Interview with Adam Sheetz

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I’ve been acquainted with South Florida based artist Adam Sheetz for almost a decade now. I met him first at FAU, watching him perform in an anti-war folk duo he lead. After being taken in by the combination of high talent and humility I was further impressed as we spoke on current political issues. Since then I’ve seen his talents contribute to other worthy musical endeavors in numerous local spaces and also seen his graphic art work at a number of venues. While a fan from the beginning, I’ve also noticed that at each new encounter with his work that his artistry has improved – something noticed not just by me but also by those that voted for him and got him the award of New Times Best Visual Artist of 2015.

I met with Adam Sheetz at his house in West Palm Beach. After he showed me around his house filled with unique, carnivalesque art and guitars I chatted with his wife Lindsey for a bit we made our way to his studio. After I looked over the canvases that were in the room and perused some of the books in his library, many of which I also had in mine, we had a shot of whiskey in homage to our shared appreciation of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson then cracked open beers and started talking about a number of things. As the interview was three hours and forty-five minutes, or 38 pages transcribed, it had been edited for readability and concision. Enjoy!

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Ariel: So what are you setting up on the easel right now?

Adam: I thought of a Trump piece last night. I’m going to do Trump now in a big diaper crashing through D.C.

Ariel: One of the things that I’ve noticed in the content of you work is a negation of the dominant tropes and narrative of American society – be they politicians, police or religious figures. A negation of that negation, as it were.

Adam: Well I try and leap for the most exaggerated, most grotesque forms of what is actually out there. I really want to be objective for this show. I don’t really want to be supporting any particular candidate. I just want to put the shit out there. I’m not in the business to make people look pretty, I’m in the business to expose people for what they are. If I can elevate the negative to a level that is so farfetched from what it actually is, but within that there are still tenants of a deeper truth, well than that is exactly the kind of attention that they deserve and need. I’m not saying exaggeration is the only way to arrive at a real truth, if you are just telling it like it is, few people are going to pay attention. If you throw in some tits or a politician jacking off or something, people are more likely to look. I mean, why shouldn’t artists use the same methods of big business advertising and culture. Sex sells.

Ariel: That’s precisely why my second book has so much sex in it.

Adam: There you go.

Ariel: So I really like your Animal Farm series. I’m curious to see what thoughts you have that words and qualities associated with being an animal, apart from being a tiger in bed and or hung like an elephant, are typically negative. Do you think that this type of objectification influences the way that people treat the environment?

Adam: I actually wasn’t even going for it in that sense, but I like the connection.

Ariel: You can use that if you like.

Adam: [Laughs] Yeah, I will. With that piece, you know one thing that I have been struggling with in my art, especially taking as a subject something so explicitly that is thematically socio-political, you know the easy way out would be to do each politician as they are. You know do their portrait in some way, but you know that’s only going to last for 2-4 years before it is irrelevant. But the problems are always the same.

Ariel: That’s a really good formulation.

Adam: So my struggle is you know, how do I attack these people by attacking the problems that they are creating? I’ve found very often that the best way to do that is through animals. There are so many parallels to different personality types in the animal world. Not just that, but the symbolism that animals hold in the Bible. I feel that I do a better service to the issues by not putting the people in there. I think if you put people and faces that are recognisable, it gives them more credit than they deserve. It then makes the piece about them, and I think if you make it about them you ultimately miss the bigger structural issues at hand. It makes my art more universal.

I don’t want to be thought of as a cartoonist. I want my low-brow shit to be infiltrating the high-brow world. I want to just flip it on its ass. I think animals are just the best way to represent people at the end of the day [laughs]. With that series, you know each animal represents a different aspect of society

Ariel: Walk me through it?

Adam: Sure. Rather than an eagle, my take on the national bird is the vultures – that’s why it’s displayed with the flag in the background. It’s the first piece in the series and it’s meant to orient people so they know the theme is America politics. Then there’s the saturated pink and green pig. The green background because money and the pig is the businessman. Then there’s the yellow cowardly sheep, which is basically the general population being shepherded around. Then there is the peacock, which is your glitz and glam reality TV culture. The peacock and the sheep go hand in hand because you get to the point of being a peacock and only concern yourself with exterior appearance and keeping up with the Joneses and the status quo. I think ultimately it evolves you to being rolled in with the sheep.

Ariel: Interesting. I took it to represent bourgeois intellectuals.

PH44art800Adam: The peacock?

Ariel: Yeah.

Adam: That wasn’t my intention. The peacock is the animal representing one of the seven deadly sins, so that was my thought behind it. But I always enjoy hearing what people take away from it, especially if it is not what I intended because now I could have a whole new narrative. Tell me more what you mean.

Ariel: So for me it’s the smile that makes it what I said. Peacocks represent the regal, the rich, but they are not it. To mix bird metaphors here, they parrot the rhetorical positions of “jobs creators”, and get well kept for it, like birds in a menagerie. I don’t know, maybe it’s just something about that smile that makes me think of William Buckley.

Adam: The thing I love about art is when I do a piece, by the time I am done the narrative has changed and I find things that I draw that I wouldn’t call forced symbolism but triggers “that means that” even though at the time it wasn’t what I intended. See

Ariel: Counter to what we have been talking about, I have a question about The Death of Marat. This piece, is there at particular face that was supposed to be on there?a548ee_3773a08a57914005ad0d1ab8eba68102.jpg

Adam: No. There was no particular face. I was reinterpreting the well know piece by David. That is actually one of my favorite pieces of David’s. I wrote one of my finals in college on him, basically paralleling him to Fox News and other major news networks because at the end of the day they only report what they are paid to report. If whoever owns the company, like Murdoch, doesn’t like something they are not going to report on it. David was a patron of whoever was in power at the time. Whatever direction the revolution was going and whoever paid him the most, that was who he painted for. So I kind of equated him to a news network of that time. The French revolutionary epoch is so fascinating. It paved the way for so many things, politically, socially and artistically. I’m glad you asked about that piece.

Ariel: Well, I wanted to bring it up as even though your style has changed since then I see within it, almost all of your work really, the same radical, emancipatory spirit that inspired the art of that period.

Adam: Thank you! I’m getting goosebumps. That is a very kind compliment.

Ariel: Yeah, it’s why I like you work so much – it speaks to my head and to my gut.

Adam: Good! I want my work to cause a visceral reaction like that. I want people to walk out of my show feeling unsettled. I don’t claim to have all the solutions to addressing the social grotesqueries that have become banal and commonplace and thus accepted. I want my art to put a question mark in my audience’s head that encourages them to seek some sort of answer. I don’t expect that my work will change the world, but god damn it if it isn’t my hope.

Ariel: Well, if it’s any consolation I can’t stand most of the art that I consume at galleries or museums and yet yours speaks to me.

Adam: Thank you. I mean yeah, as it is conceived today, I am a shitty contemporary artist because I don’t pay attention to what is happening in the world. I mean it’s the commercialised world in this day and age. For the most part, that or you’re a “crafter”. You know? For as pompous as I sounded saying that, I don’t mean to. I’m probably one of the most humble guys. You know?

Ariel: Yeah, I mean, I’ve known you for a long time and you definitely are.

Ariel: Yeah, I get it. I’ve been trying to get into contemporary writers. I mean, it’s hard. They write about bullshit I don’t care about. I mean you can only read so many “troubled home” stories before it’s like… okay. I get it. You had a shitty home life. Now find something other to talk about that’s bigger than you.

Adam: Exactly! All art is really just regurgitation at this point. A lot of what I have seen in contemporary art basically just tries to match the formula of what sold last year. There are handfuls of artists that are doing something real, though fuck if I know who they are. I know they are out there, they have to be, I’m also not going to wade through a bunch of mire just to fin them. I mean, that’s part of the reason I try not to pay attention to “what’s hot”. I don’t want to be inadvertently influenced by anything like that, for better or worse. If I want to be influenced I go back to my heroes like Goya, Basquiat, Deschamps and of course Stedman and Picasso. And speaking of Picasso, actually, his work has a style I’ve been trying to figure out lately how to do. I’ve been trying to do a 2D painting of 3D, by mixing and matching the planes. I always thought that was such an interesting concept – but I want to take it a step further, like paint something illustrating the detritus of our current socio-political climate. You know, where there’s not just one problem but all these different angles. I think a cubist representation of that would be a very honest.

Ariel: But what would that look like? I mean, the way you describe it makes me think of Balzac’s the Unknown Masterpiece, which ends with a brief description of this painting that’s clearly aligned with the Zeitgeist and yet nearly indescribable as a language has yet to come together to structure it’s meaning.

Adam: Honestly, I have no idea yet. I couldn’t even say what the subject would be at the moment but I’ll get there. I use liberty a lot as my subject. So just thinking off the top of my head I imagine it might relate to her. But if I were to do a cubist piece I think it would be, maybe something along the lines of the three bathers painting. Something like I did with the “Now and Then” series with Liberty, Justice and Nature. I would probably do those three women in a cubist style and try and fit as many planes of conflict as I could in there. That may be my project for next year, though I’m not sure.

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Ariel: I like the concept and am glad you brought up your “Now and Then” series depicting Nature, Justice and Liberty. I thought was great visually, but I’m honestly a bit wary of the politics of nostalgia. Could you speak on your intentions with it, as the implies something that, say, “Ideal and Actual” does not.

Adam: It never existed fully, no, though at the same time you could say that the pre-Colombian people’s here had something closer. I mean, if you look at all of the social injustices from the start of our country, we’ve never been a fully equal society and a fully just society. With the exception of nature, I don’t think there was ever a truly ideal “Then” for any of the subjects that was fully representative of what we all would love them to be.

As far as liberty goes, I’d also say that was significantly more prevalent prior to the kind of techno-surveillance culture we have not. Not for everybody, slavery, obviously, but I feel that liberty has taken a turn for the worse and I guess that was really the turning point between the then and now.

Ariel: So I’m glad to hear that you feel the “Then” never existed, and is just a rhetorical trope as I was going to get on your case about that. After all, it’s a variant of Donald’s “Make America Great Again”.

Adam: [Laughs] Glad you were ready to call me out. I don’t make art for people to tell me it’s good. I expect to be challenged. I’m actually glad you brought that up because you’re absolutely right and I agree with you 100%. But for the sake of the piece it’s the starting point of a narrative. One that starts out as a fairy tale – this utopia that never existed – and we arrive at this gross truth of what it actually is. I think with this view the “then” is exists as hope as something that we can return to, rather something that we can arrive at for the first time.

Ariel: I like that. It evokes the idea of a return to paradise almost, even thought the then is something that we would be arriving at for the first time. Which all makes me think of a desire armed to return there. Considering that Lake Worth is the home of the Earth First  Journal and your works contains a number of radical political themes I was wondering if there has been any sort of exchange between you and them.

Adam: Actually, yes. Earth First has contacted me a few times. Unfortunately we have never really lined up on some of the stuff I have versus what they needed. That’s actually a good reminder for me to reach back out them because now I have a few pieces that might be interesting for them. I love Earth First. I love everything they are doing. Somebody needs to do it.

You know and early on at FAU, like ’07-08, right before I met Cecil and you, I played in an anti-war folk band. I had a percussionist and me on acoustic guitar. I used to play at protests against the Iraq war. I was a member of A.N.S.W.R. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. I went to Washington DC with them in September when Petraeus was coming out with his new budget report and asking for more money for Iraq. There was big protests going on – not on the news, of course – and we took a van to D.C. We marched to the capital, some friends got arrested. One of the organizers was one of the first men on the ground. His name was Mike and he had a video which went viral. Although there is not much time for it now. I still feel like I am doing my part with painting, because somebody has to.

[We break to have a cigarette outside]

Ariel: Now that I see it in your garage, in front of me, one of the questions I had for you was for you to walk me through The Persistence of Reality. The picture on your website is small, but it is such a huge piece.

Persistance of Reality

Adam: It is so far my best attempt at paying homage to Hieronymus Bosch.  This piece basically maps the terrain a barren kind of cultural landscape. The only thing that looks lush and fertile is the facade. This quest for visibility and 15 minutes of fame – reality TV culture – I think is dragging us through the mud as a culture.

So you have here these people lining up to go down to watch framed in a manner that alludes to Bosch’s work, “The Cure of Folly”. Back in the day people used to think that people who did bad things had something in their brain and called the Folly Stone. Because of this belief they, logicially, originated the practice of lobotomies originated. They would take out a piece of the brain thinking that would cure them of evil, which is why there are medieval tools in the picture. Up here you have the US Capital Building, the Whitehouse and the flames with this big monster. You have the Hollywood spotlights going. Nobody is paying attention. These are two of my favorite figures that I have come up with. You basically notice that the eyeball around it looks a lot like a vagina. The tear duct is like a clit. So I kind of flipped around, stuck an eyeball in there and created this kind of Uncle Sam foyer figures. You know, kind of representative of the NSA.

Adam: The lush fertile area is just a backdrop. The stiletto wearing vultures. It’s the transformation of what was once the sacred feminine, into this profane “women are bitches and whores”. It’s just a fuckfest down here.

Ariel: Considering that we’ve been talking about animal’s relationship to your work, I like the animal masks that you have them wearing.

Adam: You could chalk it up to the laziness of not wanting to paint a bunch of faces.

[laughter]

Ariel: Did you go to school for art? Or are you self-taught?

Adam: A little bit of both. I went to school for studio arts/graphic design but I still haven’t technically graduated FAU. I learned a lot, but basically I kept going to get access to materials. There’s a number of professors there who have helped shape the seriousness with which I do my work. Of all my art training, what I took the most from was my art history classes, more than the practical application and the studio classes. The studio classes were a chance for me to exercise what I had already been doing, but with new tools.

Ariel: So how do you think your art has changed over time?

Adam: One of the things that I struggled with earlier on in my career was arriving at my own style that was separate from my influences. That was the struggle. I think where I am now compared to where I was 10 years ago and it’s a whole different world. To go deeper, there was a point where I had to break down what I was doing and rebuild it. This is no small task, you know, a whole new world had to be built upon the old. I adhere to that concept in a lot of aspects in life. I think that it’s the most productive way to go about anything at the end of the day – something’s not working, you tear it down and build upon it. Now, for me to pick up the pen and the brush and have it be fulfilling, I really have to be saying something. If I’m not saying anything, it’s a waste of my time… unless I’m getting paid [laughs]. I’ve got a little one to feed. I’m not going to be the one to paint a still-life with a bowl of fruit in it.

Ariel: Or like just a nude.

Adam: Right. I mean it’s not saying anything.

Ariel: Right?! I mean love women. I will ogle and appreciate and blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to my taste in art, however, I need to have some kind of more redeeming, edifying element. I want my naked women to be leading the people.

Adam: Exactly, like Lady Liberty Leading the People. That’s one of my favorites. I actually got to see that one in person at the Louvre.

Ariel: Oh. So on the about you section on your website, you say that you frame your work as portraits of beauty by means of crude exaggeration. Do you think that the anti-septic nature of current socio-political discourse is detrimental.

