Sunday, December 30, 2012

Too Much, Too Little, Too Slate


Last night I saw The Dark Knight Rises on pay-per-view, and I have to say it was a depressing, oddly unspectacular spectacle of a movie.  Too long, too precious with its own sense of sociological importance, and way too dark.  Too "dark" in the sense that the cinematographer took The Godfather movies way too seriously, and too "dark" in the sense that the director and screen-writers took the comic-book mythology, and themselves, way too seriously.  The movie indulges in a kind of Call of Duty: Black Ops campiness in which tragedy becomes a sordid byproduct of machine-guns and stupid costumes.  Throw in a little Dickensian pathos (orphaned boys in the sewers) and a little Dictatorship of the Proletariat doing the halftime show at the Superbowl and there you have it:  too much, too little, too slate.

All kinds of attempts are made at emotional resonance, but in the end it's just what it is:  a slow-paced, self-indulgent paean to self-indulgence.  And Christian Bale really is the centerpiece of that self-involved sensibility.  When he's not in the Batman get-up he's doing a self-pitying tango with his grown-in-isolation goatee, and when he's in the Batman get-up his voice goes into a chainsaw hyper-masculine contralto that has the humorous suspiciousness of a little kid trying to sound like a big kid.  Anne Hathaway tries her best as the Catwoman, and god love her she seems to be the only soul this movie has.  She plays it for laughs at times, but also seems to get that the seriousness can be used to good effect when you're not pouting and posing all the time.

The whole creepy enterprise is haunted by what happened in Aurora, Colorado of course.  That adds to the strange stupidity of it all, especially when channeled through the arch villain Bane, a Darth-Vader-masked big-mouthed Anglophile thug who spouts Marxist/Leninist bull shit, and who delights in being "eveeeel."

By the end I felt sick and tired of being sick and tired.  All that effort just to make the world seem worse than it is, so a bunch of dumbasses in kinky black outfits can ride around in souped-up helicopters and tanks blasting away at fake concrete buildings. 

At least The Avengers had a sense of humor and proportion.  A little old-fashioned self-consciousness goes a long way.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Ghost Freeway



I just posted this on the Raymond Thunder-Sky blog I manage  (www.raymondthundersky.org):

In October, we asked a few Thunder-Sky fans to come together to help us envision the future for the joint.   One image we all kept coming back to is the wrecking ball.   Many times organizations built to help/support non-traditional, unconventional, just plain weird people end up monuments to the status quo.  One thing we want to ensure with this gig: we always think beyond a building, and we always keep Raymond’s transience and weirdness at the center of our decision-making process.

We are going into the fourth year of Thunder-Sky, Inc., and I guess I could list accomplishments (I have on Facebook and other places), but really what I want to do is theorize a way to be productive and organized without being an Organization.  We're a non-profit, have our 501c3 and all that, in place.  We have a small board and advisory board, but I have intentionally kept all of this as informal as possible so that all the organizational stuff does not infringe on the reason we're doing what we're  doing.  Thunder-Sky, Inc. is an open book, funded mostly through art sales and donations.  We haven't really pursued grants because again I don't want grant proposals to infringe on the reason we're doing what we're doing.  We have not hired anyone to do anything.  We just keep on doing what we do.

For what reason?

To create a gallery/museum/studio/organization/whatever that never becomes an institution of any kind.  "Institution," of course, is a very loaded word.  So let's just get right down to it.  Here's the cold, hard Webster definition:

institution [in-sti-too-shuh n, -tyoo-noun

1.  an organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, especially one of a public, educational, or charitable character: This college is the best institution of its kind. 
2. the building devoted to such work.
3. a public or private place for the care or confinement of inmates, especially mental patients or other disabled or handicapped persons.
4. Sociology . a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage: the institution of the family.

The essence of all these definitions is particularity, devotion, confinement, and structure.  I think we have the particularity and devotion covered; it's the other two that kind of complicate things.  Raymond's nature confounded and perturbed:  he was devoted to escaping confinements of all kinds, and as far as structures, he advocated in almost ever drawing he did the demolition of structures that were often mainstays of culture and society.  Prisons, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes were always on his wrecking-ball's radar.  He seemed to find immense joy in destroying what had taken often decades, maybe even centuries, to construct.  One bold whack of the wrecking-ball, and it's all gone, only to be replaced by what can never really be there:  a card-trick clown-suit factory here, a new ghost freeway there.

Raymond's imagination, in other words, delighted in destruction and disorganization.  And in order to build an organization that is inspired by that chaotic bliss, we need to take into account every step we make organizationally.

This is not an easy sale, of course, in the conventional sense of fundraising, board-building, etc.  It's kind of like a parody of it.

So we try to keep everything as simple as possible.  Small board, no paid staff, a little space, six shows a year, a few shows outside of the space we're in, a Saturday art-making workshop for whoever shows up...

As we try to establish this kind of disorganization/organization, paradoxically building a future for it, we're going to need people on board with us who can bifurcate their thinking, redefine what they think an organization is supposed to be and do, and also perhaps understand the unnerving power of transience.  Raymond was always on the move.  Although he was never homeless, he was always searching for a place to be aesthetically, maybe even spiritually.  He rode the public bus and walked city streets in the hunt of it, always dressed in his scary/sweet clown/construction-worker drag.  His presence often bewildered, and even sometimes agitated, fellow travelers.  He got beat up at times for being that figure.  He probably got used to suspicious stares.  But he knew in his heart that he had to get somewhere.

Can we build an organization based on that disarming impermanence?

I guess we'll see...

In October, we had eight like-minded individuals come together and seem to think that we can.  In February we're going to try another round of brainstorming on the subject...  On Raymond's birthday, February.  Freaks welcome.



Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fart Jokes


I stumbled across The Nutty Professor this week -- the one with Eddie Murphy as a morbidly obese professor who through a labratory mistake turns into a sleek lounge-lizard, a remake of the Jerry Lewis gig.  The center of this daisy though is The Klumps, who would earn top billing in the sequel a couple years later (the one with Janet Jackson in it).  The Klumps make their debut at the dinner table, and it is a tour-deforce, each member of the clan given specific personalities, voices, the works by Murphy the Master Mocker.  But Murphy's performances in this scene, as Papa and Mama Klump, Grandma Klump and Big Bad Brother Klump (with Nephew Klump played by a child actor), are the only soul in an otherwise clunky, soulless movie.  It's kind of like Murphy riffing on The Carol Burnett Show's Family skit, with Burnett as Eunice, and Vickie Lawrence as Mama.  The pleasure of seeing families burlesqued like this is that while the humor is broad and crude it makes you also realize how life is just like that:  broad and crude and stupid and more often than not funny. 

