Archive for the 'Arts' Category

Art that fights back

May 8, 2007

For over two years now, I’ve been writing with anarchist prisoner Harold H. Thompson. He’s not just an anarchist – really though, who’s just an anarchist??-  but also a writer, a jailhouse lawyer, and a painter.

A few months back, his friend and supporter Josh put on an art auction of his work at the Dry River Collective space in Tucson, AZ. The benefits of the auction went to help pay Harold’s legal fees as he sues the Tennessee Department of Corrections for medical neglect (stemming from incidents you can read about here).

Of his paintings, here are a few of my favorites. Visit the Dry River site for more.





The last two are entitled “Bill” and “Hillary.”

Peace, Made Over Empty Bottles

March 27, 2007

My back alley is a perimeter of Bellingham’s downtown business district, something of a corner beyond which few middle class patrons (which in this town means students and senior citizens) will travel – on foot, anyway – to throw down their dollars. The block has its businesses, and for better and for worse, they’re businesses on the margins: on one end of the spectrum is Super Mario’s, Salvadorian food served out of a truck that might actually be the best food in town; and on the other, your average cigarette and beer mart that dishes out sweets and swill.

It’s because of the mart, and the alley’s close remove from downtown, that our back alley is, according to BPD reports in the Cascadia Weekly, “a favorite hangout for people to drink alcohol” (this week’s paper, “Fuzz Buzz,” p. 12). And by “people,” the BPD doesn’t mean college students, who can throw an all-night rager here with no police interference; they mean the people whom Marxists call the “lumpen,” whom liberals call the “homeless,” and whom the BPD themselves call “transients” (a word as appropriate for Bellingham’s college students, I’d say).

Another business is TJ’s, a long-time and now long gone breakfast place whose building has spent the last year being gutted, under some slow process of renovation. The parking lot has been tethered off with metal wire, and for months it’s proximity to downtown has rendered it a bittersweet reminder of what the majority of Bellingham is and always will be under capitalism: concrete with cracks and broken glass – but also autumn leaves with no blowers to blow them away.

In recent days I noticed this piece on the back of the building through the slim brown cracks in the fence between TJ’s and my apartment complex. At first I thought it was just a mess of tags, which would make sense, given the space has been serving overtime as a semi-clandestine watering hole for those whom the combination of alcoholism and no-fixed-address leaves little choice but to risk violating open container laws. But clearly, this isn’t a mess of tags, its something else. Somebody is trying to say something.

Stay Sane…
By letting go
And Given Out

Skulls wired to fire – or are those waves of red the petals of a flower? Accompanied by a poem that exalts us to “STAY SANE… BY LETTING GO AND GIVEN OUT.” Not given in, given out: “TO YOUR SOUL. TO YOUR HEART. TO YOUR MIND. PEACE, MADE OVER EMPTY BOTTLES.” And then the tag “– IERUA [or something like it] BE TOLD!”

Not a master piece, by any means, but more beautiful than what is surely in store for this block once the TJs building is done over; and this piece will then surely be whitewashed. The empty bottles will be gone too – not abolished, only displaced to yet another “favorite hangout for people to drink alcohol.” And while websites are as tenuous as anything capitalism has yet produced, maybe, just maybe, my (digital) photographs will hold onto it for some posterity.

The Flesh and Blood(shed) of Popular Culture

March 15, 2007

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry

A friend of mine is due to leave for Iran in the coming weeks, where she plans to stay for several months visiting family. As she awaits her departure, she’s bombarded each day with media from all angles – film, print, politics – that seem custom-designed for U.S. confrontation with Iran.

The latest sour bit of propaganda is the sword-and-shield blood-and-guts dude-fest 300, currently tops at the box 0ffice, which pits its “heroic” Spartans against what it paints as a bloody-thirsty Persian Empire. A review in the Village Voice (“Man on Man Action“) assures me the film is as dumb as it looks, but lack of smarts has never been known to keep away American film-going audiences, nor has it ever kept the US government away from military interventions. In response to the film (and its politics), a petition is circulating demanding that Warner Bros. own up to its ahistorical warmongering.

But war-mongering needn’t be blood-red and blunt to be dangerous. Whether its art film or action film, the same stubborn assumptions keep popping up, as in a recent interview with Abbas Kiarostami, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker who has been in New York City recently for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. The interview is with that most ostensible of liberal media, The New York Times, and “The interviewer, Deborah Solomon,” observes Zach Campbell, “seems to have one guiding theme–hit home that ‘over there,’ in Iran, those people, those Islamofascist tyrants who presumably control every facet of every citizen’s life, are … well, bad. And how crazy is it that Kiarostami is able to make his beautiful masterpieces in the midst of all that crazy oppressive fanaticism over there?”

