In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
Toys 'R' Us May Be a Thing of the Past, but the Toy Industry and Play Will Always Be Relevant, Especially for the Creative Minds of Tomorrow
After 70 years of being known as the ultimate go to toy store for decades, Toys 'R' Us has finally closed its doors permanently in the United States. Years of fierce competition from Wal*Mart, Target and (not surprisingly), Amazon, leading up to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2017 and then Chapter 7 bankruptcy in March early this year, the company hit too many hard times to stay afloat. As of June 29th, all Toys 'R' Us locations are completely vacant, leaving a behind a few traces of what once was.
Aside from the failed business plans that lead to the chain's demise, some people often fault smartphones, iPads and other such gadgets for the downfall. When asking your friends what was the main reason Toys 'R' Us liquidated, the common assumption is that kids don't play with toys anymore. All they want for Christmas and for their birthdays these days are just technological devices. While there is some truth to that assumption, it's not entirely true! Childhood is indeed, very different in the 2010's than it was in decades prior and with the rise of smartphones dominating the market, it's no surprise today's kids are so tech savvy. However, this was not precisely the reason Toy 'R' Us went the route it did. In his video, Welcome to Rotting Acres Mall!| Episode 12: Talking about Toys R Us & Catastrophe! (mild profanity warning), Retail Archaeology briefly discusses what really sank Toys 'R' Us, debunking the 'kids don't play with toys' assumption. Between 24:21 to 26:09, he highlights that the company "was bought with a leverage buyout" where "somebody takes out a huge loan to buy Toys 'R' Us and then uses Toys 'R' Us, the company, as the collateral for the loan". Because of the $5 billion debt, Toys 'R' Us could't afford to payback and recover. Retail Archaeology also pin points that had Toys 'R' Us been in better shape when the minor drop in sales happened, "they would have survived that dip". For more information about Toys 'R' Us' financial issues, I highly recommend checking out Jake Williams' (Bright Sun Films), Abandoned - Toys R Us.
With the 'kids don't play with toys anymore' myth debunked by Toys 'R' Us' financial history, it's safe to say that there is still a market for toys, especially with the K B Toys revival taking place this Christmas and holiday season and that Party City is planning to open their own toy store, both of which will be pop up stores. Even so, small and/or independent toy stores are still thriving. But even if it's true that there is a growing trend in smartphone and iPad use among children, that also doesn't mean play is not important anymore. If anything, play has always been and always will be a major part of children's growth.
On Fisher-Price's official website, Child Development and Play Specialist, Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D. lists 10 tips about the importance of play. Examples of such consists of how children learn about themselves and the world around them, develop social skills, and practice different roles as they play. In terms of how play impacts creativity, Alfano also pinpoints that "[p]lay, simulates and enhances creativity and imagination" as well as that it encourages children's curiosity and attention to flourish. It also "is the integration of language, social, cognitive, imaginative and physical skills". But above all, play "fosters self-esteem, self-direction and values". When children play, they are able to create a story and scenario with a tangible object. As they interact with the toy, they input a personality and characteristic on it. Children act out a scenario based on everyday life and what is interesting to them. In the process, they are able to problem solve because they are encouraged to think critically. This gives them the desire to learn more outside of their comfort level. It's that type of attitude that inspires artists as artists are always expanding their knowledge and creative skills. In fact, children who play become more immersed in the arts. Even so, just as artists have a set of values and self-awareness that they showcase through their works, when children play, they learn that the most important thing to live by are a good strong set of values. It is important for them to develop self-confidence and with that mindset, they start to understand what defines good solid principles.
European scientist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) once said how play is significant to a child's growth as highlighted by University of Amsterdam graduate, Alexander Burgemeester in his essay, Jean Piaget's Theory of Play. The selected quote by Piaget goes as follows:
"Our real problem is ̶ what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life."
