“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.”
–R. Buckminster Fuller
In 1927 designer, architect, and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller was contemplating suicide on the shore of Lake Michigan, when he had an epiphany:
“The thought then came that my impulse to commit suicide was a consequence of my being expressly overconcerned with ‘me’ and ‘my pains,’ and that doing so would mean that I would be making the supremely selfish mistake of possibly losing forever some evolutionary information link essential to the ultimately realization of the as-yet-to-be-known human function in Universe.”
According to legend, Fuller decided to “throw away” his “personal ego” instead of committing suicide, and use himself “as a scientific `guinea pig’… on behalf of all humanity.” He resolved to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
At least that is the story as Fuller told it.
Although he grew up in an elite New England family, he flunked out of Harvard (twice), worked as a meatpacker, and served in the Navy before reinventing himself as a philosopher, engineer, writer, inventor, and lecturer. Never content to work in only one field, Fuller, or “Bucky” as his friends called him, embraced an interdisciplinary approach to global problems like poverty, shelter, transportation, education, energy, and ecological destruction. By the time of his death in 1983, Fuller held 28 patents, had authored 28 books, and received 47 honorary degrees.
But neither Fuller’s biography, nor his legacy are simple.
“If you really look for the details of his life at the time, it’s easy to see that the suicide story was a creation,” Stanford historian Barry Katz told the New York Times in 2008.
“There was nothing even remotely in the archives suggesting feelings on the scale he later described” in 1927, he said…
Mr. Katz said he found instead signs of depression and anxiety stretching from the time…
“That’s why I now call it a myth,” [said Katz,] “but it was an effective myth. It gave a trajectory to his career. The story was constructed after the fact to show how he suddenly developed these new ideas. I think he came to believe the story himself…”
In recurrent dark periods Fuller was not trying only to persuade others his ideas were important, but to persuade himself that he mattered….
Supporting that view is [the late] Evelyn Schwartz Nef. “Those days were really quite exciting because he was so convincing that he was trying to save the world,” she said in an interview…“The question I had is whether he was as convinced as we were. He was trying to reassure himself that he was something.”
As James Sterngold writes in the New York Times, “by conventional measures…[Fuller] accomplished little. The efforts to mass-produce his houses, though written about widely, failed. His project to develop his efficient three-wheeled autos collapsed after an accident killed the driver of one. His soaring geodesic domes, built with a distinctive pattern of triangles, have been used — memorably for the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal — but never for the large-scale projects he envisioned.”
Mention Fuller’s name to a group of artists and architects and you’re likely to be bombarded with passionate responses from both supporters and detractors.
Philip Johnson once called Fuller a “lousy architect,” and Fuller’s vision for Manhattan provoked this response from one architect I know: “Fuller envisioned covering mid-town Manhattan by an enormous climate-controlled bubble. How in the world is that an environmental improvement? It would have consumed enormous amounts of energy, contributing immensely to air pollution and global warming. And the prospect of enclosing city dwellers in a bubble, cut off from wind and rain and sun and the play of the elements, is something that I find horrifying…I’m very suspicious of big universal theories, like those of Fuller, when it comes to architecture.”
But Fuller’s impact can’t be discounted. He has influenced everyone from Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne to Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog and The WELL, one of the oldest virtual communities.
As K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, explained to me via email, focusing too much attention on Fuller’s popularization of the geodesic dome or his idea to shroud the city of Manhattan in a bubble misses the point. According to Hayes, Fuller made other contributions that are still relevant today, if we can look past the outdated designs and cultural critique:
The current generation of artists and architects who rediscover Buckminster Fuller will not be inspired by his structural inventions or cultural critique but by his spatial modeling of a globalized system of pattern and contingency, organization and change, temporary stability and constant renewal. That is his legacy.
“Bucky…looked at the world big-scale, in terms of the number of people who didn’t have enough to eat,” architect Nicholas Grimshaw says. “He talked about the really big issues, like food and water and shelter. And that’s really just coming home to roost. Everything he wrote then he could have written right now.”
“Fuller was the original systems thinker, with regards to the ecology of a building and its relationship to the environment,” explains artist, designer, and engineer Chuck Hoberman:
When he asked, ‘How much does your building weigh?’ it immediately put it into the realm of material usage and embodied energy, all of which are now very hot topics of discussion—not driven by stylistic concern, but simply by the need to make buildings more sustainable. His work framed a lot of those issues very early on…
I think he’s been highly influential as an iconoclastic spirit, who never accepted that the boundaries between disciplines were anything other than something to be climbed over or circumvented in some way. To me that’s not so much a heroic stance as much as a very practical way to proceed in the world today.
