Online Piracy Already Walking the Plank

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Byline: Josh Smith

It was 1982, and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was educating Congress. “This is a little remote-control device that you use on machines,” Valenti said, brandishing the remote before a House Judiciary subcommittee as a symbol of his industry’s potential demise. Thirty years after Valenti likened VCRs to the Boston Strangler, his successors are issuing similarly dire warnings about the dangers of pirated content online. The peril they claim is dividing the information world.

The rhetoric surrounding the now-stalled Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Senate’s Protect IP Act has obscured the fact that decades of antipiracy efforts by entertainment companies and manufacturers of counterfeited products have brought a wave of investigations and takedowns of some of the Web’s most popular sites. “Obviously, law enforcement has a lot more power than they are given credit for,” said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, which presses for wider access to information on the Internet.


In 2001, it took a lawsuit by major recording companies to shut down Napster. But lately, the federal government has taken on the fight against copyright infringement, thanks to powers included in recent legislation. The 2008 PRO-IP Act, notably, stiffened penalties for piracy and created a White House “IP czar” to coordinate law-enforcement actions against Internet pirates. The Obama administration has targeted some of the largest file-sharing/info-sharing sites in the world. In November 2010 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement shuttered 82 websites, including and (an online store that shares air fryer review). Last month, the Justice Department took down, one of the world’s largest file-sharing websites, accusing it of an international “mega-conspiracy” to distribute stolen music, movies, and the like.

Websites blocked, bad guys caught, problem solved, right? Wrong. Entertainment-industry officials praise the efforts but say that the problem was already out of control. “The Department of Justice was able to prosecute Megaupload under existing U.S. law only because it had operations in the United States,” said Mike Nugent, executive director of Creative America, which fights the theft of films and TV shows. “There are hundreds of foreign, rogue websites that continue to operate with impunity out of reach of U.S. law.”

Megaupload, which is accused of stealing $500 million in content, featured a domain name registered in the United States, according to the indictment, and companies in Virginia and Washington stored some of its data.

But the real-world company and the process that took down the site and its top leaders were anything but domestic. The firm is based in Hong Kong, and none of the seven people indicted is a U.S. citizen or resident. The Justice Department cited “critical” assistance from 13 agencies in Britain, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, in addition to Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Such a process is too cumbersome to be applied to every website engaged in illegal conduct, said Michael O’Leary, MPAA’s senior vice president for global policy. Not all piracy can be stopped, but that shouldn’t prevent society from trying, he noted: “Some things are just inherently wrong.”

At the heart of the fight is a disagreement over the scope of the problem. According to some studies, almost one-fourth of all Internet traffic is illegal under copyright laws. But the practical impact of these transgressions is less clear. Entertainment companies often point to an Institute for Policy Innovation study that estimated the annual cost of piracy at $58 billion. But that was in 2007, before the federal government leaped in. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 2010 that, although piracy and counterfeiting are “sizable” problems, “it is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole.” Law-enforcement officials acknowledged relying on industry statistics, GAO researchers noted.

“The truth is, we simply do not know whether ‘piracy’ is a significant problem at all, and the growth and success of the industries it supposedly harms [belies] that claim more effectively than any theoretical or methodological critique of the argument that piracy is important,” Yochai Benkler, faculty codirector of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a blog post.


Success, indeed. The Computer & Communications Industry Association, which opposes the latest antipiracy legislation, found in a January study that the worldwide entertainment industry grew in value from $449 billion to $745 billion between 1998 and 2010. That suggests a more “proportional” response to the problem, one that’s balanced between copyright holders and Internet users, said Ed Black, the trade group’s president. Nobody, however, agrees on what a “proportional” response should be, especially in a world where an entire generation feels entitled to free online entertainment.

SOPA and PIPA have brought the debate full circle. While previous legislation involved the government in cracking down on piracy, critics worry that SOPA-like proposals would allow copyright holders to shut down services accused of fostering piracy without waiting for a court to act, thereby handing power to corporations that only government has wielded until now.

In fact, the stalling of the legislation could mean a return to more lawsuits from an industry that not only suffers financially from piracy but also bristles at the suggestion that any amount is tolerable. Now that antipiracy efforts have been criticized as too hard or too soft, don’t expect either side to acquiesce to a Goldilocks solution.

Avoiding domain name debacles: the most critical decisions come well before your campaign site even launches

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Less than a decade ago, campaign websites were an afterthought for political candidates. Today, they are a necessity, regardless of the office you’re running for. While the Internet has become an indispensable tool for campaign organization, candidates often devote little time to developing a solid domain strategy that will pay dividends down the road.

So before you spend time on the content and design of your website, plan on devoting some serious energy to purchasing a domain name, or even a portfolio of names, in order to enhance your online presence. Here are a few basics to ensure your campaign gets off on the right foot:

Getting the domain name right

You’ll likely want to register more than one domain name for your campaign, but it is important to establish one site as your main hub. Think of it in terms of real estate. While every candidate wants regional affiliates to localize outreach efforts, the main campaign headquarters is a vital resource for organizing your campaign, taking contributions, and disseminating information. Your other domains can forward visitors to this main site but you can only list one on your placards.