The funniest part of the Klump's dinnertime episode comes from farting.

Papa Klump farts, the Nephew Klump farts, and I think even Grandma Klumps goes at it.  It's a chorus of farts only rivaled by the campfire farting in Blazing Saddles

Which brings me to this show we're going to present next year at Thunder-Sky, Inc. It's about farting.  Why?  Because David Jarred and Kenton Brett, two smart and smart-alecky artists, presented the idea to us:  an art exhibit called "The (f)Art Show."  Just like that.  Okay.  Let's do it. 

Farting seems to be both a metaphor and a condition that brings forth laughter and a universal response.  Plus farting and scatology in general are major motifs throughout literature and art -- beyond movies and TV even.  Take for example selected scenes from Aristophanes' The Clouds, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Miller's Tale, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, James Joyce's Ulysses, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, and so on.  Or take a look at this:


This is a sculptural work by Chinese artist Chen Wenling, his take on the global financial crisis from 2009.  It was this photo, I think, that might have stirred David and Kenton into action.  Anyway, this is a fart joke on a grand scale, using gas as a way to satirize gas-bags.  The glory of it is its total clarity.  Nothing ambiguous about a fart. 

Or as Dante puts it in his famous Divine Comedy (the last line of Inferno Chapter XXI): "Ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta."  Translated:  “And he used his ass as a trumpet.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Welcome to the Hotel Synesthesia


I'm going to write a lot more about the 21C, the new art-museum/hotel that just opened here in Cincinnati for Aeqai, the online art journal I do some stuff for, but I wanted to just bask in the glow of the initial experience of going there.  We went last Friday night, and the place felt haunted and yet brand new simultaneously, packed with artsy middle aged married couples, many wearing the funky, stylized eye wear of Brooklyn hipsters and/or the funky, stylized scarves of ladies who lunch.  It was like a quiet, orderly carnival, with art everywhere, just everywhere, and people drinking in a plush bar, and the whole universe encapsulated by this European wonderfulness:  a classy hotel. 

Most of the art though is a little too rigidly contemporary and chalky and corporate for my taste.  Still I went through and it was a synesthesic experience:   your senses get overloaded not because there's so much to see, but because someone has taken the time to curate and structure so much art and art-like objects you feel like an art orphan trapped in a beautiful art orphanage.

Or Alice wandering room to room, floor to floor. No Mad Hatters though.  Just those whispering artsy middle aged married couples.

My favorite surprise:  a little boardroom on the second floor, claustrophobic and blond-wood-bureaucratic, with several Kara Walker cutouts beautifully framed and installed on all four walls.  Remember that scene in The Empire Strikes Back?  The one where Lando Calrissian fucks over Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO, escorting them to a conference room on Cloud City, and there sits Darth Vader at the breakfast nook?  That's the feeling I got:  a sweet, ironic little shock, Walker's silhouettes providing both respite and a weird, innocent terror.

Myth/Nostalgia/Ache/Absurdity/Beauty


Life of Pi is one of those movies that no longer is a movie in your head after you see it.  It's a pattern of wallpaper from your childhood, a beautiful/horrible incident that you recover from but never get over, a look a school-bus driver gives you in his rear view mirror, a fading sunset in the basement of your best friend's grandma's house after a flood...  In short it's pure poetry with an engine of narrative so efficient you don't feel the story as story, the movie as movie.  You feel the story as myth/nostalgia/ache/absurdity/beauty.  I could go on about how Ang Lee is a genius, about the CGI and the 3D effects, about the brevity and kindness of both the novel and the screenplay...  But I just want to concentrate on the experience of having gone through this "thing."  It's a dream that doesn't linger as much as reverberate, like post traumatic stress disorder. 

And then, toward the end, that tiger Pi loved and needed to love just walking away from him into the darkness of a jungle.  That's wisdom turned inside out, sentiment too.  Nothing means anything, and yet everything is alive with meaning. 

The best movie of the year.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Imagination Is Not Our Escape



Six Degrees of Separation has been haunting my thoughts since I showed it in a disability studies class I'm teaching about alliances and advocacy involving people with and without disabilities.  I wrote a post about the movie a few weeks ago ("Just Fill in the Names"), but now I've read the papers the students in the class wrote about the movie, and I feel inspired.  While not explicitly about disability, Six Degrees focuses on the complicated and emotional relationships forged when people from completely separate cultural and socioeconomic worlds decide to make an alliance.  It's rough stuff.  In the movie, Paul (Will Smith), the African American, gay, homeless kid starving for upscale approval and connection, and Ouisa (Stockard Channing), the rich socialite who loves him and sees his worth despite the circumstances of their meeting, represent two forces coming together and changing one another in ways they could never have foreseen before their collision.  It's life-changing, for everyone involved.

Here's what some of the students wrote:

From Shelby Stanovsek:

"The main character in this film, Ouisa, works for justice because she is willing to look outside of the boundaries and lines that her class of people creates and is willing to accept someone who was not born into a life of privilege...  In the film it is evident that she has developed a deep emotional bond with Paul, and is proud of the work he has done to better himself.  She does not feel he should be punished for lying about his identity because she knows that had he not constructed a fake story to get into their lives, they never would have allowed him the chance, and I think that she admires his bravery and commitment in that regard."

From Hannah Hampton:

"Regardless of the way Paul has taken advantage of them, they still agree to help him.  This is a true portrayal of an ally -- they overlook Paul's flaws and realize he is just a boy who needs help."

From Caitlin Coholich:

"Six Degrees tells the story of how easily alliances can be made; however it also shows how easily they can vanish."

From Jennifer McMillan:

"Ouisa doesn't fully transcend the boundaries of her upper-class lifestyle until the very end of the movie when she ultimately and fully rejects the society and the imagination-starved life she had been living.  The fact like Paul was black and homeless is perhaps what kept the alliance between Paul and Ouisa alive for as long as it was.  He was the opposite of what she symbolized, and this enabled her to enter an opposite world by connecting to him.  Ouisa was a controlled person before she met Paul.  Paul completely turned Ouisa's life into chaos.  However, chaos is not always a negative experience.  What comes from chaos is often a rebirth, an invigoration."

