Archive for June, 2009

Higher Ground: twitter, youtube, and the Iranian election

Unidentified protestor, Tehran, June 2009

Unidentified protestor, Tehran, June 2009

I’m tearing myself away from twitter right now to note that, since the aftermath of the disputed election in Iran last week, the much-maligned social networking site has all of a sudden become the most significant media outlet for information about the protests in that country. Search #iranelection and you get dozens of tweets and retweets every minute from Iranians on the ground reporting live in first person about the civil unrest there. Although Iranian security forces are trying to track and shut down tweeters, news is still pouring out of the country via the social media site much faster than it can be traced and eliminated. “it was a nightmare, I can barely breath & my face is burning, Masood got shot in the arm & Shayan’s brother is missing,” reads one tweet. “we ran as fast as we could in the opposite direction, at the same time basiji bastards started to hit fleeing people,” states another.

Mainstream media sources like msnbc.com and the BBC are suddenly the followers, not the leaders, of online, first-person news sources—the U.K. Telegraph, cnn.com and time.com are reporting on the latest twitter updates

Simultaneously, youtube has become the best up-to-the-minute source for raw, unmediated video from Iran. I just watched a clip of destruction of the headquarters of the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary force, which was posted almost immediately after its occurrence a few hours ago. A video of the death of a young woman who was shot by the Basij has been viewed by thousands since it was posted earlier today, further galvanizing protestors in Iran and worldwide.

Protestors with rocks, Tehran, June 2009

Protestors with rocks, Tehran, June 2009

Underscoring the influence of new media on what’s going on in Iran, embattled opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi released his most recent statement to his supporters not through a traditional news source but as a status update to his facebook page. The message reads simply, “Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive,” suggesting that Mousavi is cognizant of the power of Iranians using the Internet to keep the outside world informed.

It’s impossible to predict how events will play out in Iran but it’s interesting that this is all taking place close on the heels on the 20th anniversary of the suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. With the world’s new ability to watch in real time and with more ready access to eyewitness accounts, will things turn out differently than they did two decades ago? Thus informed, will we be able to take action when we need to, or will we be paralyzed by our fascination with the spectacle? Will the arc of the universe bend towards justice this time?

Thanks to al rodgers at dailykos.com for the photos: many more here.

UPDATE: Go here for a list of tweeters to follow, plus much more.

UPDATE 2: New York Times article about Iran/twitter here.

UPDATE 3: Since first publishing this post three days ago some of the people I’ve been following on twitter, notably change_for_iran,  have stopped updating. I suspect this is due to increasing limitations on internet traffic from Iran; I hope it’s not a sign of something more ominous. However, there are still several good sources to be found from the list in the first update, plus a great nightly English translation of significant Farsi tweets here.

Meanwhile, #iranelection has become somewhat useless as it’s jammed with spammers and other irrelevant tweets. But it’s probably still more current than, say, cnn or the New York Times right now.

UPDATE 4: June 24–possible bad news about another twitterer I’ve been following, persiankiwi. The last few tweets have been quite frightening & as of four hours ago have ended altogether. One of the last tweets: “we must go – dont know when we can get internet – they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names – now we must move fast.”

UPDATE 5: July 17–change_for-iran is back online. still no word from persiankiwi. Go here for good updates in English.

June 21, 2009 at 8:22 am 4 comments

Body and Soul: Pahole Sookkasikon’s Art and Activism

Only For Pretend, ink on paper, 18"x24", Pahole Sookkasikan, 2009

Only For Pretend, ink on paper, 18″x24″, Pahole Sookkasikon, 2009

As of last Saturday night, I’m the proud owner of a t-shirt emblazoned with artwork by artist/activist Pahole Sookkasikon. Pahole’s solo show, Only For Pretend, opened at My Trick Pony in San Francisco last weekend, a smart little gallery space that also is a purveyor of custom t-shirts based on designs by the artists featured at the shop.

Pahole’s show is made up of several of his beautiful, impressionistic pen-and-ink drawings on paper. Delicate and dreamlike, the images flow gracefully across the page, with faces and shapes emerging amidst the swirling lines.

In addition to exhibiting the original artwork, My Trick Pony has also made up graphics of Pahole’s drawings for transfer onto nice, non-sweatshop t-shirts from American Apparel in a variety of colors and styles.