It’s not that Iran doesn’t have its political problems – it’s that Iran is not the sum of its government’s vices. As film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum writes, “What Bush is choosing to call `Iran’ is chiefly a narrow-minded fundamentalist like himself, not a complex society of millions of diverse individuals that is every bit as multicultural as the U.S.” This a diversity featured heavily in Kiarostami’s films – from the severe class chasms and urban/rural divides of the informal Koker earthquake trilogy (Where is the Friend’s Home?, …Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees) and The Wind Will Carry Us; to the various nationalities of the passengers in Mr. Badii’s Range Rover in Taste of Cherry, to the varied ages, classes, occupations and love lives of the female passengers in Ten.

You might say the violence of the State is reflected in the violence of a film 300 – not only in its desire for bloodshed, but in its purporting to represent diverse and complex histories and peoples as the whole they are not. Kiarostami’s films, with their hours of driving, talking, driving, running, talking, and driving some more, are the very antithesis of violence – and perhaps at times, the antithesis of the State as well.

Elsewhere, author Fatemeh Keshavarz discusses similar problems as they exist in popular literature, in a recent interview posted at MRZine. According to Keshavarz, in print media of the past decade, such as the popular Reading Lolita in Tehran, “everything [about Iran] would revolve around religion or politics, and people would be villains or victims… I felt like saying to people, ‘This picture is full of holes! That is not about me! The culture I grew up in has its flesh and blood just like yours. It has good and bad things just like every culture. Shake my hand and you will feel it!’ ” Her own book, Jasmine and Stars, aims to rectify these oversights.

I recently read Seymour Hersh’s piece in The New Yorker about the Bush administration’s strategic swing against the Shi’ites, as represented – to them – by the Iranian government. Personally, I hold onto the hope that the severe U.S. shortage of troops (what I consider the biggest political booty of the anti-war movement so far) prevents invasion of Iran, but troop shortage doesn’t preclude a U.S. bombing campaign or other military attacks.

What does preclude military attack (at least of the overt variety), I realize, is popular opinion. Popular opinion, however nebulous it always is, however indistinct and unquantifiable, remains indispensable to the achievement of the U.S. government’s political objectives. After reading over the above interviews and commentaries, and reflecting on my friend’s feelings, I’m struck by how insidiously popular culture can prepare society for war – and I wonder to what extent pop culture swings public opinion.

For years, Kiarostami has played himself off in interviews as an apolitical person – and he has every right to be so, though I personally find a great deal of the political in his films. Nevertheless, whoever organized his retrospective is making a small, but very smart political maneuver: bringing attention to Iran as a nation, broader than its State, and beyond whatever designs the US government has on the region.

Behind the Music

March 14, 2007

Dj Scud’s Jackboots & Birds

I’m like VHI – constantly behind the music. What I mean is, I still listen to the same music I did in junior high school. Music trudges ahead and I don’t. One obscure musical subculture I’ve stayed strangely allegiant to over the years is “breakcore.” It’s a catch-all phrase for mostly loud, fast, noisy, beat-centered electronic music that sampled a lot of punk in its early days (ala DJ Scud’s Jackboots & Birds, pictured above) but now gets more mileage out of abrasive Jamaican dancehall chants. Wikipedia says it “encourages speed, complexity, impact and maximum sonic density.” That’s good enough a definition for me.

I’m not like my friend David. Where I’m behind the music, seems like he’s always way ahead. Seems there isn’t a low-rent house party where he isn’t behind the beats – like the last party we were at, where the stereo skipped anytime someone tipped-toed near it and the bass sounded as hollow as a fist on a card board box. David once even had aspirations to be a DJ, even threw down a few thousand for some decks, but it was an ambition he quickly relinquished after observing one too many cheezy-ass white dudes spinning platters with one hand and holding a droopy half-rolled blunt in the other. He did not want to be one of those guys.

I once felt the way about breakcore David feels about DJs: for years, my love of the music was at war with the seemingly frat-like stupidity of breakcore culture (probably summed up best by the gratingly “ironic” album art of Bong-Ra, full of bikes, butts and bikinis). When artist Rachael Kozak started her all-female label Homewrecker Foundation years ago (now defunct), the sort of stupid shit that flared up on list-servs taught me a hard lesson about hard music: radical, boundary-pushing politics don’t necessarily follow from radical, boundary-pushing music.

My attitude towards the tunes changed some once I discovered DJ /rupture. Firstly, he spins mixes so tight, dropping disparate sources loud and clear. The seamless Gold Teeth Thief mix starts at side A with Missy Elliot getting her freak on and ends at side B with Paul Simon getting all somber; and the two tunes are essentially bridged by an hour of breakcore and revolutionary hiphop. His site says, “His dynamic live sets simultaneously partyrock and suggest complex political undertones.” Under or over, I’m a sucker for any tone that’s political.

Above all, /rupture a.ka. Jace Claxxon proved to me breakcore could be literate. His blog provides the theory behind the music, as disprate and dirty like the mixes he spins. Who else features an obit for Baudrillard, the tune of a Turkish bellydancer, and a radical modernist lit take on T-mobile mall kiosks (at least I think that’s what it is)? All in a matter of days, all with a playful poetic wit that puts my plain-speaking prose (and my shameful use of alliteration meant to compensate) to shame.