Adam: Yeah, everything today has got to be so prim and proper and clean and the choice of what people emphasize as being important is just so askew. A lot of times nobody can tell it like it is because so many people have become over-sensitive cry-babies. I mean we live in a culture where you get a trophy just for fucking showing up. That’s what it’s become.

I don’t know when it happened, but I think my generation was when that shift happened. I’m 27 and I can remember my senior class was the first class ever at Cardinal Newman where no one that graduated received senior superlatives in the yearbooks. Too many mothers complained that their son or daughter wasn’t picked for something, so they stopped doing it. I don’t know why this generation has stopped knowing what it was to earn something. I also went to a private Catholic school so a lot of the children were privileged too.

Ariel: I knew a few girls there from when I was in high school, so I know what you mean.

Adam: Haha, yeah… So I was the bottom bracket of the kids at that school. Which I enjoyed because you know, I could be my own person. But I think that the societal discourse of giving trophies just for showing up-

Ariel: We are going to talk about some adult things, “trigger warning”.

Adam: Yeah, and I don’t see how sugar-coating everything and being so politically correct that there is not an ounce of truth in what you are saying, none of that s anything that can help bring us forward. Nobody wants to hear the truth, nobody wants to hear the bad stuff. I’m not saying that foul language etc should be a part… that’s not what we are talking about. Being PC all the time doesn’t get us anywhere though. You can’t have a positive and a positive and expect a reaction at the end of the day. If you break it down to physics.

Ariel: Well I mean, I think at least from the developmental sense. Everybody fails at some point.

Adam: You have to fail and you need to learn how to deal with it. It’s a given that I want the best for my son, that I want him to succeed. But I don’t want him to succeed without failing first on his own. I don’t want him to be destitute, living in a gutter. Failure is a part of life, it is how you grow. Sometimes you run into those walls in your life where you just have to make a decision and hope it pans out. Hopefully you come out smelling like a rose. It’s a practice of to keeping your wits about you, you know?

Relating this to my art, I think about when I stopped drawing with a pencil and started drawing with a pen. I was forced not to throw the piece away, and make something out of the mistake. That’s been something that I live my life by. I think everybody is expecting to go through life with their own personal filter when what they really need is to grow a thicker skin. Nothing is the end of the world.

Ariel: Except global climactic change.

Adam: This is true [laughs]. But even that, I think the anti-septic nature with which that political message is delivered may be doing a social disservice. Treat the public like they can handle how many billions invested in housing and infrastructure will be lost due to catastrophe and maybe something more substantive can be done about it. Instead of the honesty we have fucking Rick Scott preventing state workers from even using the phrase “climate change”. What a sad joke! It’s reasons like that which is why you can’t have an honest debate. It’s just arguing feelings.

Ariel: Yeah, totally! Like I was saying outside, I’m increasingly tired of trying to have real discussions with people online. I don’t talk about things I don’t know about but nobody else seems to think that this matters. They want what that guy [I point to the illustrations of Donald Trump] gives them, they want feelings rather than a complex, nuanced historically based perspective.

Adam: Or they want a sound board where they can bounce their shit off and hear themselves talk, or hear it regurgitated back to them in an agreeable manner. It’s all bullshit and just adds to the veil that is clouding our perception of what reality is. Not everybody is going to get along. That’s just a fucking fact. Find out your differences. Agree to disagree and if it don’t really matter then move the fuck on. Don’t get so butt-hurt if shit doesn’t go your way. If shit doesn’t go your way, maybe you should figure out a way to make it so that shit does go your way. Not in a negative sense though.

Ariel: You frame it in a way that I am wholly in accord with. One some of these important issues lets relate to each other on the actions that need be taken together as a community and through that we’ll heal some of our own issues.

Adam: Exactly.

Ariel: I love how you are all about doing something creatively, that I do as well in my writing, which is openly assimilating forms and styles from other places. A couple of other artists I know are so caught up in trying to be completely original that I think it hinders their ability to compose something great.

Adam: You can’t be original now. We’re just reshaping the past in a way so that the present can understand it. If I was so focused on creating something new, I would be wasting so much energy that I would end up with nothing. What I am creating is original enough, but it’s also an amalgamation of many things past – as all art is. History isn’t some thing, it’s what is happening now. And there are always smart, talented people who have said and done better than we can currently dream of creating.

Ariel: Heroes.

Adam: Exactly, and my heroes have always been those people who said it better. So I think by thinking that you can do it better in your own way is awfully arrogant.

Ariel: And neurotic.

Adam: Yeah. That’s the thing as well, seeking that kind of false comforting thought means that there is no drive to better oneself. Why try any harder in a format that other people have already mastered? Because there is the easy way and the hard way and it’s only in the latter time you really learn who you are.

If I can be vulnerable right now, that is one of the reasons I try to be so serious about the outside things that I tap into for my work. Whether that is historical subjects or different artists. I research because I enjoy and love learning and research. I write different notes and ideas down. I have a little pad that I sketch the ideas and inspirations for my bigger pieces. It’s a juvenile approach.

Kind of like throwing a bunch of shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. It often starts when I am trying to fall asleep. In order to do that I try to use ideating sleep rituals, it helps create a pattern of creative thought. Hopefully I remember it when I wake up. Some I do, some I don’t. I feel like the ones I don’t remember weren’t meant to be created. And anyway I don’t have the time to do every idea. The ones I do remember end up being fairly successful and what I want them to be. So I basically start with a general idea that begins with me trying to fall asleep and then when Thursday-Friday comes around I get the opportunity to put pen to paper. For pieces there is a lot of research involved whether it is researching history or artists or different composition styles, or researching different design clips that I can use. More often than not it is body parts or mechanical things. I’ll print them out and see what kinds of shapes I can make and how it can work. Sometimes I scrap it, but a lot of times I’ll just lay the stuff out, stick it on the paper and force it to dictate the piece to me, based on what sticks out to me at the time. It’s a push and pull. A lot of times, what I find out during the process will tell me something different to what I started with and I’ll end up meeting in the middle. Then all of the vibrancy, perversity, saturation – everything in my work – has to speak to something. Nothing is arbitrary. If it’s a line somewhere, it’s for a reason.

The way I see it’s like, good art is a psychic weapon that attacks things. This is my spell casting book.

Ariel: Then you must be like Hermoine, I see that you’re constantly making new works and it’s all so great. You are much more disciplined than I am as well. It looks great though.

Adam: I try to maintain discipline. Gonzo style. With everything around the house, being a new dad, I put in at least 10-15 hours a week on my own work. It’s a habit. Heh. The things around the house I need to write down, keep a schedule for work. Not for my own stuff though, I don’t want it to feel like work but second nature. It took discipline to get to this point, but I knew if it didn’t I wouldn’t get to this point. If I have a goal, I will work non-stop. If I don’t have some big project at the end of the line, it’s harder. So thankfully, I’ve got this show coming up. It will definitely be something they have never seen before.

Did I tell you one of my marketing tactics I’m going to do is campaign signs and the name of the show is going to be called “Nobody is safe” and it’s going to be put all throughout Cleveland. Super bright posters. Red, white and blue. It’s where we are right now.

Ariel: After this series, do you have anything you were thinking about next.

Adam: I was thinking of doing a show out west in California next summer. The Dead Kennedy’s are a huge influence on me and what I say and do in my work. They are the first band that I feel has the same velocity and crassness but still poignant at the same time. I feel like it is what a want to achieve with my work. A juvenile yet sensitive rejection of authority.

So my idea of a follow up show would be doing a series on Dead Kennedy’s and hopefully getting Jello, if not the whole band involved somehow.

Ariel: Who knows, maybe he’ll end up reading this and be as taken in with your art as I have been so he’ll reach out to you.

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If you’re in the area, make sure to check out Adam’s upcoming showing, information below.

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Also visit his website to purchase prints and follow him on Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date with what he’s working on!

In Memory of Matt Mahady

Matt MahadyA good friend of mine, Matt Mahady (1972-2016), recently died of a heart attack in Hodinin, Czech Republic. Upon hearing the news I was immediately shocked. I found it hard to find succor talking to anyone that didn’t know him and over the next three days I intermittently broke down crying.

I first met Matt when I was 16. I’d driven from Jupiter with my then girlfriend Niina Pollari at a poetry slam in downtown West Palm Beach held at the Underground Coffeehouse. Though we were younger by some eight to ten years, Niina and I were welcomed warmly and all quickly became friends with a number of the talented performers as well as competitors on the poetry slam circuit. After Underground closed down, we’d meet in Delray where the estimable Marya now hosted the event.

The teenager years are a formative and heady time for everyone. It’s when we start to assert ourselves, to push our boundaries to find out what is acceptable, what causes aches, what brings us satisfaction. It’s when we start developing our taste for culture. Long an avid reader, my early development oriented towards les Belles-lettres. Before, after and in between performance poetry rounds, we’d discuss literature, artistic performance and politics. The youngest male in the group, Matt and Andrew seemed to take me under their wings. Andrew encouraged me to broaden my teenage radicalism, then under the influence of Crimethinc, and would even later be my professor in a Riots to Revolutions sociology class at FAU. Matt praised me for my taste for classic literature and introduced me to the Beats and their ilk. After a long yet thrilling discourse on the themes, motifs and values of them I asked him who was the person of this group that I should read. Bukowski, he said. Over a several month period after he’d suggested I read The Last Night of the Earth Poems I devoured all of the works that were available at the Books-A-Million I worked at as well as a few from the nearby Barnes and Nobles. My appreciation for Bukowski has since grown more complicated than the fawning amazement that I felt when reading his work at that age and it was made all the more so being able to talk to such a clearly talented singer, musician and poet while chain-smoking cigarettes on the couches outside DaDa.

Over the years we became closer friends. After I moved back from Orlando from an academically disappointing freshman year of college at UCF, we would hang out for drinks at places in Lake Worth that didn’t card, kick it at Boca Raton open mics, meet up for protests outside Burger Kings across the tri-county area to help the C.I.W. workers gain more attention for their protests in aims to achieving a living wage. Into my last year of college I started to find the allure of slam poetry less pulling. I became more cynical about the competitive nature of the event and found that the restrictions I’d once found no issue with more problematic. I’d once read and believed a certain quote by Shelley, the person after which I was named, which said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Attune to the turns of history and armed with greater perspective I simply didn’t feel that way anymore. It didn’t stop me from writing or taking long treks to see my idols such as Saul Williams and Taylor Mali, but I lost the passion for it that Matt exuded.

Once I moved to Fort Lauderdale for work Matt and I, let alone the rest of the Slamily, didn’t see each other as much. We would still made the effort to meet up for New Years or other occasional get togethers though. Be at Havana Hideout or some other local dive, I still loved to see him sing, play music and talk over intoxicants. As I still felt passionately committed about politics, I even invited the C.I.W. that Matt had introduced me to to speak there.

Matt always had his demons that would sometimes lead him to a poor state, but once he was talking about his passions – literature and politics – he would light up. That light, however, left him after his son Sage killed himself. I visited him a few times after this and found trying to bring him up from this wreckage impossible. Not only is consoling someone for such a loss a Herculean task, at that time I was going through what was at the time the most traumatic experience of my life – the separation of my fiancé and I. So low myself, I certainly didn’t have the fortitude to preach hope and promise a closure that may never come. One night though I remember that we emptied a twelver at the Lake Worth Gold Course than continued to walk and talk about women, art and everything else until the sun came up on Bryant Park. We stumbled to his home and crashed. Even though I’d heard some news from him that night that hurt me a little, I felt a little less alone and a little better. Matt never told me if he did as well, but I’d like to think that he did. I left for NYU shortly after this and he left for a brief period out West before then going to Czech Republic.

Matt and I exchanged emails from time to time, but I’m notoriously bad at keeping up friendships when someone isn’t within distance of a two hours drive. He’d ask me if I was still dealing poorly after my breakup. I’d lie and said I wasn’t. I’d ask him how Czech was, and he’d start paeans to it. Knowing my wanderlust and love of Prague, he encouraged me to come out and move to Czech. I’d tell him I’d think about it, which was true, but I never did anything. Shortly before I graduated he’d asked me to review a funding proposal for a NGO in the Czech Republic that helped Roma-people. Given his previous work with the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth, this was so Matt. I was ecstatic. Him asking for my thoughts on such a matter made me feel as if I’d achieved something, like I’d finally come of age. It so lifted me that I later sent him the first draft of my novel. Had he praised it it would have been enough, but that he was working on something similar made me feel even better.

The last time that I met Matt was shortly after my divorce had been finalized. He’d come back to the States due to issues with his Czech Visa and we made plans to go to one of our old haunts, Havana Hideout, to catch up over some beers. The time before I’d seen him in person he’d been in one of his down states. Now, well, this was a different person. He’d put on some weight, but considering how he looked when last I saw him this was a good thing.  As he narrated the drama of being placed in custody and dealing with immigration agents he spoke with greater peace and equanimity about such a stressful and unnerving experience than I had ever seen him before. He even cracked jokes about he had formed a bond with one of the guards there by using the Czech word for comrade. He spoke at length of adoring love for his current partner and recanted his once rakish attitude towards women from when he’d worshipped at the altar of Bukowski. I felt almost as if i didn’t know who I was sitting next to but nevertheless I was happy as he looked so genuinely happy. I asked him the cause for this and he told me that recently had found Jesus. Not the Jesus of the conservatives, he was quick to say, but the Jesus of Liberation Theology. Matt always had a special place in his heart for Latin America, so that he’d made such a turn towards a perspective akin to Óscar Romero I wasn’t that surprised.

Knowing that I’d just come from two years of Marxian studies at NYU, he seemed to pause to see if I would pounce on him for such a position. When I didn’t he seemed relieved. I didn’t say so out of deference to a formative influence or just to be convivial, but as the issues I’d been dealing with around my divorce made me feel less militant, more fragile, more open to the perspective that people don’t always know what is best for them and that there are certain anxieties and humans needs that radical politics can’t always adequately address. We both found affinity on the idea that that which leads to love, real transformative love, is worth valuing and holding on to. I shared in detail my own pains, which I’d kept largely to myself out of fear of being ridiculed and he reflected back nothing but compassion and understanding. This openness led him to share with me how for years he had blamed himself for his son’s death and how this feeling of responsibility had weighted on him – and I’m quoting him as I remember it vividly – like an albatross that didn’t just weight him down but took him places he didn’t really want to go. He said his perspective was once such that if he wasn’t feeling the pain of Sage’s loss than he was somehow dishonoring his memory and not being true to how a father’s love show be. Now, however, he realized how ridiculous this was. Now, he said, he was able to forgive himself for those behaviors that he’d once hypnotized himself into believing had caused such an inscrutable act.

Over the six hours we spent that day chatting it up I feel that almost half of it was on love. Love for our partners. Love for people. And perhaps most importantly, as it is the foundations of all other, love for oneself. I left him back where he was staying feeling lifted not only for having such a great discourse, but also for seeing someone I care about that had long had demons raging inside him look as if they were all exorcised. His aura gave off blue tinge in my rearview window as I drove off.

