13:14
TED2002

Ben Katchor: Comics of bygone New York

Filmed:

In this captivating talk from the TED archive, cartoonist Ben Katchor reads from his comic strips. These perceptive, surreal stories find the profound hopes and foibles of history (and modern New York) preserved in objects like light switches and signs.

- Cartoonist
The first MacArthur-winning cartoonist, Ben Katchor has collected both cult and mainstream hat tips for his wry, poetic creations that find uncanny humor (and color) in the commonplace deeds of a bygone New York City. Full bio

I'm going to read a few strips.
00:18
These are, most of these are
00:23
from a monthly page I do
00:25
in and architecture and design magazine
00:27
called Metropolis.
00:30
And the first story is called
00:32
"The Faulty Switch."
00:34
Another beautifully designed new building
00:36
ruined by the sound of a common wall light switch.
00:40
It's fine during the day
00:45
when the main rooms are flooded with sunlight.
00:47
But at dusk
00:51
everything changes.
00:53
The architect spent hundreds of hours
00:55
designing the burnished brass switchplates
00:58
for his new office tower.
01:02
And then left it to a contractor
01:05
to install these 79-cent switches behind them.
01:07
We know instinctively where to reach
01:12
when we enter a dark room.
01:15
We automatically throw the little nub of plastic upward.
01:17
But the sound we are greeted with,
01:21
as the room is bathed in the simulated glow
01:24
of late-afternoon light,
01:27
recalls to mind
01:30
a dirty men's room
01:32
in the rear of a Greek coffee shop.
01:34
(Laughter)
01:37
This sound colors our first impression of any room;
01:39
it can't be helped.
01:43
But where does this sound,
01:45
commonly described as a click, come from?
01:47
Is it simply the byproduct of a
01:51
crude mechanical action?
01:54
Or is it an imitation
01:56
of one half the set of sounds we make
01:58
to express disappointment?
02:01
The often dental consonant
02:04
of no Indo-European language.
02:07
Or is it the amplified sound
02:10
of a synapse firing
02:12
in the brain of a cockroach?
02:14
In the 1950s they tried their best
02:17
to muffle this sound
02:21
with mercury switches
02:23
and silent knob controls.
02:25
But today these improvements
02:28
seem somehow inauthentic.
02:31
The click is the modern
02:34
triumphal clarion
02:36
proceeding us through life,
02:38
announcing our entry into every lightless room.
02:41
The sound made flicking a wall switch off
02:45
is of a completely different nature.
02:49
It has a deep melancholy ring.
02:52
Children don't like it.
02:56
It's why they leave lights on around the house. (Laughter)
02:59
Adults find it comforting.
03:03
But wouldn't it be an easy matter
03:05
to wire a wall switch
03:07
so that it triggers the muted horn of a steam ship?
03:10
Or the recorded crowing of a rooster?
03:14
Or the distant peel of thunder?
03:19
Thomas Edison went through
03:23
thousands of unlikely substances
03:25
before he came upon the right one
03:28
for the filament of his electric light bulb.
03:30
Why have we settled so quickly
03:35
for the sound of its switch?
03:37
That's the end of that.
03:40
(Applause)
03:42
The next story is called
03:45
"In Praise of the Taxpayer."
03:48
That so many of the city's most venerable taxpayers
03:51
have survived yet another commercial building boom,
03:55
is cause for celebration.
04:00
These one or two story structures,
04:02
designed to yield only enough income
04:06
to cover the taxes on the land
04:09
on which they stand,
04:11
were not meant to be permanent buildings.
04:13
Yet for one reason or another
04:17
they have confounded the efforts of developers
04:19
to be combined into lots
04:23
suitable for high-rise construction.
04:25
Although they make no claim to architectural beauty,
04:30
they are, in their perfect temporariness,
04:34
a delightful alternative
04:37
to the large-scale structures
04:40
that might someday take their place.
04:42
The most perfect examples
04:46
occupy corner lots.
04:49
They offer a pleasant respite
04:52
from the high-density development around them.
04:54
A break of light and air,
04:57
an architectural biding of time.
05:00
So buried in signage
05:03
are these structures,
05:05
that it often takes a moment
05:07
to distinguish the modern
05:09
specially constructed taxpayer
05:11
from its neighbor:
05:14
the small commercial building
05:16
from an earlier century,
05:19
whose upper floors have been sealed,
05:21
and whose groundfloor space
05:24
now functions as a taxpayer.
05:26
The few surfaces not covered by signs
05:30
are often clad in a distinctive, dark
05:33
green-gray, striated aluminum siding.
05:36
Take-out sandwich shops,
05:41
film processing drop-offs,
05:43
peep-shows and necktie stores.
05:46
Now these provisional structures have,
05:49
in some cases,
05:52
remained standing
05:54
for the better part of a human lifetime.
05:56
The temporary building
06:00
is a triumph of modern industrial organization,