The four developmental stages of intellectual development named by Piaget were sensory-motor, pre-operational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Throughout the child's early years before adolescence, which is the formal operations stage, the first three are the building blocks, leading up to the stage when the child is a teen, capable of critical thinking. The sensory-motor stage, which is during the infant to toddler years, is when a child is aware of his/her senses. During the years prior and going into the early elementary years (pre-operations), children begin to grasp the concept of symbols. They learn that symbols, words, objects, etc. have a meaning behind them. Due to the limits of their knowledge and imaginations, they start to ask more questions based less in the 'what' and more in the 'why'. In the concrete operations stage, which lasts throughout much of the remainder of elementary school, children build on what they had learned in the previous years, learn how to take items and work with them in a logical manner. Upon reevaluating Piaget's theory, in order for children to develop and exercise their knowledge and imaginations, play needs to be encouraged. As Burgemeester concludes his essay, he indicates that "because assimilation and accommodation take time, the period a child remains in each stage is controlled by their own cognitive development, not that of a teacher or parent". That means that as children age, parents and teachers can benefit from Piaget's theories as an important guideline. Children need to receive the 'most appropriate 'play'...at each stage or sub-stage to help them progress to the next', otherwise they will fall behind in their growth.
Finally, another point that Alfano emphasized on Fisher Price is one that relates to a child's use of a physical object and how it helps their coordination skills. What happens as children play, their "perceptual-motor skills (fine and gross, such as eye-hand coordination and balance)" advances and so does their "strength and coordination". When children work with tangible objects, they are learning how to properly interact with them and strengthen the grip of their hands and their abilities to observe how things function. Thus they learn how to effectively work with items they pick up.
While the mega toy chain may be gone, the toy industry and the importance of play will always be relevant. With modern business models making an attempt to adapt to today's rapidly evolving market in this retail apocalypse era, there's still a demand for the toy industry. Independent local toy stores are still thriving in today's world and major retailers and business people continue to find new ways to reinvent the business model. In addition, even if kids today are immersed in today's technologies, an iPad or smartphone app is not necessarily a good substitute over something tangible. Psychology demonstrates this point time and time again that children do benefit a great deal from play. As children play a made-up game together that involves team work or a child is building a tower with legos, they are letting their capabilities to think critically flourish and restructure and apply their knowledge to everyday life. When they play, they are developing their social skills, learning about the world around them, extending their curiosity and nurturing their imagination. From playing, they benefit from it physically, grow in self-esteem and develop a sense of values. The theories conducted by Jean Piaget also demonstrate how such interactions with tangible objects are advantageous in the long run and therefore, significant to children's growth and well-being. As today's technologies continue to advance, drawing more attention from its users with the abundance of apps, children shouldn't be limited to their screens only. They should be offered more options to expand their horizons and explore possibilities they might not have thought of before. By encouraging play and reinventing the toy industry to suit those values and knowledge, we are encouraging the creative minds of tomorrow's thinkers to flourish and reach full potential. Although the doors have closed for the iconic retailer, one could peer into an empty Toys 'R' Us building and see either of two things: An empty shell that signifies demise of childhood as we know it or a new door will open with endless options and new opportunities to innovate.
Blending the Traditional with the Modern according to Takashi Murakami. Post MFA Boston Visit Reflections
To say that the art of Takashi Murakami is eccentric is without a doubt a huge understatement. With a fine blend of traditional Japanese art and modern day pop art, Murakami mixes, not only the old and the new, but elements of the high art and the low art in ways that leads spectators to another level of imagination. From October 18th, 2017 to April 1st, 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented an exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, which featured a selection of traditional Japanese art from the museum's own collection and a selection of pieces created by Murakami himself.
At first, it seems like the most unlikely combination one could dream up of, but given the context of the rich history behind the arts of Japan and how it shaped the Japanese pop culture of the 21st century, the meaning behind the art of Murakami becomes clearer. The exhibition, fittingly titled Lineage of Eccentrics showcases the heritage Murakami's art depicts through a display of his own works and which traditional pieces influenced them. On one side, museum visitors will see a piece of traditional Japanese art and next to it, a piece created by Murakami himself that borrows from it, mixed with vibrant colors and his signature cartoon (anime) character art. For example, the 17th century folding screen, Poppies from the School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu is among the featured pieces from the MFA's collection. The materials used to create it consists of gold-leafed paper, ink and color paint. Looking to the wall on the right, viewers would see Murakami's rendition, titled Kawaii - Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) circa 2008, in which one of the materials similarly consists of gold-leafed paper. In contrast to Poppies, the flowers are made with acrylic. Also, the flowers depicted in Poppies are rendered with a slight sense of simplicity, yet more realistically detailed while set in front of a spacious golden background. Murakami's Kawaii - Vacances flowers are arranged in a similar fashion as the ones from Poppies in that they are also in front of a golden spacious backdrop (with clouds behind them in contrast). Unlike the more realistically rendered Poppies, Kawaii - Vacances features flat lined multi-colored anthropomorphic cartoon-like flowers with smiling faces.