There’s so much more I’d like to say, so much more that he deserves to be said in his memory, but right now I’m still reeling from his sudden death. In closing I’ll just state that I’m sharing below a small number of his poems as I feel it would be a shame to lose them to posterity only in the form of a few pieces of folded and stapled together chapbook parchment in his family and friend’s bookshelves. Plus, I believe, that giving them out would appeal to his pinko sympathies. I hope that even lacking his unique voice and delivery someone else can see a small spark of his tremendous energy and talent in them. I hope you enjoy them.

 

Love Poem to a Feminist

Not
An ode to privledged white women
Toting books by bell hooks
Alongside the mirrors and cellphones
In their pocketbooks
Not
An ode to Victorian-era prudes
Tired as Qualudes
Wearing their superior attitudes
Like nun’s habits and collars of starch
Demanding Vegan food on the farmworker march
Love poem to a feminist
Who did not concern herself
With chastising guys
Who use the word guy
Collectively
She never sat at a poetry slam
With a politically correct barometer
Ready stick her dogmatic thermometer
Up the ass of anyone who failed to pass
Her litmus test of acceptable art
Oh,
And she wasn’t no gringo
All bent out of shape
By mi vatos’ street lingo
No
She lived a life of quiet valor
In the bantustans of Palestine
Her hands were dirty
But her heart was clean
A flower in the wasteland
A butterfly in the latrine
Rising like the dawn
A smoulering Phoenix
Spreading wings of kerosene
From the corner of Florence and Normandy
To the refugee camps of Jenin
In the winter of our content
The trough of our desire
In the valley of our despair
In the line of fire
Wafa Ali Idris
Age 25
Had been active as an ambulance volunteer
In the first Intefada
No Feng Shui
No Birkenstocks
She nursed children who through rocks
At tanks and armoured ranks
She dressed wounds under bandages
Covering the empty sockets
Of young boys eyes
Cradled the raw, rank hamburger shanks
Of their shrapnel flayed thighs
Cries and whispers
Whimpers and cries
High pitched screams
Forever dancing in her dreams
Like a settler on the warpath
Bloodthirsty for a bloodbath
Until
One day
She decides
To put the keening to rest
Kneels before God
Straps a bomb to her chest
Jaffa Road marketplace
Jerusalem West
101 hornets stung in their own hornets nest
May she rest in peace
Eternally blessed
In the breast of Jah Almighty
Mighty as Aphrodyte
Wafa
I wrote this poem for you
And Wafa
Your mother is proud of you
Outside your door
It is written
In green paint
That drips fresh
As your martyred blood:
Any people whose women fight
Will be victorious.

No Man is a Villain in His Own Heart

No man is a villain in his own heart…
Ronald Wilson Reagan
Napoleon Bonaparte
No man is a villain in his own heart
Not the slave auctioneer tugging on his ear tearing families apart
Not the child molester in blue polyester stalking the toy aisles of your local K-Mart
No man is a villain in his own heart
Idi Amin wiping his plate clean with an ala carte order of severed genitalia
Washing it down with a shot of Gevalia lie-cure
He thought he was pure
As the virgin Madonna
Feeling his ginsana
As his teeth ripped human flesh like an Amazonian piranha
No man is a villain in his own mind
No blue-eyed devil
Who just got his shoes shined
Will recognize that his immortal soul kind
Of resembles the dried-up twist of lemon rind
He left behind
In a cocktail napkin lined with creases
An unsigned thesis of dread
Whose impossible Braille won’t even be read
By the living dead legions of overfed marionettes
Who rise from nether regions of nightmare and cold sweats
Shellshocked as ‘Nam vets
They lurch and wind
Trying to pass themselves off as humankind
Perpetually blind to the idolatry that has defined
The world that’s been designed
By and for them
Million dollar half-a-men
Making massacres like Tienanmen
No man is a villain in his own bones
The Israeli soldier who listens to the tones
Of techno music through his Sony headphones
As his semi-automatic sput-sput-sputters and groans
As he shoots upon children for throwing stones
At the Ariel Capone’s of occupation
No nation is a villain in its own black soul
Even if that nation’s C.I.A. payroll
Includes thugs that fuck nuns up their bleeding assholes
And hang pregnant women from telephone poles
And blast holes in the terrain
Of every Tarzan and Jane
Who refuse to clear the lane
For the Amtrak train
Of empire

No nation is a villain in its own eyes
Regardless of whether they trouble the skies
Of dirt farmers with B-52 bombers
And churn out Jeffrey Dammer ghouls
From torture schools
Like the S.O.A.
In Ft. Benning, G-A
Where grads learn to burn gonads
And strip fingernail pads
Out among the hush of lush, tall Georgia pine

No man is a villain in his own spine
A bitter grudge against my lover
That burns us both like strychnine
Benign neglect, cause and effect
She lies withering on the vine
She’s given her heart
But I won’t give her mine
She lies weeping on my bed; A.M., 2:09
As I fill up this page
Word by word, line by line
Then reach to refill my empty glass of red wine
No man is a villain in his own spine

There’s a Fascist at the Table

There’s a fascist at the table
Down at my local pub
Gunpowder grey irises
Nose like a .38 snub
No hair on his bullet head
Steel toes in his shoe
He’s a friendly enough fellow
If your skin is the proper hue
There’s a fascist at the table
That aint nothing new
Eating pickled hermelin
Slugging down his brew
Getting all nostalgic
For 1932
When they roamed the streets like wild beasts
The golden dawn of their ancient Greece
There’s a fascist at the table
When the skinheads come to town
Say what you want about the old days here
But THIS would have NEVER been tolerated
Government wringing their hands as to what the right approach is
There is only one way to deal with fucking cock-a-roaches
The police should have cracked open their heads in the streets of České Budějovice
And painted red the cobblestones of its every charming, quaint ulice
To let them know: Ne vice!
Send them to the nemocnice
with punctures in their plice
or back to they vesnice
In pine wood krabice nebo boxes
Because these vermin are led by wolves and foxes
Who will eat us alive
If we allow them to thrive
There’s a fascist at the table
When the brownshirts of Ostrava march
Some fat old oligarch
Planning programs of pogrom
Stirring hate up like napalm
Like Americans in Vietnam
On-line at genocide.com
Trafficking in fear
A fearsome puppeteer
Manipulating marionettes to murder
And you should have heard her
anguished wail
When none of those Nazi’s
went to jail
That put her teen boy into a coma
He was guilty of being Roma
Simple as that
You know,
Sometimes they even put you in an oven for that
There’s a fascist at the table
Of the Board of Directors meeting
There’s a fascist at the table
Reserved for Parliamentary seating
There’s a fascist at the table
When they are carving up the spoils
There’s a fascist at the table
When they are stealing native soils
There’s a fascist at the table
When they kill to drill for ore
There’s a fascist at the table
Every time there is a war
There’s a fascist at the table
But he’s been here before
Last time he left on a stretcher
I’m surprised he came back for more
There’s a fascist at the table
Chesko,
Slovensko,
Lasko,
Pozor

Song with Andrew Procyk

(Fugitive/Militant) in a foreign land
Rusty old (kalashnikov/machete gleamin’) in my hand
it doesn’t really matter if you understand
your hourglass has run
out of sand
You strike the coal till you make it hard
hoeing rows of cane on the boulevard
honing hatred sharp as a diamond shard
make the government call out the national guard
(Chorus)

This one was born in zion
all my fountains are in you
this one was born in zion
ain’t no ape inside your zoo
Deliver us from the minions of debauched inequity
from the bloody rack and pinions of hit and run hypocrisy
beneath the cruel steamrollers of asphalt bureaucracy
that pave over the butcher shops where they commit democracy
(Chorus)

On the Nod

A six-foot tall beetle
With a darkly iridescent carapace
And chili pepper eyes
Scythe arms snipping at the air like half-scissors
Disconnected
As the scene that came before it
The scene that now returns
A sugar cane field burning on a moonless night
Flames reflected off the flat black face
Of a pond standing still
At the foot of a kudzu covered hill
Two hours ago I crushed up a little round pill
Whisper softly now whisper softly now
God lives underwater
Where the rocks are smooth
And anemones groove
To the oldest music of all
As my eyes open to abstractions
As I understand new
Words
Worlds
As my at-least-for-now lady ages gracefully
As we attempt to de-fang the venom between us
Before our watery love turns wooden
But love forsakes us all
We’re better off studying horseplayer odds
Than we are trying to figure the algebra’s of feminine deception
Let X = a red dress that hangs in some forgotten closet
While we drink green beer in bleak neighborhood bars
Claiming to have learned something from the experience
Claiming to have learned ourselves a lesson
As if there is meaning in the dandelion copulations we attempt
As the wind blows us onward
As if there is meaning in the ticking of the clock
Meaning is a senseless koan
We are born we live we die along
Meantime
Lovers lose lovers in the whirlpool swirl
They sleep they dream and the fog disperses
Into the vaginal void of dawn who spreads her legs
Until sunshine emanates from her starry womb
I’m on the nod
Like a narcoleptic
Trembling with epileptic seizures of holy spirit
The truth will make you sick
In sickness there is wisdom
On the nod
Like Chapiquidick bridge
Brainwaves droning like a didge
In an aboriginal forest
A bird of paradise beating like a heart in my chest
Pinballs bounce the bone white walls of my skullcap
My brain is a train following a treasure map
Mirrorball shattering
In the lair of neon tarantulas
Who scuttle in
Grinding teeth
That shine platinum
In the black light
I’m rubbing my eyes
My balls itch
When my eyelids close
Chinese kites
Sacred rites
Arctic dragons breathing ice instead of fire
Lions on the veldt
Escher print wallpaper
On the inside of a ginger bread house
With silver ovens fired up
Hotter than the McVeigh death chamber
Melting oil-on-canvas representations of
Streetcorners half-painted
With cytoplasmic splatters
Pollockesque
In their density
Immensity
Intensity
“Everybody’s looking for something”
Hunters killers prostitutes priests
Bent lonely men casting nets off the pier
Palsied and sere
Septuagenarians shaking bony fingers at phantoms
As the roominghouse walls close in
Enfeebled toothless pigeon feeders
Roaming the park after dark
Sipping malt liquor beers
Flophouse King Lear’s
Drowning in tragedy
Delivering Slurpee cup soliloquies
In the parking lot of the local 7-11
As the sun sets its flaming eye
In some pocket of the sky
Where hypodermic fingertips
Lash the mainline
To heaven.

Africa

Africa
My father and my mother
Africa
I miss you like a lover
Like a best friend who died
Africa
I carry your soil inside the treads of my old blue sneakers
Pantsula for life
Still blasts out the speakers
Of my old hi-fi
Making me wonder why
I ever left the Icarus height
Of that lush mountain crest
Where we took our rest
After scaling sheer rockfaces
Traversing musk soaked places
Where baboons nest
In the breast of Azania
Africa
The anarchy and mayhem of your chaotic frontier
Rushes my ear
Like a rampaging river in flood
(Roasted miele baskets floating atop a human sea)
Africa
The bean counters of the West
Are overcome with detest
Seems your wars of liberation from colonization
Caused a currency fluctuation
That ruined their vacation
Ox-driven carts slow the path to Pretoria
Elephants block traffic in the middle of the road
Your hyenas remind them of their wives back home
The corporate engine won’t start
The cogs too black, too strong, too proud, too smart
Your bushveld too wild for Wal-Mart
Africa
The night we spent north of Louis Tricart
Sitting in a makeshift shebeen
At the edge of a clapboard encampment
Under stars, beside fire
Trading tribal scars for Irish bullshit
Toasting Nelson Mandela with milk carton beers
Africa
Pondering the vastness of your sheltering sky
Watching crocodiles congress over buffalo pie
Africa
Mud huts where tan skins are left out to dry
Cloud the crowded peripheries of my mind’s eye
As sunflower fields whistle by
Like the ululating cry
Of the Coptic Christain guy
Who flagged us down
With the ecstatic panic
Of a rescued castaway
On a military road so remote
It still bore the tank tracks that created it
Except where the root marks of marula fruit trees
Had obliterated it
Africa
How far did he get down that cruel clay road
With the gas we let him siphon?
Does his sweat still bead grainy patinas of pomegrante sweat
Across the blue-black skin of his forehead?
Does the gleaming silver star of his faith still dangle
From its teardrop green lapel
Adorning his breast
Like a medallion of war?
Africa
I wonder
Is your moon swole full tonight?
Africa
You infected me
Like a malarial mosquito bite
When you cradled me in the mystic twilight
Of your ancestors
The freedom songs of your protestors
Steel me for the fight
As I write what I like like Biko
Aint gonna turn the other cheek no
When we march through these streets like Soweto…uh!
Africa
Things have not been right
Since I left Jo-burg airport
On the ill-fated flight
Back to American stagnation
With the taste of the Southern Cross
Mixed with peri-peri sauce
Still lingering
In the mouth
Of my soul.

There is no word

Once you told me this:
“There is no word
For romantic love
In my language.”
It’s been about six years since you left me
On a prayer rug in a fallout shelter
Somewhere East of East Orange, New Jersey
Where greasy-fingered Ginsburg grandmas
Tug their kerchiefs against the cold
Trudging down stairways of gun metal gray
In the shadow of burned out factories
I can still remember your atomic eyes
The air raid sirens and the flaking swelter
Of flesh singed to the bone
To the bone
To the bone
There is a part of you I have always known
And will carry with me wherever
“I am stretched on your grave
And will lie there forever
If your hands were in mine
I am sure we’d not sever”
Anyway, whatever
I get carried away
What can I say?
You know life goes on
Passion and turblulence,
Struggle and solitude,
Love and art
New poems,
New vices
And a new shiv in my heart
I aint trying to pull your fire alarm again
I know our time has passed
Rounded and up and gassed
Like a Warsaw ghetto
We cannot recreate
Those deer in the meadow
That approached us at the sluice
We cannot repaint the hues
Of terraced indigo
That surrounded everything
With a dreamtime glow
Through the whole Spring and Summer of 1995
In that West Paterson attic
Where our love lived and died
Where we once defied
All gravity
Our want like a cavity
That could not be filled
No matter how much we drilled
It was magic and tragic
Beginning to end
My Guajarati Ophelia
Madness did descend
And you drowned in a wreath of violets
While all the Pontius Pilates
Washed their hands as they sank you
I was still a child then
I could not yank you
From the bonds of Hindu tradition
Now that I’m a man
I just want to say thank you
For the cosmic transmission
Of the purest love I will ever know
For the home that you provided when I had nowhere to go
For the clean way you decided to disengage and let go
For the smell of sandalwood and jasmine
On your skin and in your clothes
For the mendhi ink in between your regal toes
For the ring that you wear in your sacred nose
I’ll get down on my knees and propose
If I ever find half the woman you are
All I found is Delilah’s so far
Lying to your face as they strum your guitar
Then they talk about devotion
I am drowning in an ocean of deceit
But once I kissed the sandled feet
Of a Goddess.

