The Art of Allston Christmas

/ Tuesday, September 3, 2013 /

Every year on the first of September, the greater Boston area celebrates the running of the U-hauls: when masses of pilgrims come from faraway lands to settle in to their off campus housing.

The aftermath of move in day is called Allston Christmas, for the copious bounty of discarded items left on the curb. It is not just bedbug-ridden mattresses and broken poang chairs that riddle these unclean streets. Among the castoffs, discards, refuse, and detritus are a handful of aesthetic gems.

Presenting: The Art of Allston Christmas.

This fine specimen was discarded in a parking lot near boxes containing about a gross of travel size Caress bodywashes. It is of unusual quality for an AoAC, with studied use of color and deliberate brushstrokes. The subject matter—a tribute to alt rock band The Cure—de-elevates what might have been a legitimate artistic endeavor into more gauche territory.

This framed baseball painting exhibits a similar level of artistic endeavor, but has more commercial hallmarks despite not being associated with any particular team. The type at the bottom, blank face of the ball player, and the dreamlike motion of his bat amongst the flashing lights place this firmly inthe category “motivational poster.”

A crucial genre in college dorm art is the wall poster. Always unframed, these posters fall within narrowly-defined parameters, often based on themes of hedonism: for example, the Tanya Chalkin Kiss poster, the drug humor poster, or the art deco alcohol poster.

It is worth remembering that both of these, pleasing as their compositions are, were advertisements, and would not have been considered display-worthy art in their contemporary day. Vintage status confers a lot of merit as far as art goes.

On the subject of hedonism and advertising, another popular form is the “favorite movie poster.” Often these are movies steeped in hedonism themselves: Animal House, Fight Club, The Hangover. Music posters are common as well, though this Styrofoam mounted vintage Bob Dylan print is more graphically clean and high brow than, say, a psychedelic Bob Marley. 

Next up on the music scene is this folk art collage to “The Dirty Dirges,” a band whose Facebook tagline is “Beer in Allston basements with duct tape-covered mics.” This piece of art certainly complements the band’s underground, DIY aesthetic.

Have we provided enough evidence yet that the Art of Allston Christmas is heavily centered around drugs and alcohol? This is a large scale example of a more ephemeral  style of college dorm art: the whiteboard.  Note the vintage, sophisticated cocktails this chart details.

Stenciling is a common graffiti art, especially in artist and student neighborhoods.  These are not necessarily affiliated with the celebration of Allston Christmas.

This elaborate stenciled sign, on the other hand, is heavily integrated with the AoAC scene. So integrated that it could not be excavated from its installation in a large dumpster. The Greek letters spell “Sigma Alpha Mu,” a disgraced BU fraternity from which a pledge died of alcohol poisoning last spring.

Most Allston Christmas art is found in single pieces, but this colorful hieroglyphic entry is a series of 20. Note the duality of the medium: these are spray painted on pristine moving boxes, then discarded when the artist moved.

This fan is an unusual example of 3-D art, originally with moving parts. Most sculptural installations during Allston Christmas are purely stationary/disfunctional found objects. (See “Three Televisions” and “Deconstructed Ambiguous Furniture” below)

This statue is an example of Maneki-neko, a lucky waving cat. Though certainly kitsch, it shows evidence that multiculturalism is a minor trend in Allston Christmas Art. 

Here we have some multicultural outsider art, the outsider being clearly a Texan. The choice of a blue palate is unusual, though maybe we can infer that this artist was limited in their materials, and had no other colors, no ruler, no map of Texas, etc.

Which brings us to the showpiece of the Allston Christmas collection:

Graffiti, art, and discarded furnishing in one. A mirror to reflect its surroundings. Truly an embodiment of all that Allston Christmas signifies.

(While I was scouting this piece, a porch-sitting denizen of the house offered it for sale. I declined before he quoted a price, unfortunately.)

So what have we learned? Allston Christmas is not just about creating giant public piles of junk. It is a vibrant art scene, made all the more intriguing by the fact that these are the piece of art Allstonians chose to have in their homes—before they chose to discard them.

This is not This Is Water

/ Sunday, May 19, 2013 /

There are these two young fish swimming along. One of them is showing the other a video on their cell phone. It’s called “This is Water.”

They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who hears them watching the video, and says “Morning boys! How about that David Foster Wallace?”

The two young fish swim on for a bit. The video ends, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is David Foster Wallace?”


In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. His speech is titled This is Water, and it covers life, death, atheism, religion, reality and perception. It seeks new meaning to clichéd attitudes toward liberal arts education. It is critical of the commencement speech genre itself.

As in all of DFW’s writing, This is Water is remarkably self-aware, not only in its genre critique, but also revealing DFW’s very real and personal struggle to come to these terms about the world, and his ongoing difficulty in making the choices he’s saying are so critical. It is, quite simply, the best and most profound commencement speech that our puny consciousness could even conceive.

Eight years later, just this month, The Glossary (a “fine purveyor of stimulating videograms”) released “THIS IS WATER”[1]: a 1/3 length cut of DFW’s original audio, layered over a video filled with the very trendiest of Instagram filtered images, fast cut ‘hip hop montages’, and animated typography. The video went viral, with over 4 million views in the first week.

Media coverage of the “THIS IS WATER” video has been unanimously positive (insofar as “Hey, this video went viral. It’s inspiring.” is “positive,” or even “coverage”). Adweek went so far as to say the video “single-handedly resurrected the voice of troubled literary genius David Foster Wallace.”[2]

Let me be the first to call it out, then.

According to their interview with Adweek, The Glossary’s stated intent with the video was to “spread the message to a wider audience.” The director, Matt Friedell, was particularly moved by DFW’s speech, and so his startup production company made this “passion project” on a shoestring budget. The fact that this video wasn’t made as a slick viral marketing piece for Hachette is its one redeeming quality.

