Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas from Gail Louise Schmidt in 1950!

It's December 25th! Merry Christmas! Hope family time is swell and all.  What a great time of year–relaxation, reflection, love for fellow humans, and obviously oodles of loot.  But as we all celebrate good times and a good year, I wanted to post this absolutely incredible piece of heartwarming, tearjerking Americana.  I found these in a dresser that I picked up at an estate sale this summer (they were hiding under the paper lining in the drawers!)  This is the holiday calendar and a note to Santa that a young girl, Gail Louise Schmidt, wrote in 1950!  This is the real deal–read the letter if you can, it's totally worth it. Doubt she ever thought her holiday calendar would end up here, let alone now.

62 years later and I think we can still learn a lot from a wonderfully endearing girl. Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Alone, Among

Preface: this is an essay about our culture, and our generation.  Its long, I know.  I think about this stuff a lot, and you might notice that a few of the moments in the essay have been touched upon by my first two posts–but this is a far more comprehensive look at the changes underfoot, and what the hell they might mean.  If you are interested in my tact, please stay with it, there's sort of a fundamental switch that happens later in the piece that perhaps serve to inform our moment.  We've got no choice but to be critical of our moment.  If we neglect that, we're blind.  The artwork which propagates the essay is by Leif Podhajsky, who's a really interesting current artist, and I included it so you have pretty things to look at, but also because there might be some kind of dialogue available between the images and the ideas presented.  In the name of not having a homepage that's enormous, there's a read more link that takes you to the rest of the essay.  If you end up reading it–thanks.

Alone, Among:
How the Web Has Rewritten the Rules of Society, History, and the Self
It is late in the year 2011. It is in this moment, this late inchoate cultural age, that demarcations between producer and consumer have blurred; we find ourselves steeped in a milieu of products and services aimed at a newly formed ineluctable need to share, to become through our sharing. If this appears an oblique statement, let me clarify: we have been sublimated, ourselves, as products of a digital climate which envelops many prominent and far flung reaches of societal engagement, the pulse of which depends on users who develop this need to share. This is a new digital construct which involves an essential social aspect of the web has become known as web 2.0. This summer, the United Nations declared internet access a “human right.” How has a technological construct reached such prominence in less than two decades to be deemed a human right? In 2004, sociologist Mark Poster laid his finger on the portentous uncertainty of this new state, asserting that “we are within something that is huge and perplexing, something that engulfs all cultures and standpoints, providing perches of epistemological privilege to no one.” The scope of this new technology is baffling–yet a blind capitulation in the name of its dazzling opulence will only exacerbate the obfuscating qualities of its composition. I attempt, as every member of this ultramodern society must, to make sense of the changes afoot within our current culture, and the products it produces–namely, us.

The proliferation over the last decade or so of ever-more sophisticated search engines, and the widespread dissemination and embracement of social media outlets has fundamentally altered the ways in which we engage with creative material. We have become prisoners to it, a chaingang of supplicants. It is a complex social system in which power relations appear warped to the user. Herbert Marcuse, who was extremely wary of falling into familiar, easy cultural practice notes in One Dimensional Man that “the power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness.” He implicates a structure which breeds complacent ignorance. The governing society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral part of the given society.”

It would certainly seem as if no one desires a radical change in the trend: the internet’s presence has become ubiquitous through widespread dissemination of, and clamor for, powerful gadgetry which allows users to incorporate digital portals into all aspects of everyday life. Paper is out–the fiendish dedication with which the users of these technologies check their email, read the news, update themselves on the “statuses” and on-line social happenings cannot be supported by physical media any longer. It seems unthinkable that there won’t be a place for the paper novel, the birthday card, the holiday family photo–but these forms will become progressively more outmoded and quaint. It seems there is no other alternative: the disintegration of the print newspaper is inevitable, the social media giant Facebook recently passed the 500 million user mark, and CD sales have plummeted astronomically while YouTube videos boast over 600 million views. These all represent basic changes which are occurring–namely the celebration of sharing, of group taste and hyperbolic consumption. In Donna Haraway’s seminal “Cyborg Manifesto” of 1985, she asserted that by the “mythic time” of "the late twentieth century... we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism." It certainly seems as if Haraway was on to something. Users of the web sink large amounts of time feeding this machine–the more you dedicate yourself through sharing to this social industry, the more you receive in return.