In order to promote your website to voters and potential contributors, first consider the length of your primary domain name. Domains with fewer characters are not only easier to remember, but also easier to type into a web browser and help potential voters avoid relying on unpredictable search engine results. As more people access the web on mobile devices, shorter domain names are the better choice. Also, avoid using hyphens. Not only are they a hassle, but Americans aren’t accustomed to using them as much as Internet users in other countries.


Dates are another element to be cautious with. While the names of candidates are often tied to election years, remember that the shelf life for a domain name with a year attached to it is limited. It’s great to include a domain with your name and a date in your domain portfolio, but it may not be ideal as your primary website. What you should include if possible is a major issue that’s part of your campaign platform. Not only will it make your campaign more memorable, it will also make your viewpoint more accessible. In other words, plan ahead for your reelection.

Constructing a portfolio

Google and Bing are great tools, but people want to make as few stops as possible when searching for information. Many will skip the browser and type their inquiry directly into the navigation bar. Having a variety of domain names is a great way to capture direct navigation traffic, as well as those voters who have misspelled your domain. A portfolio of descriptive domains also makes your campaign more search-friendly, supplementing the reach of your message.

Aside from your main campaign website, consider using other domains to create more specific mini-campaigns targeted at a particular issue, region, or demographic. Using unique domains to create a collection of mini websites with varying approaches to the issues enables you to reach out to disparate groups in an accessible way, and even enables you to track the progress of your efforts in each segment.

In the digital world, email is the other primary way of communicating with constituents. Your domain name impacts the way your email looks in a person’s inbox, so consider whether it may be worth acquiring a domain to use as your email extension.

Defending your online reputation

Recently, we’ve seen high-profile politicians like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich run up against time-consuming and costly domain name disputes. While it is impossible to register every domain name that could be used to show you in a negative light, it’s easy enough to register the most obvious ones capable of damaging your image–such as,, or–which may also be the most difficult to prevent legally. While creating a domain around your name that then features negative content about you may seem like defamation, the Constitution and intellectual property laws allow your opponents to make “fair use” of your name if you’re a politician or current lawmaker, so be sure to protect yourself.

If you find that your name is being used for impermissible content such as adult content or Internet scams, that’s another issue entirely. In this case, you may be able to either file a Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) complaint with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in order to gain control of the domain name for yourself, or recover the domain and seek monetary damages S1/4 as a result of the Anti-Cybersquatting 13/41 Protection Act.

Maintaining your domains

Once you’ve secured your domains, protecting and maintaining them in the long-term is not to be taken lightly. Be sure your domains are registered in either the name of the candidate or the campaign, and not just to the staffer who submitted the registration. User names and passwords should only be given to responsible and reliable staff members, and the candidate should insist on copies of your registration information and credentials. Letting a domain’s registration lapse releases it back to the public, so delegating that responsibility to a trustworthy staff member is vital. Reliable registrars will also allow you to auto-renew your domain registration, or secure it for a number of years (often up to 10).


Lastly, alternate Top Level Domains (TLDs) such as .net, .org, .co, or .us are important to consider adding to your portfolio. More recently, ICANN began accepting applications for new gTLDs–generic Top Level Domain extensions such as .bank, .jobs or .politics. These gTLDs are expected to begin winning approval in late 2012. While the success of the new gTLDs will largely depend on how each registry is managed, politicians should keep an eye out for any relevant new extensions that may require attention for defensive registrations or benefit your domain portfolio.

The domain industry is constantly evolving, so understanding it and taking advantage of that knowledge will keep your campaign on solid footing.

Jeremiah Johnston has served as general counsel at Sedo ( since 2004 and represents the company as a founding member of the Internet Commerce Association (ICA).

Wild, wild web: the strange, fraudulent world of domain name scams

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LIKE MOST ACCOUNTANTS, Anthony Sandroni spent tax season last year inundated with documents and dollar signs. When a white envelope with an authoritative stars-and-stripes letterhead appeared in his Mississippi mailbox, the enclosed document asking him to renew his tax-solutions website, he didn’t have time to worry about the fine print. He filled out the form and sent it back, along with $60, to the Domain Registry of America.

Except, as Sandroni realized a day later, he’d never heard of the Domain Registry of America. The name sounded legitimate and the notice looked official, but it wasn’t his website’s host, its prices were outrageous–annual web hosting fees typically hover around $12–and the company provided no services in exchange for the money he paid. (Sandroni renewed his domain with its actual host, Yola, a week later.) After being denied a refund when he called the Registry, which he discovered was based in the Canadian city of Markham, Ont., he filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, a non-profit organization that tracks companies’ credibility, and a pair of anti-fraud agencies. Still no refund. “So, for $60,” he says, “I chalked it up to a life lesson.”