From Tori Evans:

"Paul stated in the movie, 'The imagination is not our escape.  On the contrary, the imagination is the place we are all trying to get to.'  He wanted people to expand their stereotypes and prejudices and see others not for their color, sexuality or class."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bondage


Skyfall, the new James Bond film, is exhilarating to watch to the point you forget it's a total retread.  The whole purpose of Bond movies now, of course, is aggrandizing deja vu, finding pleasure in reinventing what has been reinvented to the point it's no longer cliche, just a kind of movie-movie shorthand.  Skyfall is one of the best examples of taking formula and reformulating it to create a little shock to spice up nostalgia.  And its first five or six minutes are probably one of the best action-picture sequences in the history of movies:  car crashes, motorcycles zooming over roofs, a speeding train with two men fighting atop it.  It's an old-school triumph of style over logic.  The ending, as well, has an early-90s independent-movie vibe to go along with its crashing helicopters and armed groups of bald mustached men.  It takes place in a small Scottish church, and delivers a dramatic punch in the gut that evens has tears rolling down 007's cheeks.

Daniel Craig plays Bond as if he is in a trance, all blue-eyed soullessness, his anger engineered to create simple solutions to very complicated problems.  And Judi Dench, as M, is so beautifully understated in her portrayal of power-hunger and regret, she practically steals the show. 

One part of the retread pleasure that doesn't work for me is Javier Bardem's supervillain, Silva.  Bardem is an incredible ham, and it is always a joy to watch him ham it up, but in Skyfall the character does not deserve such deliberation and vigor.  Silva is a one-note psycho, and is particularly sad because of the way the screenwriters define him:  he is disfigured from a botched suicide attempt, and that disfigurement becomes the reason he is what he is, that disability defining him.  He also has dyed blond hair and eyebrows, and a sort of proto-effeminacy that borders on camp:  a guttural, grotesque prissiness that makes it seem like Silva's insatiable villainy is unspooling from Silva's "monstrous" (at least in the moral code of the Bond movies) sexuality.  In one of the first scenes between Bond and Silva, Bardem plays Silva like a catty homo happy to be indulging in a little kink.  With Mr. Bond helpless, strapped to a chair, Silva opens Bond's shirt and licks his lips and it's awkward not because of the gay vibe as much as what the gay vibe is being used for:  to define good and evil.  It's a quick way to divide the universe.

Even when you indulge in retreading a retread after 50 years of service, you still need to rethink the villainy just as much as the heroism.  Isn't there a way to create "evil" without making it feel like gay-bashing?  Can a villain not have a facial disfigurement and still be evil?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just Fill in the Names

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we're so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection... I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. 

Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degree of Separation, a play and screenplay written by John Guare




I've blogged a few other times about the Disabilities Studies class I'm teaching this semester at Miami U.  It's titled, "(Dis)Ability Allies:  Making It Work," and basically we've been trying as a class to figure out how authentic, effective, meaningful relationships among people with and without disabilities happen, and once we figure out how they happen -- how we can ensure these alliances provide ways to address social injustices, including decolonizing people who have often been relegated to institutions, both logistical and cultural.  

In trying to come up with unique and fresh texts to talk about along those lines, I remembered a movie that came out almost 20 years ago that is completely about how human relationships can change the course of people's lives irrevocably, and how hard and gut-wrenching that process is.  Six Degrees of Separation, written by John Guare and directed by Fred Schepisi, tells the true story of a homeless, gay, African American man who conned his way into the homes of the upper-classes in New York City during the early 80s by claiming he was the son of Sidney Poitier.  The story centers around that man, named Paul, and one of the people he connected with, Ouisa Kittredge, the wife of an art-dealer with children at Harvard and Groton.  Ouisa, in the film, is played by Stockard Channing, and Paul by Will Smith.  Paul and Ouisa make an alliance despite the fractured, fraudulent way they meet, and through the course of the film that connection pulls Ouisa away from her comfortable life of nights at the opera, upscale fundraisers, and champagne luncheons.  She actually feels a maternal impulse toward Paul, and Paul finds succoring shelter in her presence. 

They make an odd, and oddly poignant couple, and as Ouisa realizes that she may have more in common with Paul than she does her own children, husband and society, she starts to disconnect from that world.  Finally, in a penultimate scene, during a stylish brunch peopled with the cream of the crop of Manhattan culture, Ouisa loses it.  By this time, Paul has been found and arrested and he has disappeared into the prison system.  By this time, as well, Flan, Ouisa's husband, has used the Story of Paul as a way to aggrandize himself and his status; their relationship with Paul is now a piece in the New York Times about how the Kittredges were bamboozled because they were so kind and openhearted and gullible. 

Ouisa wants to correct this narrative.  She has made an authentic alliance with someone so alien to her existence she does not want him to become an anecdote.  At that elegant starchy affair Ouisa tells the crowd that she loves Paul.  It shocks the room.  She ends up stomping off, eventually separating not only from her husband, but from the world they have always occupied together.  Her connection to Paul is both freeing and terrifying, in that it rips away the restraints and manners of charity and replaces it with actual empathy, a state of grace that does not allow for sentimentality.

That alliance between Paul and Ouisa never comes to full fruition in the movie.  In fact, it is thwarted.  But that's not important.  Ouisa's desire to go beyond charity, as the privileged person in the relationship, is what the movie is about, and what possibly will spur her on to make changes in her own, and in other people's lives that have meaningful ramifications.  It takes someone who has power and connections and resources to help people like Paul break out of the colonization that has always kept people like Ouisa and Flan feeling safe and secure.  Ouisa abdicates her power in order to love Paul.  In other words, being an ally to people normally shut out of the conversation (people with disabilities included) is not a touchy-feely exercise.  It is often about sacrifices you never intended to make, but have to in order to stay sane.

Here are the questions I asked the class to answer in order to draft a short paper...

How does the film deal with alliance issues?


• Hostility & rejection leveled at ally by majority: 

• Stigmatized by association with marginalized

• Dismissed by majority for giving up privilege



How does, or does not, the main character:

• Work for justice?

• Work with passion?

• Seek immediate change?

• Work to effect long term change?


How do Class and Race factor into making, and sustaining, alliances in the film?

I'll be reading their papers this weekend and will share some of what they've written here on the blog soon...