Tech companies love this change. Their products and services allow us to connect and share at all hours, and with incredible ease. But yet this seemingly friendly offer has subtle thorns: the means of production have been laid into the hands of the masses, yet those producers have no ownership or rights to their creative efforts. The vast predominance of user-generated content has no economic benefit for it’s creators–yet this free labor is channeled by a small number of entrepreneurial arbiters who use user-donated content to effectively determine the deployment of adspace, who herd us to more content generating hubs, who hold the keys to economic opportunity on the web. But if it’s such an exploitive system, why do we busy ourselves with the frantic sharing? For one, the social syndicates like facebook and twitter, and to a lesser extent, sites like tumblr, YouTube, and blogspot, are so pervasive that a rejection of them seems commensurate to a rejection of society itself. But even more so, the sites implicitly restructure our social life and identity in the manner of our online transactions of self: we become self-conscious of our identity as a purposed construct, while continually being offered more effective ways to manage our online emblem. We are allowed certain manifestations of “expression;” our favorite bands, movies, websites comprise our character; the “profile picture” becomes our static placard, an online avatar of our physical selves. Add-ons encourage users to display their music listening statistics, their rank among all other users in games, challenges, mini-competitions. We are allowed–encouraged, even–to engage with each other as brands, mere objects of taste. It seems tempting to trumpet Haraway’s grim sentiment, that “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”

Yet the users of the internet are not inert. Not in the way one might describe a TV watcher–the users provide the material in this system. Videos flood sites like YouTube which are comprised of simply one person, speaking into their computer’s webcam (disturbingly attached as a cyclopean eye), describing everyday minutia, voicing their opinion, reviewing a game–always bathed in the pearly cerulean blue glow which their laptop emits. The resulting video has no physical properties, it exists simply as code which corresponds to a specific arrangement of light particles, accessible from anywhere. All around the world, other users are able to view this video, they themselves awash in the same light, the screen serving as a virtual valence, a vacuous portal through which users are able to summon any various setting. The experience of sifting through the internet can be described as interacting with a planar web. The virtual world is just that–virtual, existing only in abstract terms until we decide to interact with it. It doesn’t live on our computers, it floats above in static potential. When we are faced with a ‘page,’ it appears to us as a unique plane which has been brought before our eyes and dominates the monitor; within this plane live ‘links,’ pathways to other pages which exist only as abstract concepts until we click on the link, and our monitor swiftly replaces our current plane with a new one. Fundamentally, the web cannot exist in its totality for the user, but only as individual, unique planes which are woven into the web’s spanning fabric.
The experience of the digital world is a fundamentally individual one–only one person can be at the helm, controlling moves from page to page, marshalling any amount of content before their eyes. We have been indoctrinated subtly into a new dialectic of private and public spheres; user content is privately produced, publicly shared, and privately consumed. As the perceptive social critic Walter Benjamin demonstrates, there lives an eternal quality in consumers which in the contemporary age has been given resources beyond conception, but which has existed since mass culture began its tumultuous flux. Benjamin describes a “desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” This appears to our present condition as divine prescience, yet it is only a testament to culture’s unwavering dedication to these principles. With current levels of ephemeral as well as artistic consumption, the user can be perpetually faced with newness. Yet, because it is always new, it becomes the same, although this is not consciously acknowledged by the user. In this manner, we cannot be defined as true consumers–as the user only requires to engage with the pleasurable baseline of mental activity, we have become grazers, lifelessly loping through the web. One only needs to regard the numbed facial expression of a user in a state of grazing to observe this.