We live in a dystopian age—one more interested in zombies from The Walking Dead and Cormac McCarthy’s grim, apocalyptic vision than in slick, futuristic fantasies about jet-packs and cars that drive themselves. “There are too many of us who wonder whether civilization is going to make it or not,” former Vice-President Al Gore commented in a recent interview. “When people flirt with despair about the future, they are less likely to take the actions necessary to safeguard it.”
In marked contrast, R. Buckminster Fuller believed that cooperation, not competition, was the key to a better life, and he remained optimistic about humanity’s future. “It no longer has to be you or me,” Fuller wrote in Critical Path. “Selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable.”
Whether R. Buckminster Fuller was visionary or naive in his beliefs is one of the subjects that interests Sam Green, a genre-bending artist in his own right.
It’s fitting that a multi-media artist like Green should tackle an enigma like Fuller, while accompanied by the live music of a critically-acclaimed, three-piece band that also defies categorization. Part TED Talk, part travelogue, and part Japanese benshi, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller was like no other film screening I’ve been to, with Green narrating a special cut of his film (created for his Boston audience), while the intoxicating sounds of Yo La Tengo pulsed through the glass-walled auditorium. As writer Rebecca Solnit described the experience, it’s like “a movie being born as you see it and hear it, as alive as music.”
Green spent months watching archival footage of Fuller, collecting images, and combing through the Dymaxion Chronofile, Fuller’s extensive archive at Stanford University. Much to Fuller’s disappointment, he was pigeonholed as “the dome guy,” a gross oversimplification of his ideas and philosophy. This was Green’s primary impression of Fuller when he began his project, but this impression was quickly contradicted:
I was commissioned to make this film by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They were doing an exhibit on Fuller and they asked me to create a multi-channel video installation and also this live documentary about Fuller. Before that, I had known a little about Fuller but…I basically knew him as “the dome guy.”
Going to Stanford and looking through his papers was a phenomenal experience. I love going through archives. I’m an inveterate snoop and voyeur…Fuller’s archive is enormous. He called his papers the Dymaxion Chronofile and saved everything that came over his desk for more than 50 years. There are telegrams there, laundry receipts, letters, photos, objects — just everything.
One of the funniest moments in The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller is a clip from a video in the archive labeled “BF Meets the Hippies on Hippie Hill,” a lo-fi recording made at the height of the counterculture movement that shows Fuller discussing Spaceship Earth, science, geodesic living, and utopian aspirations with “hippies” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s moments like these when Green’s title reference to the pathetic, frustrated narrator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seems spot on.
I was enthralled by him first as a character. He was a fascinating mixture of intense ambition, drive, energy, idealism, but also he was profoundly insecure and thin-skinned. Full of contradictions and wrinkles. He worked incredibly hard — he lectured and wrote and traveled and worked on projects in a huge, 50-year project to see if a single person could change the world. He was utterly indefatigable.
My time spent going through his papers gave me a much greater appreciation of who he was, and also the slightly unsavory parts. He definitely took credit for work that his associates came up with. There’s even some question as to whether he invented the Geodesic dome — it actually appears that he didn’t. Someone built one in Germany in the early 1900s.
But to me, at the end of the day, his drive and ambition and enormous efforts were ultimately more about promoting his ideas and trying to better the world than his ego as an ends unto itself, or getting rich off of it.
I was surprised by how contemporary his ideas were/are. He was talking about doing more with less, and a design revolution, and distributing limited resources fairly way back in the 1930s and 40s and 50s (and all the way up to the time he died actually)…It didn’t seem like there were limited resources in the 1950s — that was a moment of seeming material abundance. But everything Fuller was talking about 40 years ago is completely in the air now. It’s striking. The world really has caught up with him.
This isn’t Green’s first project on the subject of Utopia. The filmmaker, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Weather Underground, released his first “live documentary,” Utopia In Four Movements, in 2009. (You can watch his film The Universal Language here). The film was a “poetic meditation on the fact that we are living in an anti-utopian time,” but it wasn’t working as a “normal” movie, so Green invented the live form.
Sam and I recently discussed how a “live documentary” differs from traditional film:
In a world where more and more of our experiences of culture are mediated by screens and devices, the idea of going to a theater and sitting with strangers and turning your phone off, and having the lights go down — that’s all the magic of cinema! You are transported somewhere — you give yourself over completely to the experience. It’s utopian. And that context infuses what you see with meaning and significance.
