Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

It was a summer of outrage and pain. The weeks after the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black men and women, was a moment in the United States when veil that hung over the racism and white supremacy was ripped open and all the grief and anger tumbled out into the streets in mass protest. A history of oppression and a present heavy with generational burdens of inequity was laid bare. For Black and Indigenous, Latinx and Asian Americans, this is lived experience. For many white Americans, it was mirror held up to a country that is a democracy only to some.

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Las Vegas plays so much better on the page than in person. In concept, Vegas is an escape, a desert playground, but reality can never match the fantasy. Prose lubricates, distances actuality, and forms a glow around dubious experience in the same way that three miniatures of Southern Comfort loosen up a seatmate on the 45-minute flight from Burbank to McCarran International Airport. Writings arch towards hyperbole in an attempt to capture decades of spectacle that rise on the Strip, neon-trimmed, already pulsing with lurid symbology: spires, pyramids, Venetian canals. 

A text, even Learning from Las Vegas with its embrace of populist architecture through modalities of analytical abstraction, shields a reader from the perfume of weed, vomit and tropical air freshener in the back of an Uber. The actual experience of Vegas is an exercise in searching fervently for some kind of authenticity, some kind of fun, only to be frustrated, haunted and impoverished by the tawdry glee of nickel slots and an all-you-can-eat buffet.  

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On 8 January, just days after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, architecture critic Blair Kamin announced on Twitter that after nearly three decades he would step down from his role at the Chicago Tribune. Some, whose minds were previously reeling from the events in Washington, suddenly had a new fixation: who would replace him?

Kamin refrained from playing favourites, preferring to honour his Pulitzer-winning predecessor Paul Gapp, who served as the paper’s architecture critic for 18 years. In that vacuum, speculation erupted in tweets and on backchannels. Names were floated then caught in what seemed like a vortex but was really just an eddy compared to national events.

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Imagining a new society begins with visionary design. What can we learn from the bold architectural schemes of the twentieth century?

The frontispiece of the original edition of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Leuven, Belgium, in 1516, depicts a small island, nearly round with deckled edges. The engraver’s hand shaded the landmass with short, neat hatch marks to suggest topography and a river. More imagined utopia as a self-contained world where communities shared a common culture and way of life. This definition sets up two particular criteria: place and society. To convey these intertwined conditions, the illustrator dotted the woodblock print with buildings.

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Last spring, as stay-at-home orders set in and consumers cleared out store shelves, we learned something that we probably knew all along: You don’t think about toilet paper until you are desperate.

And if the lowly roll is overlooked, the design of the toilet paper holder is even less considered — until now. The Echo Park gallery Marta is presenting “Under/Over,” an exhibition of more than 50 toilet paper holders by an international lineup of artists and designers.

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“Reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, and the sentiment is acute nearly 90 years later. The pandemic has intensified and accelerated a digital drift, as culture turns to the virtual— to Zoom, Animal Crossing, or TikTok—for ways to escape and normalize current conditions. Going on a reality holiday, however, risks setting up a needless opposition between activities in our daily lives and our online interactions. The truth is that we are all operating somewhere in between—and it is this middle ground where a number of emerging artists, architects, and designers are staking out territory, using this nonbinary space to address questions of subjectivity and identity.

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I can’t stop thinking about refugia. In the years, months, and days before the COVID-19 pandemic, the term was confined to the literature and philosophy of climate crisis, referring to pockets of life that through geographic isolation or species resilience manage to hang on in spite of the environmental forces against them. Think of clusters of Pacific Northwest barnacles nestled high on coastal outcroppings to avoid falling prey to sea snails. Or old-growth forests insulated from rising temperatures in cool mountain valleys.

As self-quarantine set in earlier this spring, the word refugia, at least for me, expanded in definition from specific ecological condition to conceptual touchstone—a necessary leap to metaphor when faced with planetary crisis. The magnitude of this pandemic falls outside human comprehension, but for the luckiest of us, refuge is manageable: a place of relative safety, of sourdough starters and online Jazzercise classes.

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In the eyes of the current administration, the U.S.-Mexico border is violent, in crisis, and must be redundantly fortified, concretized, and policed. But architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman see that southern boundary as an ecological region—a shared territory of cross-border interdependence and exchange. To them, flow, not heated rhetoric, is the defining character of the San Diego–Tijuana crossing. Most obvious are streams of traffic, goods, and people through the point of entry. What goes unseen is the northward flow of waste and toxins, which disregards the jurisdictional boundaries of nationhood, traveling from the informal settlements in Tijuana’s Laurales Canyon via watersheds and tributaries to the Tijuana River estuary in San Diego and out into the Pacific Ocean. 

“The estuary is already a Federal protected zone—NOAA and the EPA are involved, but it has to be thought of as bioregional,” says Forman. “It is a circular system. Informal settlements recycle and repurpose urban waste, then the trash of the informal settlement ends up back in the estuary.” 

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