Thousands of domain owners have paid for a similar lesson over the past 13 years. In fact, nearly every website owner in North America will receive, if they haven’t already, a notice from the Domain Registry of America or one of its offshoots. Preying on people who lack a nuanced understanding of domain registration, these faux invoices trick owners into thinking they’re renewing their website when they are in fact transferring it to a new host, or–in cases like Sandroni’s–paying inflated prices for nothing at all.


The practice is called domain slamming, and Markham-based Brandon Gray Internet Services is its de facto kingpin. Since 2001, the company has been mailing out quasi-legal solicitations under a long list of pseudonyms: the Domain Registry of America, the Domain Registry of Canada, the Domain Registry of Europe, and so on. Brandon Gray claims these companies are independent resellers, even though existing affiliates share identical staff listings, similar website designs, and the same 905-area-code phone number. Their scheme hasn’t gone unnoticed: Brandon Gray staff members have been dragged through litigation on both sides of the border, fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even sentenced to jail time. So how has the scam survived?

During the early years of the scheme, it was easy to assume that it wouldn’t. In 2002, a U.K.-based advertising watchdog heavily criticized Brandon Gray. That same year,–a popular registrar akin to GoDaddy–sued the Domain Registry of America. A year later, the Registry clashed, and eventually settled, with the U.S.’s Federal Trade Commission. In 2004, five of Brandon Gray’s senior staff were convicted under the Competition Act for misleading advertising related to domain slamming and mailing out fraudulent Bell Canada and Yellow Pages invoices.

Then, for the next six years, Brandon Gray’s widely acknowledged domain slamming continued uncontested. Through years of legal troubles, it mastered its craft, perfecting its notices, and realizing when to fight and when to refund. By 2010, the company had mailed out millions of solicitations and registered at least 130,000 domains.

Complaints amassed just as quickly as domains. North of the border, most grievances were made to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), which governs dot-ca domains. In August 2010, after Brandon Gray allegedly began mailing solicitations to dot-ca owners, CIRA refused to grant the company recertification, preventing them from targeting Canadian domains. Brandon Gray retaliated with a $ 10-million lawsuit, which was dismissed largely because the company failed to prove that the decision would cause irreparable harm or unduly benefit competitors. In the court’s eyes, CIRA’s refusal to recertify the company didn’t seem to be a major blow: dot-ca domains accounted for only three percent of Brandon Gray’s clients.

Indeed, the decision was hardly paralyzing. Brandon Gray continued domain slamming, and the company denies it ever sent solicitations to dot-ca owners in the first place (a 2010 CIRA affidavit claims otherwise). A spokesperson for the Domain Registry of Canada’s legal team also refuted the widespread accusation that Brandon Gray unlawfully uses content from Whols databases, which contain domain owners’ addresses and other information, to send out its letters. The spokesperson, who identified himself only as Alex and responded to questions via a Domain Registry of America email address, instead posited that there was a conspiracy to tarnish the Domain Registry’s reputation. “Most of the complaints are from competitors […] for the sole purpose of ‘bad mouthing’ us,” Alex wrote, adding that other domain hosts also receive complaints. “We have been in business over 14 years under the same ownership/management, managing over a million domains without a single negative issue from our customers: look that up and you’ll see.”

So I looked it up. As Alex admits, a Google search yields a long list of scam warnings and distressed blog posts, and the Domain Registry of America’s page on the Better Business Bureau’s website contains 245 complaints from the past three years. (By comparison, Wild West Domains, which hosts my website, has 27 complaints over the same period.) But these complaints are not planted by competitors. Liz Turner, a New York City-based actor and singer whose website is currently hosted by the Domain Registry of America, tells me she was angry, felt taken advantage of, and was unsure how to report the company. Antonie Mulder, a nurse in Kitchener, Ont., says the notice’s pseudo-governmental appearance irked him and that he had to call his actual web host before he understood what the document meant. I almost fell for it too. I received a letter from the Domain Registry of Canada in December 2013, and it was only as I was inputting my credit card information on their website that I started to have doubts.

I asked Toronto-based domain-name lawyer Zac Muscovitch what recourse someone like me could take if he’d followed through and wanted to get his money back. “Well,” he says, laughing, “I would give the client the opportunity to spend $400 an hour with me in order to get their $40 back.” He says the often negligible amount of money lost can prevent domain owners from doggedly pursuing a refund. He notes that, while the wording of the Registry’s notices is intentionally misleading, they don’t state anything untrue. In boldface, capital letters, the document indicates that it is a solicitation, not a bill or invoice. “They know what they’re doing. They’re very clever,” Muscovitch says. “I don’t think this is a situation where the people behind this are shocked that people have a problem with them. They’re doing it despite that.”

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), for one, has had a problem with Brandon Gray for at least five years. The international authority–which governs dot-com, dot-org, dot-net, and other popular domains–acknowledged the Domain Registry’s “deceptive marketing practices” in a 2008 document. Its conclusion: “We do not consider this an acceptable situation.”