Letter to my son, five years gone

Hey champ

what’s the news in your dimension?
I got an invitation to write about you the other day
from an old Gainesville friend
he knew you when you were a little baby
when me you and your mom
were living in married housing
scraping by on Pell Grant money
and my part time job as a windowman
staying together because we loved you
even more than we hated each other
and that’s saying something
(some day I would’ve told you the stories
suffice to say
we were children, so we acted like children)

anyway
this invitation
it shook my foundations
upset my equilibrium
like stirring up an iron pot of steaming gumbo
and the liquid boils over and burns your fucking fingers
but in the process
you move what needs to be moved
from the depths to the surface
first I was disturbed
and then I just put it on the back burner
the way I put you on the back burner
to survive
not so much your memory
but rather the memory of your death
the horror
of you blowing your fucking brains out
on your mom and stepdads bed
while they were at the gym
and I was trying to call you
not that I blame you
you were in pain and
this world is bullshit
you were just a brave boy who knew too much too soon
so don’t think I’m not proud of you
I always was
and this didn’t change that
one iota

Whenever I wonder why
you did what you did
I remember how
sensitive you were
a child without skin
this world
this scheme of things as they call it
the set up of this reality
would have only gotten more and more and more
excruciating and unbearable
for you
as time went on

and there aint no pill for that, lad
believe me, I’ve tried them all
this is just to say:
I know how tiresome it all seemed to you
I know how much you suffered
scratch that, mini-me
Truth is
I knew but I did not know
If I had had any real idea
little man
I would’ve done…
what?
I would’ve done something
Shit
I knew you were a moody kid
but I didn’t think the fault lines ran so deep

your mother loved you
your father loved you
your stepfather loved you
she was responsible
I was bohemian
you got order and you got wonder

it was the best, I thought, of both worlds
you had grandparents, friends, cool clothes and a PS2
you had all the material things I never had
you were cool
which at your age
I never was
part of me can’t figure it out
but the part of me that knows you knows
it’s that same part of me that knows that
even though I was not guilty of your death
that’s not quite the same as being innocent
you know I was going through some shit back then
so I wasn’t there for you
in the way that I normally was
in the way that you needed me to be
I know I disappointed you more than once
over those last 6 months
and so really I blame myself
for what happened
the bottom line is:
it was my job to protect you
to keep you safe
and I failed

the only thing I ever cared about in life
more than my writing
was being a good father to you
was I a good father to you?
You’ll have to answer that question
you’re the only one who can
my opinion?
I suppose,
yes, I was
most of the time
but not when it counted

anyway
we’ve been over all this before
the point of doing it all again
is that now I’m going to put it in a public forum
and label it poetry

I’ve been wrestling with the ethics of this
ever since I realized I was going to do it
usually when I write about you
I only show it to a handful of people
and the idea behind this
is that you are sacred
and therefore exempt
from exploitation

every other experience in my life
from painful break-ups to career implosions to random daily catastrophe
I think to myself
“hey,
at least I can get a good poem out of this”
I never wanted you to fall into that category
you are too important
you meant too much
I didn’t want to pimp your memory
in this one thing
in this one lousy fucking thing
I wanted to not be a whore

on the other hand
I’m compelled to share with the world how fucking special you were
You were a unique and magical lifeform
Who touched everyone you touched
I was blessed by the gift of being your father
I’d hate to let anyone forget
you were the apex of my existence
(my raison d etre
if you’ll allow me to be a douchebag
about it)

“thought of you as my mounaintop
thought of you as my peak
thought of you as everything
I had but couldn’t keep”

And no one’s ever seen me weep for you
but I weep for you
for a year after you died
I’d squeeze the syringe and pray
“God please kill me….
God,
please kill me.”

The grief was water
It swamped my oars
Until I washed up on the shores
of strange and beautiful Moravia

Wish you were here, boy
We would have had a real good time

An Ode to Blindness

And crows refracted wingtips
Clutching field mice in their claws
As she walked through tangerine gardens
Parting arabesques of mist

And snakes wriggled into abstractions
Shutting their velvet eyelids
As she walked through tall grass and out again
Twisting her hair into minarets

And trees dreamed up new cubisms
Bearing brilliant deformities on citrus sleeves
As she walked through skies gone liquid
Swallowing watercolors that lay drying

And husks of dead scorpions trembled
Splitting forth a curious chrysalis
As she walked through my front door
The sun flaring up in her eyes.

Thinking of my dead

September 11th
Always makes me think about the firemen
Who rushed into the towers
Knowing they were pretty much going to die

Then I think about my brother
Who is a fireman
Hope he is safe
And wish we lived closer

After that
Inevitably
I am thinking
Of my dead

My sweet, overtender but bad-assed little child,
The love of my life
Who put a Glock to his temple and squeezed the trigger
The night before Christmas Eve at the age of 14 ½

My grandmother who worker hers

My grandmother who worked herself to death in the factories
My grandfather who worked himself to death in the factories
My grandfather who worked in the coalmines and left 2 tips of
his fingers behind at the World Trade Center construction site
My grandmother who came over from Ireland on a refugee boat

The refugee boy who washed up on the beach
Young Trayvon, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland
Victor Jara, Emmett Till, Bobby Hutton, Bobby Sands
All my campesino brothers and sisters who died in the torture
cells, were thrown out of helicopters, whose exposure and thirst-
bloated corpses line the frontera

I am thinking of my dead and I am weeping as I type these
words
I’m thinking of my dead and the best ways to do right by them
That is all

Wisdom of the Day

While attending a meeting wherein three presenters pitched two different journalistic projects that were seeking new submissions, a young man asked the following question: “If we don’t have an writing in that style, what should we submit?”

This is the mentality of the uncommitted and undeserving. Write a piece aligned with the theme of the journal and worthy of being published by the outlet and submit that! The time spent on it at worst an exercise and at best the start of a new game!

Art Basel, Miami Project and Aqua 2014


IMG_5532Three days after I’d received complimentary tickets to Art Basel, Aqua, Red Dot and Miami Project I drove down 95 and across the causeway to Miami Beach. Having gone three other times over the past several years I knew to get there early lest the traffic and parking be, respectively, slow and far away. Surely enough I was able to park across from the convention enter right before it filled up. I waited in line at the entrance and was one of the first to enter.

After two hours of looking at the works hung from the walls or placed on the floor I started to feel that the most interesting subjects was not the art but those gazing upon them. There was a short, stout Argentinian wearing a mix between a
pirate’s shirt and an artist’s smock whose lilting style of Spanish carried over into his English when speaking with his associate about the investment value of a particular artist. I saw Kristen Ritter, one of my favorite actresses of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23 and Breaking Bad fame, walking along the aisles. There was a couple in their late forties dressed up in haute steam punk style and a wide variety of the Miami hipsters.

IMG_5570
What does it mean?

The primary reason I stopped paying attention to it, besides the feeling of overload of so much in such a small apace, was that a lot the art was exceptionally abstract and I didn’t relate to most of it there. Pieces of string going through a piece of glass, symbolizing I’m not sure what, stylized text repeated on large wooden boards, and colored circles against a stark white background just don’t get me excited. What I thought was the most interesting and exciting piece was an interactive art installation from a gallery in Brazil. Loud music came out from a room while a woman dressed up like the Chiquita Banana woman on LSD encouraged passers-by to come into the room filled with brightly colored pictures, masks, inflatable animals, bric-a-brac and toys. After her encouragement I stayed and played in there a while.

Requisite photo of a Shepard Fairey work.
Requisite photo of a Shepard Fairey work.

 

After almost four hours looking at art I was quite hungry. I left the exhibition, sold my tickets outside, ate a Cubano and some pastelitos before crossing the bridge back to Miami. Once at Red Dot, my affinity to the pieces of art there was raised dramatically. Here were the works made by artists that didn’t think that innovation was done by the rejection of forms and tropes followed for hundreds of years but through novel use of them. Gone were most of the abstract pieces and instead there was a number of highly imaginative works that didn’t require years of art-schooling in order to be able to understand it.

 

Some of the standout pieces, for me, were knitted pictures of Lindsay Lohan, a small IMG_5623rendition of a mosque made out of used bullet casings, a portrait of black girl in white face with the clothes typically found in portraits of royalty, Dave Eggers’ unusual illustrations and sayings, Niccolo Cosme’s Mater Dolorosa Conflictus and an enormously large and intricate tapestry depicting the Tower of Babel called Allegory of the Prisoner’s Dilemma made by Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth. The vibe, too, was also better. The people walking around were less concerned with embodying highly idiosyncratic avatars full of esoteric knowledge on the relationship between artists and market values and were more interested in the work itself and having a good time.IMG_5596

After completing circulation of the exhibition hall, it was a short walk to Aqua. Aqua was, in a word, amazing. It was, however, also too good to be so big that it was thus big for it’s own good. While smaller than Art Basel’s space, because the art was so good that it made me stop more often that after almost four hours of walking around I didn’t even see everything there!

IMG_5619
Family Tree

Another piece that I found to be particularly interesting was the Family Tree installation by Charlotte Potter. The installation, represented by Heller Galleries, consisted of a number of cameos that were connected to one another in chains. Above the black and white images were water spigots with blood coming out of them. Immediately below that they were tied to others cameos to represent the marriages and births created from those relationships. Such a graphic representation of a family was not groundbreaking, but it is notable for it’s aesthetically pleasing play with the notion of bloodlines and the chains that connect families together.

IMG_5628Upon exiting Aqua I was again, surprisingly, searched. When asked why I discovered that someone had stolen Pablo Picasso’s Visage Aux Mains the night before and the security staff suspected that they had placed it somewhere in the facility and were going to take it out at a different time. I was rather shocked by this. I was more so upon reading, a few days later, the following commentary on the theft by Art Miami director Nick Korniloff to be interesting:

“We have issued a $5,000.00 reward for the return of the work with no questions asked— based on our own internal conclusion that whomever took the piece knows nothing about art and took it based on the fact that they thought it to be solid silver. […] It makes absolutely no sense that this work would be targeted by anyone with knowledge of art. We hope that the piece is returned to the owner to preserve the existence of the work for future generations.”

I find it interesting because not only is the reward for an object purportedly worth $85,000 so low but as this authoritative person in the art world states that that someone trying to obtain this Picasso is, essentially, a fool. Considering the feelings evoked by most of the work in the Art Basel exhibition hall, hearing this made me feel less of a philistine and less that I wasn’t the fool in the room that thought much of what was there was “great art” and “really valuable” outside of what gallery sales personally can convince someone to believe or pay.

All in all I had a great time. I’m very happy that art-world entrepreneurs have attached these other events onto the more recognized Art Basel, much in the same way Ultra has assisted the growth of Miami Music Week and Winter Music Conference. I look forward to going again next year!

Post-Cold War Film’s Representation of Domestic Political Antagonists

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, no more could scheming communists provide legitimate filmic antagonists whose political orientations threatened the existential character of the American way of life. History was the prize won by liberal capitalism and having emerged victorious in the bi-polar standoff, the vacuum left was quickly filled a series of “lesser evils”. One of the main forces to fill this hole has been terrorists of Arabic or Islamic identity. The filmic framing of these antagonists political orientation often emptied them of any rational, historically based or sympathetic politics. They were simply so many bodies to be killed by so many bullets. However, they were not the only replacement for the stock characters once provided by the Evil Empire. Anarchism has lately increased its representation in film, especially since the 1999 November, 30th WTO conference shut down by an alliance of strikers and black bloc groups, as well as a crypto-leftism divorced from Soviet orientation. In a manner very similar to the representation of Arabs and Muslims, these characters and groups have been similarly structured to present characters that aren’t felicitous to these two groups theoretical or practical philosophies. In writing this essay I hope both to identify the tropes of misprision and to outline a theoretical analysis for a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic. To accomplish this two-fold task I will analyze several films which explicitly or cryptically represent the aforementioned categories and I will speculate on how a specifically anarchist form of aesthetics will relate to the representation, production, distribution and an audience’s reception of a film.

The reason for injecting clearly defined and crypto anarchists into the plot lines in the manner described is reminiscent of the anti-communist films that provided cultural justification for the ejection of communists and militants from union ranks and their jobs, the criminalization of the Communist party and the public inquisition of communists or those suspected of sympathizing with them. The purpose of opening up such a cultural front is clear – as wealth inequalities become more aggravated and environmental concerns become a growing topic of daily life, motions must be made to discredit ideologies that holistically reject the current model of American representative democracy, its neoliberal economic policies and cavalier attitude to the environment. Rather than engaging in any form of debate as to the merits of particular ideologies, mass media casts anarchism as antiquated, too idealistic, juvenile, incompatible with the advanced level of industrial society and only suited to a small agrarian communities or hunter/gatherer societies, terroristic, or a facile justification for anti-social and psychopathic behavior within cultural productions. Their image within pop-culture as wholly anti-statist furthermore helps to prevent members or sympathizers to certain organizations, specifically labor unions and social justice NGOs, from recognizing the historical alignment of interests between reformation oriented laborers and social anarchists.

Given the stereotypical presentation of Hollywood as liberal/leftist this seems to be counterintuitive, especially as Hollywood films have consistently endorsed anti-authoritarian philosophies within their plots. However, such narratives have a particular goal: they wish not only to resolve the conflict within the various characters for the sake of aesthetics, but also to exempt from criticism the entirety of the super structure from which such conflict emerges, propagate the idea that positively reforming tendencies are always expressing themselves within and thus cryptically proclaim that no radical change is needed. By particularizing the failures of social institutions and turning endemic social maladies into exceptional circumstances that can be overcome if only a person with the right balance of defiance and deference to authority is inserted into the dysfunctional dynamics, Hollywood films propound a profound conservatism even when seeming to pose a different stance. Thus as anarchism gains ascendancy within global justice circles, it has taken the space left by the communists for opprobrium in cinema and recycles many of the same tropes used against it in early 20th century literature.

The first major film to contain anarchists after the Battle in Seattle was xXx. Distributed to theaters in 2002, the film’s protagonist is Xander Cage, heretofore referred to as XXX, played by Vin Diesel. XXX is a heavily tattooed extreme sports-enthusiast, and is first shown stealing the car of a congressman that has endorsed legislation restricting violent video games as part of an elaborate spectacle to illustrate that such laws shouldn’t be created. After several assistants of XXX install crash-protected cameras in the car he drives off a police blockaded bridge. XXX safely parachutes to the bottom, the cameras attached to the car are removed for use in an online viral video and the group escapes in a van with the Norse rune signifying Chaos inscribed upon it. Not five minutes into the film we see that XXX clearly disdains authorities in favor of his own pleasure. At a party celebrating the stunt later that night, XXX has his boho style loft swarmed by a SWAT unit and he is shot with a tranquilizer dart. After waking he passes two tests proctored by a secretive government agent, played by Samuel L. Jackson, that then offers him a choice between going to jail for life or working for the government agency. Like Nikita before him, he agrees to join this secret agency. While the situational context is drastically different, there is a clear parallel to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and the message that the greatest rebellion is orthodoxy, in this situation the orthodoxy is American interests and power.

