the World Cup is over?

Today's post is an open letter to the editor from John Peffer, founding editor of Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture, which began publication in 2007. He teaches at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He is author of Art and the End of Apartheid.


Thank you for asking me to participate in a blog on the subject of art in South Africa during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. My sense is that, to be honest, the World Cup has had little or no impact on the arts aside from a few highly commercial ventures that are not very representative of the tougher issues Africa’s modern artists are addressing today or have addressed since mid-century.

As I discuss in my book, artists were in the forefront of the antiapartheid struggle during the toughest most violent years of the revolution. I show how modern artists created liberated zones (what I term “grey areas”) through the hybrid forms of their works, and how through their social lives, too, they crossed the racial lines and resisted the authoritarianism otherwise characteristic of the apartheid years. Not content to just mirror their society, artists envisioned (and in some ways enacted) a different future, nonracial and democratic, even before the official end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

Artists, certain “avant garde” ones, still play that visionary kind of role in South Africa today and they continue to insist on a higher form of civilization. The trenchant issues have shifted now, though, to new forms of racial resentment, frustratingly tenacious class inequity, and sadly even a murderous xenophobia against South Africa’s own African neighbors. But I should withhold fuller comments until I’ve seen with my own eyes whether FIFA has meant more for the state of culture than all the talk we have heard here of vuvuzelas, parties, and canned trips to giant zoos and game parks.

That said, I do not think we have heard enough in our own media about the wanton expenditure of national treasure it took to build the stadia for use during a few short weeks in 2010. Or, except in passing, of the potential long-term effects of this. By August, I predict, it will be a different story. After the visitors (who are not really that interested in the country past a certain entertainment-utility function, are they?) have gone, if South Africa is even heard about again in the American media it will be more along the lines of the South African poor asking, “What did we get out of this after all?” And of widespread dissatisfaction with corruption in government. So let’s just say that the premature triumphal blasts of the vuvuzelas that have been heard around the world are making the global FIFA audience deaf. Deaf to the triumphs of recent history, and deaf to the escalating crisis of poverty in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela on his 90th birthday in 2008 joined those who had begun to claim that social inequity is the new apartheid, saying, "Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all." Today that gap between rich and poor (and between blacks’ and whites’ different abilities to access security) is even larger than it was in 1994 on the eve of democracy. I have heard too little of this in the American media coverage of the FIFA games. I am not even sure if most soccer fans are even aware of (or care about?) the culture and history of the fine country they are visiting (or watching).

It is thus no surprise to find that the kind of art keyed to spectacles like these hardly scratches the surface. For those who want to see what is actually being accomplished in the South African art scene today, I recommend reading the magazines Chimurenga, Art South Africa, and the wonderful online art resource Artthrob. Also of interest, though art is not its focus: Yoruba Richen’s recent PBS documentary “Promised Land” begins to unweave the contradictions and sorrows surrounding the rural landless poor and their fight for restitution of farm land.

I’ll be in a better position to comment on the state of art and culture in South Africa after I return from my trip there at the end of August, that is, after the games are over and all the tourists have gone off with their plastic horns. If the World Cup has had a significant impact on art then it will still be apparent after the event was over.


Another take: The FIFA World Cup Art Poster Edition

The FIFA World Cup elected to accompany this year's monumental event with a major official licensed art project (for the 2nd time in the event's history). We asked Mr. Peffer for comment.

What is significant about the decision to undertake this project? Do you have a favorite poster?

Kendell Geers. I like that he said “yes” and yet he is kind of in your face about the crassness of the whole project. His poster is “Free Balling” (but an earlier version was titled “Dirty Balls”). Hassan Musa, too. I like how he depicts the event as the struggle between Africa and the rest of the world in the guise of Jacob wrestling the angel. Alas, other favorite artists of mine like Julie Mehretu and Marlene Dumas did not submit their strongest work. Posters were very important vehicles for messaging during the antiapartheid movement, but the FIFA poster context is a bit limiting in terms of possibilities for radical expression.


Find out more about Art and the End of Apartheid by John Peffer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bloody good glassware to accompany a bloody good book.