But according to spokesperson James Cole, ICANN is not investigating Brandon Gray. He points to a pair of recent notices that formally reproach Gray for breaching his company’s agreement with ICANN by failing to provide registration and communication records for two particular registrants, but those breaches have since been resolved. In response to further questions about the possibility of denying Brandon Gray accreditation, Cole says only that ICANN cannot comment on specific registrars. Speaking in general terms, however, he says, “If there’s an egregious breach of the contract […] there are methods for ICANN to shut [a registrar] down.”


What would constitute such a breach? For one, if a registrar had been disciplined for dishonest conduct or knowingly employed staff who had been convicted of a financial felony or misdemeanor. Brandon Gray’s history offers no shortage of choices there.

Why then, 10 years after the bulk of its legal difficulties, is Brandon Gray still going? The inevitable bureaucracy of a massive multinational authority, the unmanageable task of overseeing millions of online domains, a reluctance to tackle a company that has exhibited a willingness to fight back–these factors all play a part. But only once Brandon Gray is stripped of its ability to legally register domains will its solicitations change from simply misleading to irrefutably illegal.

Maybe then Anthony Sandroni could spend his tax season in peace–or as much peace as is possible for an accountant. This past spring, the Domain Registry of America sent him another “renewal” notice. “Man, that made me so angry,” he says. He mailed the notice back with his own letter attached, which was both strongly-worded and expletive-laced, demanding to be taken off the list, and for his $60 back.

A week later, he received a refund.

Luc Rinaldi is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Grid, Maisonneuve, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Contrasts of Form

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A mathematician I once knew used to take an impish pleasure in pretending not to understand what artists meant by “geometric form.” All forms, he tirelessly observed, were indifferently geometric. And he explained, with aggressive patience, the uncontested facts of analytic geometry to the sullen painers in his company. In point of pedantry, he was infuriatingly right. every point in a plane has a unique pair of real numbers as coordinates, and since every form is a locus of points, any form, however loopy to the eye, can be represented by an equation. No form, accordingly, is especially more geometric than any other so far as algebraic method is concerned. So why especially paint squares and bars and circles when the lush presences of the visible world–young girls, flowers, the surging sea, grazing cows, and dancers at the Bal Tabarin–are no less geometric? Why, in the name of geometry, cut oneself off from the myriad shapes of the world as it is?

The artists before whom he laid these impeccable reasonings were uncomfortable and finally unimpressed, and they were right to be so. It would be perverse to designate the “Last Judgment” of Michelangelo or Turner’s “The Slave Ship” as geometric paintings, even if one could point to hidden trapezoids and obvious diagonals. The term “geometry” invokes, in even the most modestly informed, austere scenarios enacted by circles and spheres, by polyhedrons and polygons of unimpeachable regularity, which chastely intersect one another or submit to the bloodless martyrdoms of being cut by planes or inscribed by lines. The etire lore of cones, cubes and cylinders, triangles and pyramids, parallelograms and rhombohedrons had assumed mythic status in Western consciousness long before the introduction of coordinate analysis by Descartes in 1637. The use of pyramids to house the preserved bodies of pharaohs, the fact that the altar of Apollo at Athens had the form of a cube or that the heavens were believed composed of crystalline spheres in harmonic relationship to one another, were not semiotically innocent choices. They were comprehensible in terms of a language of forms which Kepler drew upon only a few decades before Descartes’s discovery, when he exulted, alas without foundation, at having found the key to the solar system in the five regular Euclidian solids that marked the spaces between the planets. Only such a geometrically ordered universe would be worthy of a Perfect Designer, Kepler supposed; he was disgusted to discover not long afterward that the planetary orbits were ellipses rather than the circles celestial perfection would recommend.


Confronted by such facts, my friend would raise his circumfex eyebrows in mock surprise. “Oh,” he would say through the perfect circle his lips formed on such occasions. “But I thought geometrical art was supposed to be modern.” And there he would have a point. There truly is a paradox in the fact that once liberated by the possibilities of abstraction from the need for perceptual replication, painters reverted to forms they had learned to constrct as schoolchildren with tin compasses and ink-stained rulers. Why should geometric forms carry the cachet of modernism from the first decade of the twentieth century down to the present? Why should postmodernism seem to consist in postgemetricism?