Now deputized as a secret agent, XXX flies to Prague to infiltrate a terrorist organization made up of former Russian soldiers known as Anarchy 99. Their name signifies an explicit political orientation while the group is run by Yorgi, who like everyone else in the group has the same stereotypical physical features of the cold war enemies. In contradistinction to historical anarchist groups that were financed by donations, selling news papers and hosting balls, as has historically been the means by which anarchist groups have financed themselves, this group uses money made from prostitution, drugs and selling stolen items. Additionally, their understanding of class conflict is not the encouragement and production of union and party militant but the production of unmanned ships containing chemical weapon delivery system. The reason that such a weapon has been created is not related to killing a specific class of people involved with government or business, as some insurrectionary anarchists would propound but simply because they want to cause chaos by indiscriminately killing people. They are not holding anyone hostage for pecuniary gains to finance the group for further revolutionary activities and they are not interested in revenge for wrongs committed during class conflict. Their version of attendat contains no message they are trying to disseminate to the populace, they simply want to attack major European cities with chemical weapons because they hate society. Thus in a manner reminiscent of political caricatures in the late 18th and early 19th century, these anarchists are thus depicted as violently nihilistic, sadistic, and without a political purpose other than to create social unrest, chaos and disorder.

In order to broaden the political significance of xXx as an anti-anarchist film, it is worthwhile to provide a close analysis of a particular scene which occurs after XXX has ingratiated himself with Anarchy 99 after provided them with a number of stolen cars. A bumbling and inept Czech policeman, XXX’s liaison, accidently makes it known that he is spying on Anarchy 99 and XXX. A short car chase ensues and XXX shoots the policeman in the back with a special bullet containing red dye and a tranquilizer. This fools Yorgi into believing he killed the policeman and this is seen as a final test for XXX to gain membership into to the group. This scene clearly depicts the ineptitude of other countries security apparatus, the superiority and necessity of American policing forces and the need for American forces to play an intervening role in the internal affairs of other countries. If Rambo is a signifier of the Reaganite epoch that required vigilance from the Soviet threat, then XXX is his neoliberal signifier dealing with the aftermath where there is no singular hegemon to be battled. And in the end of this film it is clear that the terroristic anarchism is and should be defeated by a morally righteous if at times ambiguously so neo-liberal order.

Given his physique it is not surprising that Vin Diesel would play a morally. In Fast & Furious, Vin Diesel reprises his role as Domenic Toretto. While the plot of the movies doesn’t bear any sort of thoroughgoing analysis it is worth noting that

The next film produced in the wake of the 1999 Battle in Seattle whose storyline featured anarchists as major characters was the 2002 B-movie The Anarchist Cookbook. The film is at base a bildungsroman where the protagonist played by Devon Gummersall, Puck[1], begins as an anarchist and becomes a conservative who works at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as a result of his experience with Leftists of various stripes and the influence of a Young Republican. The film opens with Puck stitching together a series of anti-consumerist platitudes claimed as anarchism as he goes through his daily routine. The camera settings change with each critical thrust and are timed to illustrate his practice of these in his daily life. As he articulates a rejection of upward mobility as a goal in life the film focuses on someone smoking marijuana through a gas mask. As he says, “Anarchy is a way of life” he opens up a refrigerator that is barren of food. When the setting changes to a toy store where Puck is playing with merchandise, he then defines anarchism as “pure undiluted freedom, liberty out of bounds” and states that “we might not know what we’re for, but we know what we’re against.” While it is likely that it is impossible to give a legitimate definition of a system of political beliefs within five minutes, in this opening monologue sequence it is clear that anarchism is associated with juvenile aimlessness.

From this opening manifesto Puck then introduces a motley cast of roommates. Puck first introduces us to his failed love interest Karla, a siren who is shown as obtaining pleasure by seducing married men in order to break up their marriages. Then the audience is presented with Johnny Red, a stereotypical 60s radical who idolizes Sweden and is later shown to be a repressed pedophile, Sweeny, a rakish DJ whose major political commitment is against monogamy and finally Puck’s closest friend “Double D”, a hapless nitwit whose initials mean Dumb and Dumber. This motley assortment of radicals are all employed at a radical bookstore and in their free time they engage in spectacular campaigns designed to get media attention to specific issues such as animal rights or the environment. None of them are shown as having any commitment to being a part of trade-union struggle nor any commitment to some other organizations concerned with economic inequity. The limits to their practice of class warfare is petty theft, that is until Jack Black arrives. As the person who disrupts this groups pseudo-anarchist torpor and drives the plot, Black is a charismatic and sociopathic nihilist who “doesn’t even believe in nihilism” yet judges that The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell is like The Bible[2]. As should be apparent, the film did not so much have characters as flat caricatures that were so negatively stereotypical it caused one indignant writer in the Winter 2004 edition of Green Anarchy to state that: “To be blunt, there are no anarchists in the film… To put it simply, this film is a pathetic stereotype of anarchists, meant to make us look stupid”. Indeed, all of the supposed anarchists of the film are libertines appealing to non-codified notions of freedom and liberty in order to justify their selfish actions.

This changes as Black’s entrance into the communal house accelerates the frequency and gravity of their political actions. Though this does not always occur without some level of resistance. While the other members of the house almost immediately give way, Puck oscillates and is simultaneously appalled and enthralled by Black’s political analysis and willingness to “take things further”. As Puck increasingly comes to question whether or not Black embodies the logical extension of his political philosophy a police officer comes into the apartment after a burglary, he witnesses Karla snorting cocaine. The entire group is arrested and the communal house they were all squatting in is boarded up. This eventuality marks the point wherein Puck seemingly decides that Black does not represent his beliefs. This is shown geographically, as Puck is sent to the suburbs to live with his parents as part of his sentencing, in his embrace of the bourgeoisie game of golf and also as while on parole he begins to enjoy working for a living at a call center rather than dumpster diving and scamming. In one of his scenes at works we see an explicit disavowal of the form of anarchism that he once claimed when his boss calls him into his office after Puck set up an impromptu party in order to brighten the spirits of a co-worker who has been depressed over a dead dog. His boss asks him: “Is that what anarchists do? Take matters into their own hands? Every person responsible for themselves?” to which Puck’s responds “More or less” and the bosses response of “Sounds good to me.” This dialogue demonstrates that Puck’s true political positionality is not that of an anarchist/libertarian-communist but an anarcho-capitalist.

Johnny Black is released shortly after this and convinces Puck to come to a new squat that he and Johnny Red have found and turned into a drug-manufacturing site in order to fund their anarchist operations. Puck wants to leave, but decides to stay in order to make sure that his friend Double D is safe, as he’s become addicted to the drugs that Black cooks, and as despite his newly blossoming romance with Jody, a girl in the young Republican party, as has Karla, who exchanges sexual favors with Black for drugs. The purpose of the drugs sales is to purchase weapons that Black plans to use with in a multi-group action founded on an alliance with Neo-Nazis and a Texas Nationalist militia. Their purpose is to target a university by spiking trees scheduled to be cut in an Earth Liberation Front style operation and assisting the Neo-Nazis/Texas Nationalists to blow up an almost completed Black Studio Union building named after Malcolm X. Anarchists are thus no longer simply correlated with soft drug use, but are seen as hard drug manufacture distributors which, condone violent racism have no code of honor to protect their members. The film thus reproduces the Cold War trope wherein communists “more dangerous and more brutal than ordinary criminals, who at least adhere to their own code of honor” to anarchists in a post-Cold War setting (Whitfield 135). Puck, disturbed by this, decides to drug all of those that are going to participate in the action, knocks Black unconscious with an iron skillet and then calls the police to turn them all in.

After Puck learns that he is going to be financially rewarded for narcing on the group, he decides to go to California to work with Jody at the Reagan Library and renounces his nickname. This radical shifting of political identity reemphasizes the superiority of neo-liberal logic as seen in xXx. Anarchism is depicted as a libertine, juvenile ideology at best and an anti-social, pathological one when its presuppositions are extended. Johnny Black’s “anarchism” illustrates merely that he is a sociopath and thus this political commitment is classified as reflective of a deranged mind and thus a wholly unacceptable form of political action.

The next two movies I’ll address, V for Vendetta and I Am Legend, differ from the previous two in that reference to characters embodying a deformed anarchist/communistic political commitment are not explicitly labeled within the films but are merely implied. The thematic struggle in both films is between collectivism and a permutation of capitalism. Both are concerned with reintroducing heterogeneity into a political system that has developed to a level of excessive homogenized. Additionally both films have protagonists which are messianic heroes able to near single-handedly bring an end to the films conflict and usher in a new age of peace.

V for Vendetta was released in 2006 and presents a divergence from the other films thus far mentioned as it is the only one based upon a graphic novel with an explicitly anarchist message[3]. Set in a dystopian future London, V for Vendetta opens a young girl, Evey Hammond, being rescued from the clutches of salacious bobbies by the films eponymous protagonist, V. After dispatching the police, V convinces Evey to accompany him to his musical performance and they go to a prime vantage point to witness the timed destruction of the Old Bailey on at the arrival of Guy Fawkes Day, November 5th in an act of Propaganda of the Deed. After the news stations spin the event as a planned demolition, V forces his way into the station with explosives on his chest and transmits a message claiming responsibility for the act, the need for political change, the need for people to take more responsibility for the current state of political affairs, promises to hold those highest up most responsible and finally issues an invitation to come to Parliament in a year to participate in its destruction. Were the context framed slightly differently then V could easily be a politician running for office and requesting his supporters come to a speech. Indeed, every four years modern American political parlance is filled with references to the need to destroy the culture of corruption in Washington D.C. V thus becomes a referent for change, but a change that is an undeterminable signifier that is able to translate into all of the grievances for the populace but presents only abstractions.

During V’s escape from the building, which has been surrounded by SWAT police on the tail of Evey due to a camera capturing her face while with V, she rescues V, and is later rescued by V. He takes her to his secret hideout and through a series of flashbacks it is shown how the Big Brother-esque Chancellor Sutler and his Christian Nationalist, homophobic henchman came to power. Concurrently, through a series of scenes with V as an assassin and a master manipulator of information, we see him entrapping and killing those that did viral medical testing on V (as well as other undesirable parts of the British population such as Arabs, gays and political dissidents) and helped Sutler come into power. The anatomy of a revolutionary takeover of power is reflective of historical examples, however, the film posits that it is simply a specific cabal of evil people that has gained control of the government that caused totalitarian control to be instituted – not that it is an essential aspect of bourgeois democracy faced with a real or manufactured crisis. Furthermore, the depicted method of combating such forces, individual acts of violence, while effective when tied with a broad based movement combating fascism and advocating an alternative, as in the time of the CNT-FAI, is shown to be transcendentally effective through a lone person2. V is capable of single handedly acting as a highly organized and well funded cabal and thus reproduces the messianic logic of authoritarian dictators divorced, as V is, from the interests and desires of the working class exactly like Sutler.

This paucity of V’s tactics is claimed by some critics to be ameliorated in the final scene, where a mass wearing Guy Fawkes masks on Guy Fawkes Day comes to witness V’s promised destruction of Parliament. This is the moment where Hardt/Negri’s concept of the multitude is found and in a moment of solidarity, despite the presence of military forces and the threat of being fired upon, tens of thousands gather to watch the explosion. The soldiers back down due to the lack of orders from the executive and as the building explodes people in the mass remove their masks and a multi-cultural diversity is shown underneath. However, the framing of the message is clear in that it states that one can be totally apolitical in one’s daily life, but if one listens to the dictates of the “revolutionary authority” the yoke of totalitarian government can be overthrown; provided, of course, that a hero has neutralized the leaders. This mass of people does not represent political actors, but an audience participating in a spectacle. Rather than adopting active roles to resist the methods of control used against them, they rely upon a messianic figure with super-human strength and abilities to signal when the revolution should happen. This pitiful web of relations, and more importantly the failure of the film to enunciate an alternative to the repressive form of government that will surely resurface, vastly overshadows the fact that the film illustrates the simple need for revolutionary forces to adopt some of the methods of the government that they desire to overthrow. What ought to be anarchism in the film is thus just a fable about the need for citizens to be passive until they are told be some authority other than their own to do something.

This film differs from xXx and The Anarchist Cookbook in that V’s political orientation is close to that of the anarchist, but he plays the role neither of bugbear or political ingénue that learns to recognize the absurdity of anarchism. In the film there is no vocalization or exposition of the word anarchism. V, while acting in the tradition of anarchist assassination of political figures, cryptically alludes to Emma Goldman when spouting bombastic, quasi-revolutionary rhetoric and acting with general disdain for the law, rather represents an anarchism recuperated into capitalist ideology. It is an anarchism that has been captured, shorn of its history and philosophy, that has had its values, analysis and illustrated potential tortured out of it, that has been disemboweled so that finally it can be stuffed and sold as a commodity.

Containing many of the tropes used at the height of government/media collusion during the Cold War in order to ideologically reinforce capitalism and delegitimize alternatives, I Am Legend, released in 2007 and directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith, also shows the shifting forms of political antagonists in post-Cold War films. However I Am Legend distinguishes itself from the aforementioned films on several levels. Whereas the first two films made explicit connection between anarchism and villainy and V for Vendetta showed anarchism as myth, I Am Legend disavows such immediately facile connections and instead adopts a more nuanced approach. The antagonists here can be collectivists of any variety – be they anarchists, socialists or communists – as there is no direct allusion to political ideology. Here the political implications are manifested in the bodies and daily practices of the films heroes and villains. With such historical specifics removed, the film is able to operate at a higher level of abstraction as it less connected to a historical-material understanding and make itself more susceptible to a conceptual interpretation. With this circumstance the film is not only able to functionally discredit collectivism of any kind as a political ideology, but it also encourages epistemological positivism and associates historical, dialectical materialism with monstrosity. At this point I will note that this particular film does not originate this type of symbolic hierarchicalization. Rather Will Smith’s 2004 film I, Robot accomplishes much of the same ordering as does the 2010 film Tron: Legacy. However given the manner in which this particular film immediately provides a symbolic system of relations with which to decode its anti-collectivist stance I will focus on this and save the others for a longer piece.

I Am Legend opens with a news interview that provides the basis for interpreting the symbolic content of the Krippen virus (KV), the cause of the dystopian future and thus a means for reading the film as a whole. While it is not revealed until later that we learn that KV has caused the death of 90% of humanity, leaving 12 million unaffected and 588 million transformed into Darkseekers it is important to read this into the content of the opening dialogue, the entirety of which is as follows:

TV Personality: So, Dr. Krippen, give it to me in a nutshell.

Dr. Alice Krippen: Well, the premise is quite simple – um, take something designed by nature and reprogram it to make it work for the body rather than against it.

TV Personality: You’re talking about a virus?