Saturday, October 13, 2012

The New Abysmal



Ryan Murphy's The New Normal is a sitcom that has a prefabricated and self-congratulatory smarm all its own.  It feels so plastic that you want to throw it into the recycle bin in hopes it gets turned into something quiet and useful, like maybe a beach ball or an umbrella.  When it goes caustic and mean, in the guise of Ellen Barkin's caricature of a conservative Ohio grandma, it comes off as gay self-hatred championing openmindedness, and when it goes all sweet and kind it feels like a horrible cartoon of actual feeling.  Everybody in it is so amped up that there's no human left -- just these off-kilter stereotypes chiming in, like Murphy's Glee without one speck of glee, added to a propensity to be offensive just for shits and giggles.  The two gay guys are having a baby with a blond, dewy-eyed surrogate straight out of central casting who has a daughter who I think was cloned from the twee little girl twerp in Little Miss Sunshine

The three or so episodes I've seen play out like parodies of some other show about two gay guys having a baby with a blond surrogate that's not that good but at least might be trying harder to get at something beyond the homosexual/heterosexual divide.   The New Normal has a distinct Romney era feel, as if Murphy and his creative team are prematurely welcoming in a new kind of zeitgeist in which gay people and straight people live separate lives and only come together for baby-making and bitching at each other. 

God help us.  What's the word?  Forward.  This thing is backwards to the extreme.
       

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

One of Those Things

Ms. Apple

An Anthony Luensman neon ladder.

Saturday night I saw Fiona Apple at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, downtown Cincinnati.  Her performance conjured many images, many reactions inside my skull:

  • Carrie right after the bucket of pig's blood gets dumped all over her head.
  • This bit from "Lady Lazarus":  Herr God, Herr Lucifer/Beware/Beware.  Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.
  • That movie where the teenaged girl gets all mean and nuts with her mom, Thirteen.
  • Edward Munch's The Scream.
  • Holden Caulfield after a beautiful sex-change.
But beneath all that floated something I had seen next door to the Aronoff, at the art gallery, in a one-man show called "Taint."  Anthony Luensman is the artist.  The show itself is kind of creepy and old-school-contemporary.  Like Jeffrey Daumer went on a shopping spree at Ikea, or Andy Warhol's ghost is thinking way too much about "desire."  But the one object/image that stood out from the show -- and that kind of fused with Ms. Apple's demonic/angelic/bipolar/mercuric/girl-pissed-off-because-you-did-not-call-her-back voice -- was a white neon ladder in the basement gallery there.  It shoots up off the floor and crashes through the ceiling tiles, and its eerie, funky glow shines inside and across the ceiling so that wires and insulation and pipes become a secret that is being told.  Ms. Apple's voice and that ladder intertwined while I listened, and I could almost close my eyes and start to climb up the artificial light bars into a metaphysical ceiling, like that voice and that ladder merged into both a way to escape fury and to somehow blend into its heavenly glow.

None of what I felt or heard or saw in my head was meant to be connected.  It was total serendipity.  But somehow Luensman's ladder and Ms. Apple's voice were meant to be combined into that one moment when there's perfection that was never intended.  That's when art works the best for me.  When it is unintentional, stupidly intertwined, momentary, and oddly blissful. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What Is the Point?

Two things are coming together this year for me, and somehow the main nexus of this connection hits me hardest when I'm teaching the Disabilities Studies class at Miami on Wednesday nights.  It's a class about how to create alliances with people with disabilities, so it's built around first and foremost trying to understand the history and the social/cultural/economic/political ramifications of that history.  And mainly the historical aspects,  especially for those folks labeled developmentally disabled, are pretty much horrific.  For much of the 20th Century, they got disappeared, sent off to State Schools and other places a lot of the time, and even when they were not removed they were relegated to sub par environments created to "fix" them, and  in order to make a better world for everybody else. 


Antonio Adams standing in front of a portrait of Raymond Thunder-Sky in the Thunder-Sky, Inc. Gallery.

The mural Antonio designed and executed with help from Artworks, on the side of the building where Visionaries and Voices is located.

A Raymond drawing Antonio "finished," in the permanent collection of the Museum of Everything in London.


So far we've talked about eugenics, Goddard and the Kallikaks, Special Education, ADAPT, the American with Disabilities Act, Applecreek and Orient (two large and terrible institutions in Ohio that were eventually shut down), and other aspects of disability history.  We've also focused on how to decolonize and deconstruct attitudes and reactions, as you enter into relationships with people with disabilities that are meant to be kind and helpful. 

Often "help," in the way we approach people with disabilities, becomes a way to control and to erase and to make ourselves feel better.

I'm using "colonization" as a gateway into many ideas in class, hoping that metaphor with its contexts of Diasporas, plantations and ghettos bleeds over into the way we understand nursing homes, hospitals, day programs, special education classrooms, and other institutional settings  people with disabilities so often were (and still are) consigned to.  That turn from thinking of institutions and services as "charity" and "necessary" toward seeing them often as places to house and group in order to "fix" and "erase" is the hardest rhetorical and moral move to make.

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.”  (Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization:  A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason)

Which brings me to:  Antonio Adams and Raymond Thunder-Sky.  Right now I'm also getting ready to write an article about Antonio and his relationship with Raymond for Raw Vision, an outsider art magazine.  I've invited Antonio to come to the Disabilities Studies class, as a lecturer.  The main reason I did this is that I am beginning to understand now what happened with Visionaries and Voices and me.  I feel more than a little disillusioned about the whole thing.  I started out trying to make my relationship with Antonio and Raymond and other artists with disabilities Bill and I met as authentic and systems-less as possible, meaning I never thought in a million years meeting up with them would have been the genesis of a day program.  That was very naive, because one of the main reasons I met them was because I was a systems-worker. 

In fact the whole time I did what I did for Visionaries and Voices I never saw it as constructing an institution.  I saw it as a renegade enterprise in which people of all sorts, all classes and creeds and weirdnesses, combined their talents to make a big impression.  That's Utopia, I know, but I didn't even understand the limits and dangers of thinking that way either.  Because day to day I did whatever I could to make Visionaries and Voices secure.  I wrote grants, I helped hire people, I pushed and pulled to make it have a "revenue stream" outside of the grants and donations, eventually advocating for it to be funded by Medicaid, with its very colonizing rules and regulations.  But even as I stubbornly fixated on sustaining Visionaries and Voices as it grew from informal art shows to finding a studio space to hiring a studio coordinator to finding a bigger studio space and hiring more studio coordinators to finding two studio spaces and getting Medicaid involved to coming up with a Table of Organization, etcetera, etcetera., I still did not get the ramifications until it was too late.  And as the number of artists involved in the effort grew from three or four to forty to fifty, and as their statuses as "artists" sharing materials and ideas became closer to "clients" sharing staff,  all I thought about was:  let's keep this thing going.