But you know what? I’m still behind in my music. /rupture rolled through both Seattle and Olympia last week and I didn’t even notice until two days after he was gone.

Undressing the Other, Addressing One Another

February 28, 2007

Undressing the Other

I’ve heard it said on a few occasions that revolutionary/political organizing isn’t supposed to be a “group therapy session.” That sentiment couldn’t be more wrong-headed (or meat-headed: the times I’ve heard it said, it’s always by a male who thinks he’s being militant by saying it). This society is so fucked up, it could seriously use some healing, and that’s what therapy is for. The only defensible reason for the statement (beyond intellectual posturing), as far as I can see, is that therapy can be too private, too individual, whereas politics is first and foremost a social experience.

This opens the question of what revolutionary/political therapy looks like. James Baldwin suggested an answer when he wrote “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” Art, Baldwin saw it, was a war with society, “a lover’s war… to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” If art is both a social struggle and a personal confession, it just might be therapeutic.

Last night, I witnessed art worthy of Baldwin’s definition – and therapy of a revolutionary variety. Called “Undressing the Other: the Naked Truth About Stereotypes,” it’s a “truly anti-racist-sexist-classist-elitist-ethnocentric-homophobic- xenophobic transnational feminist/womanist production” now in its third year at Western Washington University. For the second year in a row, it’s also being held in the larger Bellingham community.

The event emerged out of a “Women of Color Week” held at Western several years ago. It’s similar to monologue productions like Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” but with several important twists. Rather than read other women’s’ pre-written stories, “Undressing the Other” focuses on young women developing their own narratives (and not all necessarily women – this year a young trans man also performed). This takes place over the course of several months, with participants working together around a curriculum based on writings by the likes of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and – of course – James Baldwin.

Staged like a fashion show, the program itself is broken into two parts. In the first, women one-by-one strut the stage in the guise of the most disgusting stereotypes: the parade of ugliness puts in bold relief how society sees women through distorted lenses of race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality. There’s the wetback, the white trash lady, the jockette. In the second part of the show, the women return as their true selves, telling their own stories, their true strengths and weaknesses on full display: righteous, doubtful, survivors, intelligent, ignorant, powerful, petty. In short, human beings.

It’s in the second part that the power of confession, in Baldwin’s sense, takes over. This isn’t Catholic confession, communication through a grate, privacy between pastor and parishioner. They “vomit the anguish up” in their words, in their performance, as art. This is social – and thus, highly radical – therapy, working through issues of identity in order to grow. By sharing their true selves against the brutal social constructs of the first half of the show, what are personal truths also become social truths.

In this way, “Undressing the Other” is all about addressing one another. Though it’s a performance with an audience, its hardly a spectacle to be simply enjoyed at leisure. By pushing the stereotypes to their ugliest limit, the monologues coax confessions of sorts from the audience. As part of the audience we don’t know to respond. Do we laugh? These stereotypes are absurd, after all. Do we cry? These are horrors in front us. Do we applaud? This is a performance, isn’t it? We realize how we see these elements of ugliness everyday, but never in such a concentrated form. Our mix of emotions is our own confession, as we must admit that in everyday life, some of us have the privilege of ignoring these images; in “Undressing the Other,” they are there, plain to see, and you can’t take your eyes away.

Which brings us back again to James Baldwin, and his definition of confession. “The effort it seems to me,” he explained to Studs Terkel, “is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. ” And what are these terms?

Becky Renfrow, an organizer whose energy and commitment is beyond comparison, presented a possible answer in her honest monologue on white people’s experience with racism, “White Trash.” Too often white people see racism abstractly, as statistics, rather than feel it in their heart, in their gut. This is especially true on a college campus. As my friend Jeremy writes, “it’s amazing how many people there are who get paid, who get degrees, who build status and careers all trying to explain this mess, to package it as THE way, trying to argue how it’s good for us, that this is the best of all possible worlds.”

I myself have a college degree to my name that says I can think this stuff. Its most important that I feel it too, because that’s where the struggle is: the constant self-reminder of others pain and suffering, joy and growth that are so easy to intellectualize out of life. Academic study is such a individualized task, whereas our emotions are inherently social. This barrier between thinking and feeling was broken through by Undressing the Other. I felt it – and its worth risking the generalization to say everyone felt it.

Props to all those who made it happen this year: Stephany Hazelrigg, Afrose Ahmed, Elizabeth Johnstone, Antasia Parker, Becky Renfrow, Olide Valenzuela, Sandra Villarreal, Erica Merker, Rachae Thomas, Luisa Nayeli Mercado, Maribel Galvan, Yumi Ishibashi, Devin Majkut, Abiola Akanni, Anneka Ramirez, Whitney Knox, and everybody else not mentioned in the production program.