Thursday, September 30, 2010

Local Artist's Skywriting Venture

Posted By on Thu, Sep 30, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Wherever you are Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening, look into the sky over central Pittsburgh and you'll be gazing at one of the largest canvasses any artist has ever had.

There, a skywriting outfit will replicate seemingly mundane but secretly poetic messages swiped from signs and billboards around Pittsburgh.

Imagine SPACE AVAILABLE in mile-high letters. (Space for what? Outer space?)

ALL SALES FINAL. (Will there ever be another?)

And the almost spiritual EVERYTHING MUST GO.

The perpetrator is Kim Beck, a nationally exhibited artist and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's School of Art.

Most of Beck's work is, you know, normal art-sized, stuff on paper and canvas. A while ago, she went bigger with the blank replica billboard that sits atop the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (even if many passersby have never noticed this work perched on the Shadyside landmark).

Beck wanted to go bigger still. She was inspired by those ubiquitous signs announcing both business closures and big sales -- and, it must be said, by the "Surrender Dorothy" message the Wicked Witch smokes out in The Wizard of Oz.

With help from The Andy Warhol Museum, The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Sprout Fund, Beck assembled a budget of about $10,000 to design the project and hire a skywriter.

There aren't many skywriters left; Beck's pilot flew in from Colorado, she says.

Beck even purchased ad space in some rag called City Paper, featuring the same messages.(See page 10, for instance, of this week's issue.) These ads, Beck notes in a press release, "will perplex readers, while also pointing to the changing nature of the newspaper industry." (Editor's note: We have no idea what she's talking about. We're doing fine here, just fine.)

The skywriting itself will be documented photographically, and prints will end up in area storefront windows, bringing things full circle.

Look for the messages starting at 5:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 1. Another round follows at 3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 2, and then at 5:30 p.m. that day. Flights will last from 30 to 60 minutes.

Then the letters, like sheets of newspaper on the sidewalk, will blow away fast, so look sharp.

You can also follow the venture at

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Helping the Carnegie Library

Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 4:13 PM

You have through Thursday to help save the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

That's a slight exaggeration, of course: Preserving this embattled but invaluable asset will be a long process, and there'll be plenty of opportunities to donate and volunteer, and to advocate for more funding.

But Thursday is your last chance to help shape the library's future as part of the Carnegie Library's months-long Community Conversation process.

The most recent Community Conversation meetings held in libraries themselves were held Sept. 18-20, with some 250 people attending.

Attendees told what they value about the library, said what they'd change, and offered ideas about helping with the system's funding crisis.

An outline of the problems the library faces follows. But if you want to cut to the chase, a series of very short questionnaires and surveys (that shouldn't take more than a few minutes to complete) is online at

The Carnegie Library has faced funding shortfalls for years, with hours and services reduced and branch closings threatened. Last year, the worst cutbacks were avoided thanks to a big one-time cash infusion from the City of Pittsburgh.

By national standards, the Carnegie remains underfunded by city government. But given municipal government's own problems, that's not likely to change. State funding, while strong, is dropping. And money from the Carnegie's single biggest source of funds -- the county's Regional Asset District -- has flatlined. (RAD's revenues come from a sales tax.)

In short, the library faces a predicted $1.7 million shortfall next year, rising to $4.4 million by 2014.

If more funding is not available, how should the library proceed?

Currently, no branch closings are being considered. But while operating hours have already been cut, one option is to cut them some more.

For instance, in 2002, the Oakland main branch was open 69 hours a week. Now it's open 60 hours a week. A necessary cutback might whack that down to 50 hours. Other branches (whose hours are shorter to begin with) face similar cuts.

Should the libraries instead (or additionally) reduce programming, like special events and enrichment for adults, or kids? Off-site outreach programs?

Or maybe it should buy fewer books and DVDs, or reduce the number of public computers.

Aside from filling out the surveys, what can you do to help?

According to the library's website, the most important thing is to advocate for the library, pressing state and local officials to keep or increase funding, and recruiting friends to do the same.

One way to do this is to join a "Friends" group, such as most Carnegie branches have.

You can also volunteer at the library, to help staff do more with less.