Dr. Alice Krippen: Indeed, yes. In this case the measles, um, virus which has been engineered at a genetic level to be helpful rather than harmful. Um, I find the best way to describe it is if you can… if you can imagine your body as a highway, and you picture the virus as a very fast car, um, being driven by a very bad man. Imagine the damage that car can cause. Then if you replace that man with a cop… the picture changes. And that’s essentially what we’ve done.

 

In this exchange there are three major points that require identification, contextualization and exposition. First worth looking into is the manner in which the cure for this cancer is created by engineering the measles virus to do its opposite, help people rather than causing injury. Such a conceptualization of life and matter as simultaneously being and becoming, defined within a system of relations rather than unto itself and understood as being interpenetrated with its opposite, susceptible to qualitative metamorphosis (especially when these changes are based upon scientific guidance) has its intellectual origin in dialectic epistemologies. That said, just as a dialectical movement is visible within this particular moment doesn’t mean that that this is necessarily what it means. Though other epistemologies recognize and attempt to explain social, biological and technological change in a different formulation from the above, perhaps this is not enough evidence for us to immediately accept the interpretation that KV can be seen as embodying dialectics so hopefully subsequent analysis will do so.

The second means of furthering this interpretation of KV as dialectics is illustrated in the disease that Dr. Krippen seeks to cure with her applied research: cancer. While one cannot use the abstraction of capitalism to explain all social ills, cancer is specifically related to environmental, commercial, dietary, social and other changes linked to the spread of the industrial modes of production that contain with them capitalist systems of social relations. This connection is furthered made when factoring in the analysis of John McMurty. In his book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism McMurty puts forward the thesis that the never-ending quest for surplus value required by capitalist modes of production leads to growing levels of social conflict and environmental destruction of those that “host” it. As such the best metaphor for understanding capitalism is as a malignant form of cancer. The attempt to end cancer is thus symbolically linked to the attempt to end capitalism. While the actual form any revolutionary politics would take in order to achieve a post-capitalist society is up for debate, the historically revolutionary role of dialectics and historical materialism is undeniable. Thus extending this metaphor we can see positivistic, reformist politics would be conceptualized as treating cancer whereas dialectic, collectivist politics is curing it. As Dr. Krippen seeks to eradicate cancer, KV is dialectics and those that are not immune to it are dialecticians.

The third enunciation made in this exchange that allows the astute audience member to identify KV infection as indication that that body embodies dialectics occurs when contextualizing Dr. Ripens’ statement of how a bad person driving fast in a car gives you “one image” and exchanging that bad person with a police officer presents a more desirable picture. Immediately after these words the film transitions to three years into the future. An extended shots of Manhattan, arguably the current center of capitalism, shows the city absent of human activity but with flora and fauna overtaking the city. The sound of a car rises and we see Dr. Robert Neville speeding down a highway with Samantha, a German shepherd. As the dog is widely known for being a police dog and Neville holds a military rifle on his lap, we are encouraged to associate him with the “good man” in Dr. Krippen’s exchange. However this is not the case as we learn later in the film that he is immune to KV. Additionally we learn that the U.S. Army – the historical foe of dialectics and historical materialist epistemology, a.k.a. Marxism – previously employed Neville. Conceiving itself as an exceptional country immune to class conflict and enforcing any attempts to prove otherwise, social conflict was often attributed to “outside agitators” that embodied a foreign social philosophy. Thus Neville represents a positivistic epistemology, the cancer that is capitalism and antagonist to the Darkseekers, who live in appropriated housing, in a seemingly consensus form of government and display radical solidarity when attempting to rescue a female Darkseeker kidnapped by Robert Neville.

Now before furthering this line of analysis as it relates to the films symbolic order it is important to note that the conceptualization of dialectics in I Am Legend isn’t of the Marxian/Hegelian variety but an oversimplification which uses binary categorization of thesis (measles virus/harm) and antithesis (Cancer cure/help) which results in a synthesis (Darkseekers/pandemic). While this binary opposition demonstrates sublation into the virus’ third development this totalizing shift in human subjectivity is seen as a devolutionary and foreclosed development which needs to be turned back as in life there is death, humanity or Darkseekers and neither are able to co-exist or evolved. Such a non-continuous logical/developmental triad is Jungian in conceptualization and shows that the virus and those affected by it are vulgar dialecticians. Additionally, dialectics is marked within this symbolic framework as the cause of death of ninety percent of the world population and those that embody it are transformed into monsters meant to evoke horror in the audience.

Moving from this coding to the film we find that throughout the film the vantage point centers on Neville, making the audience empathize and identify with him and the loss of his family, his feeling of responsibility for the pandemic and his aspirations to fix it, a fact compounded by their horrifying physical appearance and voicelessness of the Darkseekers.His quest to right wrongs and the tropes of romantic individualism structure sympathetic sentiments in his favor despite the fact that he is kidnapping and performing medical experiments on humans. Neville’s inability to see the world dialectically and apply Reason to the new situation that he is in is not seen as a weakness but as part of his indefatigable strength. Combating dialectics as an embodiment of positivistic epistemology, Neville naturalizes and is valuated as heroic for embodying the imperialist drives of capitalism to consistently obtain new bodies to be placed under allocative and authoritative controls and repress resistance to its restructuring of subjectivity and social conditions. We see this most poignantly in Neville’s lab, where there are 72 Polaroids on the wall showing the faces of the Darkseekers he has kidnapped and killed as a result of his attempts to transform their bodies. This doesn’t bother Neville as their lives have been emptied of intrinsic value, they have been turned into a means for obtaining Neville desires been subjected to a paternalistic discourse framed as an objective, medicinal one that allows him to circumvent moral reflection. This doesn’t seem intended to cause the audience to question the legitimacy of such claims as the Darkseekers are consistently presented as more animal than human[4]. Giving his own assessment of the creatures, Neville himself states in one of his log entries “social devolution appears complete” and “typical human behavior is entirely absent”. While Neville eventually wavers in his commitment to curing KV after his dog is killed in a trap orchestrated by the Darkseekers, he eventually reaffirms it and demonstrates his essentially redemptive nature in a Christ-like act of personal sacrifice in order to “save humanity”.

It is not just in the symbolic ordering of I Am Legend is it become possible to see an anti-dialectical, anti-radical message, but in its subsidization by the government. The films production was tied to the co-operation and partial funding of local and federal agencies – a consideration which Tony Shaw has definitively illustrated in his book Hollywood’s Cold War only occurs when a film aligns with the ideological interests of the government. Reporting on the production issues of the film, Joseph Steuer gives us the following information on the films most technically difficult scenes, the evacuation of Manhattan:

In addition to complying with the requirements of no fewer than 14 government agencies, producers had to bring in a crew of 250, plus 1,000 extras, including 160 members of the National Guard in full combat gear. They commandeered a flotilla of Coast Guard boats, grappled with hypothermia-inducing temperatures, coped with dozens of production-related injuries — and nursed a frozen helicopter.

Kramer [the director] says “I needed to get permission from the (Economic Development Corp.), (the Department of Environmental Conservation), the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the New York City (Department of Transportation), the New York State DOT, the Department of Small Business Services, the FDNY, the NYPD Harbor Unit, the NYPD Aviation Unit, the (Federal Aviation Administration), the U.S. Army, the National Guard and the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.”

Such cooperation is not merely a gift, but get in return a narrative that reinforces the hegemonically dominant ideas and combats those that would contest it. Thus it is by relying upon Hollywood to recognize its mutual interest with the government, both are able to use each other to their advantage.

XXX and The Anarchists Cookbook both have characters claiming an anarchist social philosophy, while V for Vendetta has a crypto-anarchists but all three illustrate that in the end the choices of political intervention is invested with hegemonic rather than revolutionary interest. All of the characters in these films play roles that are one-dimensional casuistries that are ontologically unified with capitalism and thus reproduce its logic through the tropes of these films. Commentating on the manner in the form of revolutionary culture can in essence be its opposite, Herbert Marcuse called this unification of opposites “one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal” (Marcuse 81). When this is the case, whatever subaltern identity claimed is a mask that is discarded due to events that show that an unalterable human nature requires police states. Based upon these examples there are three potential roles for contemporary anarchism. Either it is depicted as a synonym for terrorism, a cause of fear and thus a legitimization of government as protector in the film xXx, or it is shown to be the domain of a middle-class rebellious adolescence that soon learns it’s correct place in society as in The Anarchist Cookbook. In the film V for Vendetta, the quasi-anarchist actions of V is actually a quixotic, insurrectionary pseudo-philosophy leading neither to freedom or liberty for those oppressed. This essentialist framing of anarchism within filmic culture as an undesirable goal and a stillborn approach to social change reinforces capitalist media pronouncements and deracinates potentially viable discourse and praxis for institutional change. While encouraging reactionary attitudes in viewers uninformed to anarchism’s philosophy and history, it reinforces the overwhelming misrepresentation in the media that allow for its pre-emptive and overpowering repression during times of public political contestation. Where I Am Legend, like I, Robot and Tron: Legacy differs from these films is only in form. Emptying explicit political signifiers allows for not merely anarchism to be maligned but a more broadly conceived scientifically oriented collectivism.

Despite the clearly propagandistic nature of the aspersions cast upon anarchism in these films, some of the criticisms that they present are indeed true. For one American social movements that claim anarchist inspiration are few and far between and small in number and are often divorced from working class movements. The tendency towards environmental and animal protection has increased as a result of long forming historical trends that have sought to separate this particular strain from the labor movement. Blaming history for the problems of today as a stance which absconds oneself from accountability is not an option and the contemporary, influential individualist anarchist thinkers such as John Zerzan, Bob Black, Hakim Bey, Derrick Jensen and Crimethinc Collective’s failure to place anarchist concerns within the realm of labor is equally problematic. While not all of the contemporary anarchist movements embody the same type of downward mobility as visible in The Anarchist Cookbook or are as insurrectionary as V or XXX, many of the people within such movements see themselves as opposing mores that lead them to fight an unnecessarily uphill battle when trying to convince someone that their political ideology is a viable option. Rather than going into a critique of these individuals and the groups to which I allude I will claim that one of the options to counter the continued misrepresentation of American anarchism as well as its schismatic relations with labor and other oppressed groups is through a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic.

The task of describing a specifically anarchist film aesthetic has been anathema to anarchist film critics such as Richard Porton, and the reasoning is understandable: how can a specific code of rules be made to determine what actually is or isn’t anarchist film? When considering the historical record of previous attempts by anarchists to use various art forms this position seems silly. More importantly than the ahistoricity of such a claim, however, is that such a statement reduces anarchism to a philosophy that is simply “against rules” rather than being “against rulers”. Anarchism imagines its own structure of economic and human relations, which it desires realized: in a reductively basic form, the rulers are not unaccountable representatives and material goods and the means of production are commonly owned. That there can be no possible description of anarchist aesthetics is simply infantile and an extension of the nihilistic motto “all is permitted”. A clearly defined aesthetic acting as a counterbalance to those cultural productions that reproduce the hegemonic values of capitalism is not enough to be called an anarchist aesthetic. An entire system of relations relates to the film qua film and thus such an aesthetic would not just consider reproduction but to production, distribution and reception and use-value. Before sketching such a system, however, I will analyze the film aesthetic of the Situationist Internationale as their theoretical writings have had a profound impact on the contemporary anarchist movement despite they’re being an avant-garde organization. After pointing out the weaknesses in their writings, I will give a brief outline on how such a form could be organized as well as the benefits of a broader system of relationships.

Guy Debord and the Situationist Internationale, which loudly proclaim themselves at the most radical filmmakers, were neither anarchists nor Marxists, The Situationists was an avant-garde organization of students and artists founded in the late 1960’s predominantly in Paris. Their films were supposed to be an extension of such writings as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and their films were revolutionary in their use of new film techniques. However, it was their conception of what was revolutionary that was in fact part of the problem. Some of the “revolutionary” techniques within Debord’s films included 34 minutes of black screen and extended conversations with white screen. Such aesthetics were supposed to enrage the audience so much that a “situation” would be created, they would thus not want to be spectators anymore and turn from passive audience into active mob. The Situationists also pioneered the use of montage, sound-image discontinuity, negative sequences, flicker, white/black screens, and direct manipulation of the celluloid surface through tearing, writing and scratching. Another technique that the Situationists claimed to have pioneered was called detournement[5]. Such a practice reformed a particular cultural production, usually advertisements and film, normalizing capital and made it into one that was to cause the audience to question the capitalism and its social effects. The pinnacle of such an aesthetic is René Viénet’s film “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” which took a kung-fu movie and, by voicing over all of the spoken parts, made it into a mouthpiece of Situationism and their brand of radical subjectivity while parodying the events of Mai 68. That this type of film was undesirable to the majority of the Parisian populace was known clearly by the producers of the films, however “the telos of his cinematic production had never been financial gain: even prior to its release, the hostility toward it’s violation of the syntax and economy of pleasure characteristic of spectacle was anticipated” (McDonnough 396). As can be imagined, the films had a very limited viewing audience not just due to their unpleasant nature, which made them a bore to watch but also due to the showing restrictions set upon them by their filmmakers. The Situationists, in essence, held that an aesthetic appreciable only by a “progressive” bourgeoisie to be something radical and revolutionary.

The problems with such an aesthetic are multi-faceted: it presumes an extremely high level of theoretical knowledge on the part of the audience, its incoherence and film techniques are alienating, it is designed to be unwatchable and its fear of recuperation and desire to resist representation lends itself to political inefficacy and the cultivation of a radical subjectivism that balks at the idea of any sort of unity offered by unions or political organizations. These self-imposed limitations on aesthetic practice are understandable given the Left political organization options available were limited to Stalinism, Maoism and a very marginalized Trotskyism. However the poverty of their philosophy is clear based upon their choice of non-filmic political tactics and history. Their tactic of detournement is the only tactic to have survived the Situationists disbandment and is illustrated in the groups inspired by the Situationists such as the Billboard Liberation Front, and while this group is looked down upon by the police it is because they are vandals and not because they represent a threat to the system. In fact, such an aesthetic is easily recuperable and marketable as the example of Adbusters show. Such aesthetic theory has had the effect of transitioning anarchist struggles from the traditional realm of labor and social justice struggles to one of mere cultural battles. While these are of course interconnected and inextricable, it appeals to a specific group of people which is not the working class. As the aesthetic and the political becomes tied together so strongly that the aesthetics triumphs as the sole medium of engaging in what becomes transmogrified into a vague “anti-capitalist” struggle we see how within its theoretical constructs it suddenly becomes a revolutionary act to deface advertisements, graffiti “counter-consumptive” messages and make movies that only a few people ever see. This is not to deny that this would happen in a revolutionary situation – however the greater part of time would be related to outreach, group building, advocacy, etc., which is much more “boring” than spray painting pithy phrases on government buildings. Modern day anarchists excessively enamored with the Situationists or ideas descended from them should work on deromanticizing the group and escaping the influence of their aesthetics. What an anarchist film aesthetics needs to do is to face the cultural hegemony inscribed with capitalist logic on its own playing field – the market – and form it accordingly.