So what is it about the collection that makes it so appealing? What possible sort of cultural significance could an art form known for blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer? Why does something 'commercialized' even need to draw from traditional art? For artists who want to learn how to create his/her signature style, Murakami sets a superb example of how to do it. Because he is both a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, he knows how to build from the arts of the past and offer new insights into them with a modern twist. Without drawing from the traditional arts of Japan as a foundation, the response to post WWII Japan would be very disconnected. To delve into specific detail, when taking Murakami's early career into account, it's known that he is a fan of anime and manga. Even so, at one point, he had dreams of working in the animation industry. Although initially he went to school to garner the skills for it, his career focus shifted and thus majored in the art of Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings dating back to 1900), instead. Despite earning his Ph.D, he became disenchanted with the art of Nihonga due to its overtly political nature. As a result, he went on to expand his artistic boundaries. The main set back he could see in modern Japanese art was that there was a major focus on incorporating Western trends, which his 90's projects would satirize, receiving less favorable reviews in Japan. Murakami did however, receive a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 1994 and traveled to New York City as part of a studio program from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was living in the city, he discovered modern Western contemporary artists and became influenced by their works. The works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer stood out the most for Murakami. Upon his return to Japan, Murakami defined his signature artistic practices and showcased his recent works at major exhibitions in Europe and the United States. By establishing a cultural foundation for himself as an artist both in the West and Japan, Murakami could take full control over his work and build his own market.
Once he was already well rooted in the high arts, he started to blend the "low" arts of Japanese subculture such as manga and anime into the mix. Eventually, he coined the term, Superflat in 2000, which is a term to describe the 2D flatness of traditional Japanese art and anime and manga. The term, Superflat also takes on an array of other meanings as well, such as the superficial nature of the consumer culture in Japan. It also represents Japan's post-war society, where according to Murakami, trends and various social classes were geared towards flatness, by which he means that after WWII, tastes regarding what can be defined as 'high' and 'low' art have been blurred. When asked about the over commercialization of today's art market in a 2007 interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Murakami's response is as follows:
"It's always funny when people say this, because it sounds like they don't understand what a "market" is. Isn't it a place to buy and sell? Personally, I think that the more commercialized the art market, the easier it is to understand strategically. I do appreciate all different kinds of art, though; just like I appreciate all different kinds of people. There are some people who compete in the commercial arena and there are some who abide by more personal, spiritual or idealistic guidelines. If done well, both can be equally satisfying".
And when asked if there is a risk involved in 'straddl[ing] between art and commercial products', Murakami replies:
"I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the past-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of "high art." In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay - I'm ready with my hard hat".
To summarize Murakami's statements as well as his experiences throughout his career, whether artists are meeting the criteria of 'high' art or 'low' art, either way, they are all in it to market and sell their works. Regardless of their values represented in their art, all artists are marketing and branding themselves every time they put their work out into the public eye. In either case, if the art the artists are selling display a level of craftsmanship and a solid understanding of stylization, the end results that come of their efforts are truly rewarding. As for the 'straddling' effect, Murakami deftly puts it that in port-War Japan, both 'high' and 'low' art intertwine and receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance. Blending the 'high' and 'low' art in the United States on the other hand, often receives a negative reaction and thus, are seen as separate.
Returning to the question of what possible cultural significance could art blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer and why would commercial art even be drawn from traditional art, it all boils down to a deep rooted connection to one's own heritage and that the commercial world would never have existed without such a rich history. As bizarre as the works of Takashi Murakami tend to be, when given context from the traditional art of Japan, the branded art contains a deeper meaning behind it. Murakami demonstrates that without that connection and understanding of cultural heritage, what is defined as commercial art wouldn't have a platform to stand on. Even so, in order for artists to come up with a signature style, (as discussed in my previous blog post), understanding that lineage is what gives the artist's effort a significance. It is truly quite surprising to see how much of commercialized art came to be as a result of art history and Murakami as both a branded business man and traditional artist proves it best.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.