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The Internet Is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles This Week 8/29

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Art AND: Mama Sallah Jenkins

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BmoreArt’s Picks: August 31 – September 6

Wow. There were a lot of big headlines this week. The Pfizer vaccination has full FDA approval, OnlyFans dropped its porn ban, Jay-Z and Beyonce are the new faces of Tiffany & Co., BTS ft. Megan Thee Stallion remixed “Butter,” milk crates, Andrew Cuomo (allegedly) abandoned his dog, the Supreme Court threw out the federal eviction moratorium, and there was a bombing at Kabul Airport. Highlights: ‘Her Name Is Not Honey Boo Boo,’ suing Nirvana, ambergris, slime, Meet Me @ the Altar, Whitney Houston’s folklore, a Black gaze, Noname, the age of disinformation, and “Schrödinger’s Planet.”

 

 

1. Teen Vogue: Her Name Is Not Honey Boo Boo

I don’t think I ever watched a full episode of the reality TV show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. But in the early 2010s that wasn’t necessary to feel the cultural impact of the series. Born Alana Thompson, the reality TV star known as Honey Boo Boo “burst onto our screens fueled by ‘go-go juice’ (a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew) and pithy catchphrases. She originally appeared on TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras in 2012. The show, in part, followed then six-year-old Alana and her mother, June, on the children’s beauty pageant circuit. Later that same year, Alana and family were center stage on their own reality show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The show has been described as “as a voyeuristic peek at the ‘trainwreck,’ ‘white trash,’ ‘redneck,’ and ‘hillbillies,’ managing to consistently divorce the terms from their history.” 

The only way I’ve ever engaged with Thompson is as a child on Honey Boo Boo, but “when audiences freeze-frame her as the little kid who became a public figure before she was in elementary school, it situates Alana as a character amid a messy narrative, not a teenager whose formative years — and the trauma within them — have played out in front of cameras.”

As child influencers continue to proliferate and come of age, I think we are going to have more and more profiles like this. 

 

2. Slate: Swimming Through Time

The album cover for Nirvana’s Nevermind is one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Spencer Elden, now 30, is the baby on the cover, and is suing for damages. The cover, which features a naked Elden in a pool reaching for a dollar bill, “when it was new, looked like the perfect image of idealism in jeopardy,” writes Anne Higonnet. “In 1991, idealism still seemed like maybe—just maybe—it could be saved. The dollar bill on the hook rippled, right up close to us, pulled on a line held by an invisible force outside the image. The baby’s arms stretched from one side of the image to the other—yes, like a crucifixion—swimming so close to that dollar bill . . . We were thinking: Baby, don’t do it—don’t sell your soul.” 

While Elder is upset and feels exploited, “the genius of the image was in its core concept and in its formal execution, not in the documentary fact of a penis photographed.” Today, “the cover of Nevermind looks genuinely different, and it’s not just Elden’s mind that has changed on the topic. We see the impact of childhood experiences differently than we did . . . we care at least as much about content as about form, as much about the backstory as the creative outcome. Our tolerance for the personal vagaries of artists has dwindled.”

Some doubt the earnestness of Elder’s claims, as he has “re-created the Nirvana album cover (clothed) a few times over the years,” but I don’t think that’s for me to decide. As I said above, I think we are going to see a lot more cases like this in the coming years as influencers and children in the spotlight get older. 

 

 

3. Hakai Magazine: Why We Can’t Shake Ambergris

I would LOVE to smell ambergris one day. A substance shrouded in mystery, ambergris is a “waxy substance formed in the gut of around one in 100 sperm whales [and] is frequently described as vomit, but is almost certainly expelled from the other end of the animal . . . despite its origins, ambergris, with its unique scent, fixative properties, and perceived ability to elevate other olfactory notes, has been prized by the perfume industry for hundreds of years.” While market prices can greatly fluctuate, “Today, it still changes hands for up to US $25 per gram, a price approaching that of platinum and many times that of silver.”

Last year it was proven that ambergris was produced by sperm whales, in a process that is still not understood. One of the most widely accepted theories was, put forth by marine biologist Robert Clarke, argues “that when squid beaks become lodged in a whale’s intestines, fecal matter accumulates around the blockage until ‘eventually the rectum stretches until it breaks, causing the whale’s death, and the ambergris is released into the sea.’” Clarkecarried out much of his research during the final decades of the whaling industry, studying samples recovered from carcasses. Modern researchers must rely instead on small samples one step removed from the whale. Therefore, it’s possible that many of Clarke’s theories will never be bettered.” We might never know all of the secrets of ambergris, but “like magic, the allure of ambergris lies in what cannot be explained.”

 

 

4. Rolling Stone: How Noname Is Reimagining Fame (and Everything Else)

I always find the rapper Noname curious. At this point, she is known as much for her music as for her politics and the Noname Book Club. Critical of celebrity, Noname says she doesn’t “like doing things that I know are going to build on my celebrity because that’s not ethical to me when I’m trying to be anti-capitalist and also trying to present myself in a specific way.” Increasingly, I’ve become anti-celebrity over the past few years. One of the things I find the most interesting about Noname is how she has built a celebrity brand on being anti-celebrity. I also don’t believe there is a perfect way to navigate fame, and I respect the way Noname, born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, confronts her status. 

The last album Warner released was in 2018, and I’m interested to listen to her forthcoming album, Factory Baby, and how she “incorporat[es] theory and ideas about capitalism, imperialism, and racism into an album that’s also personal and fun to listen to,” and how she will engage, or disengage, with the attention it will undoubtedly receive. 