I hypnotized myself into believing once Visionaries and Voices was fiscally and organizationally sound, THEN the real work would begin. 

What was the real work?  Oddly enough, for me, the real work was ensuring that Visionaries and Voices was the opposite of a day program, the synonym of an institution.  Oddly enough, it has turned into a day program, a well-run one with much the same spirit as what we all began with, but what's missing is that sense of "systems-lessness," that sense of breaking free from the structures that created the colonization of people with developmental disabilities in the first place.  In other words, in Foucault's words,  I knew what I was doing; frequently I knew why I did what I was doing; but what I didn't know is what what I did does. 

The joint.

A poetry reading at the joint.

Opening night of Antonio's show, "Unrealized and Unforeseen."

The real work for me is right now, as we try to build a gallery and a studio that is not about charity or Medicaid funding, but a serious reinvention of what "disability" and "outsider art" can mean, without the need for constant fundraising and without the tendency to label people so you can raise awareness about their labels so you can fund the programs that will help them be a part of the community.  

Thunder-Sky, Inc. is the gig now -- a small, storefront gallery in Cincinnati that sponsors six exhibits a year.  It's a non-profit enterprise but without a lot of frills and machinations.  No telethons.  No silent auctions.  We incorporated in 2009, and Antonio is the Artist-in-Residence.  And so far we've been able to keep it going through art sales and private donations that aren't based on the "disability" trope, but on the idea that people need an unpretentious, unofficial, beautifully unique gallery space in their midst.  The shows and mission aren't based on anything except Raymond's unique life and legacy.

Antonio and Raymond were artists I met coincidentally, because I have a connection to the system that supplies services to people with developmental disabilities.  I loved their work, though, not because of their diagnoses or because it had anything to do with systems, but because I simply loved their work and the way they went about making it:  stonecold dedication, without a lot of help from anybody.  I was adamant my connection to the system would not dictate the way I tried to help them, and yet in the end it did.  I wasn't a great ally because I was focused on "helping" them in a generalized, charity-based fashion.  I thought by doing this I would end up "helping" a lot of people. 

Maybe I did, but in the end I kind of regret it because Utopia did not occur.  A day program did. 

I'm not whining.  Of course, Utopia never occurs.  Visionaries and Voices is a wonderful thing.  But it's not the thing I intended, even though it is everything I thought it was supposed to be.  Maybe that's contradictory and selfish and silly, but it's my truth.  And as I try to think and rethink and theorize about how to best "help" people with disabilities now I feel like I always need to start off with a warning:  try to know implicitly what you do does.  Try to figure out as you try to help what that "help" means morally and ethically and culturally, so that what you're adding to the whole mix isn't yet another version of what's happened so many times before.

A painting of Raymond by Antonio.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beautiful Souls




"Holding Hands for Safety" is in my collection of stories The Smallest People Alive, available on Amazon...
 
L. A. Fields, a sweet and kind MFA student from Chicago,  messaged me about answering a few questions she had about what I do fiction-wise for a class she's in.  Here goes...

I looked up the anthology where I first found “Holding Hands For Safety” (in Men on Men 7) and found a review calling your story “fierce and funny,” which is not at all the impression I got (it seems very quiet and serious to me). How would you characterize this story? Or at least what is the impression you hoped to give with it?


It’s both funny and sad to me, and I don’t think you can have either in a story like that without both humor and tragedy working at the same time together to get you through. That said, I also think the class aspect of everything I write can sometimes be misinterpreted as insouciance and “black comedy,” when really it’s just the way people live, point-blank. Poor people, like rich people, have beautiful idiosyncrasies – it’s just that rich people often have more elaborate and intricate ways of hiding those idiosyncrasies, or to transform them into sweet little eccentricities. When Flannery O’Connor talked about why many of her stories featured “white-trash” people, she said something about how many of her characters are stripped of manners and decorum, and that allows the reader to look into their souls. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist. And I think in “Holding Hands for Safety,” all the characters are stripped down to their essences to the point you have access to their souls, and while those souls might be a little ugly and a little worn out, they are beautiful souls none-the-less, especially the souls of the three main characters: the teenaged gay narrator, his punk step-cousin, and the six-year-old girl the step-cousin kills.

You said in an interview with Donald Ray Pollock that you’ve written another novel since The Life I Lead—would you mind telling me what it’s about, and if it’s any closer to finding a home?

Actually it’s Holding Hands for Safety turned into a novel, funny enough. I opened up the story to include many other points of view (including Courtney and Troy), and what happens after the murder. It’s going around now to different places. No good news, yet. Or maybe ever. But I keep trying. That’s the essence of all this stuff: you can’t get deterred. I have a draft of another novel I’m working on now called Johnson City Divas. It’s a homage to James M. Cain and other noir writers. It’s kind of like Mildred Pierce spliced with Jean Genet. A middle-aged drag-queen who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee is one of the central characters. I liked the idea of going with a plot-driven gig for a change. In The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Cain’s plots have both an artificial dexterity and a weird existential necessity. It’s the nexus between reality and phoniness where murderers live. A lovely place for a story.

Having written both novels and short stories, which do you enjoy writing best? Are there differences in how you approach long and short pieces of fiction?

I like writing short stories, but then I get sick of them because I want the terrain of a planet instead of the intimacy of a condo. But they go well together, and most of the novels I write come from the short stories. They intermingle. And some of my favorite novels, actually, read like collections of interrelated short stories. The best I’ve read recently: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Us and Them


I'm teaching a Disability Studies class at Miami University this semester titled "Allies and Activists."  It's been great so far, as we delve into the meanings and absurdities around the way people with disabilities often have been relegated and erased, and how we might counteract the erasure and relegation through thoughtfully considering how to create "alliances" and forms of "acitivism" that actually matter.  This post is a combination of a lot of the stuff we've been doing and talking about... 

Image from Lest We Forget:  Silent Voices, a documentary about Ohio's institutions for people with developmental disabilities.  The film includes interviews with "disability professionals," parents and other family members, and people who lived in the institutions when they were open.   

Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized:  "The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity.  They are this.  They are all the same."

In the classes we've had so far we've discussed how representations and ideas about people with disabilities are often about Us and Them, "Us" being people who consider themselves "able," and "Them" being the colonized other, a mass of people separated from civilization often in order to "fix" them, or to protect us from them.  This historical vantage point allows us to understand why, even in a contemporary society that prides itself on the integration of people with disabilities into the mainstream, actual inclusion hardly ever happens.  When a group of people are colonized and then decolonized, the apparatus and attitudes that created the colonization in the first place still exist -- only now in a still pervasive yet more hidden form.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization:   "Modern man no longer communicates with the madman [...] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence."      