The shop’s adaptations of Pahole’s black-and-white drawings are available in several colors, including many metallic options.

Matteo in action, My Trick Pony

Matteo in action, My Trick Pony

Pahole’s pictures take beautifully to the to the t-shirt medium, with their lacy imagery gaining an added layer of feathery abstraction when rendered in metallic glitter.

Gallery proprietor Matteo is masterful on the hot-press, with a keen eye for the proper placement of the picture on each individual shirt.

At the show’s reception he whipped through the creation of several dozen shirts in the space of a couple hours, expertly applying Pahole’s ethereal drawings onto each garment.

Pahole’s exhibit continues through June. Stop by for your own custom t-shirt; visit My Trick Pony’s website for more information.

Pahole has also been tirelessly advocating for the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Buddhist Temple in Berkeley in its struggle for religious and cultural self-determination. For more than a year the Temple has been in conflict with some of its immediate neighbors who object to the smell, congestion, and lack of parking during the Wat’s Sunday food sharing, which has been taking place since 1994.

Part of the Buddhist tradition of merit-making, the food sharing raises operating funds for the Temple and supports the monks in residence. The Temple has made numerous concessions to the neighbors’ demands, including reducing by half the hours of the food offerings, providing alternate parking spaces for visitors, and increasing trash pickup on Sundays.

Save The Thai Temple poster, 2009

Save The Thai Temple poster, 2009

Neighbors claim that the Temple is running an unlicensed restaurant on its grounds, but the Temple maintains that the food offerings are an important part of its religious traditions. As outlined in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Abbot Tahn Manas, who has lived at the temple for 22 years, says the event is critical to the Buddhist religious practice of “earning merit.” Monks are forbidden by their religion from earning money or accumulating earthly goods on their own. Providing for monks and temples is the religious duty of Buddhists of the Theravada school; it helps them build goodwill for later in life or for the next life. In Thailand, they earn merit by giving money to monks in the street. Berkeley Buddhists earn merit by volunteering at brunch, thereby serving the temple.

“Our Sunday activity is pretty much like Christians going to church every Sunday,” says Abbot Manas. “Without it, it would be very difficult for us to continue merit making.”

There’s also more than a bit of cultural insensitivity in the neighbors’ complaints, including the accusation that the glorious scent of Thai food is intrusive and offensive. As Veena Dubal notes in Asian Week,

“It smells like coconut milk!” Dubal said. “When I heard those remarks, I felt a tinge of pain. That kind of … xenophobic rhetoric has no space in this diverse community.”

About 20 neighbors continue to pursue their actions against the Temple; in contrast, more than 2000 people have signed a petition in support of the Temple and its facebook group has more than 1400 members.

The Temple hopes to build a new sanctuary on its site, for which it recently has received approval from the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB). However, the Temple faces an appeals hearing before the Berkeley City Council meeting in July 2009, during which the Council can approve or deny the ZAB ruling. The exact time and date for the hearing will be posted on the Save The Thai Temple website as soon as that information is known.

June 18, 2009 at 7:25 am 6 comments

Violence Grows: Kinatay and the Abduction of Melissa Roxas

Kinatay, still from movie, 2009, Brillante Mendoza

Kinatay, still from movie, 2009, Brillante Mendoza

When I first read the description of Pilipino director Brillante Mendoza’s new film Kinatay (Butchered) I thought, “That sounds kind of wack.” Shot on HD video with a budget of $100,000, it’s a down-and-dirty, graphic representation of the rape, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute in the Philippines through the eyes of an idealistic, greenhorn cop. The controversial film just won the Best Director award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the announcement of the award was greeted by boos and gasps of shock. Roger Ebert calls it “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” and extensively details his disdain for the picture in his blog.

But after I read a few interviews with Mendoza about the film, I started to change my opinion of it (though still sight-unseen; the film will probably receive pretty limited distribution in the U.S., if at all). Mendoza claims that the movie is based on a true-life event and that it reflects the rampant police corruption and unchecked military violence in the Philippines.  “This is not just entertainment, these kinds of stories are real,” Mendoza said after winning his award at Cannes.