You can even just donate cash. If just 5 percent of the system's 125,000 adult cardholders chipped in $25 each, the library says, it would raise $156,000.

That's less than 10 percent of what's needed to stanch the shortfall next year alone. But it'd be a start.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alan Moore's In Pictopia at the Toonseum

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 8:20 PM

"Only superheroes can afford to dream in color," said a young Alan Moore.

It's hard to imagine a time when Moore, a comics superstar, had the heart of an independent artist longing for validation. But the late '80s was that time, and In Pictopia was the comic.

These days, Moore's work is familiar from big-screen interpretations of comics like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, V for Vendetta and Watchmen.

In 1987, however -- the same year the Watchmen series was published as a paperback -- he self-published In Pictopia, whose 13 pages go on display at Pittsburgh's comic-art museum, the ToonSeum, for five weeks starting Sat., Sept. 25.

It is a work of meta-text where strange animal creatures who don't fit the continuity of the comic-book world are "slated for demolition," bulldozed in favor of Technicolor superhero types.

Illustrated by Pittsburgh-based artist Don Simpson, In Pictopia enjoyed only two original printings, once in the benefit comic Anything Goes II and a second time in the anthology, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore. Anticipating a smaller audience, Moore took a risk, resulting in a scathing satire that represented the reality of artistic merit cast aside for the sake of corporate interests.

Some comics historians place Pictopia among Moore's most brilliant works. After 24 years of cult status, Toonseum direct Joe Wos decided it was high time to unearth the comic from the archives.

 "It's literally a statement about the comics selling out and ... cheapening themselves," Wos says. 

Today, with the famous San Diego comicon ruled by movie execs, and works like Moore's being turned into Hollywood blockbusters, independent comic artists interested in preserving the heart of the art form are resurfacing, says Wos.

"[In Pictopia] is in that spirit," says Wos. "This is a comic about stepping back and saying, 'Wait a minute where are we headed? Is there anything we can do to stop this and preserve our legacy to preserve the voice of the independent comic creator?'"

A special limited reprint of In Pictopia is slated for mid-October.

Simpson, the illustrator, was one such independent creator. Described by Wos as an "outsider," Simpson dropped out of the comics scene years ago, after creating "Megaton Man," his most well known series.

Simpson remembers distinctly when he first met Moore, at a DC Comics banquet in 1985. "'By the way," Moore said, 'I'm ripping off Megaton man.,'" Simpson recalls.

When Simpson asked what he meant, Moore told him he was writing the script for a new comic (the one that became Watchmen) and that one of its principal characters (Dr. Manhattan) was a reincarnation of Megaton Man.

"That was his humor," says Simpson, but with none of the outrage one would expect.

In Pictopia, after all, was not Hollywood.  It was not dreamt in color. It was precisely this: one independent artist who had something to say and another one who helped him say it. 


In Pictopia exhibit opening reception 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 25. Exhibit continues through Oct. 31. Toonseum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. 412-232-0199 or


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Public Gigapanorama

Posted By on Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 1:51 AM

If you can get yourself Downtown on Thu., Sept. 23, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., look for the US Steel Tower. (It's not hard -- you can see the damn thing from like I-79 South, in Washington County.)

Then look up ... and if you get the timing right, you should eventually find yourself in Carngegie Mellon University's Public Gigapanorama.

According to CMU spokesman Eric Sloss, it's the first-ever attempt by the folks at CMU's Studio for Creative Inquiry to take an "ultra high resolution" 360-degree image of the city.

The digital cameras Gigapan cameras, developed by CMU's Create Lab, have previously been used to photograph things like neighborhood street scenes and big open landscapes. Formatted for computer screens or other slick monitors, they have "searchable" imagery with a seemingly infinite zoom capacity.

Last year, the SCI crew did a 30-gigapixel Gigapanorama from the Steel Building. But this one's for all you lens lice: SCI is encouraging people who want in to wear a costume, carry a sign or strike a pose. The shoot itself will last two hours. SCI will post updates on Twitter every five minutes starting at 11 a.m. to announce which direction the camera will be pointing at what time. (It will move through its circuit in 10-degree increments.)

The photo will be posted online by the end of October.

CP staff would go, but we have our modeling careers to think of.