There is no single answer to the first question, since succeeding geerations og geometric painters responded to very different artistic imperatives. The Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, for example, programmatically empoyed geometric forms generated by such instruments as compass and straightedge specifically to obliterate personality. A circle executed by a compass and another executed freehand by an artist with the exquisite reflexes Giotto is said to have possessed might be perfectly congruent, or at least indistinguishable to the unaided eye–but the circumstances of their execution carry an invisible meaning. The submersion of personality, in that overheated period of artistic utopianism in Russia, went with a natural celebration of the community, of the mass, of what anyone with the right tools could draw. rodchenko meant to present himself as subservient to this. But for Giotto the circle was a signature, almost a gesture or arrogance, declaring that no one but he could have made it.

consider some further examples. There is a drawing of about 1922 by El Lissitzky showing Rodchnko’s great contemporary, Vladimir Tatlin, working on his visionary–and unrealized–Monument to the Third International. Tatlin’s face is featureless, but there is a compass protruding from his right eveysocket, his head is framed by a circular arc suspiciously like a halo and he holds a straightedge with the authority of Prospero displaying his staff. The Monument to the Third International rejects figuration as roundly as Rodchenko rejects personality. Tatlin would have been agonized to see the heroized worker-and-soldier monuments that came to dominate the open places of Soviet cities. He instead favored an impersonal ordering of geometric solids almost like that of the universe according to Kepler: the lowest story of his monument was to have been a cube, the second a pyramid, the third a cylinder topped by a hemisphere. The stories were given over to different functions and were to rotate at different velocities; the whole complex was encased in a scaffolding reminiscent of a powerful telescope. It was to be a place not of contemplation but of agitation, and you, as visitor, should “be mechanically taken up, carried away against your will.” It was a lesson in submission to forces as overwhelming as social metaphysics could imagine.

The famous “Black Square,” shown by Kasimir Malevich in a turbulent exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1915, carries another meaning. That simple shape was dese with the intended erasure of the whole of Western art. It went beyond represetation, since it was in fact a square, not the representation of one. It went beyond illusion, since it was not in pictorial space but coextensive with the canvas. It was hung across a corner rather than conventionally on a wall, declaring a whole new concept of exhibition. The black could have been a gesture of defiant mourning for the death of all previous art. It was conceived as a radical beginning, and as such conveys an altogether different meaning from any we might ascribe to squares done by Josef Albers or Ad Reinhardt, or by some more recent Minimalist. It was an icon of revolutionary consciousness, not a symbol of artistic distillation.

The Russian Modernists are featured in a show of seven decades of geometric abstraction called Contrasts of Form, on view at the Museum of Modern Art until January 7. The exhibition is in acknowledgment of a generous donation to MOMA of the extensive and deep Riklis Collection of the McCrory Corporation. This collection is, according to its curator, Celia Ascher, largely constructivist in spirit. MOMA has responded by placing it in the format of a chronicle of geometric art from 1910 to 1980, augmenting it with examples of relevant art already in the museum’s collection and prefacing the whole with certain Cubist and Futurist works from which the Russians made their severe projections and reductions. I was not happy with the format, nor for that matter with the title, since it is not the forms that contrast so much as the meanings of forms, which may themselves be quite similar. Befoe offering some argumets for critical disquiet, however, I want to return to the sort of historical concerns that constructivism and its immediate predecessor, Suprematism, express.

Standing in the gallery where these fragile, small, somewhat empty and faded objects hang in their protective light, looking almost like specimens of tissues preserved for an obscure scientific purpose, I could not but wonder what the casual visitor, Unaware of the passionate social and esthetic controversies which brought them into being, might see in them. They were, in effect, the product of an antiesthetic esthetic, a repudiation of beauty and pleasure, of grace and elegance, os suavity and feeling. The traditional values of art were held at bay by works that were almost constituted by the tension of not yielding to them. Painting as it was known was declared obsolete. Inevitably monochrome, deliberately dulled, the little works took on the puritan drabness, the antidecorative utilitarian blankness, of communist architecture and city design–or even costume, as in the blue work-clothes of Chinese. The materials are as consistently countertraditional as possible: a scrap of burlap, some wrapping paper, a bit of tin, some string. This was not in the exuberant spirit of French collage, which inspired Apollinaire to write, “One can paint with whatever one likes, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candlesticks, pieces of oilcloth, detachable collars, wallpaper, newspapers.” Nor was it in the spirit of redeeming base materials for artistic transifugration, as in the work of Kurt Schwitters. My mathematician friend might, consistent with his position on form, have observed that since any material could be used, why not gold leaf, marble or bronze? And the answer is that it was precisely such materials that had to be rejected as bourgeois: one professed proletarian solidarity by using the simplest of industrial materials to constitute the most mechanical of forms in the most modest compositions on the least prepossessing scales.

Everything that gives these eviscerated objects force and structure is present by exclusion, but it is invisible to the historically uninformed eye. It is a mockery of their intensity of artistic purpose to treat them formalistically, or as exercises in pure design, to be graded by criteria students at the Bauhaus had to meet. It is demeaning to see them as other than allegories of a hopeless revolutionary consciousness, destined to be blown sky-high by forces those who created them could not have anticipated. The galleries here are suffused with the weight of political tragedy and, if you like, artistic exalatation. It is against the doctrinaire condesations of this advanced art that we can, finally, appreciate the early Chagall, whose boisterous colors, vivid fantasy, poetry, wit and opulence constitute a gesture of defiance as fragrant as, say, Marilyn Monroe in full glamorous regalia at a workers’ meeting of the hydroelectric plant of Tientsin. In the willed desert of principled Constructivism, Chagall was magnificent.