Contrary to the logic of the Situationists, that a distinctly anarchist film aesthetic should appeal to a large section of the consumer marketplace is no paradox. Being that anarchism is a populist social movement it would not essentially be antagonistic to the mode of distribution of narrative Hollywood cinema, as it would be invested in gaining the widest possible audience for its messages. In fact a film that is able to so shows its cultural power.

One means of demonstrating the dearth of current modes of current anarchist film aesthetics is in its distribution. Most outlets of such films are relegated to online retail, occasional low-attendance film or political festivals and Bit Torrent websites such as OneBigTorrent.org. These areas of distribution presume either a particular political identity has been chosen or a certain amount of cultural and intellectual refinement that isn’t atypical of the non-bourgeoisie. Either way these films contain little outreach value for those not already converted. These films are typically documentaries and with few exceptions the production values match the small amount of money invested into making it. One manner of changing this static dynamic would be to attract investors, specifically those that could potentially benefit from propagating the anarchistic spirit.

Despite the fact that the “AFL-CIO willingly providing union cover to CIA operations enabling many a military junta”, it could be to the benefit of anarchists to ally and co-operate with these and other Hollywood Unions represented by the AFL-CIO in order to finance filmic projects. Doing so could mean pecuniary growth for both parties if mutually dividing the income for reinvestment into other projects and for use in class based projects (Smith 203). Such propositions would initially lead to internal controversies and resistance within the union leadership, but a case could easily be made that the mass distribution of anarchist cinema would lead to more political capital than simply throwing it in the direction of a Democratic party that takes its vote for granted and has historically cared little to assist the unions. Doing so not only financially helps the union and reintroduces anarchist currents of thought within them, but also is a manner of organizing and demonstrating an alternative to the current relations of capital. Given the conservatism and collaborationist history of this union to capitals interests it is unlikely that such an alliance is forthcoming and should such an event happen it would remain highly problematic, however the manner in which anarchist film aesthetics is currently limited by funding and technical ability in a market that has grown accustomed to slick production quality consigns anarchist film that fails to address this to the margins and are thus always just preaching to a very small choir.

The production of an explicitly anarchist film aesthetic would find itself in a great debt to post-colonial cultural analysis. Though some academic research has mapped out the manner in which Cold War politics since the Bolshevik Revolution has affected American cultural production – it has not obtained the same visibility of post-colonial theory. While it is important not to conflate historical anti-colonial and anarchist movements, it is also necessary to recognize the manner in which these two struggles overlap, shed light upon each other, encourage each other as well and at times antagonize each other. Anarchists qua anarchists are against government while anti-colonialists are merely against colonial governments. However the former views the American government as an occupying force and can in a way be seen as akin to a colonizer.

Like the colonized and as I have shown in the above film analysis anarchists are marginalized in all avenues of media representation except their own minor outlets. As such they must begin the task of cultural and political reinscription. For the contemporary anarchist filmmaker one could begin by applying Said’s statement that: “To achieve recognition is to rechart and then occupy the place in imperial cultural forms reserved for subordination, to occupy it self consciously, fighting for it on the very same territory once ruled by a consciousness that assumed the subordination of a designated inferior Other” (Said 210). Doing so would mean that the falsely depicted teleological unity between government/governed would be exposed, the American notion of classlessness exceptionalism and justified poverty would be excoriated and the popularized notion relating to the general stupidity of Americans and thus their need to be ruled over would be reversed. Building upon this initial charge, anarchist film is further responsible for articulating the Proudhonian “general idea of a revolution” by illustrating histories of struggle to their amnesiac audiences, negating the negative aspersions cast upon anarchism, affirming a positive vision of potential anarchist social relations by depicting current and possible socio-economic relations and destroying the logic of hegemonic domination propagated within cultural products. By striving to be a popular cultural referent, in the manner The Fountainhead has become for Objectivists and neo-liberals, they are able to counter the prevailing norms.

Like Ayn Rand’s novel turned film, the medium of socially active novels and agitprop offers a form that could be manipulated to creating movies today and further reputes such a juvenile notion that there can be no distinctly socially anarchist aesthetic. Books such as the unexpurgated version of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Iron Heel by Jack London, Haymarket by Martin Duberman, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, etc. are compelling, thus marketable stories and some of them contain the prophetic figures that is, quoting Georg Lukacs, “On the one hand, a historically authentic figure, true to life; and on the other hand anticipates those qualities… which will only emerge fully in… struggles” (Adorno 47). Put another way, as the heroes depicted in film are transformed from supernatural, adolescent characters fighting fantasies to anarchistic heroes there is likely to be an increase in a specific type of person: one who desires and wills to combat capitalism through organized struggle. Akin to this is the also Lukacasian notion that by reformulating cultural narratives to they act like fables there can be a true-avant-garde created. This notion has its basis in writers such as Gorky and Chernyshevsky and is currently being exploited by anarchists of the primitivist variety like Daniel Quinn. Reformulating some of Lukacs’ ideas to contemporary times does not mean reproducing a Stalinist or popular front approach to literature, but it does recognize the manner in which post 9/11 direct actions have been transmogrified into terrorism by repressive new laws and that it would benefit anarchists to help sway public opinion against such laws. This would be especially helpful for those anarchists who focus their advocacy on environmental issues. A contemporary film, with a scene similar to the courtroom monologue by Roark in The Fountainhead, containing a green-anarchist that is successfully able to defend his arson of a housing development in front of a jury and be found innocent would be meaningful leap forward both for anarchism and anarchist aesthetics.

These dynamic, alternative models to the reigning form of representation signify a social anarchist aesthetic incarnated as a positive, non-fragmented art occupying the dialectical space between the dimension of actuality and potentiality. That such an aesthetic need not be stylistically didactic and thus unpalatable is shown within the British director Ken Loach. While his works is of a vaguely leftist rather than particularly anarchist films he’s directed such as Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley display anarchistic sensibilities as they convey clear sympathy with workers, illustrates historically fecund moments for social change and shows the true situation for labor: struggle or subservience. Speaking of Loach’s film Bread and Roses, Andy Stern, the International President of the Service Employees International Union, says that the film “helps us to see and feel the urgent need for action. With the characters in the film, we learn again an old lesson: in the struggle for dignity and justice, working people can triumph when they stand together.”

It is not just the film itself that would lead to a properly anarchist aesthetic, but the attempt after the film to help create communities which can use the film as a referent for discussion. Rather than everyone leaving the theater as individuals, pamphleteers could wait outside the cinema to steer people to local action organizations or alternative spaces could be used to show the films akin to the way in which Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth set up showings in churches across the country and provided lesson plans for teachers when showing it in the classroom. Providing this productive capacity for anarchist films to imbue community relations rather then replicating the divisive individualism of capitalist films is one of the defining aspects of it. In this way an anarchist film aesthetic would be greatly inspired by Italian Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci, who organized such events for Milanese workers along similar lines. By recognizing that an anarchist film aesthetic must not just be concerned with overthrowing the hegemonic values of cinema but turning it instead on its head, a true anarchist film aesthetic can be created.

Bibliography

Graeber, David. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007

Lukacs, Georg. Aesthetics and Politics. New York, NY: Verso, 2007

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001

McConnough, Tom. Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2004

Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York, NY: Vintage Press, 1994.

Smith, Sharon. Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006.

Steuer, Joseph. Government Agencies Cover Filmmakers in Red Tape. http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/04/25/industry-newyork-legend-dc-idUSN2335654320070425?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0. Accessed May 15th, 2011

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

 

Footnotes

[1] Giving the protagonist the name of Puck is similar to the opening scene of xXx in that it establishes him as a character that is both related to chaos and mischief and that it relates him to a mythological ideology.

[2] Besides the 26-page introduction entitled Anarchism Today, which contains now outdated analysis as to the contemporary political situation, the book is composed of nothing but now outdated illustrations and diagrams of how to manufacture drugs, make black ops communications technology and improvised explosives.

[3] Also worth noting is the fact that it received laudable reviews within various Leftist online message boards and blogs after its release for “its spirit of rebellion” and ability to inject a revolutionary referent into popular discourse. However Alan Moore, the author of the original graphic novel, claimed that the film had gone so far from his authorial intent that he disowned the film. These divergent receptions the film evokes issues that will be answered in a later section.

[4] It’s also worth noting how similar this relationship is to other historical ones between the American government and various domestic groups and foreign nationalists subjected to violence.

[5] Such a claim is however baseless as the IWW had been rewriting popular hymns for songs fifty years beforehand.

List of Good Spanish Language Films

Learning a foreign language is not simply about being able to communicate with other people but also being able to better understand their culture, history, values and struggles. Part of this involves familiarizing yourself in their artistic productions, be it paintings, poetry or cinema. The latter two are definitely more useful in understanding a language and the last the most so in increasing aural comprehension. Here are some excellent examples of Latin American and Spanish cinema that I’ve found to always be aesthetically pleasing. My apologies for not giving plots synopsis, but they can be found on the Amazon links and in my humble opinion are all worth viewing.

Sin Nombre

Maria Full of Grace

The Sea Inside

Amores Perros

The Motorcycle Diaries (Widescreen Edition)

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Pan’s Labyrinth

Biutiful

Like Water for Chocolate

Love in the Time of Cholera

Open Your Eyes

Machuca

La Comunidad

Viva Cuba

Romero

Casi Casi

The Perfect Crime (El Crimen Perfecto)

Innocent Voices

Between Your Legs

Sex and Lucia (Unrated Edition)

Carmen

Second Skin (Unrated Version)

Under the Same Moon

La Estrategia Del Caracol Lo Mejor Del Cine Colombiano

The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)

Rosario Tijeras

Lolita’s Club

Perder Es Cuestion De Metodo

Soñar No Cuesta Nada

Nine Queens

Mujeres Infieles

Fermat’s Room

Burnt Money

The Official Story (La historia oficial)

El Norte (The Criterion Collection)

XXy

The Violin

Milk of Sorrow

Alamar

Carol’s Journey

Which Way Home

Herencia

The Wind Journeys

Cell 211

Bombon – El Perro

The Last Circus

Volver

Talk to Her (Hable con Ella)

Broken Embraces

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The Skin I Live in (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

All About My Mother

Bad Education (Original Uncut NC-17 Edition)

Matador (1986)

Law of Desire

Some Paintings I've Loved…

I’ve been to so many art museums the past few months that to write with the same amount of depth about all the pieces that I’ve loved as I have for some of others would require more time than there are hours in the day. Despite this – I wanted to share some of the works that I’d written down on my iPhone whilst perambulating the galleries, in no particular order.

Ramon Casas – Garrote

Jose Gutierez Solana – Procession of Death

Francis Picabia – The Spanish revolution

Tatiana Glebova – Prison

Ben Shahn – French workers

Otto Muller – Two Female nudes in a landscape

Gustave Moreau – Galathea, The Voices

Casper David Freidrich – Easter Morning

John Singer Sargent – Venetian Onion Seller

Aert van der Neer – Moonlight Landscape with a Road Beside a Canal

Juan de Flandes – The Lamentation

Bramantino – The Resurrected Christ

Alvise Vivarini – Saint John the Baptist

Hans Baldung Grien – Adam and Eve

Tiziano – St. Jerome in the Wilderness

Jusepe de Ribera – The Penitent St. Jerome

Claude Joseph Vernet – Night

Ignacio Zuloaga – Portrait of the Countess Mathieu de Noailles, Christ of Blood

Julio Remero de Torres – Venus of Poetry

Hermen Anglada Camarasa – Nude Under the Climbing Vine

Valentin Serov – Portrait of the Artist issak levitan

Alfonso Sanchez Garcia – Repression of the Revolutionary General Strike

Angeles Santos Torroella – A World

Jose Renau – Shedding her Outer Layer of Superstition and Misery, from the Immorial Slave There Emerged THE WOMAN capable of Active Participation in the Making of the Future

Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa – Portrait of Sonia de Klamery, Countess of Pradere

Vladimir Mako – Sky

Francois Boucher – The Triumph of Venus

Cy Twobly – Thermopyae

El Greco

Anselmo Guinea

Gustave Courbet

Berlin

Border guards in crisp uniforms putting a mirror on wheels under the carriage of a bus while going through Check Point Charlie, speaking on the radio in Poland on the day that Solidarity wins the elections, interrogation on a train in a broken English accented by a thick Russian accent, running from Soviet police in St. Petersburg after trading blue jeans on the black market for Soviet kitsch, exploring the wide streets surrounded by drab apartment blocks and walking around Red Square in awe of the Kremlin, St. Basil’s cathedral and the preserved body of Lenin seems like scenes from a period spy movie. This was, however, all a part of the last extended trip I took to Berlin. Twenty-three years ago, when the Berlin Wall still divided the city and I was six, I went on a trip with my father and sister through East and West Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. While this time my visit to Berlin was much less dramatic the traces of the conflict were still visible in the city and though it is less tense than the way things were, the continuance of credit down grades and problems within the Eurozone that Merkozy can’t fix does provide an ambiance which though not as tense could be of equal importance for the health and stability of Europe.

After arriving to the apartment that I’d rented in the western section of Berlin, Josselyn and I rested for a few hours as our early flight and initial problems navigating the city public transit had drained our energy. After this and a meal we decided to go to the German History Museum. My initial apprehension following the coldness of the staff when I spoke in what must have sounded like the German spoken by a provincial adolescent quickly dissipated upon entering the main foyer. Large statues of Friedrich the Great, Lenin and other significant historical figures greet the attendee and when going into the chronologically first room artifacts, models and explanations as to their first historical interactions with the Roman immediately transported me back in time. From a young age I’d been interested in European history, culture, thought and development but I can say without reliance upon this taste of mine that there are few museum as wonderful and amazing as the German History Museum. Simply cataloging all of the pieces there that made me grin with geekish glee would make me happy, but doing so would turn this blog into a history book and it is not my intention to do this. Rather, I’ll simply state that the 2nd floor was composed of the first elements of German history and went until 1917. The first floor was filled with the more recent period and didn’t skimp on documentation related to the Nazis. I could have spent the whole day there, but was only there a few hours.

After this Josselyn and I ate some Japanese food and then walked around the city a  bit more before heading back so as to get an early start on the next day.

We started off our day with a guided historical tour of the city. After walking along Unter der Linden past the Reichstag we met in front of Brandenburger Tor, the Berlin equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The guide began with a brief history of the various wars that were fought and tragedies that happened to the German people in their history prior to unification as one country. The importance of this was especially evident in the banners hanging from street lights saying “Wir Sind Ein Volk” or “We are one people” as a means of advertising for the German National History Museum. I was curious to see whether modern Germans have the same reaction to Cardinal de Richeliu as the Irish do to Oliver Cromwell, but when I asked the guide he had no response to give me for either way.

Stopping at an unmarked spot, our guide informed us that this was that spot where Hitler committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun and then had his body burned with petrol. I remember passing by that place on a bus tour twenty three years ago and feeling the same sense of happiness that though this persons grave site was in living memory it was institutionally erased due to the horrors he assisted in imposing on so many millions of people.