But this cannot be the sum total of the effect of social media and other web 2.0 fundaments have on our lives–certainly there is massive potential unleashed by these services. The dynamic and explosive life of the hive mind, a reinvention of social relations at a previously undreamt level of connectedness, ads targeted specifically for our interests, the ability to connect and structure disparate cultures and ideas: these are effects too. For our contribution of content, we are not compensated monetarily: rather, we are bolstered with a more concrete conception of self, one which is measurable in how many friends you have, how many times your content has been shared, how many photos you have, how many likes, thumbs-ups, stars, +1’s your submissions receive. But this sense of self is fragmented, and grounded in unsubstantial measures. These sites are social scaffolding, foisting the cultural composition upon users as a method to establish a digital identity–yet our constant offerings to the surfeit confound a coherent sense of ourselves. We evaporate time away, sifting through forgettable chunks of ephemera, surrounded by thoughts and opinions drained of true purpose, and we fail to perform any useful synthesis. In this informational deluge, there is no impetus for synthesis: users are allowed to perpetually digest new, but inherently empty, content. Consumerism has reached its apogee in this age. Though perhaps this is not the only age charged with making sense of pervading content: Aldous Huxley writes in 1934 “in all the arts the output of trash is both absolutely and relatively greater than it was in the past; and that it must remain greater for just so long as the world continues to consume the present inordinate quantities of reading-matter, seeing-matter, and hearing-matter.”
We have constructed for ourselves today a digital metropolis–a functioning and independent society within the larger, physical one, a metametropolis. In the metametropolis, societal rules are rewritten. Users of any social class have access to all the same public services and opportunities for creative production, and no one is held accountable for where they go when they’re inside the web–agency is offered through secrecy. Though unavoidable social forums such as facebook require accountability, many sites allow your presence to remain anonymous–which explains the incredible selection of crassly unmediated comments on videos or blogs, or any other such forum. The strict emphasis on political-correctness and tact which exists in mainstream culture causes a violent backlash in the metametropolis–a site of a cultural rejection possible only through a wholesale acceptance of the new culture’s costs and benefits. Poster notes this change as well, outlining certain changes as a result of this new digital society: “At every point of human life old lines of division–systems of order, relations of signification, hierarchies of value and power–are palpably beginning to crumble.” This is not to say that this crumbling is good or bad; for a Marxist critic, the delineation of clear lines of class in the digital sphere pacifies the striving class, giving the illusion that real, palatable forms of oppression do not exist anymore if you live in the internet.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Eruditties and Critical Nothings

Well, the semester is over. Arts have been liberally applied, studies have been crammed, actual knowledge has obviously been forgotten in a fit of academic entropy. Time seems to pass at horrific rates. It's in this watery-eyed wistfulness that I've gone back through my notebooks and scanned in some of the more interesting "notes" that I've generated this semester. The classes which served as the impetus for these were "Ulysses" (yes, it's a semester spent on one book) and Aesthetic Negativity (don't ask me to tell you what that means. It was a class about German critical theory. And, like, stuff). This style of "notetaking' really arose out of the need to look busy at all times in these classes, surrounded by such eager students of arcane ditties. But let's get real: they're erudite doodles. Check out some of my favorites after the jump. Come back tomorrow for a fresh dose of sociological dissertation on how screwed up our generation is.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Top 10 albums of 2011!

These are some of my favorite albums of the year (no, Bon Iver is not on here), and in a semi-vague general order. Check out some new tunes for finals. The last five have a fair amount more explanation that the first five.

The War on Drugs-Slave Ambient
What a wonderful amalgamation of blues, folk-rock, and electronic futuristic visions. No, you’re not listening to Bob Dylan on the track, it’s Adam Granduciel–rambling shamanistic frontman that makes superb tunes. Give it a listen–he’s so hot right now.

My Morning Jacket-Circuital
Kentucky legends are back with another standout record. Eerie, warm mystic songs topped by Jim James’s sanguine, curling voice.