Without a "common language" (outside of the language imposed by medical professionals), the colonized (people with disabilities) and the colonizer (everybody else) don't have to speak to one another.  The colonizer can maintain a "silence" for the rest of time, comfortable in the fact that a language isn't necessary unless someone needs to be diagnosed or told what their IQ is.  We've done a lot of in-class writing about what "power" means in the lives of people with disabilities, and how people not labeled with a disability often participate unknowingly in a power structure that keeps Us away from Them.  The power of  Us comes from that lack of a language spoken by both sides:  whoever controls the one-sided mechanism to speak and label, to assign and diagnose, wins. 

We read and discussed Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, as well as watched Lest We Forget: Silent Voices, a documentary paying witness to the historical horrors of some of Ohio's large institutions for people with developmental disabilities.  Both Kesey's novel and the documentary try to create a language for the other side of colonization.  In Cuckoo's Next, this language is created and spoken by a Native American who is labeled "deaf and mute."  Chief Bromden is the storyteller within the colony of "insane people," and as he tells us about McMurphy's struggles with Nurse Ratched (whom the Chief calls "Big Nurse"), we begin to understand how devastatingly and existentially vast the inside of the insane ward truly is, so immense that the Chief nicknames it "the Combine," defining the institution, and therefore the culture that operates and adminstrates it, as a machine so anonymously huge no one recognizes it as a machine except those who are being processed into it and eventually consumed by it.  "Big Nurse" is at the controls of this Combine, overseeing a strategy of rewarding and punishing that allows for no critique and no escape.  

Lest We Forget creates a language and a dialogue from the actual voices and images of the inhabitants of large institutions for people with developmental disabilities, showing us how groups of people when housed together in order to be "fixed" are actually massed together so we can forget about them.   In Lest We Forget, we pointed out the alliances among the "inmates" of the institutions and the "professionals" in charge of "fixing" them.  All of these alliances are complicated by the fact that they take place within the confines created by the dominant class, in the shadow of the Combine.  In Lest We Forget, people who lived through abuse narrate what happened to them, while professionals apologize and seem mystified as to how it could have occurred.  These alliances between the colonized and the colonizer both nurture the need to be free from confinement while also maintaining that confinement, eliminating the possibility of making a difference though activism.  "Freedom" is not possible within the Combine.  The voices, both fictional and not, in Cuckoo's Nest and Lest We Forget, attest to the need for alliances outside of the colony, while also showing us how ineffective these alliances are unless they help to dismantle the Combine, allowing actual freedom to occur. 

Jack Nicholson as McMurphy in the film version of One Flew over the Cucko's Nest.
Last week we talked about Million Dollar Baby, and how its narrative about euthanasia is a direct result of how "Us and Them"can become a death sentence.  This quote from Ragged Edge, a disability rights magazine, is from the essay we read in Representing Disability in an Ableist World:  Essays on Mass Media, by Beth A. Haller:

"Life with a disability is so devalued, society is so bigoted against the idea that life with a severe disability can have quality, that in such a climate the 'right to die' becomes a 'duty to die.' Activists fear that people who become disabled will choose suicide over living with disability. They fear that people whose disabilities make them burdens on family members will be pressured -- subtly or not so subtly -- to end their lives."

Million Dollar Baby is about that "duty to die," a narrative constructed around "dependence" and "independence," in which once you find yourself dependent on help all hope is lost.  Hillary Swank's character is a boxer who has spent most of her life on a quest to be great, but at the end of the film when she is injured and has to reassess who she is and what she wants to do there are no choices except being snuffed out.   When you consider how over-praised the film was upon its release (winning lots  of Academy Awards, including Best Picture), you get the idea: in America at least being dependent on support = being a pariah. 

Eastwood and Swank in Million Dollar Baby.
We then looked at Mitt Romney's statement from the previous day.  Romney was secretly videotaped by someone with a camera-phone at a fundraising event.  Romney was talking about people who are "dependent" and "victims," relying on the government for their "food and healthcare and housing."  While Romney was not explicitly talking about people with disabilities, the dichotomy he was using to tap into the collective unconscious (and the deep pockets) of his audience is pretty clear:  "Us," the independent and healthy masses versus "Them," the dependent and not-so healthy Other. 



So where's the hope?

Since this class is about understanding how to form sane and productive alliances with people with disabilities in order to affect some kind of overarching change in the way we both support and relegate them, we found some hope, I think, when we looked at another recent incident that was captured by a cell-phone camera.  Bede Vanderhorst, a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome, was kicked out of First Class on an American Airlines flight by the pilot because, as the pilot states, Bede seemed "agitated" while sitting in the waiting area before boarding the plane.  Robert and Joan, Bede's parents, tried to stand up for their kid, but the American Airlines staff seemed very adamant.  The cell-phone footage showed Bede sitting in the waiting area doing really nothing, and they also videotaped airplane staff being discriminatory.  "Us" versus "Them" in this instance got redefined through the use of a common language:  mass media.  Bede's mom and dad went to CNN and other outlets and told their story, backed up by the footage they had shot.  The alliance they have made with their son, in the capacity of standing up for him, is one way in which the power structure gets redefined.  In the news-story we watched, they showed pictures of Bede playing in a rock band, going to school, being a part of the world -- in effect pulling him away from the colony we often assign him to.  He was no longer in the Colony of Down Syndrome:  he was now a teenaged boy being discriminated against.        


We also watched a movie called Lars and the Real GirlLars and the Real Girl was released in 2007 to not a lot of acclaim. The premise sounds like a bad joke, which is probably why the movie did not get as much notice as it should have. Lars is a functional recluse who lives in the garage behind the house where he grew up. His brother and sister-in-law live in the house-proper. The sister-in-law, Karen, is trying desperately to include Lars in their domesticity, even at one time tackling him out in the snow to ensure he makes it to dinner. As played by Emily Mortimer, Karen is the beating, beautiful heart of the movie: someone so guileless and sweet that she feels the need to enforce kindness, not just give it. An example of an alliance transforming into advocacy and activism.