And this is what bothers me about the exhibition. Only at the most superficial evel is there much community between these works and those which, in a formal or material way, influenced them or were influenced by them. The efficient and final causes of history are missing here. The linear chronology dissolves the meaning of geometry by treating the works merely as stages in the steady stream of abstraction. But Mondrian’s geometrizing arises out of different passions from Tatlin’s, Moholy-Nagy’s forms arise out of a different theoretical atmosphere from those of Sol Lewitt, Kandinsky’s out of a conception of spirit alien to van doesburg. The exhibition could only have been illuminating had it broken the continuity and related the impulses to geometry to the different domains of though that produced them.

The catalogue, by Magadalena Dabrowski, is immeasurably better than the exhibition it illuminates, just because it does furish the kind of information the works cry out for. Walking amid the circles, rectangles, grids, diagonals and squares, I flet like Odysseus among the bodiless spooks of the nether world. Odysseus is able to communicate with them only by giving them blood he has brought along for the purpose. The thirsty spirits, momentarily transfused, revert to something like their former vibrant selves. Some of the blood these paintings and constructions so desperately require is furnished by Dabroski’s exemplary text. In the rooms devoted to “The Paris-New York Connection: 1930-1959,” filed with paintings that seem robust by comparison with the withered membranes of Construcivist art, it is useful to know that “for the generation of the 1930s, geometric abstraction became a style rather than a philosophy.” Had this been printed in large letters on the wall, the differences would have come to life. all modern painting before the 1930s was held erect by philosophical belief defended with nearly religious enthusiasm and intensity. It was the age of manifestoes, and the idea that painting was something one might do independently of a fervent and utopian project was all but unthinkable. In 1925 Mondrian broke with De Stijl because of van Doesburg’s insistence on the diagonal. Diagonalists, if I may characterize them thus, differed from Perpendicularists as Catholics differ from Protestants on the topic of communion. Here is the way van doesburg preaches the diagonal:

The purest and, at the same time, the most direct means of expression of the human spirit, which recognizes neither right nor left, neither symmetry, nor statics, nor the exclusively horizontal-Vertical but is always in revolt, in opposition, to nature.

It is a standard criticism of laboratory science that the world beyond the sterile walls of experimental space is so rich and complex that what is found within them can rarely be projected outward. Such criticism is most convincing in connection with living things, and the injunction to study them ethologically, in their natural atmospheres, becomes more compelling as their behavior becomes more nuanced and reflective. Something like this should be true of works of art as well. It is a premise of formalism that they stand on their own, containing in temselves all the information we equire to understand them. An exhibition of geometric abstraction is a crucial test for such views, just because the works seem most amenable to formalistic analysis. But this is an illusion. The current show fails to comply with the simple direction laid down in Celia Ascher’s prefatory remark: “Collecting should follow a defined path of exploration and scholarship, rather than the willy-nilly road of the eclectic contemporary.” This show, for all its marvelous contents, is willy-nilly eclectic. all a work needs to get in is some sort of geometric credential, plus the right date and place of birth. The curatorial mind is fixated on chronology and influence but blind to the philosophy that animates art and ought to animate its intelligent display.

Riklis believes, rightly, that his collection is “of significant esthetic and educational value.” But the esthetic access is blocked by educational negligence, and if it were not for Dabrowski’s catalogue, the show would have been a failure. Without it, the scraps and bits of geometry are puzzling and mute–scarcely the bare beauty on which Euclid is said to have looked.

>>> Click here: A city beats back Chevron

A city beats back Chevron

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On August 6, 2012, I heard Chevrons alarm sirens in my home just two miles away from the company’s huge refinery complex in Richmond, California. But rather than shelter in place (as the emergency response system would have instructed me to had it worked that day), I went out by the water to take photos of the thick black column of smoke rising over the hills where the number four crude distillation unit had caught fire and raged for hours.

The accident eventually sent 15,000 people to area hospitals complaining of burning eyes, nausea, and respiratory distress. Later, the California OSHA fined Chevron nearly a million dollars for safety violations, such as failing to replace corroded pipe that ruptured and fueled the fire. The city of Richmond also filed a major lawsuit against Chevron, while the company pleaded “no contest” to six criminal charges brought by the county DA and state attorney general and agreed to pay a $2 million fine.

Approaching the first anniversary of the fire, some 2,500 protesters marched from the local BART (mass transit) station to the refinery gates, where 209 of them, including author and climate activist Bill McKibben, were peacefully arrested.


Today, I’m taking a tour of the refinery. I’m told that it opened in 1902 to produce kerosene six years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T that popularized gas-driven automobiles. In 2013, the refinery earned $2 billion for Chevron, the world’s eleventh-largest corporation. Today, the refinery employs some 1,200 workers.