That’s what I’m trying to do with these live pieces. The piece will never be the same as you saw it that night at ICA — the things we included, that particular soundtrack, the comments after by Peter Chermayeff. We traveled all that way to perform it for you, and you traveled all that way to be in the audience and together we made something that was infinitely more meaningful than had you seen the piece on Hulu (with ads) or streamed it through Netflix on your laptop.
Doing these live pieces is a huge challenge for me, and I really like that. I get nervous as hell. I’m not really a performormer — or I don’t think of myself as one. I am a shy documentary filmmaker. So it’s been and continues to be a great learning and challenging experience.
Also, it’s made me infinitely more sensitive to venues. When you are making traditional films, you don’t really care much where they show. Yes, it would be great if the sound system is good. And a nice projector is a plus. But with these live events, everything becomes important: the size of the room, the time of the screening (9 p.m. is usually too late — people are tired), the rake of the seats, the depth of the space. All of these things are the subtle intangible factors that add up to a good show or a not so good show.
I am charmed and really fascinated these days with “liveness.” With these pieces, I am using all of the elements of a traditional film like a soundtrack, narration, and images on a screen, and putting them together as a live performance. Sometimes people will point that out during a Q and A and say something like “why don’t you just put all these pieces together on a DVD and send it to the venue. It would be way easier! That way you don’t have to travel all the way here.” It’s funny because the implication of the question…is that there’s no difference between hearing a pre-recorded voice-over coming through the theater speakers, or a pre-recorded soundtrack, and hearing someone say those exact same words or play those exact same notes live.
The difference gets to the heart of “liveness.”
…I like this form for political, aesthetic, and economic reasons.
By “political,” I mean that more and more we are watching films (and having other cultural experiences) on our laptops while checking email, or on an i-Pad while riding the subway. I have nothing against the internet — I use it all the time — but these ways of watching films are not the way I want my work experienced. This goes back to that idea that it’s the same film whether you see it in a theater or if you watch it on Hulu while doing a Facebook status update, and that’s something I completely and wholeheartedly disagree with. I think that the context in which we view things is a huge part of shaping our experiences…
With these live events, the connection between artist and audience is a very visceral and tangible one. You can feel when the piece lags or when an audience doesn’t think a joke is funny. It’s very different than the experience of making a tradition film where occasionally you might sit in an audience watching your movie and get some feeling from them about their engagement.
Doing these live film events is probably much more like the experience of a comedian, where you need the audience in order to see what works and what doesn’t. Comedians do lots of live shows just to shape and hone an act. You can’t really write jokes and see how they work while sitting alone at home.
Green has been a fan of the critically-acclaimed band Yo La Tengo for years now, but it was seeing them perform a live soundtrack to the films of Jean Painlevé in San Francisco many years ago that lodged in his memory. “Painlevé was an amazing, and weird, French surrealist filmmaker. He made all these mind-blowing movies about seahorses and octopi and such. The San Francisco International Film Festival commissioned Yo La Tengo to create a score to his films, and it was at the great Castro theater in 2001. It was sublime. Just marvelous. One of the top five cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.”
The collaboration between Green and band members Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew is nothing less than transcendent. My favorite moment of the performance was the breathtaking interior footage of the 1967 Montreal dome, which was made immensely more compelling by Yo La Tengo’s soaring, climactic sounds.
“We put the piece together in a very organic way,” Green explained.
Sam “referenced score compositions we had written previously for other film projects as the jumping off point, and then we let our musical imagination take over,” Yo La Tengo bandmember Georgia Hubley explained to me via email.
We would try out simple melodies on a variety of instruments–eventually we reached something that we agreed worked with whatever the particular images and narrative called out for. The right balance of repeated themes and moods with variety in intensity and sound was key.
In the case of the Expo 67 section, which is kind of a climactic spot in the overall presentation, we opted to do something a little more open-ended and not so melody-driven. We felt accentuating the heightened emotion of exploratory ideas and possibilities musically would speak to similar characteristics of Fuller’s constructions.
It’s really exciting to perform this way. You feel like you are a piece of something bigger and doing your part. It is different than presenting yourself as a band with songs etc., which is more personal. There are often people in attendance who do not know the band, or are not there to see the band. Also, the setting is so much more formal, it changes how people are perceiving the performance. It’s really a film-going experience–even with the live music and narration. The screen is where most of the attention is focused, and it is truly rewarding to be a part of it.
Yo La Tengo’s new record, Fade, has just been released and is definitely worth a listen. There is no bigger fan of the band than Green himself: “My favorite Yo La Tengo record is And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, …which has a lot of memories and emotional valence for me. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is amazing too — that’s the soundtrack for the Painleve films that I mentioned.”