06:02
a healthy sublimation
06:06
of the urge to build,
06:08
and proof that not every
06:11
architectural idea
06:13
need be set in stone.
06:15
That's the end.
06:19
(Laughter)
06:21
And the next story is called, "On the Human Lap."
06:23
For the ancient Egyptians
06:26
the lap was a platform
06:29
upon which to place
06:31
the earthly possessions of the dead --
06:33
30 cubits from foot to knee.
06:36
It was not until the 14th century
06:39
that an Italian painter
06:42
recognized the lap
06:44
as a Grecian temple,
06:46
upholstered in flesh and cloth.
06:48
Over the next 200 years
06:52
we see the infant Christ
06:55
go from a sitting to a standing position
06:57
on the Virgin's lap,
07:00
and then back again.
07:02
Every child recapitulates this ascension,
07:04
straddling one or both legs,
07:08
sitting sideways,
07:11
or leaning against the body.
07:13
From there, to the modern ventriloquist's dummy,
07:16
is but a brief moment in history.
07:20
You were late for school again this morning.
07:23
The ventriloquist must first make us believe
07:26
that a small boy is sitting on his lap.
07:30
The illusion of speech follows incidentally.
07:34
What have you got to say for yourself, Jimmy?
07:37
As adults we admire the lap
07:41
from a nostalgic distance.
07:44
We have fading memories
07:48
of that provisional temple,
07:50
erected each time an adult sat down.
07:52
On a crowded bus there was always a lap to sit on.
07:56
It is children and teenage girls
08:01
who are most keenly aware
08:04
of its architectural beauty.
08:06
They understand the structural integrity
08:10
of a deep avuncular lap,
08:13
as compared to the shaky arrangement
08:16
of a neurotic niece in high heels.
08:19
The relationship between the lap and its owner
08:24
is direct and intimate.
08:28
I envision a 36-story,
08:31
450-unit residential high-rise --
08:33
a reason to consider the mental health
08:38
of any architect before granting
08:41
an important commission.
08:43
The bathrooms and kitchens will,
08:46
of course, have no windows.
08:48
The lap of luxury
08:51
is an architectural construct of childhood,
08:54
which we seek, in vain,
08:58
as adults, to employ.
09:00
That's the end.
09:03
(Laughter)
09:05
The next story is called "The Haverpiece Collection"
09:08
A nondescript warehouse,
09:11
visible for a moment
09:14
from the northbound lanes of the Prykushko Expressway,
09:16
serves as the temporary resting place
09:21
for the Haverpiece collection
09:25
of European dried fruit.
09:28
The profound convolutions
09:32
on the surface of a dried cherry.
09:34
The foreboding sheen of an extra-large date.
09:37
Do you remember wandering as a child
09:42
through those dark wooden
09:45
storefront galleries?
09:47
Where everything was displayed
09:49
in poorly labeled roach-proof bins.
09:51
Pears dried in the form
09:56
of genital organs.
09:58
Apricot halves
10:01
like the ears of cherubim.
10:03
In 1962 the unsold stock
10:05
was purchased by Maurice Haverpiece,
10:10
a wealthy prune juice bottler,
10:13
and consolidated to form the core collection.
10:15
As an art form it lies somewhere between
10:20
still-life painting and plumbing.
10:23
Upon his death in 1967,
10:27
a quarter of the items were sold off for compote
10:31
to a high-class hotel restaurant.
10:35
(Laughter)
10:38
Unsuspecting guests were served
10:39
stewed turn-of-the-century
10:42
Turkish figs for breakfast.
10:44
(Laughter)
10:47
The rest of the collection remains here,
10:48
stored in plain brown paper bags
10:51
until funds can be raised
10:55
to build a permanent museum
10:58
and study center.
11:00
A shoe made of apricot leather
11:02
for the daughter of a czar.
11:05
That's the end. Thank you.
11:08
(Applause)
11:11

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About the Speaker:

Ben Katchor - Cartoonist
The first MacArthur-winning cartoonist, Ben Katchor has collected both cult and mainstream hat tips for his wry, poetic creations that find uncanny humor (and color) in the commonplace deeds of a bygone New York City.

Why you should listen

In the antique buildings of New York City now overgrown with tawdry fixtures and the modernized hopes of its denizens, Ben Katchor listens for the stories that fill his wry, perceptive (and slightly surreal) comic strips of urban life. Downtrodden characters and objects get equal time in a slant spotlight, and while their interplay is often pathetic, it points to profound truths about history, memory and human hopes.

Katchor is author of several comics collections, including Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban DecayThe Jew of New York, and Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer. He's been a Guggenheim Fellow and has also written for the stage works such as The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. In May, he premieres A Check-room Romance, a musical tragicomedy co-written with Mark Mulcahy

More profile about the speaker
Ben Katchor | Speaker | TED.com