Washed Out-Within and Without
Yes, chillwave can be a terrible thing at times–2007 certainly stands as evidence. But making hazy, crackling synth melodies dripped in warbled lyrics that seem to have a breathy life of their own will always be enjoyable. Solid album, great sound.

Iceage-New Brigade
Let these super-young Copenhagen bad boys serve as a lesson: punk is far from dead. Their music thrives on percussive bursts, gnomic, cryptic lyrics, and is sodden in overflowing energy. Just listen to “Collapse,” and I dare you to sit still.

PJ Harvey-Let England Shake
A superb record from veteran PJ Harvey. She loves England, and you will too after the album. Tinkling, pretty ditties and brunt guitar abound, covered at all times with Harvey’s gorgeous, coy voice.

Ty Segall-Goodbye Bread
Ty Segall–what a man. The dude makes excellent fuzzy garage rock that’s fit for seemingly any occasion. Goodbye Bread is certainly his most concentrated and successful release to date–it carries emotional depth too, and allows an insight to Segall’s convoluted self-image. The title track is excellent, and it’s accompanying music video functions as sort of a mission statement for the whole album. “You Make the Sun Fry” is a fantastic, sludge-soaked rocker that channels Neil Young energies pretty effectively. Segall has come to a perfect balance between singer-songwriter sensibilities and powerful garage-rocking.

ASAP Rocky-LiveLoveA$AP
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this guy. The internet hypemachine is well known for it’s power to bestow fame, at times seemingly random, upon neighborhood kids making music in their basement. So after two sweet youtube videos for his songs "Peso" and "Purple Swag," he copped a Sony/RCA record deal for a cool 3,000,000. Odd Future’s Hodgy Beats called him “A$AP copy.” But as my father used to tell me, “don’t hate the playa, hate the game,” and this is one of those circumstances–this dude makes great music. He lays down rollicking, stutter stepped, honey soaked verses over smoked out beats. “Peso”, “Trilla”, and “Purple Swag” are clear favorites–Rocky hails from Harlem, but he brings a southern rap flow to smooth classics you cant help but bounce your head to. Some of his work with DIY bay-area troublemakers Main Atrrakionz is excellent too. Who knows what fame will do to the man, but all that can be said for sure right now is that he’s put out a standout debut.

Kurt Vile-Smoke Ring For My Halo
I hadn’t actually listened to Kurt Vile until earlier this year, when my cousin John Chambers took the time to say: get Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs on your speakers pronto. You’ll notice both these names are on my list… turns out he was right. Kurt Vile’s mumbling, bumbling, hyper-wry character is a wonder: listening to his songs is like reading a diary formatted as a Socratic dialogue. It reminds me of Eliot Smith a bit in that way–but Vile brings much a much beefier guitar sensibility and, well, he genuinely sounds like he’s having fun making his music. His range is immense–he delivers catchy freeway cruising tunes (“Jesus Fever”), bare and honest ballads (“Ghost Town”), and finger picking wanderers (“On Tour”). Ultimately, Smoke Ring For My Halo is just a great, cohesive album in the way that you always want.

Clams Casino-Instrumental Mixtape
This New Jersey producer is precisely what the post-Lil Wayne rap world needs. Welcome to a gorgeously bizarre, smoked out sonic landscape that makes you reconsider what rap can be. His hooks are based in warped lyrical samples, and punchy, in-your-face synth pops (listen to “Illest Alive” for a great interpretation of Gang Gang Dance’s “Mindkilla”). This is music that you can blast while doing homework or jumping around your apartment–and I say this from personal experience. “Realist Alive” is apparently a slurry of slowed down Adele’s “Hometown Glory” that’s slippery-sexy–or “Numb,” a rolling beat punctuated by warbled flutes(!). What keeps his music in the ambiguous space between hip hop and instrumental wanderings is, ultimately, his rabid attention to the structure of hip hop–he keeps you waiting for the beat drop, then lathers you silly with it.