For those of you who (a) take seriously their morning coffee, tea or hot orange juice and (b) know how to appreciate a good horror film, you're in luck: there's a mug for you. Three, in fact:

Film critic and former TV Guide editor Maitland McDonagh has created three mugs to commemorate the three editions of her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, about Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, whose films have been described as a mix of Hitchcock and George Romero. The latest edition of the book (2010) is published by University of Minnesota Press.

Check 'em out!

Horror fans: Here's a Q&A we did with Maitland in April.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sen. Robert Byrd's legacy may be complicated, but one thing is certain—he won't be easy to replace.

Today's post is by Rebecca R. Scott, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri and author of the forthcoming Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields (September 2010).


When Senator Robert C. Byrd died, there was an outpouring of grief and respect from his former constituents. The funeral proceedings that followed seemed to befit patricians of the past, with the body lying in state at the US Senate before heading home for a procession through Charleston.

There was a universal acknowledgment of the service this powerful senator had offered his poor home state over the years. It’s easy to mock the numerous pork barrel projects he brought home; as some wag tweeted, “Who will be the first editorial cartoonist to depict St. Peter welcoming Byrd to the Robert C. Byrd Pearly Gates?” But West Virginia loves Sen. Byrd, and it was hard not to mourn his death, even knowing full well the extent to which his career served the interests of big coal.

As with many skillful politicians, Byrd’s personality—the Shakespearean oratory, the down-home fiddle playing—seemed to outweigh his politics. When he recently dressed down Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in the senate hearings on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, it was a cathartic scene for those of us used to seeing the coal baron operate with apparent impunity. But for West Virginians who have known him their whole lives, all of that was merely interesting; above all, Byrd was a great senator. But what, exactly, does that mean: “a great senator”?

Born into a poor family, his adoptive father was a coal miner, and he grew up in a small coal company house. Mostly uneducated until adulthood, he was a lay minister whose fundamentalist sermonizing gave him a following, and probably provided the inspiration for a career in politics; certainly it is possible to hear echoes of those fiery sermons in Byrd’s speeches in the Senate. A brief stint in the Ku Klux Klan won some local elections, but those ties had to be severed of course by the time he ran for the Senate. It was his 14-hour filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that really stands out, though. He later apologized for being a Klansman, he supported Obama in 2008, and overall, he seemed to leave the most apparent of his prejudices behind.

Unlike his colleague Ted Kennedy, Byrd’s patrician status was hard won, hard scrabble. His racism never entirely disappeared; his autobiography notes that in his eyes, the poor whites of Appalachia are the original model minority—hard workers who don’t expect something for nothing. His pride in his Euro-American heritage was always under the surface of his famous oratory that made him so notable in the senate. Quoting Shakespeare, Greek philosophers, and the Constitution performs a claim to the ideology of the superiority of Western Civilization, order for its own sake, and detached reason. That’s why, despite his own strong stance against the war in Iraq, he summarily dismissed the Code Pink protesters from the Senate floor. The demonstrators challenged the sanctified airs of the senate, where opposition to war is best delivered in the lofty terms of Cicero, not with the visceral passions of disorderly civil disobedience. If Byrd represented West Virginia in this privileged scene, he won’t be easy to replace.


For more information about coal country lives in southern West Virginia, check out Scott's book Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields, which will be out this September. Removing Mountains will be UMP's first Quadrant book.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's Eric Dregni up to now?

Beloved UMP author Eric Dregni (seated) — whom you might remember (insert Troy McClure voice here) from such popular books as In Cod We Trust, Never Trust a Thin Cook or Midwest Marvels — is here in the office today, hard at work with editor Todd Orjala on a forthcoming project. Stay tuned!

Why today has been quite officially dubbed "Firth Day" (by a few loyal Twitterers)

A Single Man gets released on DVD and Blu-ray today! Now you can take in the beauty and glamour of Tom Ford's directorial debut — and its stunning performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore — from the comfort of your very own home.

While you're at it, be sure to check out the A Single Man page on Facebook, where you'll find plenty of great links and articles (did you know Tom Ford created a back story for George's suit?). And don't forget to visit our website,, to read an excerpt, buy the book, or download the reading groups guide.