Over the years, Sam and I have had many talks about the evolution of independent film, particularly the lack of viable distribution models for filmmakers. Sam believes that the film industry could learn a thing or two from Yo La Tengo and the indie music scene.
My friend Sarah Jacobson, who came out of the rock world and was very smart about the film biz, once said to me that the film world is always a couple of years behind the music world in terms of business and disribution. And it’s true. Nobody in the music world makes money selling records or songs anymore, unless you’re Adele. These days, you have to tour, and that’s how bands do it — by performing live. And that’s the way the film world is headed, I think. It’s already starting in that direction.
It’s a fascinating moment for the film industry. The old models of making and distributing movies are definitely in tatters, and no one really knows what’s next. Or there are many emerging notions of what the future might hold, but no certain way forward. On one hand, this is a depressing and worrying moment because it’s now harder then ever to know how to make a living from any of it. At the same time, it is a time of exciting change and lots of possiblity. Even though I worry about the former, I am also excited to embrace the latter. So I’m into experimenting.
With a recent documentary I made about Esperanto, I distributed it through a website where people could download the film for $5. It was great because there are thousands and thousands of Esperantists all over the world, and this was by far the smartest and most economical way to reach them. We sold tons of downloads of the film, and I learned a lot about distributing something that way. Ultimately, there are only so many Esperanto speakers in the world, so the movie was not any kind of blockbuster, but there’s lots of potential there, and with the right kind of project, a filmmaker could do very well and also keep everything in his or her own hands.
One thing that’s been very surprising is that with these live pieces, there’s much more money than there ever would be for a regular film…The bottom has already dropped out on the film world, but there’s still a structure and set of expectations in the dance and performance world that artists need and should get paid a decent amount. Museums and art centers are still operating with that model, and that’s fantastic. More power to them. They treat artists with the respect and value that artists deserve. So I’m happy to have one foot in that world.
The question of technology’s role in society is always with us, and it’s a topic that Green himself has given a lot of thought to:
At many other points in history – the 1920s, the 50s, even the 70s, people had high hopes and a great imagintion for the future. You remember: we’d all be living in space, or flying around using jetpacks, or robots would be doing all the work for us. Today, it seems to me that most people don’t look at the future with fancy or hope or a great imagination — today I would guess most people see the future as being just a worse version of today — more pollution, disease, war.
Why is this? It’s a very slippery subject — I don’t necessarily have a pat answer, although I do have some ideas.
One of the things I like about Fuller is that he lived at a time when people really did believe that we could radically remake the world. Fuller’s worldview was shaped in the teens and twenties, and industrialization really had done that. It was a brave new world. One of the things I find most inspring about Fuller is that his core message was that we have all the resources to ensure that every single person can live a materially comfortable life. It’s true. This is not a matter of scarcity or the fact that there’s not enough to go around. It’s that we don’t distribute the resources well.
In some sense that is naive — to believe that we might be able to create a world where no one starves and there are no more conflicts over resources. But in some ways, I think the fact that we think that’s naive says more about who we are, and how atrophied our ambitions have become, than it says anything about Fuller.
I do think that Fuller is relevant today. Perhaps only through contrast, as a reminder of how much we’ve accepted about the world and “human nature.”
Fuller did have some pie-in-the-sky ideas but he had a lot of pretty sound ideas as well. After all he was an engineer. He thought concretely. One of my favorite proposals of his was that everybody in the world be given a government stipend. A modest stipend, but enough to live off of. He thought then that if people wanted to work, great. But if they didn’t, they could spend their time fishing, or lying on the couch watching TV.
At first, this seems crazy! Where would the money come from?!? But Fuller explained that there would be a fair number of people who would tinker with things — would come up with solutions to problems, would create new products, would do all sorts of things with their free time and the opportunity to be creative. He thought that these creators and tinkerers and improvers would probably be able to come up with great new solutions to problems and would invent amazing things, and all of that would create enough economic energy to more than offset all those folks who were just kicking back and enjoying life. And there’s actually something to this! It sounds nutty at first, but it’s actually a pretty good idea.”
There will be four live screenings of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at The Kitchen in New York City on April 9th and 10th. Don’t miss it! You can find out more about the films of Sam Green by visiting his website.
Yo La Tengo’s new album Fade is available from iTunes or Amazon (a bargain at only $5). The band will be touring the U.S. and Europe extensively over the next few months, with dates in Atlanta, Nashville, New York, Boston, D.C., Cleveland, Burlington, Berlin, Milan, London, Paris, and more. Check out their full tour schedule on the Yo La Tengo website.
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