WU LYF-Go Tell Fire on the Mountain
The first time I ever heard mysterious Manchester hype-machine-products WU LYF, I was about to go to bed, lying in my bed at night this summer in my apartment. They had just released the “Heavy Pop” single from the album, and when I heard those incredible piano notes rising from the silence into bestial, cathartic awe, all I could think was holy shit–this is what my ears have been waiting to hear for 20 years. I still think that. Even now, listening to the album, its practically impossible to keep my fingers on the keyboard–their music so emotionally devastating, enveloping you in sonic rapture while Ellery Roberts’ Dionysian animal roars beat the shit out of you. And WU LYF are just kids (the oldest is 22), making music about finding your way through the muckymean world, being together with friends, and having a ton of fun doing it. Their name is an acronym for World Unite, Lucifer Youth Foundation, though in “L Y F” they offer an alternate name, Love You Forever. They’ve caused such an internet ruckus through their refusal to give interviews, their blasé attitude towards media sources–every cynic suggests it’s just another hype technique, that they’re pompous and aloof. But ultimately, there is no music that sounds like theirs. Perhaps people are simply baffled in this day and age when a band doesn’t have a website filled with info, festooned with myspace and facebook links, photos of shows, objective information. I could write an entire post just on what their music is, what they stand for, why it’s so fucking good, and what it does to you, the listener. But ultimately, just buy their music, and find your own connection in it. Standouts among an album of standouts: “Heavy Pop,” “Dirt,” “14 Crowns For Me & Your Friends,” “We Bros.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Heavy Art?

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."
-David Foster Wallace

"Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable. This transitory fugitive element, which is constantly changing, must not be despised or neglected."
-Charles Baudelaire

"The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life"
-Georg Simmel

(I took these pictures in New York City, though I suppose that's sort of obvious based on the last one's times-squaresiness.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011


In recent years, the city of St. Louis has watched the incredible growth of the freakishly eccentric “City Museum” from a crazed vision of aesthetically warped urban detritus to a cultural gem, an advertising point for the city. It was the creation of one man’s ambitious and slightly crazed mind: Bob Cassilly. It’s intensely weird–a phantasmagoric array of everyday items, which you engage with as aesthetic objects rather than objects serving a function. Hence, the urban oddities are turned into art, and you are able to see their beauty, or plain absurdness. It’s Quite-Visibly-Bizarre presence right off Washington Avenue has been a galvanizing player in the slow process of revitalizing downtown St. Louis.

But somewhere along the line, Cassilly started to get antsy. In 1999 he handed over the “head curator” title and bought 54 acres of very strange property very far north in St. Louis. It’s the site of an old cement factory, more than 80 years old. The company went bankrupt in 1987, and everyone involved dissipated, leaving these skeletal remains. He said of it “These are some of the most fantastic things. Look at these incredible works. They're everything a mall in the year 2000 is not. They're massive and overbuilt and ambitious, simple, beautiful forms. There are thousands of these plants, and they tore down half of them.” He dubbed it “Cementland,” and the first time I ever heard of the place was in my Freshman year of college, courtesy of Logan Alexander, a Junior ComDes major at the time. Since then, I’ve checked in with the international informational storage and category syndicate, “Google” about once ever six months or so. Each time, I would find a few wisps of information about the mythic site, but never an address. Articles would cite its location as “north, and near the river.” It took me until early this year to finally find it–albeit in a tragic development. On September 26, 2011, Bob Cassilly was killed at Cementland. Early in the morning, he was terraforming some of the 80,000 pounds of earth which Cassilly was using to form Mayan pyramids when his bulldozer slipped down one of the faces–it flipped five times and crushed him. There was a flurry of articles that popped up online, and several of them finally listed an address. So I went. And I think it might have changed my life.

