Front Table - 2/11/2019

February 10th, 2019

On our Front Table this week, explore transformations in the arts. Start with the impact of technological developments like sampling and streaming. Then find the infusion of jazz into hip-hop, the new aesthetic possibilities of mathematics, the emergence of environmental fiction, a case for art as a human right, and a woman who drove abstraction to its limits a decade before Kandinsky or Constructivism. Find the following titles and more at

99 Variations on a Proof (Princeton University Press)
Philip Ording

This book offers a multifaceted perspective on mathematics by demonstrating 99 different proofs of the same theorem. Each chapter solves an otherwise unremarkable equation in distinct historical, formal, and imaginative styles that range from Medieval, Topological, and Doggerel to Chromatic, Electrostatic, and Psychedelic. With a rare blend of humor and scholarly aplomb, Philip Ording weaves these variations into a wide-ranging narrative on the nature and practice of mathematics, accessible to readers regardless of their level of expertise. It is inspired by the experiments of the Paris-based writing group known as the Oulipo (recently featured on our Front Table and in our events), and specifically Queneau's Exercises in Style, a collection of 99 retellings of the same story. Through diagrams, found material, and other imagery, Ording illustrates the flexibility, aesthetic possibilities, and creative potential of mathematics.

The Roots of Heaven (David R. Godine)
Romain Gary, trans. Jonathan Griffin

In 1956 this book exploded into the world. A huge bestseller in France, it won the country’s most prestigious award, the Prix Goncourt. In the U.S. it was an immediate bestseller, and the basis of a spectacular movie. The Roots of Heaven takes as its subject the deliberate and relentless hunting and killing of elephants for their ivory. It follows Morel, a former dentist whose survival in a Nazi concentration camp he attributes to his fixation on the freedom and companionability of elephants, as he travels to Africa intent on stopping the slaughter. He first circulates a petition demanding their killing be made illegal. Realizing his more conventional tactics are not eliciting a response, however, he turns militant, and the story takes a dark turn. This is one of the first classic ecological novels of our time, available again with a new introduction by David Bellos, the distinguished translator of Georges Perec and biographer of Romain Gary.

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest
(University of Texas Press)
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

The seminal rap group A Tribe Called Quest brought jazz into the genre and created such masterpieces as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Seventeen years after their last album, they resurrected themselves with an intense, socially conscious record, We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service, which arrived when fans needed it most, in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Poet and essayist Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib draws on the group's history and his own experience to reflect on how their distinctive sound resonated among fans. He traces Tribe's creative career, from their early days as part of the Afrocentric rap collective known as the Native Tongues, through their classic albums, to their eventual breakup and long hiatus. Throughout the narrative he places their work in the context of the broader rap landscape of the 1990s, and connects the music and cultural history to their street-level impact. Abdurraqib seeks the deeper truths of A Tribe Called Quest; truths that - like the low end - are not simply heard in the head, but felt in the chest.

Save the date and join us for a conversation with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Go Ahead in the Rain, Sun. 3/10 3pm. Find details and RSVP here.

Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music (MIT Press)
By Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau

Spotify's streaming service has been welcomed as disrupting the world of music. Yet such disruption always comes at a price, and Spotify Teardown questions whether it is necessary for digital culture. Borrowing the notion of "teardown" from reverse-engineering processes, in this book a team of five researchers have playfully disassembled Spotify's product and the way it is commonly understood. Spotify has been hailed as the solution to illicit downloading, but it began as a partly illicit enterprise that grew out of the Swedish file-sharing community. And while it was originally praised as an innovative digital platform, it increasingly resembles a media company in need of regulation. Spotify Teardown combines interviews, participant observations, and other analyses of Spotify's "front end" with experimental, covert investigations of its "back end." Insofar as the authors' methods earned them a stern letter from Spotify accusing them of violating its terms of use; the book itself became has become an intervention into the ethics and legal frameworks of corporate behavior.

Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective
(University of Pennsylvania Press)
Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink

In Ensuring Poverty, Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink assess the gendered history of welfare reform. They foreground arguments advanced by feminists for a welfare policy that would respect single mothers' rights while advancing their opportunities and assuring economic security for their families. Kornbluh and Mink consider welfare policy in the broad intersectional context of gender, race, poverty, and inequality. They argue that the subject of welfare reform always has been single mothers, the animus always has been race, and the currency always has been inequality. Yet public conversations about poverty and welfare, even today, rarely acknowledge the nexus between racialized gender inequality and the economic vulnerability of single-mother families. Mink and Kornbluh explore the narrowing of discussion of the gendered dimensions of poverty in recent decades and advocate a return to the social justice feminist approach, built on the equality of mothers, especially mothers of color, in policies aimed at poor families.

The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice
(Stanford University Press)
Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

In 2010, the J. Paul Getty Museum found itself confronted by a century-old genocide. The Armenian Church was suing for the return of eight pages from the Zeytun Gospels, a manuscript illuminated by the greatest medieval Armenian artist, Toros Roslin. Protected for centuries in a remote church, the holy manuscript had followed the waves of people displaced by the Armenian genocide, and it was eventually cleaved in two. Decades later, the manuscript found its way to the Republic of Armenia, while its missing eight pages came to the Getty. The Missing Pages is the biography of a manuscript that is at once art, sacred object, and cultural heritage. Its tale mirrors the story of its scattered community as Armenians have struggled to redefine themselves after genocide and in the absence of a homeland.  Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh follows in the manuscript's footsteps through seven centuries, captures the human costs of war, and makes the case for a human right to art.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim Museum)
Hilma af Klint, Tracey Bashkof, with contributions by Tessel M. Bauduin. Daniel Birnbaum, Briony Fer, Vivien Greene, Ylva Hillström, David Max Horowitz, Andrea Kollnitz, Helen Molesworth, and Julia Voss

When Swedish artist Hilma af Klint died in 1944 at the age of 81, she left behind more than 1,000 paintings and works on paper that she had kept largely private during her lifetime. Believing the world was not yet ready for her art, she stipulated that it should remain unseen for another 20 years. But only in recent decades has the public had a chance to reckon with af Klint's radically abstract painting practice - one which predates the work of Vasily Kandinsky and other artists widely considered trailblazers of modernist abstraction. Her boldly colorful works, many of them large-scale, reflect an ambitious, spiritually informed attempt to chart an invisible world order through a synthesis of natural and geometric forms, textual elements and esoteric symbolism. Accompanying the first major survey exhibition of the artist's work in the United States, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future represents her groundbreaking painting series while expanding recent scholarship to present the fullest picture yet of her life and art.

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