Surface Melissa Roxas, online poster, 2009

Surface Melissa Roxas, online poster, 2009

This was borne out by an email blast I received on the same day that Kinatay won at Cannes. On May 19 Pilipino American Melissa Roxas, a poet and human rights activist from BAYAN-USA, a non-government organization (NGO), was kidnapped along with two co-workers while doing volunteer health work in the Tarlac Province in the Philippines. The email I received stated that BAYAN-USA was mounting a campaign to demand the Pilipino government aid in searching for and surfacing her. Thankfully, Roxas surfaced after a week of captivity, although her compatriots are still missing. What’s interesting in light of the accolades that Kinatay received is that Roxas and BAYAN-USA have claimed that she was abducted and tortured by the Pilipino police and military and that this event is the latest in a series of abuses against political activists by government agencies in the Philippines. The New York Times notes:

“According to the human rights group Karapatan, more than 200 Filipino activists have been kidnapped and never heard from since 2001, the year President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power. Others have turned up dead or showing signs of torture.”

If the claims by Roxas, Karapatan, and BAYAN-USA are true, then Mendoza’s film takes on an added significance. Most of the film’s detractors criticized it for its graphic, unvarnished depiction of violence and brutality, with Ebert in particular scorning its rough-hewn soundtrack and cinematography. What Ebert might not understand is that Mendoza is making a conscious decision not to sanitize the film’s violent events. Movie violence is nothing new, but it’s usually presented with a patina of glamour and unreality, an aestheticization that distances the viewer and sanctions the viewing of the violence, making it an acceptable form of entertainment.

By denying his film the glossy sheen of conventional filmic violence, Mendoza forces viewers out of their complacent moviewatching habits, taking them out of their comfort zone and making them realize that, as in the case of Melissa Roxas and many others around the globe, violence is not a form of entertainment but a dire part of everyday life. In this case, Mendoza is working toward the same goal as Roxas—to expose and eradicate the corruption and human-rights abuses of the power structure in the Philippines.

UPDATE: Here’s the transcript of Melissa Roxas’ June 28 press conference in which she describes her ordeal.

June 8, 2009 at 6:27 pm 15 comments

Blood Red and Going Down: Tank Man In Tiananmen Square, part 2

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

I confess to being taken by melancholy this week as I recalled the events on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But it’s a good opportunity to think back on those fateful days from a perspective of twenty years later.

In the six weeks prior to when things all went to hell on  June 4  two decades ago, students and workers were peacefully occupying the Square and sympathy was growing across China for their demands for reforms to China’s political and economic systems. Sometime during those six weeks I remember talking on the phone with my friend Rebecca. We thought we were witnessing a revolution in the works and that the Chinese people’s voices would surely be heeded.

Terribly, things turned out differently than we’d hoped and the insurrection was violently crushed by the tanks and guns of the People’s Liberation Army. More horribly, the numbers of the dead were never confirmed, as many bodies were burned in mass cremations, and many other demonstrators were taken elsewhere for execution. China’s official tally of those killed was a ridiculously lowball count of 241 people, most of whom were deemed by the government to be “ruffians” and “armed thugs” who weren’t actually students. The government also claimed that no one was killed in the Square itself. Other estimates by NGOs on site range from 500 to 7,000 people killed that day.

This morning Rebecca forwarded me a link to a project by artist Michael Mandiberg that utilizes the famous image of the Tank Man, the anonymous protestor who blocked a column of tanks the day after the PLA cleared Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. Four years ago Mandiberg conducted an experiment in which he sent copies of the Tank Man image to a dozen commercial artists in China and asked them to paint a replica of the picture. The responses from the artists suggest that some if not all of them were unaware of the image and its historical context, and few knew its source.

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Mandiberg notes:

“Of the dozen requests I sent, most were returned with a price and the universal salutation “it is a pleasure to do business with you.” A few painters suggested I just leave the man and the lamp post out, often for unclear reasons: political or aesthetic? One person outright declared that he could not paint the image.”

In the West the image of the Tank Man is well-known, as photographs and video footage of his actions that day were widely disseminated throughout the media at the time. However, in China the image is largely unrecognized, due to the government’s attempts to erase the June 4 events from public memory.

The government has achieved this in part through its severe restrictions on Internet access. In recent days, in an attempt to prevent the Chinese citizenry from getting to online discussions of the Tiananmen Square killings, the Chinese government blocked access to twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites, as well as blogging sites such as wordpress, xanga and blogspot.