And that's also the way many of the townspeople in Lars and the Real Girl come across throughout the rest of the film. When Lars orders a fake girl through the Internet (and it's a salacious website he gets it from, advertising poor lost lonely orphan-girls to be adopted by poor lost lonely old men), and the girl arrives, you expect the movie to lurch into simpleminded, mean-spirited comedy.  But the triumph of the film is that it takes that low-grade concept (lonely loser purchases a fake doll to make love to) and elevates it by paying attention to what the fake girl means.  In order to move Bianca (the fake girl) around Lars imagines a disability for her, so he has to get a wheelchair for her. Bianca, his first love, is a woman with a disability, and yet the townspeople, when asked to help Lars through his delusion by believing in it along with him by the local family doctor, take Bianca into their midst as one of their own. They provide her with a job at the mall as a model, and eventually she is even voted onto the schoolboard. In her vacantness and in her pliability, Bianca becomes a perfect symbol for human kindness.

Ryan Gosling and Bianca in church:  "Us versus Them" gets turned inside out.
Lars is as well a person with a disability: loneliness manifesting itself into a delusion, some kind of mental illness, I'm sure, but what the movie does is dramatize not the internal aspects of "being diagnosed and fixed," but the external ones many movies about people with disabilities miss. When Lars goes to a party with Bianca, there are stares and comments, but there's also this feeling that somehow Lars is using Bianca to let people know how human he is too, and how much he needs. He could never tell them that upfront, so Bianca becomes his visual cue, and we see him and what is "wrong with him" through innocent eyes. His attention to Bianca, his devotion to her, becomes as natural and real as any romance in movies can be.

"Disability" gets deconstructed because the secrecy and shame usually connected to a story like Lars' are not there. He is openly courting a fake girl he ordered over the Internet, and guess what? Everyone in town is in on it. The "disabilities" inherent in both Bianca and Lars' bodies and persona are somehow "owned" by everyone, and in the end a sort of catharsis happens. Us becomes Them; Them becomes Us. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Falling Down




In GQ this month is an excerpt of a book about Joe Paterno by Joe Posnanski ("Joe Paterno's Last Season" in GQ) that totally rips your heart out.  In this media age where scandal becomes pablum for the baby-masses, Posnanski's excerpt does something to your system:  real feeling gets a chance at the tap-dance, and when that happens suddenly the world is askew.  In the midst of writing Paterno's authorized biography, Posnanski had access to the interior of Paterno's psyche and environment during the sturm and drang of last winter, when indictments were being handed out to Penn State elite concerning their willful ignorance when it came to pedophilia.  In other words, right when the Sandusky shit hits the fan, we are granted access to the sorrow and lack of pity as Papa Joe and his wife and kids and grandkids get put through the mill by media and politicians and more crushingly the members of the Penn State Board of Directors.  The narration is stone-cold realism.  Paterno comes across as a completely lost soul, wandering through the Museum of Himself his life has become.  Think King Lear with nothing to hand over to his descendants, quadrupling the tragedy and also making it seem absurdly unfair, even though Paterno probably did ignore evil.  It's as if Sandusky's actions polluted an entire universe, and got in through the Paterno home's pipes and vents.  At one point, Paterno is sobbing the day after his firing, walking around that modest Happy Valley home.  It makes you realize how fragile and fleeting everything is.  That's a cliche of course, but when it's conveyed in the flesh it alters the way you take everything in.  At 86, Paterno's whole world is wiped away, deservedly so perhaps, but Posnanki's writing doesn't pontificate -- just gives us a portrait of brokenness so astute and sad you marvel at how riotously and unassailably cruel fate is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vonnegut's Ballerinas



Kurt Vonnegut wrote the short story "Harrison Bergeron" in 1961, but 51 years later it still has a sting. It's a cautionary tale about trying to make everyone "equal," and the story goes:

Harrison Bergeron is a handsome 7-foot-tall teenager who in the year 2081 is in prison because he is not handicapped enough. The dystopia of the story is one in which the federal government makes everyone "equal" by "handicapping" them. The chief administrator of this program is the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. The story is framed by Bergeron's parents, who are sitting and watching a ballet on TV in their home. Both are "handicapped" in different ways. Since Harrison's mother has average intelligence, she is not "handicapped," but Harrison's father, who is above normal, is: he has a little device in his brain that sends out electrical shocks if he thinks too much. Plus the father has a 48-pound bag of buckshot strapped to him to physically make him equal. On TV, the ballerinas are also handicapped in the same manner. They also have to wear masks, the uglier the mask, the more beautiful the ballerina. In the middle of their dance, Harrison escapes from his bondage, strips away all the impediments bestowed upon him by the Handicapper General on live TV, and proclaims himself emperor, taking one of the ballerinas as his empress. In the end, Harrison is shot by Diana Moon Glampers, right on TV, right between the eyes. And the story ends with Harrison's mom and dad seeing the execution, but then forgetting about it a few seconds later.

I haven't read Vonnegut in many years. The desire to revisit this story came to me as I was thinking about artists with disabilities, what "outsider art" means, and all the whole weird, unnecessary routes we take to describe how we value art and artists, as well as how we construct "disability."

Reading the story again I see that often good intentions, like ensuring that everyone is equal, and that "handicaps" don't "matter," can be an unproductive experiment, because in altering the playing field to make everyone the same, you also lose the main reason you are playing.

Viewing and consuming visual art, without judgment, without the construct of geniuses and amateurs, is a boring, sad endeavor: "Everything is beautiful in its own way," Ray Stevens once sang, and boy is that really not a great song. What Vonnegut's story seems to be getting at is the absurdity of even wanting to create a Utopia based on making everyone the same.

Schools and programs often try to do this when dealing with "disabilities." They try to create a fake level playing field through programs like Everybody Counts where kids are told to put on blindfolds to pretend to be blind, a pretty explicit example, but also through "political correctness" often dictating that "We are all the same." We aren't. And by pretending to be, or by trying to enforce some kind of equality based on "disabling" yourself, you lose the essence of what "disability" and "ability" mean.

In looking at art created by people with developmental disabilities, this means that there are geniuses and amateurs within that demographic (of course). In other words, not every person with a developmental disability who makes art is an "artist." Not every person with a developmental disability has a keen, instinctive visual instinct, or even an urge to create. 

Setting up "arts programs," then, for people with developmental disabilities, and setting up an art studio are two very different situations. If you don't make this initial distinction, this "discrimination," then you start "handicapping" the actual "artists" in any program by enforcing the program's vision: everyone is equal here.

Not true.