One of the most fundamental parts about Cementland is that no one can really talk about it appropriately. For simple descriptive purposes, it’s a site filled with mammoth concrete edifices, long left dormant and filled with machines whose purpose and scale are truly baffling. Everywhere, the natural world is slowly meshing with gnarled concrete decay. Ivy resolutely climbs the central 250 foot tall smokestack, small trees grow atop massive concrete silos. In the center of the park, its easier to tell how it’s been shaped by Cassilly and his workers, where farther from that epicenter, its often so foreign and askew from our normal worldly perceptions that its difficult to discern if what you are looking at is art in a normative sense, or simply ruins. The express difficulty in any form of encapsulating description of the place is rooted in the experience of going there. My goal is to try to convey what, maybe, Cementland means.

How to get there. First, you have to be prepared. When I go now, I always have rope, a knife, water, coffee (obviously), sturdy shoes and a flashlight. Once you’ve packed your bag, the journey commences. Blaring tunes and banter are key players. Once you get to the Mississippi, you hop on highway 70 until Broadway. But as soon as you get off, the scenery starts to change. Suddenly you find yourself deep within North St. Louis: it’s practically like being dropped in a third world country, and establishments like “Playboy’s Cappucino Lounge” and other like-minded business ventures are peppered along the drive. Then you take a right on Riverfront, and things get even stranger. Clandestine factories with sheet metal siding are the dominant features. These mysterious and vast warehouses signal a change: slowly you’ve slid into a distant place, and far from the society you thought you knew. This is the underbelly, these facades are the industrial component to making America what it is–it’s rare that you consider the place, the machines that make all these devices and components we’re surrounded with.

Suddenly, on your left, you see a long fence running along a ridge you cannot see over, but the posts are massive cement mixer hulls, all painted in different colors. It’s at this point you can begin to feel the place–you know you’ve arrived. As you take a left where the fence ends, you catch the first clear glimpse of what you maybe thought Cementland would be: a truly massive hangar, part of which is knocked out in a gaping maw. There’s vegetation sprouting up on and among the metal, and a ten foot fence with barbed wire lining the whole site. The first time we went, we walked for what felt like an hour around the entire perimeter, looking for a way in. We could see spots where other adventurers had bayed down the steel at points, or burrowed under it. Finally we discovered the most logical way to enter: train tracks run along the western side which open up into the park after a healthy walk along the rails. One of the sets of tracks is still in use, and you have to be careful a cargo train doesn’t come barreling by. But once you’re in, you’re in–and you suddenly realize you have no idea what the hell you just signed up for. It looks like one of those Discovery channel shows about what cites would look like fifty years after humans are gone. It’s eerily quiet and still–the stupefyingly large buildings have a wizened permanence to them, their drab gray shells festooned with graffiti and rust, like scars.

The first time we went, we went on a Wednesday. We were inside for only a handful of minutes before a woman who was previously focused on brickwork until her saunter over to our position informed us that the park was strictly closed, especially after the death of Bob, buuuuut, if we came back on a weekend, “there’s no one here. Feel free to spray paint anything and take anything you want.” Her face was filled with enough metal whose scrap value was enough to feed someone at McDonalds so we knew she was cool with it. The fact that you’re officially not allowed in, but heavily recommended to do so adds perspective on what the culture is like. It’s a place that has a community, a body of followers who have no choice but to promote it, to share it’s incredibly raw ethos with the world. Cassilly described it as “a giant art installation you can play in. It's anti-elitist. Arts have alienated everyone in the world. This is a place to bring together different disciplines. Other people may want to start helping -- they'll want to do something here, maybe have a little piece of it." As soon as I took something from Cementland the first time, I knew I was going to have to give back.