But make no mistake: it’s not DFW they’re promoting here. It’s themselves. “THIS IS WATER” does nothing to promote DFW and his work, because it is unrelated at best and completely antithetical at worst.

What is the greatest insult to a writer’s work? To misinterpret it. To dumb it down and repackage it up as something completely different, so that the work becomes widely associated with the opposite message. It is like making a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. and inscribing upon it an abbreviated quote that makes him look self-aggrandizing.

“THIS IS WATER” cuts out nearly 60% of the original This is Water speech. It cuts all of the content that critiques graduation speeches, liberal arts, and education itself. It cuts all of the discussion of religion, ontology, and phenomenological experience (including a second, more bleak story of two guys at a bar in Alaska). It definitely cuts every mention of suicide, which is perhaps the most radical concept one can possibly mention in a graduation speech.

All that’s left is one “didactish little parable story” and a “you can change your attitude!” pep talk about empathy.

The videography is the most damning indication of this dumbed down message. Every shot is painfully literal. A fish, an alarm clock, a grocery cart. Any concept more abstract than that is illustrated by slapping up some big white chalk type, with custom animations that add nothing to our understanding of the message (“You get to consciously DECIDE what has meaning” blares the type, pointing straight at the guy’s head, with a set of scales for good measure). Because DFW’s delivery wasn’t apparently compelling enough by itself, they set it to stock Movie Trailer Music: quirky marimba theme, moment-of-wonder piano arpeggios. There’s even an implied love story where the main skinny white woman and the main skinny white man notice each other in the crowded store and walk out to the parking lot together.

In the process of all this cutting and glossing and trendwhoring, The Glossary totally commodifies DFW’s speech. The video turns it from a harrowing, brilliant insight into a memeified platitude. This is Water is not about changing your attitude nor seizing the day. The revelation is not that you should try feeling a modicum of empathy for your fellow man.  And the way to understand what DFW was trying to convey at Kenyon is not to watch a nine-minute Youtube video and then post the link on your Facebook wall to make sure everyone knows that it “really makes you think!”[3]

DFW’s writing is difficult, by design. It’s challenging and inaccessible because it is important to keep intellectual rigor, not only in our scholarship, but in other media as well. This isn’t to say that all media should be challenging (DFW himself taught “airport books” on his syllabus) but it definitely shouldn’t be stripped down to its bones by the content piranhas if it attempts to swim in deeper rivers.

Let it not be said that I am blind to the “message” here. I can have empathy for my fellow man. Clearly The Glossary thought they were making this video in tribute to DFW. Clearly they meant it when they told Adweek about passion and being inspired, and that they agonized over what to cut from the full speech. But it is just as clear that they failed to comprehend and follow DFW’s teaching. They were interacting with his writing the only way they know how: by glossing it down for mass consumption. And who can blame them, when the only measure of achievement in media is how mass the consumption is? How many hits, how many copies sold, how many millions grossed at the domestic box office, how many followers or subscribers or likes. That’s the currency of the day. Not depth, not scholarship.

Mass media culture is complicit in this very kind of idea evisceration millions of times a day. Content is a consumable, meant to be shoved in your faceholes as quickly and efficiently as possible. Pithy image macros reduce every social and political opinion to talking points. Listicles masquerade as “news.”

This is why DFW’s work is especially important right now. 

The Glossary cites production expense as the main reason they cut almost 60% of the original 22-minute speech, but also (crucially) “that length of video is tough to release online.”

Well then you shouldn’t release it online.

When you set out to honor someone, you must honor them by the spirit and the letter. All a writer has after they have departed this Earth are their words. You must honor them in full.

So let me say in closing:

If DFW means something to you
If while reading him you ever, even for the briefest moment, felt the water

Then listen to the original commencement speech in full. Read Infinite Jest and all the footnotes. Take on an intellectual challenge.

That is how you honor David Foster Wallace.

[1] You’ll note that I use the all caps and quotation marks to indicate the video, and the italics to indicate the speech, because, quite simply, they are not the same.

[2] As if his work needed saving from the cruel obscurity of Not Being A Thing People Post About on Facebook. 

[3] The phrase most guaranteed to indicate the opposite of what it says, next to “Not racist but…” 

Cráig-jà vu: a pictoral Skyfall review

/ Thursday, December 27, 2012 /

“Some men are coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first”

I sat down over the course of a few nights and put down a thousand or so words about Skyfall’s shockingly simplistic plot, its redeemability as a satire, and whether or not long-running properties’ camp traditions can coexist with Nolanesque gritty reboots. Soon I realized that all this critique was getting longer and longer, but less and less cohesive.

The first night, I even tried to write a feminist review (haha women can’t shoot). But then I realized that any feminist review of this franchise would boil down to “Duh, it’s Bond. What did you expect?”

So instead I got you some nice pictures which illustrate the weird feelings of déjà vu that I had over the course of the movie.

[spoilers, clearly]

Cráig-jà vu: The feeling that you’ve seen this movie before

The X-Files!

Mission Impossible! (Note also that they're fighting over a NOC list)

Indiana Jones! 

Men in Black!

Silence of the Lambs!

Ferris Bueller's Day Off!

Return of the Jedi! (battle with the Rancor in a sand pit)


Kung Fu Hustle! (really disappointed there wasn't any Kung Fu that happened here)

X-Men 2!

Wayne Manor Batman Begins! 

Home Alone!

Apocalypse Now!

Famous franchise sidekick pointlessly reveals name right before closing credits?

Man they really wish this movie was Dark Knight, don't they?

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