Sometimes art can be used as the great equalizer, but art never equalizes: it discriminates because it needs to. Without discrimination, pictures, sculptures, and other works of art lose their meaning, and all you end up with is a wall full of smudges, a free-for-all. Art constantly creates and re-creates its own rules, aesthetics, judgments, and definitions through constructing "inspiration" and valuing it. Once you try to eliminate those albeit made-up distinctions, art becomes anything you want it to be. At the end of the day, that is a very depressing notion to me.

Look at Vonnegut's ballerinas in "Harrison Bergeron." All of them masked and weighted down, dancing but not dancing, trying to make sure they are all doing the same thing in the same way. They don't want to end up hurting anyone's feelings.

True Bromance



Louis CK's TV show Louie (on FX Thursday nights) is a merging of all kinds of different worlds and sensibilities, a collage hodgepodge of moments captured in a cinema-verite' style that somehow transcends both movies and sitcoms.  As I watch each new episode I get the feeling Louis is referencing literature, not pop culture, and yet there's nothing starchy or explicit in those literary references.  He isn't doing Shakespeare, God knows, or even John Cheever, but there's a feeling inside each of his little 24-minute movies on Thursday nights that has the deft charm and seriousness of a really good short story written by someone who wants to both manufacture a masterpiece and also try to reconfigure what a "masterpiece" means in this really crazy and kind of creepy Reality-TV day and age.  

The transcendence and ambitiousness seems to emanate from the man himself.  A lumpy, embarrassed, middle-aged guy with a look of hope turning into hopelessness in his eyes at all times, Louis' character on the show is an avatar for the man himself of course, but it's not a docudrama or docucomedy by any means.  The show has a sloppy sense of continuity on purpose (different actors play the same characters sometimes in the same episode), but a strict sense of aesthetic purpose.  Louis always gets that 1970s Sidney-Lumet/Francis-Ford-Coppola light just right, and the romance of that smoky melancholic attention to detail gives the show a way out of itself.

The best episode I've seen so far this season details a trip Louie takes to Miami, in order to perform stand up.  The details pile up slowly and dreamily:  an anonymous hotel room facing a crowded beach, Louie overeating on a plush hotel bed, Louie adventuring out to the beach in black clothes, leaving his wallet and clothes on a beach-chair so he can go for a swim.  And then one of the staff taking the beach chair away while Louie is swimming.  Louie panics.  The lifeguard on duty thinks he's drowning.  The lifeguard in this case is a gorgeous, dreamy-eyed Cuban.  Louie and the lifeguard become fast friends in a breezy series of encounters that reminds you of those first friendships you make on playgrounds as a kid -- an intensity that far outweighs the significance of the acquaintance.  Louie basically falls in love with this guy.  The sexual implications aren't hilarious, in the way they might be on other sitcoms.  There are no easy jokes here, just easy access to human emotions.  By the end of the show, you totally understand how a straight middle-aged guy can fall in love with a young male lifeguard, and not because the older guy is horny or closeted, but because he feels all alone.  That might be one of the best examples of "gay" ever put on TV, dislocating static binaries, and providing enough space for actual feeling.

Louie is a TV show that somehow matters.  In a world overwhelmed with media and bull-shit and pundits, Louis CK has staked a claim to simple, effective, beautifully shot authenticity. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Oceania




Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is one of those albums that defines any space and time it's played in.  It has an atmospheric soul, and a sense of playfulness and seriousness that reminds me of Joni Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns:  long, jazzy, sophisticated pop songs that linger among themselves like people inside a crowded beach-house party, sipping cocktails and relaxing and chatting, but also the whole she-bang layered with a communal understanding that all of it's a big beautiful dream. 

Music like this doesn't come along very often, and Ocean seems to know this rarity instinctively.  Each song has its own distinct sense of itself, as if every note has its own monogrammed towel, every melody its own golden bracelet.  Love songs kick into meditations, meditations turn themselves into flocks of birds.  One of the best songs on Orange is a low-down-gorgeous wake-up call called "Crack Rock."  Its energy comes from inside a glassy intelligence, like sunlight captured in a mirror.  Another great one is called "Sweet Life," a long lush ballad ensconced in a tricky, lacy rap that details the lives of a lost generation while also celebrating the sweet nothingness of it all.  "Pyramids" is a Prince- from-1999 centerpiece that has a heavy heart but a whimsical, ecstatic soul.

But it's not one song that seems to be the point:  it's an accumulation of words, music, atmospheres, tones, all of that providing a plush escape from the way soul and R&B music has been trapped inside itself for so long.

Ocean has discovered a new planet with this album.  Let's call it Oceania.  I want to live there.
 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ain't America Beautiful?







Artist Danny Evans photoshops the hell out of famous celebrities, turning them into people just like us.  It's an amazing and beautiful metamorphosis, each photo poignant in a way short stories in little magazines are poignant.  It's as if Bobbie Ann Mason and Andy Warhol had a baby.  There's a meditation in here somewhere about beauty/ugliness, but what the real kick is:  each celeb's "look," even when brought back down to earth, has a strange and hypnotic power because someone took an ugly stick to them.  Call it the Charlize Theron Monster Factor.  Evans isn't just making  superstars look like "regular people" here -- he's foregrounding class, and showing how we somehow "see" people in whole new ways when the context shifts and the joke melts away.  Its a gallery of grotesques he's made, but the grotesquery is ours, and ain't America beautiful?  

These stars now have majestic lower-middle-class others enjoying themselves at gun-and-knife shows, clocking in at their dead-end jobs, standing in line at Chick-Fil-A on Hate-the-Faggots Day.  But also look at their faces:  they're the same people before, during and after.  The transformation is fleeting; they morph in and out like strobe-lights. 

My fave is Gwyneth Paltrow.  I think she would be my friend.

I'm also thinking about Antonio Adams, my favorite artist, and his new show coming up at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Antonio is doing the same cultural and aesthetic work Evans is doing, only instead of accessing software, he uses magic marker and a more authentic and spiritualized philosophy.  In "Unrealized and Unforeseen:  New Works," opening August 24, 2012 at Thunder-Sky, Antonio is showing a portfolio of extremely beautiful and eerily provocative paintings, photos and drawings about flipping the world of celebrity on its fucked-up head, and creating a sort of William-Blake-like paradise where all the stars slip through blackholes, and all the "regular people" he knows (folks Antonio works with at Frisch's Restaurant, family and other friends) go through customs and become Super Stars. 

Evans' photos are creepy, hilarious and stone-cold great, but there's also a sort of celebrity-crush still going on.  The anonymity of the people they become is just another way to glamorize what's been taken away.  Antonio does Evans one better in my book:  he's on the other side of celebrity, telling all of us there's no need for it.