Inside the buildings, you walk into room upon room whose purposes you can barely begin to fathom. Stairs are simply suspended in space, floating curling stairs eighty feet in the air. Nothing is roped off–you realize very quickly that this is not like any other “park,” there is no one who has gone through and said oh wow, that’s not safe, we should do something to prevent stupid people from killing themselves on that. You assume your own level of risk: I for one have been in a handful of circumstances where I know any wrong step is, quite literally, a lethal mistake. But there’s something that happens to you once you’re there. The scale of it all, the assumed oblique uses for all of the crazed machinery turns you into a body of unadulterated marvel: you stare and stare and stare, and say softly oh wow–oh man. You become an industrial spelunker, an archeologist for machines. There is spray paint everywhere: but usually it’s not the crass, run of the mill stuff. It’s as if everyone who ventures into the place develops a quiet veneration in the shadows. In one building, there is an entire floor which has a twenty foot tall ceiling, filled only with industrial vacuums, designed to clean the air of dust. Just think about that for a moment: a warehouse floor filled with NorBlo vacuums, each of which is about the footprint of a large master bedroom. Or a machine that wouldn’t fit in a semi truck, constructed entirely of cast iron, comprised of larger-than-your-wingspan gears and wheels, whose purpose turns out to be vicegrips. For what purpose do you need a clamp that powerful?? The mind boggles in the wake.

The state of mind which I seem to perpetually exist in at Cementland is something close to a mystical reverence, or stupid awe. The fundamentally human joy of exploring is never so heightened: you traverse subterranean tunnels and bunkers whose temperature is twenty degrees colder than the air outside and whose dark is so complete you feel as if you are drudging through something solid, and then climb 150 feet to the tops of silos that have exposed holes at their tops, running straight through nothingness to the ground below. You can see the St. Louis skyline in all the grandeur it has to offer, shimmering tangerine in a fading sunset. The Mississippi curls around the south side of the park, seemingly only a stone’s throw–and it looks beautiful. There is an airplane, what appears to be an early spacecraft, machines used to construct cars, a laboratory with tables stacked with blueprints of the structure’s designs, a collection of marble slabs that’s probably worth enough to buy a yacht with, entire storerooms filled entirely with plastic streetlight covers. I could go on and on. It’s breadth and obfuscating opulence extends into absurdity.

The factory is also a true relic of a history which is traceable. On one of my early ventures to the park, we were able to get into the central warehouse, which normally you cannot get into (a gate had been improperly shut, to our intense gratitude). It’s the worker’s workshop, and the site of the old offices for the factory. In a back room, we discovered some truly incredible documents (of which we didn’t get pictures!). We found the original deed for the property, signed in the early 20’s by Portland Cement Co, then the change of hands that it underwent in the 70’s to Lafarge Cement Co, and the bankruptcy papers from 1987. We saw the bill of sale for it’s purchase in 1999, signed by Bob Cassilly, and his establishment of the business “Cementland,” all splayed out on a table. In the room directly past this one, there was a desk whose surface was covered in a one foot tall mound of Playboys, all dating from the mid 80’s to early 90’s. I found a book on the shelf titled “Wrought Iron,” whose first page shows the scrawl of three separate directors of the plant (minus Cassilly), whose last note reads simply “Anyone who has the opportunity to steal this–don’t fail to do so. I thank you.” It now sits on my bookshelf. The following pictures we were able to glean from the desk as well–they show the plant in the early 60’s, fully functioning and so very drastically different from its modern condition.

So what is Cementland? Is it art? Is it simply industrial ruins? Perhaps Cassilly himself understood it the most intimately: "They talk about historic districts and stuff like that, but one of the main things is, our architecture is basically copying shit from Europe. But our industry, it's kind of like jazz, it's an American, original thing. Why not look at it for what it is? It's impressive. It might be threatening, but you can't help but be impressed by it." And that’s just it. You can do any amount of theorizing about what Cementland means or represents, but in the end, its essence is this: a grotesquely gargantuan collection of outdated edifices, locked in an industrial, geologic time which exists in a realm out of reach in our modern lives. We can only hope to brush up against it, wander in awe through it’s mystic mausoleums and try to understand these remains of raw human might.

A list of brave adventurers who have seen this crazy place with me:
Tom Bescherer
Matt Haslam
Brian Lee
Ginny Stattman
Andrew Nathan
Scott Schlossman
Brady Borcherding

R.I.P. Bob Cassily, and thank you for everything you've done to make this city a better place