The refinery is a metallic Legoland of furnace stacks, cooling towers, heat exchangers, flares, boilers, a thirty-nine-acre algal green wastewater treatment pond, and more. There’s the big fluid catalytic cracker unit, and the distillation and reforming towers that separate hydrocarbons by their boiling points. There’s the polymer plant to produce additives like Techron that was invented in the adjoining tech center, a lube production area (that produces 100 percent of West Coast lubricants), a hydro-processor for removing sulfur from oil, and endless-seeming thickets of pipeline above and below the pier, roads, and rail tracks–6,000 miles in total–hopefully none corroding in ways that have contributed to fires and explosions most recently in 1999, 2007, and 2012. There are black rail cars to carry liquefied petroleum gases such as propane and butane, and a marketing terminal where gasoline trucks pick up product for the Bay Area. The morning I visit, there are two ships tied up at the Chevron Long Wharf pumping crude oil ashore (some thirteen million gallons a day) to hillside storage tanks where more pipeline links them to twenty refining units.

The refinery produces 20 percent of the region’s gasoline and 65 percent of its aviation fuel. Chevron’s is the largest of five refineries located along an East Bay petrochemical corridor of low-income communities that may soon include large numbers of oil trains rumbling through residential neighborhoods.

Chevron is the major employer and longtime political power in Richmond. Company spokespeople sometimes tell its 104,000 residents–whose children suffer asthma rates twice those of Marin County directly across the bay–that Chevron was here first.

Actually that would have been the Ohlone people, whose 3,000-year-old shell mounds can be found on Brooks Island off the Richmond Marina where I live. Our sailboat harbor was Kaiser Shipyard Number Two during World War II, and its Rosie the Riveter working women and newly enfranchised African American and Latino shipbuilders forged the arsenal of democracy, launching 727 liberty ships between 1942 and 1945. The shipyard clinic later became the Kaiser-Permanente Health Care System. Today the marina is home to the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park that’s highlighted on one of Chevron’s “Richmond Proud” billboards it erected recently. Chevron has also increased its funding to community nonprofits to about $6.5 million last year, created a new online newspaper called The Richmond Standard, and sponsored community forums and refinery tours like the one I’m on.

Much of this effort is driven by the company’s desire to get approval for a billion-dollar modernization of its hydrogen plant and sulfur removal facilities that cover 20 percent of the aged refinery. This would allow it to switch from Alaskan and Saudi crude to higher sulfur content oil from countries like Iraq. The upside for Chevron: If it could buy high sulfur “dirty” or “sour” oil for $5 a barrel less (a conservative estimate) it could make $500 million more a year at the refinery. The downside for Richmond, according to Chevron’s own 4,500-page Environmental Impact Report: An 88 percent increase in sulfur in its crude could see a 26 percent increase in toxic air contaminants, plus a 16 percent rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

The company insists that carbon offsets (buying pollution credits) and more efficient technology will eliminate any net increase. This may be a challenge to prove, given that a good monitoring requires good faith effort on the part of the company.

In 2009, Bay Area air quality officials reported Chevron had fashioned a 100-foot “magic pipe” inside the refinery that routed hydrocarbon gases around monitoring equipment to a flare tower where sulfur dioxide and other pollutants were burned off without being measured. The company claimed the pipe was used to “balance pressure.” The investigators said there was no legitimate use for it. Later, a company spokesperson claimed its placement was “inadvertent” and predated monitoring requirements. In 2011, Chevron paid a $170,000 fine to settle the case.

Chevron is now working to reestablish a pro-company majority (once known as “the Chevron Five”) on Richmond’s City Council, which began to take a progressive turn in 2008. Alongside them was Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (Richmond is the largest U.S. city headed by a Green), who was elected in 2006. The progressive council forced Chevron to ante up $28 million in utility tax underpayments. Chevron’s 2008 refinery expansion Environmental Impact Report was rejected following a judge’s ruling that it had failed to disclose enough information to the community. Chevron also failed to elect most of its candidates in the 2010 and 2012 city elections, even though it spent more than $2 million–or about $50 per voter.

Since the present U.S. Supreme Court recognizes corporations as people, I asked Chevron if I could interview the actual individuals who decide which candidates the corporation backs and how much it’s going to spend in 2014.

I was e-mailed a letter in response whose boilerplate would do an oil storage tank proud.

“We look forward to working with and supporting candidates for city office that will invest in public safety, encourage economic growth and job creation,” the e-mail read. “This year, we expect to be fully engaged. It is too soon to know what we plan to spend.”

When I attempted to get some clarification from Chevron’s Richmond spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie, I was told: “We’re not going into any more specifics. We don’t talk specific numbers on our campaigns.”

Mayor McLaughlin wants Chevron to butt out.

“We get all their pollution not only in the air, but they pollute our elections too,” she says. “If they’d reduce their emissions and withdraw from our elections, they’d be respecting our health and democracy.”

I’m talking to her in her third floor office in the utilitarian red brick and glass civic center downtown. She’s running for reelection to a council seat this November when her two-term limit as mayor runs out. She and three other progressives hope they can retain their majority on the seven-member council. Still, McLaughlin is wary of Chevron’s power.