 

 

5. Orion Magazine: What Slime Knows

Personally, I’m not super interested in slime or fungi, but a lot of my friends are—one friend spent multiple days this summer looking through various slime, mold, fungi, and moss samples searching for tardigrades. Whenever my friends talk about anything related to the topic they become elated, and I love seeing them so happy about something they care about so I play along. I read this for them. 

While reading this essay, which was inspired by the “dog vomit slime mold” in writer Lacy M. Johnson’s yard in Houston, I found myself getting lost in the expanse of slime mold’s life cycles and taxonomy. This essay wasn’t slow and steady, but quite active, darting around space, weaving “the web of life spread out before us in all its astonishing diversity” and admonishing “Any system that claims to impose a hierarchy of value on this web.” Such systems are human inventions, Johnson writes: “Superiority is not an inherent reality of the natural world.”

 

 

6. New York Times Magazine: Saving Pop Punk? That’s Just Their Warm-Up Act

I don’t listen to much pop-punk and had never heard of Meet Me @ the Altar before reading this, but I do love Hanif Abdurraqib and will read anything he writes. Usually I don’t watch all of the videos embedded in an article, but with descriptions from Abdurraqib such as “the choruses arrive like sugar and sit long enough before dissolving that you develop a craving for the next one,” I couldn’t help but watch the videos, admiring both the band and the accuracy of how it was captured in these words. Unsurprisingly, as I kept listening to the band, I better understood what Abdurraqib meant when wrote that there is “something viscerally interior about the songs—a kind of curiosity, a surgical and sometimes comical analysis of what can and cannot be felt.”

 

 

7. The Believer: Gold Dust Woman

I read this essay on Whitney Houston and spent the next few hours listening to her discography. Houston’s cultural impact can be endlessly explored, and here Niela Orr analyzes how the singer’s “life is often portrayed as a dark fairy tale, but it more closely resembles Black folklore.” Houston died in a bathtub in a hotel on February 11, 2012, and “since she went under the water her family and friends have written memoirs, writers and filmmakers have considered her legacy, and her fans have missed her dearly. But beginning in the mid-’90s and continuing today, the public has generally been more interested in the alchemy associated with her passing than her living, glinting existence.” 

A central question of this essay is “What if she didn’t go down, but back?” For Orr, “​​Whitney has been so ineluctably powerful to me recently because she made some of the choices I’m making now. The dominant impression is that in deciding how to best live her life, she messed up badly.”

I ravenously read this, and I couldn’t help but think of Whitney’s 1983 performance of “Home from The Wiz during her TV debut on The Merv Griffin Show. While it’s not mentioned here, I wonder what Orr thinks of that performance. 

 

 

8. Hyperallergic: How Black Artists Are Shaping a Distinctly Black Gaze

I find it nearly impossible to engage with visual culture, especially online, that isn’t steeped in Blackness. Social media trends, music, memes, GIFs—if you know how to read their history, many things tell a history of Blackness. This isn’t anything new, and many different articles I share in this column explore this, but this is the first time in a while I’ve read this from an explicit fine-art context. (That’s not because people aren’t doing this work, I just haven’t read much art history articles or writing focused explicitly on fine art recently.) 

In this excerpted essay from A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See, Tina M. Campt defines the Black gaze as “neither a depiction of Black folks or Black culture, it is a gaze that forces viewers to engage Blackness from a different and discomforting vantage point.” In the book, Campt focuses “on how certain contemporary artists are building on these innovations, not only in film and popular culture where their impact is certainly manifest, but more notably in the field of fine art.” 

Contemporary artists are asking a “radical question,” Campt writes: “rather than looking at Black people, rather than simply multiplying the representation of Black folks, what would it mean to see oneself through the complex positionality that is Blackness — and work through its implications on and for oneself?” Reading this made me miss art history and art criticism. 

 

 

9. Harper’s Magazine: Bad News

Digital advertising is everywhere. You can’t think a thought with it somehow transmitting to your phone to then end up as a pop-up ad the next time you are online. Digital media and advertising has caused a rise in both disinformation and misinformation, spawning “the Aspen Institute [to announce] that it would convene an exquisitely nonpartisan Commission on Information Disorder, co-chaired by Katie Couric, which [will] ‘deliver recommendations for how the country can respond to this modern-day crisis of faith in key institutions.’” 

This commission is an “addition to a new field of knowledge production that emerged during the Trump years at the juncture of media, academia, and policy research: Big Disinfo.” While we’ve all been warned of the influence of disinformation via propagandistic ads, the real power ofthe digital-advertising industry relies on our perception of its ability to persuade as much as on any measurement of its ability to actually do so. This is a matter of public relations, of storytelling. And here, the disinformation frame has been a great asset.”

 

 

10. The Atlantic: Schrödinger’s Planet

Every now and again I think about whether I consider Pluto a planet. I don’t usually reach a conclusion, but in my heart I know that, for me, Pluto will always be a planet. 

Officially classified as a dwarf planet, Pluto’s designation is contentious, and a 2006 conference in Prague that was meant to settle the question of “how many planets are in our solar system,” instead intensified the debate. The current criteria of a planet, as defined by that conference, are that “It must orbit the sun, be big enough for gravity to have smoothed it into a sphere, and be gravitationally dominant enough to clear other objects out of its orbital zone. The last rule disqualified Pluto.”

I found the most fascinating and relatable part of this article that, for scientists, the two camps (those who think Pluto is a planet and those that don’t) can generally be defined by areas of study: “astronomers, particularly those who study the dynamics of celestial bodies, emphasize the puny influence of Pluto’s gravity in its cosmic neighborhood. Some planetary scientists, whose work doesn’t center on such orbital details, say that there’s much more to a planet than that.” We will never know for sure the fate of Schrödinger’s planet, but maybe it is a matter of perspective. 

 

 

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