Last year, for the first time, the Academy Art Center offered a class on Visual Studies, taught by artist, educator and critic David Goldberg (you can see him speak about new media at Spalding House on Nov. 5). He taught the class for the second time this past fall, and fills us in on the students’ final project:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—Hawai’i Flow Trace

The final project for the Academy Art Center class Visual Studies, which I taught as part of the Fall 2011 curriculum, was an exercise that traces the flow of the climactic three-way gunfight in Sergio Leone’s 1966 genre masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Students replaced the cinematic images of cowboys and their landscape with their own landscape photographs of Hawai’i.

Those familiar with the film will recall that the three characters are good, bad and ugly relative to each other. In their bounty hunting and pursuit of hidden gold with the Civil War raging in the background, none of them are absolute representations of heroism, evil or greed. Leone helped kill the mythology of John Wayne versus Indians and bandits, introducing a dynamic three-dimensional problem that can help us visualize and contemplate the complexity of contemporary Hawai’i.

Students decided that images representing the land in its natural state stand for the “good.” Images of human-made paths, be they hiking trails or highways, through this land represent the “ugly.” Finally, images of full-blown development, from skyscrapers to suburban sprawl, represent the “bad.” Their decisions do not reflect a comprehensive assertion that the land is good, trails are ugly and buildings are bad. They consciously avoided a simplistic polemical, editorial, promotional or public service announcement style that might pit one stereotyped image against another. In fact, there was a vigorous and intense debate about whether the “bad” in Hawai’i should even be represented and thereby empowered by receiving a “character” in the first place!

Is a lo’i inherently more valuable than a skyscraper? Should the mountains have semi-permanent paths carved into them? Should housing crowded into a valley be judged in terms of the bird’s eye view or that of the street level? What would happen to contemporary Hawai’i Kai if we had no cars? Is an objective measure of Hawai‘i’s challenges and opportunities possible? Who establishes the standards? Real estate developers? Those sympathetic to indigenous Hawaiian struggles? Those who live underneath the freeways or at the peak of Tantalus? The automaton that is the economy?

We have precisely followed the rhythm and momentum of the original cinematic sequence, paying particular attention to the emphasis Leone put on each cowboy studying, anticipating, and measuring the others. The opportunity for two to gang up on one is part of the tension, and since there is no dialog in this scene, that tension is built through music, framing and editing. Tracing the flow allowed us to put visual samples of the three categories into a dynamic interaction that hopefully leads to a fresh and open interpretation of their relationship. What this project classifies as “bad”—modern post-industrial development—is generally seen as “good,” at least from the individual’s perspective. And yet almost everyone can agree that undeveloped land and some version of sustainable agriculture is “good.” The paths between these extremes are literally and metaphorically paved, and a necessary “ugly.”

This project offers no formulas for a solution, but it does present an opportunity to reconsider positions…and following Leone, depicts a triumph of “the good.” But listen carefully to its closing words: “There are two kinds of people in this world…”

What is a “flow trace”? In hip-hop, when Rapper T “traces” the flow of Rapper O it means that the cadence, rhythm and timing of T’s lyrics are exactly the same as that of O but the content is completely different. At its worst, flow tracing demonstrates creative weakness; at it’s best, it is a way for one rapper to honor another, especially if the tracer has put the same effort into the content of his or her rhymes as the originator.

Editor’s note: David Goldberg will offer his Visual Studies class again during the spring session.
Looking at the Local: A Visual Studies Workshop
Jan 25-Feb 29, Wed 6-9pm, six sessions, $120, Community Room
Call 532-8741 for information.

View the video here.