That Was 2021
The highlights and lowlights of another pandemic year
Let me begin by saying I promise this post is mostly good vibes. Skip ahead if you like, but if you’ll momentarily indulge my pessimism: What a stupid time to be alive.
2021 was supposed to be the year the vaccine gave us our lives back, and while it did for some of us to some degree, its international distribution predictably favored wealthy nations, and the long-simmering anti-vax movement here in the wealthiest nation of them all decided this was its time to shine. COVID killed more people in 2021 than it did in 2020, and now, two years into this pandemic, the surging Omicron variant is only just beginning to show signs of slowing, after breaking records for case counts pretty much every day of the past few weeks. Thanks to those of us who bothered to exercise our privilege to get vaccinated, this winter won’t be nearly as deadly as the last one, but the virus’s persistence in spite of the majority of people doing the right thing is emblematic of our minoritarian politics: Democrats “control” the White House and Congress, and 59% of Americans support the constitutional right to abortion, but that won’t stop Roe v. Wade from being overturned in 2022. And with no meaningful accountability for January 6th and a firm command of statehouses and the judiciary, the Republicans spent the year doubling down on election fraud lies in service of passing state-level “voter integrity” laws transparently aimed at giving them back the presidency in 2024, legitimately or not. Will it be you-know-who or will they somehow unearth someone worse? None of the possibilities on the other side of our rapidly unraveling experiment in self-government look good.
I’m regularly reminded of a line from MacReady’s audio diary in John Carpenter’s The Thing: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.”
Meanwhile, my recent move back to Philadelphia was just in time for the city’s most homicidal year on record by a wide margin: 562 murders, up from 1990’s peak of 500, with roughly the same population size. This is part of a national trend.
I’m trying my best not to be cynical, but I can’t seem to try hard enough these days. When just a few dudes have all the money and they’re using it to literally get the fuck off the planet, is it already too late for the rest of us?
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and in addition to getting vaccinated and reuniting with family and friends, I had a good year in many other ways. Let’s take a look.
In 2021, I aimed to put out four issues of Plus Equals, my new algorithmic art zine, and I did exactly that—in four formats each, no less: print, web, RSS, and an email newsletter. As an expression of a distinct aspect of how I approach art and design as both an observer and a practitioner, this project feels like I’ve finally arrived somewhere, while simultaneously feeling like the beginning of a new journey. Most importantly, it’s got me making art for its own sake on a regular basis again, and I’m excited to see where it leads. (Spoiler alert: it will probably not lead to NFTs.)
ProPublica’s new article design
We launched a robust overhaul of our main article template at ProPublica, introducing sophisticated new storytelling and art-direction capabilities to our CMS. My biggest contribution is a responsive article layout framework I built on top of Column Setter, the open-source grid tool I developed a few years ago for our previous redesign. Compared to most editorial layout systems for the web, the framework’s wide variety of sizing and positioning options allows our layouts to respond to the needs of our stories much more precisely and with vastly greater expressive potential. I’m proud of it!
My friends in the US Air Guitar community have been a real lifeline during the pandemic. Rather than just pausing everything until we could resume doing in-person shows again, they produced a weekly interview show on Twitch called No Strings Attached, and figured out a way to hold an entire season of competitions on Twitch as well, with competitors sending in prerecorded videos. It was great fun to see the many creative ways air guitarists could approach performance when they had more control over their environment (and as many takes as they needed), and for my part, I agonized over camera angles, lighting, and projection to make my basement the creepiest possible home for my coquettish alter ego Skinemax. The season culminated in a momentous National Finals in Chicago in June, our first fully live post-pandemic event, which I qualified for after winning the Eastern Online Regional in May. In the end, I took second place, and in a first for US Air Guitar, the event was nationally televised several weeks later on ESPN2, who apparently had to be talked out of cutting my decidedly late-night performance from the daytime broadcast. Skinemax couldn’t really ask for anything more validating than that.
PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art) is an independent arts and performance venue established in 2010. The city shut it down for code violations in the fall of 2019, and the pandemic compounded its difficulty getting back on its feet, but it finally reopened in the summer of 2021. Eric Bresler, who runs PhilaMOCA, commemorated the event with a presentation detailing the history of the space, which was perfect for someone like me. Having lived in another city for PhilaMOCA’s entire existence, I was only tangentially aware of just how much its people are my people. I was so inspired by the presentation, I offered to design a logo and website for PhilaMOCA, both of which will be unveiled early in 2022. It’s been a really fun project to work on, and after being largely isolated from the rest of the city for my first full year back in Philly, contributing to a vibrant local creative community makes me feel like a proper Philadelphian again.
Another year, another custom-designed blog post for Robtober, my month-long self-curated horror movie marathon. This year’s was VHS-themed, which gave me a lot of opportunity to experiment with technique.
After the initial flurry of activity when we moved into our new house in 2020, our home improvement pursuits slowed down a bit in 2021. Perhaps the most notable improvements happened in my workspace, which has evolved into a cozy room I really enjoy spending time in. I put a lot of energy into learning about LED bulbs and shopping for table lamps to get the lighting just right, and some fresh paint on the walls also made a big difference, but the pièce de résistance is the flat file. I was moments away from pulling the trigger on an expensive flat file purchase when Leah just found one abandoned on the sidewalk a few blocks away. After having it sandblasted and powder-coated, it looks practically new. In addition to housing large prints and various office and art supplies, it doubles as a coffee table, and the casters I put on it make it easy to move. My awed appreciation of my dumb luck has yet to subside. It makes me smile every day.