But before we go too far in excoriating the Chinese government for its erasure of June 4, let’s remember that historical amnesia is not unique to China. Many World War II Nazi concentration camps sites in Europe have been razed or otherwise obliterated. The Japanese government still hasn’t acknowledged the Rape of Nanking. And lest we start to feel too pleased with ourselves here in the U.S. let’s not forget the Bush Administration’s multiple attempts to rewrite reality, from un-defining waterboarding as torture to linking Iraq to the destruction of the World Trade Center.

So on this grim anniversary it’s vitally important to remember the untold numbers of demonstrators who were silenced twenty years ago on Tiananmen Square. But it’s also significant to note that the Chinese government doesn’t stand alone in its disregard for facts and that our constant vigilance is required to keep ignorance and the obliteration of history at bay.

UPDATE: Thanks to dleedlee for sending along the following information, which fills in some of the backstory of the Tank Man photos and video.

FYI, Frontline is rebroadcasting its The Tank Man program this week.

Also, a New York Times blog posted this interesting piece on the various versions of the ‘tank man’ photo(s).
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/behind-the-scenes-tank-man-of-tiananmen/

And artist Michael Mandiberg sent me a further link to his flickr site, which contains all of the images from his series:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/theredproject/sets/72157619172370116/

June 7, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

Twenty years ago today: Tank Man in Tiananmen Square

I don’t know if I need to add too much to this. It’s an image and a moment that should never be forgotten.

Tank man, June 5, 1989, Tiananmen Square, Beijing

June 5, 2009 at 5:30 am 1 comment

No Blood For Oil: ChevWrong poster bombs

I will not complain about my asthma, downloadable poster, truecostofchevron.com, 2009

I will not complain about my asthma, downloadable poster, ChevWrong Inhumane Energy series, truecostofchevron.com, 2009

Just a quick shoutout to a couple well-placed guerilla art pieces spied around town here in San Francisco in the past week or so. In anticipation of the May 27 Chevron shareholders meeting in San Francisco last week, some enterprising artist/activists last week bombed the city with printouts of the downloadable subvertisements from truecostofchevron’s ChevWrong Inhumane Energy ads. The poster brigade, which plastered the city with hundreds of the alternate ads, decided to take matters into their own hands after CBS Outdoor refused to sell billboard space to truecostofchevron, claiming that it didn’t accept “negative” advertising. The Inhumane Energy series cleverly skewers Chevron’s current greenwashing ad campaign that speciously utilizes earth-friendly taglines such as “I will leave the car at home more,” “I will finally get a programmable thermostat,” and “I will replace 3 light bulbs with CFLs.” As if.

I will try not to get cancer, downloadable poster over Chevron ad, truecostofchevron.com, 2009

I will ignore the toxic waste pits in my village, downloadable poster over Chevron ad, ChevWrong Inhumane Energy series, truecostofchevron.com, 2009

Truecostofchevron’s slick little numbers nimbly mimic Chevron’s fakey feel-good sentiments with lines including,  “I will not breathe when outside,” “I will try not to get cancer,” and “I will not complain about my asthma,” coupled with facts and statistics about Chevron’s environmentally unsound activities in Nigeria, the U.S., Burma, Ecuador, Iraq and other sites worldwide. As with any good detournement, the series simultaneously critiques, neutralizes and repurposes its source material, in this case simulating Chevron’s high-powered happy-smiley corporate propaganda in order to expose and deride the oil giant’s own hypocrisy.

No Blood For Oil, stencil, Bay Bridge lower deck, 2009

No Blood For Oil, stencil, Bay Bridge lower deck, 2009

I’ve also been appreciating the rawer but no less effective commentary on the link between big oil and the destruction of the planet that’s cropped up on the eastbound approach to the Bay Bridge. Stenciled onto a couple pillars on the Bridge’s lower deck is a simple image of a tank’s silhouette spouting a single a drop of blood. Direct, visual and to the point, the graphic needs no embellishment to gets its message across, even to the distracted driver speeding along the freeway. And though it may be ephemeral, its placement in the line of sight of thousands of drivers a day brings its message to where it’s most needed and where it can’t be ignored. Which is the most that anyone can hope for in combating the baldfaced corporate misinformation that bombards us every day.

June 1, 2009 at 5:35 am 8 comments


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