Don’t Lick the Wallpaper, and Other News


On the Shelf

From Bitten By Witch Fever, a new book on poisonous wallpaper.


  • Is the present better than the past? No. Progress is a sham. Suffering is endemic, resources are dwindling, exploitation is the norm. Still, we should all pat ourselves on the back, because there’s no more arsenic in our wallpaper. We figured it out. We fixed it. In Victorian England, on the other hand, people had no clue. They were totally surrounded by bright, poisonous wallpaper, letting it eat away at them, staring at death on every wall and not even knowing it. Like common fools! Kat Eschner explains how it all came to light: “The root of the problem was the color green … After a Swedish chemist named Carl Sheele used copper arsenite to create a bright green, ‘Scheele’s Green’ became the in color, particularly popular with the Pre-Raphaelite movement of artists and with home decorators catering to everyone from the emerging middle class upwards. Copper arsenite, of course, contains the element arsenic. One prominent doctor named Thomas Orton nursed a family through a mysterious sickness that ultimately killed all four of their children. In desperation, one of the things he started to do was make notes about their home and its continents. He found nothing wrong with the water supply or the home’s cleanliness. The one thing he worried about: the Turners’ bedroom had green wallpaper.”
  • The American experiment has culminated in this: we can binge-watch television about superheroes. Sam Kriss tried out Marvel Studios’ latest, Iron Fist, and he is duly afraid: “Netflix creates its plotlines and pacing by observing the aggregated metadata for all the other programs on its site; it knows when people take toilet breaks in the less interesting sequences, it knows when they get bored and decide to go outside. This thing, Iron Fist, a dopey man with a doughball for a head wandering around and punching people, is what viewers want; for all the negative reviews, it’s Netflix’s most binge-watched show to date. In some sense, it’s the deep ideological truth of our society. Stories about superheroes have, in the last decade or so, become inescapable; they’re our primary cultural substratum, our equivalent of Church dogma or mythic cosmogony. In the same way that the Homeric epics encoded the social and psychological structure of antique Greece, telling us through stories about gods and wars and monsters how the ancients imagined their world, Marvel comic-book narratives encode the word of postmodernity. When the Iron Fist punches a ninja for the fiftieth time, he’s not fighting some fictional ancient order but hammering through the contradictions of capitalism.”

  • In Berlin, Philip Clark heads to Kraftwerk’s event space to see The Long Now, a thirty-hour electronic music performance: “The Long Now is an invitation to surrender yourself to sound. The end of one piece dovetails into the beginning of the next, until clock time means very little. Morton Feldman said that his music was about a heightened awareness of scale rather than form: ‘Form is easy: just the division of things into part. But scale is another matter.’ It could be The Long Now’s motto. Electronic music, with its capacity to sustain drones and loops, and morph stratified layers of sound indefinitely, can induce trancelike states of altered perception—especially in a place like Kraftwerk Berlin.”
  • Say you’re Michael Stipe, the lead singer of REM, and your pal is the filmmaker Tony Gilroy, and your idea of a good time is checking in at the Four Seasons and defacing the undersides of the hotel-room furniture. Well, guess what: your dirty little secret won’t last forever. Shin Yu Pai tells the bizarre story of a desk that a guy bought only to find stuff like “GINGER VODKA / LAVENDER TEA / LIFE IS GOOD BEYOND THIS / MICHAEL STIPE” scribbled on various inconspicuous parts of it, and how this led to a book of haikus: “In 1995, Gilroy and a group of friends that frequently collaborated on creative projects had gathered at the Four Seasons and made a promise to write one haiku a day for a year and mail them to each other. They sealed their promise by inscribing their inaugural haiku on a piece of furniture. ‘I’ve been writing on the bottom of hotel room drawers for a very long time,’ says Stipe. Gilroy recalls, ‘The truth is we were so blasted that we were lying on our backs on the floor with the lights out. If we were lying on our stomachs you’d be writing an article about a guy who found a bathmat with haiku written on it.’ ”