“In the last year and a half, they’ve been gearing up to present themselves as good citizens and taking credit and putting their emblem on the progressive agenda we moved forward, like creating more parks and shoreline,” she says.

Two of Chevron’s billboards proclaim: “More shoreline than most cities can shake a paddle at” and “Richmond, more about parks, less about pavement.”

“They’re throwing money to nonprofits in order to seem very generous, while not paying enough in property taxes,” she adds. “And with this modernization plan, they think we should just thank them, but only one-fifth of the facility is involved. Of course, we want the jobs but not at the expense of the health and safety of communities.”

Despite a post-war history of crime, poverty, unemployment, and a more recent housing crisis, Richmond has become a national model for how grassroots activists can organize to overcome challenges. In the past few years since the city council moved to the left, and despite raucous council meetings that often run past midnight, Richmond has attracted new jobs and youth training positions in solar and clean energy, successfully competed for a new University of California lab that will soon break ground, expanded its parks, and seen its homicide rate drop to a thirty-three-year low under the leadership of one of the nation’s few openly gay police chiefs. Citizen groups, like the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Environmental Justice Coalition (Sunflower Alliance), and Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate, have played a key role.

Point Molate is just over the ridgeline from Chevron’s refinery. This 422-acre city-owned natural headland, with its bay-front crescent beach and native rangeland patrolled by mule deer, owls, and ospreys, had been slated for a billion-dollar private casino development. But local activists from Citizens for a Sustainable Point Molate and the Richmond Progressive Alliance waged a successful campaign that forced the city council to take the issue to a referendum.

From its inception, Measure U was heavily fought over with close to a million dollars spent, both by the casino developer and local card rooms that didn’t want competition from a monster casino with 4,000 slot machines. The three candidates Chevron backed all supported the casino. But city residents voted 58 percent to 42 percent against it, with most citing fear of increased traffic, crime, and gambling addiction.

Mayor McLaughlin, despite being outspent almost two to one, was reelected, as were two candidates opposed to the casino. None of the Chevron candidates won. A short time later, the council voted five-to-two to cancel the casino plan and reclaim Point Molate as parkland. The developer then sued the city, unsuccessfully, apparently being unclear on the concept that when you gamble, you usually lose.

During the race, Chevron hired an opposition research group that dug up and spread dirt about how the mayor had once filed for bankruptcy and been treated for depression.

In a town with 12 percent unemployment and poor access to health services (the closest public hospital is about to be shut down by the county), that may have won her more sympathy than lost votes.


In the fall of 2013, Mayor McLaughlin got widespread media attention when Richmond’s council voted to use eminent domain to try and force banks to renegotiate mortgage terms with the more than 25 percent of Richmond homeowners whose houses are deeply under water (worth significantly less than their mortgages) and face the threat of foreclosure. While corporate America has never opposed local governments condemning private property for highways or sports stadiums, realtor association mailers soon began appearing at my door (and thousands of others) warning that, “Wall Street is back to take another bite out of Richmond Homes,” “Wall Street bankers … will make millions … but it will sink Richmond,” and “She got us in a fight that could knock out the city.”

In spite of the twisted logic by which “Wall Street bankers” were shown to be pushing Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank to renegotiate toxic loans on terms more favorable to the poor, the city’s ability to refinance its bonds was threatened, and major banks warned they might stop doing business in the city. Then, it was pointed out that banks refusing to do business in a town that’s 80 percent nonwhite sounded a lot like redlining, which is illegal. Still no one doubts that the national banks and real estate lobby will be joining Chevron’s expanded effort to defeat the progressive slate this November.

I’m with a hundred demonstrators gathered outside the gates of the refinery for a noontime rally on a Tuesday afternoon in late May. It’s an International Day of Action targeting Chevron that includes protests in Ecuador, Australia, Romania, Nigeria, and Germany.

The small multiethnic crowd carries homemade banners and posters mocking Chevron ads. One sign says, “Oil Companies should not harm local economies–We Agree.” There’s a Native American blessing with burning sage, and twenty-something activists in white hazmat suits, and a high school student waving a “Chevron Lies” sign at passing trucks. About twenty Richmond cops guard the plant entrance. A sergeant gets one of the organizers to keep people on the sidewalk as the mayor steps off the curb to take a portable mike and address her fellow protesters. “Elections are for people. Corporations are not people,” she exclaims to cheers.

But Chevron operatives believe elections are for the company.

“They’re bent on taking back this town, and if they spend millions to do that, they’ll make it back thousands of times over if they can get the city council in the palm of their hand, like they had it before,” says Mayor McLaughlin. “We expect their billboards for parks and ‘Richmond Strong’ to soon become billboards for their candidates. We don’t have their money, but our strength is we have an authentic relationship with the people of the community.”

Is that enough to keep winning against unlimited campaign spending by robber barons and corporations like Chevron? She admits she doesn’t know for sure.

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier (, an ocean conservation and policy group. His latest book is “The Golden Shore–California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”