For more information, see

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cambridge Footlights at Carnegie Mellon

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 1:01 AM

There can't be too many student comedy troupes with as distinguished a set of alumni as this lot from Cambridge University.

Just since 1950, the 127-year-old company has been an early home to such stage, film and TV luminaries as Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Sasha Baron Cohen, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Frost, at least three future members of Monty Python's Flying Circus and at least one future member of Parliament.

Absolutely none of those people will be at CMU on Sat., Sept. 18, when CMU's own Scotch 'n' Soda Theatre hosts this year's model.

But various incarnations of Footlights continue to tour internationally -- they're regulars at Scotland's renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- and with a pedigree like that, there's little reason to believe the troupe's first-ever show in Pittsburgh won't provide plenty of laughs for your very affordable ticket.

The Cambridge Footlights perform their show Good For You at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 18

Tickets are $10 ($5 for local college students).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"The Monkey's Paw" & "Happy Garden of Life"

Posted By on Sat, Sep 11, 2010 at 7:48 PM

It's no surprise that fledgling Microscopic Opera's second production featured engaging music and fine singing. What was unexpected was the thematic intrigue of the show's narratives -- something opera doesn't always provide.

The contemporary chamber operas the troupe specializes in might be an expection to that rule. (Hard for me to say, because we hadn't seen many around here till now.) After all, Microscopic's premiere, this past spring, did feature the emotional gut-punch of Jake Hegge's "To Hell and Back."

But this show's intrigue was of a different species.

"Monkey's Paw" might seem an unlikely wellspring of such interest: Its source material was W.W. Jacobs' familiar story about an elderly couple making an ill-fated wish on the titular enchanted appendage.

But, for starters, Jonathan Kupper's musically lush new adaptation of the Victorian horror classic is suffused with a kind of religious fatalism that's rare in contemporary work.

For instance, a song sung by the couple's son, Herbert (Daniel Teadt), is one of consigning his fate to God yet acknowledging he mightn't live out the day. (He doesn't.) And the crepuscular one-act ends with the cast of four (including Raymond Blackwell, William Andrews and Carissa Kett) singing, "We are the monsters. We are the ghosts. We only haunt ourselves."

"Happy Garden" is significantly more contemporary, if no less fatalistic. It's based on a 1962 Kurt Vonnegut story about a future society where old age, disease and even death have been overcome -- but population is kept constant by requiring each birth to be balanced by a volunteer's assisted suicide.

Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith (who also directed "Monkey's") stages the new one-act in a wry, manic style that works for both Vonnegut and composer Katarzyna Brochocka's playfully atonal score. Key roles include the narrator, played by Mary Beth Sederberg with delightful weirdness and crazy hair, and a man in a maternity ward (Jeffrey Gross) who learns that his wife has just given birth to triplets. That means he must find not one volunteer suicide, but three.

As she sings the opening passage, Sederberg's wild eyes make it clear that this society's inhabitants have cracked under the strain of utopian perfection. But what's the alternative? As the character Dr. Hitz points out, before population was checked by his regime of control, "There wasn't even enough drinking water. And nothing to eat except seaweed."

Goldsmith and the cast (especially Gross and Erica Olden, as a perky gas-chamber attendant) milk every ounce of comedy from the script and then some. But, like good satire should, none of it goes down easily: Overpopulation and water shortages are bigger problems than ever. And Vonnegut's solutionless formula -- that the only planet we could survive on is one we'd never wish to inhabit -- offers nothing like comfort.

Likewise flying in the face of our society's general belief in progress, "Monkey's Paw" for its part suggests that getting what you want is worse than wanting what you haven't got.

The thematic unity of these two thoughtful works is reinforced by the show's enhanced production values. Since its first show, Microscopic has added a raised stage, and instead of a lone pianist, musical director Andres Cladera conducts a small orchestra. Underneath a borrowed professional lighting grid, it all sounded great in the donated empty retail space (located between the Borders and the state store on Baum Boulevard, in East Liberty).

"Monkey's Paw" & "Happy Garden of Life" continue with performances at 8 p.m. nightly tonight, Sun., Sept. 12, and Sept. 17-19.


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