January 23rd, 2011

It’s a truism of postwar art criticism that many of Andy Warhol‘s most well-known paintings not only represent iconic subjects, but have also themselves become iconic images of their era. Marilyn Monroe, the celebrity, and Marilyn Monroe, the detached, deadpan screen-printed image of a celebrity, are two different — but related — emblematic images of the twentieth century.

Warhol's Marilyn Monroe

Warhol’s ironic distance between subject and representation, with its implicit refusal to be pinned down, was taken during his lifetime as a satirical commentary on the vacuity of postwar society. In a sense, this is true, but Warhol was always an equal-opportunities satirist. Most obviously, his subjects included revolutionaries and dictators alongside film stars and singers.

Warhol's Lenin and Mao

Indeed, Warhol’s repurposing of images of communism was so successful that the ironies it has produced seem almost absurd — there is a chain of Irish cafés named Mao, which have nothing to do with China or Maoism, but rather are quite explicitly riding on the coattails of the Warhol industry in an attempt to portray an image of a sophisticated, refined and ‘postmodern’ eatery.

Likewise, editions from Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle series from the late 1970s are available to buy as a ‘blue-chip art’ investment opportunity for those looking for an art-market safe bet.

From Warhol's Hammer and Sickle series

Warhol himself might have appreciated the irony, then, that the place which has perhaps the best legitimate claim to ‘own’ Andy Warhol — the small countryside village of Miková, Slovakia — is not exactly refined or sophisticated, yet it bears the scars of the soviet experience so coolly addressed by the artist in some of his best-known work. Warhol’s parents emigrated from Miková to America in the 1920s, and ever since he became successful in the early 1960s, the area has had an ambiguous relationship with Warhol and his legacy.

The nearby town of Medzilaborce is home to the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art , an incongruous cultural outpost in a poor, mostly rural area. The museum proudly claims the second-biggest collection of Warhol works worldwide, and despite operating on a shoestring budget, it has survived for nearly twenty years since it opened in 1991. However, there has been no small amount of local hostility to an institution dedicated to an exotic gay American. The situation was explored by Polish-German director Stanislaw Mucha in his 2001 documentary Absolut Warhola, which presents, in all its surreal glory, the local attitudes to the man and his work. The entire documentary is available on YouTube in eight parts. Here’s the trailer:


January 16th, 2011

Robotron was the East German state computer manufacturer. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it employed 68,000 people and was churning out communist computers from its headquarters in Dresden for much of the eastern bloc and for export around the world (via ESER), branded with this fantastic retro-futurist logo:

Robotron logo

Robotron’s product range included  personal computers like the sludge-coloured K 8915:

Robotron 8915

And the hi-tech Robotron KC-87:

Robotron KC 87

The company also made calculators, typewriters, disk drives, printers and other electronic equipment.

After German reunification in 1990, the Robotron group was split into pieces and sold off, and the company’s communist-era equipment is mainly kept alive by groups of hobbyists and enthusiasts. Today, the successor company is a comparatively small data-management software business, still based in Dresden.

In May 1986, the Robotron factory in Sömmerda was visited by East German head of state Erich Honecker, and the company produced a promotional documentary around the event, Besuch in Sömmerda (A Visit to Sömmerda), which revelled in soft pro-government propaganda and awesome mid-80s saxophone:

The company seems to have had an appetite for promotional trinkets, including ashtrays, medallions, stamps, calendars, and more. Most curious of these, perhaps, is a schnapps glass with the Robotron logo on it, accompanied by an illustration that looks like a slightly complex take on the Reddit alien:

Robotron promotional schnapps glass and Reddit alien

So, did today’s link-aggregating web behemoth get their logo from a computer company from behind the iron curtain?

A boy named .su

January 9th, 2011

Have pity for poor ICANN. This organisation has the unenviable task of being the global babysitter for country code top-level domain names (ccTLDs), the country-specific endings of web addresses. When these domain names were first doled out in the late eighties and early nineties, a ccTLD of .su was assigned to the Soviet Union. Fifteen months later, the Union collapsed, and ICANN has been attempting without success to shut down .su ever since. The .su domain is currently used by over 80,000 websites, and recently celebrated its twentieth birthday.

The official Russian ccTLD is .ru, or its cyrillic variant .рф (.rf, for Rossiyskaya Federatsiya, or Russian Federation). However, for 600 rubles (about €15), you can have your .su domain up and running in a couple of days, and the occasional threats and pleas from ICANN to do something about the domain have mainly had the effect of encouraging ordinary Russians to rally in support of it.

The death of .su has long been  predicted — in Wired magazine in 2002, by Reuters and New Scientist in 2007, and by the Associated Press in 2008. Most recently, in 2010, American broadcaster PRI’s The World programme featured this report by Jessica Golloher on the long-enduring domain:

The day-to-day uses of the domain are quite varied. There’s a certain nostalgic appeal for authoritarian communists in a website like Stalin.su (though Lenin.su seems to be controlled by evil capitalists). Secret police enthusiasts might be a bit disappointed, however, to find that K-G-B.su is actually the website of the Belarus Guitar Club. Most of the rest are pretty innocuous, like Windsurf.su. More ominously, the Putinist, nationalist Russian mass youth group Nashi uses the .su domain ending on their website, which can hardly be reassuring to other ex-Soviet states.

The Kremlin itself owns Kremlin.su, though the domain forwards to the more politically-appropriate Kremlin.ru site. But it was not always thus. The AP report on .su from 2008 linked above has this accompanying image, showing a photo of a website selling Soviet-related domains to the highest bidder:


Kremlin.su is prominently listed as an available domain. So, did the Russian government shell out to buy Kremlin.su from a Soviet-sympathizing cybersquatter?

Putin and Reagan

January 2nd, 2011

In a month when New START was given initial ratification by both the US Senate and the Russian Duma, building on the original START I treaty of 1991, let’s retrace the occasion of the apparent meeting of the architects of these two agreements, Vladimir Putin and Ronald Reagan.

When Putin met Reagan

The photo above initially surfaced in early 2009 and apparently shows Vladimir Putin — on the left, with camera and dorky shirt — meeting Ronald Reagan, at a time when Putin was a lowly KGB officer (pretending to be a tourist) in Red Square. Also visible, on the right hand side behind Reagan, is Mikhail Gorbachev. It was taken on May 31st, 1988 by Pete Souza, then official White House photographer for Ronald Reagan (and now again for Barack Obama), and he gave some context about the photo in an interview with Steve Inskeep of American broadcaster NPR:

The full interview is available on the NPR website. The photo seems to have first appeared online on the website of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.