I’ve thus far been too lazy to take any decent pictures of the room’s progress, but I’ll hopefully have photos and a detailed writeup to share after a few more touches are in place.
Not much travel in 2021, but certainly more than the year before. There were a few quiet, driving-distance weekend getaways with family and friends, but the main event was my aforementioned trip to Chicago for the US Air Guitar National Finals. This was during that period in June when the vaccine was flowing and the Delta variant hadn’t yet reared its ugly head. The eye of the storm, basically, and of course it didn’t last.
Still not tired of James Turrell. We got to spend some time at Mass MOCA in his newest skyspace, entitled C.A.V.U. I honestly could have spent the entire summer contemplating existence in that prismatic cylinder, but an hour was better than nothing. We also gratefully accepted an invitation from our neighbors to pay a visit to Turrell’s skyspace in Chestnut Hill. This was our second such visit to the space, though at sunset this time rather than sunrise.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited for the return of live music, and I made it to eight shows (and wrote a bit about most of them) in the last few months of the year. So far, I’ve got tickets for another eight lined up for 2022 (including Otoboke Beaver’s first-ever visit to Philadelphia!), so hopefully this year will have even more momentum. And after mostly missing out on new music in 2020, I started getting back up to speed.
Amyl and the Sniffers: Comfort to Me
Excellent Motörhead-esque bar brawl punk. To repeat a phrase from my Zola review, frontwoman Amy Taylor’s coexisting swagger and vulnerability is what really sells it. This album isn’t quite as good as their first, but then, most things aren’t.
Andrew W.K.: God Is Partying
Andrew W.K.’s power ballads tend not to do as much for me as his more high-octane offerings, so I was pleasantly surprised by how solidly God Is Partying landed on me, considering it has the highest power ballad concentration of any record in his catalog to date. It’s worth noting that the rest of the songs on the album—as well as some of the ballads—contain crushingly heavy riffs, so there’s something to be said for that contrast. But overall this is just another great collection of songs from a truly peerless songwriter.
Anna von Hausswolff: All Thoughts Fly
Though I had planned to see her open for Swans in 2020 (which of course didn’t happen), I didn’t actually know anything about Anna von Hausswolff until late in 2021, when protests against her “satanic” music managed to disrupt some dates on her tour of European cathedrals. I’ve had her haunting pipe organ in steady rotation ever since.
Greet Death: New Hell
My favorite of the heavy shoegaze bands that have been popping up for the better part of the last decade. I’d expect a record so drenched in self-pity to be extremely off-putting, but the lyrics and the aesthetics form a cogent whole; these songs manage to wear their weary hearts on their sleeves in a way that feels painfully honest and entirely necessary.
Kate NV: Room for the Moon (Instrumentals)
Kate NV is easily my favorite musical discovery of the year, taking a whimsical pop approach to minimalist composition. All of her records are fantastic, but I tend to prefer the songs without vocals, which makes this instrumental version of her 2020 album Room for the Moon perfect for me. Sometimes ambient, usually electronic, and always enchanting, with so many quietly idiosyncratic touches. Likely to be a noticeable influence on my own experiments in composing music in 2022.
I watched 167 movies in 2021 and the best of the new ones was probably Titane, a singular film for which words fail me, and I don’t have much to say about the others either. There are a few highly anticipated 2021 films I haven’t gotten to see yet, including Licorice Pizza and Red Rocket.
But hey, I got back into theaters! Thirteen times, to be exact, in that sweet spot between mid-July and mid-December. Philadelphia isn’t the cinematic embarrassment of riches New York is, but thanks to PhilaMOCA, Lightbox Film Center, and Philadelphia Film Society’s resurrection of the theaters Landmark abandoned a few years ago at the Bourse, there’s plenty of cause for enthusiasm.
|PFS at the Bourse||3|
|Lightbox Film Center||2|
|Pentridge Station Popup||1|
At home, Criterion Channel was the gift that kept on giving in 2021, with, among other things, some excellent collections of art-house animation and noir.
Ambitions for 2022
Big changes ahead: I’m leaving ProPublica early in February. I’ll have more to say about it soon, but for now suffice it to say that this move will make some room for me to focus on the following for awhile:
- Plus Equals: I’m staying the course with quarterly publication online and in print, and the print edition, which I’ve thus far been giving away to family and friends, will soon be available to the public for purchase, as will some new merch. I’m also in the very early stages of developing a more expansive Plus Equals project involving music and animation, and I’m hoping to get some assistance with that from a grant or residency once the project’s parameters are less vague.
- Printmaking: I’m planning to build a modest screen printing studio in my basement and get back in the habit of making regular prints. I don’t think I’ve touched a squeegee in well over a decade and I’m itching to dive back in. As a start, I have an idea for some loosely systematic compositional studies I’m looking forward to exploring.
- The job hunt: As nice as it would be, I don’t expect to generate a living from the projects above, so I’ll be on the hunt for work, thinking hard about what I do and don’t want out of my next professional endeavor, and reaching out to people I admire for feedback and advice.
- RobWeychert.com V7: I barely touched this in 2021, but I’m not stressed about it, especially since my blog posts documenting the process so far have left a great paper trail that makes it easy for me to pick up where I left off. The vision for the site remains the same, as does its lack of a schedule. That said, the 20th anniversary of the site is coming up in March, so it’d be nice to do something special for that. We’ll see.
- The house: The eternal work in progress marches on. The aforementioned screen printing studio. Better lighting for the living room and dining room. Shelving, custom curtains, and a rug for my workspace. More decor, homemade or otherwise, everywhere.
All right then, 2022. Let’s get to it!