Fittingly enough after this we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an abstract art installation meant to commemorate all of the people of Jewish faith that had been killed in the Second World War. Large and small slabs of poured concrete of varying sizes occupied a city block. Some were of a formidable size and because of the changes in elevation of the terrain made it such that in the center of the installation you feel surrounded and overwhelmed by the proximity and enormity of the blocks. Though abstract, it was quite powerful and Josselyn and I both expressed the sorrows that we each felt.

After this we started walking to Checkpoint Charlie, stopping at a place wherein man workers were killed in an uprising against the East German authorities. Adjacent to this building memorializing them was a dilapidated building which had a sign on it that said “C.I.A. Interrogation Center”. We continued pass this and by a number of building which were scheduled for demolition to turn into a mall. It was currently delayed due to financial setbacks and the ironies of capitalism failing to cover the socialism continued. We walked past the Topography of Terror museum and finally made it to the checkpoint, which had turned from a very serious location to one wherein tourists would get there passport stamped for two Euros by jocular men in East German outfits.

After this we went to Gerndarmenmarkt – site of Franzosische and Deutsche Dom as well as the Schauspielhaus. The square, intended to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, definitely met with the plans of the designers. After this we walked to St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the first Catholic place of worship built in this historically Protestant city as a way of appeasing the Silesians who were annexed by Prussia from Poland in 1742. We walked along Humbolt-University, once the university of such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Friedrich Engels. I quickly looked through the books on display outside of the university as I wanted to pick up a copy of a book by Hegel or Marx in German to put my old studies to some use but saw nothing in my quick peek.

We ended the tour in Museumsinsel, or museum island. While not actually an island, this is where the Alte Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Museum, the Pergamonmuseum and the Neuemuseum are located. After our tour we had some food and drinks then went to the Marx-Engels Forum to visit the statues of, wait for it, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It took us a while to find, and we came across a beautiful fountain of Neptune. After this we went down Rosa Luxembourg Alley to the Mitte neighborhood in order to look at several of the smaller art galleries, such as the Sara Aspeger Gallery. We were planning on going through much more but decided to instead go to the East Side Gallery, the 1200-yard long art gallery painted by 118 artists. While I didn’t find but two of the pieces to be particularly good, just being at this world-historical sight made up for its lack of artistic merit and reading some of the graffiti written on the works provided additional amusement. One of these “vandals” had apparently decided to write a small essay in which he called the Dalai Lama a C.I.A. agent and expressed hopes that Chavo del 8 would never end despite all of the main characters of the show being dead.

From here we walked over the on a graffiti tour to see works by Blu, Nomad, Os Gemeos, Ema and London Police. Many thanks go to TravelAdvisor.com for having this free walking tour available for download to mobile devices. We stopped briefly at a squat house, but as Josselyn was feeling anxious we left without spending much time there.

Sunday began by our going to the Mauerpark, located at Prenzlauer. This area, which once made up part of the no man’s land zone between East and West Berlin now host a large weekly flea market. The irony of such a capitalist venture in such a place is of course amusing, but the large impromptu market was also enjoyable. I like such flea markets as in a way they are similar to museums. Andy Warhol makes a statement along similar lines when he compares going to Macy’s with going to a museum. There is something about seeing all of the human made objects that allows one to consider and think about the human condition in a certain way that non-immersion in them lacks. There was delicious foods and drinks here, several musical performers and a whole slew of goods that would be able to fulfill anyone’s desires.

The amount of music related goods for sale was impressive – there were several record vendors, a pocket DJ mixer seller and several people hocking various used musical instruments – as was the number of locally made clothing and accessory designs. I wanted to purchase a particular picture that was Berlin for display once I return home – but discovered that I wouldn’t have to buy it now and take it home but could order it online once I’m back in the States. Proof again that the Internet destroys many of the particularities of place location. After eating a plum pastery, drinking a coffee and having some delicious tomato soup with fresh sage bread from one of the food vendors.

Following this was a trip to Treptower Park, the largest Soviet Military memorial built outside of U.S.S.R. It was created to commemorate the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers which died taking Berlin from the Nazis. The iconic main statue of the park is of a Soviet soldier with a child being held by his left arm and a sword at his feet atop a crushed swastika. One could hardly imagine a more powerful monument that so clearly refutes slanders which conflates Nazism and Soviet Communism even though they are variants of national socialism – communist internationalism and Volksgemeinshaft are antagonistic to the core, not complimentary.

Treptower is one of the few places where the traces of Josef Stalin have not been removed from institutional memory. I’ve been to many places once occupied by statues of his, but few remain erected. I find memorial parks like these interesting places for reflections on the relationship between the former Soviet Union and the West. In the discussions on the policies of Stalin and his varied crimes one Krondstadt moment or another is inevitably brought up. Whether it is the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the forced collectivization of the countryside, the paranoid fear of the Trotskyist opposition that caused him to dangerously weaken the ranks of party and military through intrigue, imprisonment and murder or the cult of personality that has made it’s way into modern dictators Kim Jong Il. While no Stalinist apologist, I find that when I get into conversations with people my knowledge of the historical context complicates their information received from movies, pundits and demagogues. For instance, relating the political and economic developments in America at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to those in the just formed U.S.S.R. sheds light on issues and complicates them to such a degree that the Cold Warriors mentality of black and white cannot be sustained. As the period of discussion widens so does the conceptual framework and differentiation becomes about competing forms of modernization and the possibilities of domestic policies given specific constraints.

That said, the park itself was quite pleasant. The wide walkways were filled with small children riding bikes whilst there parents kept a watchful eye on them lest they should fall or get close to a passerby by and risk collision. There were several red flowers and small wreaths laid out in front of the statue of a weeping mother by the entrance and groups of three or four people speaking in English, French and Russian at the 14 scenes from the war on the white, tomb-like monuments leading up to the main statue. Amusingly enough, considering the site I’d just visited, I saw on the metro television a memorial for Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnieckt, two political activists who’d been murdered by fascist forces in Berlin in 1919.

Following Treptower Park was Siegessaule, or the Victory Column. It was originally built in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870/1871). The base of the column is surrounded by a cast iron relief of scenes depicting the fighting that went on between France and Prussia. These are badly damaged as following the German defeat the occupying French troops stole them and damaged them. Though it was given back lack, they remain unrepaired as a reminder of the indignity imposed upon the Germans. I walked up the 270 for a view of the city in the middle of the Tiergarten Park and was pleased with the view though it was very cold and windy. While I was here, Josselyn went to the Topography of Terror and ended up staying there for four hours.  I wanted to go to that museum but I was in so much pain from all of the walking that I’d been doing that I needed to rest my ankle which was still been hurting me since before going to Madrid.

We met back up at the apartment and after a short rest we were both ready to go out and finally see Karl-Marx-Allee. While Josselyn was reluctant to go at first, after promising a steak dinner she quickly changed her mind. The street, originally named Stalinallee, was designed to be a large advertising project for the Soviets following their occupation of East Germany. The streets are 89 meters wide and the apartments on either side are created for both beauty and functionality. This style of Soviet deign, sometimes called “wedding-cake” for its ornamentation, meant that the buildings would often be covered with tiles. Such decorations were a way of showing that decorative minimalism based upon economic considerations need not prevent workers from enjoying the benefits of an advanced industrial society. This sort of functionalism combined with aesthetic beauty has its origins in the English garden communities.

We looked at the Haus der Lehrers building, passed by the Kino International, thought momentarily about entering Café Moskau before seeing their price list , laughed at the advertising for now defunct automobile producers on the top of a building placed there so that the ad-free Communist zone would have more of a “developed” feel to it, passed by the Floating Ring Fountain, the Karl Marx Bookshop and the Palaces of the Workers. I looked for the statue of Karl Marx that was supposed to be there, but we couldn’t find it. Eventually we made it to the Block of Houses designed by Richard Paulick and then ate at the unimaginatively named “Block House” steak house. After a delicious meal we went back to the apartment and prepared for out flight back to Barcelona.

Stockholm

“The best images and parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.” – Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Josselyn and I arrived in Stockholm around midnight and upon reaching our hotel went to sleep. To make up for lost time in the city we’d planned on waking up early start visiting some of Stockholm’s many wonderful museums, however our bedroom was like a tomb which let in no light or sound so we ended up sleeping until 1 p.m. When we finally got up we discovered that the snow that had welcomed us at night was still there, thankfully though there was only enough on the ground to give the city streets and walkways color.

We first went to the Royal Palace, the official living quarters of the Swedish royalty and when not being used for functions of state is a museum. The Palace is in the typical modern style, grand, imposing and uniform in structure with many statues adorning it’s outer walls and more on the roofs within the stonework. Less a protected, defensive castle-like structure it was, like those in Madrid and London, more of a symbol for national pride in the royal family that resided therein. Outside of the building, just like at Buckingham Palace, there were armed guards on rotation unwilling to speak with civilians.

By chance we arrived just in time to take a guided English tour of the facilities wherein the finer points of Royal hierarchies, awards, Swedish history and etiological stories in relation to the art and therein. I admittedly know and care little of Sweden’s imperial history and find the minutiae of the lives of Royals to be of no personal significance so this part wasn’t very thrilling for me. What I did find of interest, however, was the arts and sciences regalia. This section illustrated the transformation from awards given during the pre-modern era to those displaying military prowess to those given recognition for scientific and cultural advancement of the Sweden. This was an excellent example of the manner in which the Swedish monarchy was progressive – by encouraging such behavior outside of the rewards given by the marketplace. Other decorations were compelling, such as a beautiful statue of two lovers and paintings on the ceilings, but on the whole I find royal palaces to be grotesque, overbearing and an affront to my sensibilities. While I can appreciate the arts and craftsmanship that goes into creating royal antechambers, thrones and galleries containing the portraiture of various nobles the urge I have to take an axe to it all as an insult to humanity often prevents me from doing so. There are few things that I find as appalling as the notion of hereditary nobility and its continuation in one form or another in some many of the European countries disturbs me greatly especially as history had progressed past the point making regicide a necessity.

One of the aspects of the art contained within the palace that pleasantly surprised me was the amount of allegorical art, both functional in the form of clocks and decorative in the form of tapestries and paintings, related to classical Greek myth. I admit that my own ignorance got the best of me in this regard, but I’d imagined that Norse mythology would play a greater part in their decorative art. In fact I saw not one tale represented in this manner.

After this we walked to the Dance Museum. It was filled with costumes from locations such as China, Japan, Indonesia and India, however the greater focus was on Western European forms of dance. A set of original costumes from popular Russian ballets was on display to showcase the manner in which it was innovative at the time. Apparently after their entrance onto the Swedish scene it set off a new push towards greater use of intricate costuming. Josselyn was particularly attracted to the costumes from Black Swan, not only because of the movie with Natalie Portman which she loved but as she has danced the parts of the White and Black Swan before.

In addition to the costume displays, videos played of some of the most well-known ballet dancers of the past hundred years. While we watched these video of renowned dancers from the early 1900’s Josselyn informed me that today many of those dancers would today not be considered exceptional due to the increased competition to be a professional dancer. She said their kicks would be higher and their form would be more precise. Though it’s only since I’ve become involved with her that I’ve started attending dance performances at places such as Joyce Soho and Miami Dance Theater – and watching videos on YouTube this seems to be the case by my layman’s eyes. Regardless of this growth in the skills and abilities required from the start of the art to the professionalism standards demanded today, similar to other physically demanding occupations such as professional American football, I found that the museum did an excellent job in showing the universal human tendency towards gestural communication through dance though it did not anywhere make such commentary explicit.

My only regret was that no space was given to Modern, Latin or non-performance dance. The first two did not surprise me given the Scandinavian tendency towards conservatism, however the last did somewhat as I was hoping that there would be some sort of recognition of modern forms of non-performance, popular dance. I’ve read some interesting articles talking about social atomism in relation to modern popular dance and thought that a display contrasting Swedish folk dance with the people attending a concert by Swedish House Mafia would have made an interesting addition to the museum.

Following this we went to the National Museum, where I received an unexpected treat – the temporary exhibition of the Peredvizhniki painters. The Peredvizhniki, whose full name would be translated into “The Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions”, were a loose collection of artists that started in the 1870’s who exited the Royal Academy in order to paint scenes and themes that were on the borderline of what was considered acceptable by the Imperial censors of the time. Several of their members works were forbidden from public display due to its critical take on religion and the prevailing social and economic order. While amongst their members Nickolai Yaroshenko is the only one known to have direct ties to the revolutionary movement of the period, there is clearly much sympathy given to those struggling under the yoke of Tsarist absolutism. Revolutionary though such sympathies were, they were not aligned with the various strains of internationalists that would eventually overthrow the regime in 1917. These were Slavophiles that were profoundly influenced by Belinisky and Chernyshevsky and sought to work within the Russian tradition rather then the Western European one to achieve a regeneration of the social and economic decay they witnessed in their daily lives.

The exhibition itself was segmented into several sections – work, religion, politics, landscapes and portraits. While it would clearly be a mistake to make hard and fast separations between these categories as it relates to anything – the curators of this exhibit did a good job in their groupings.

The opening painting was “Barge-Haulers on the Volga” by Ilya Repin, which was of a size equal to the conceptual weight of the painting. Ten men are connected to a rope that they are using to haul a boat near the shore harbor so that its goods may be unloaded and exchanged with others. Alone amongst all of the peasants “freed” from their connection to the land is a youth, wearing a reddish tinged rags who alone looks forward and upward as if to a brighter tomorrow. Whether or not this coloration is meant to allude to republican or a radical is not clear, however what is clear is the suffering on the faces of all those around him. Faces are sunken in and dirty. Bodies are emaciated. I found this particularly interesting as a week prior to my trip here I finished The Prophet Unarmed the second part of Issac Deutcher’s biography of Leon Trotsky that goes into deep detail as to the conditions of the Russian serfs and working class prior to and after the Revolution.

Another painting of note was Illarion Pryanishnikov’s “Jokers – The Gostiny Dor in Moscow” not only because it is thematically linked to Dostoyevsky’s novella A Nasty Story but also as it illustrates one of the dynamics of wealth inequality that is still decried today. The painting is of a group of rich merchants forcing one of their employees to dance in a degrading manner, a scene repeated in a different context in Mysteries by Knut Hamsun. This taking advantage of the total financial dependence on their employees by forcing them to do degrading acts in order to keep their employment is nothing new and is visible in the scandal surrounding Republican presidential candidate Herman Caine.

One of the most amusing works of the exhibition was the “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”. Despite their conservative role in modern day Russia, ever since reading Nikola Gogol’s novella Taras Bulba I’ve found them to be a fascinating social group. In this painting, which was at its time paid the highest price by the Tsar, a group of warriors that have had treaty terms brought to them are sitting around and laughing while writing an insulting letter. The nationalistic sentiment clearly visible in this painting shows that in addition to the progressive tendencies there is still recourse to use mythic situations to instill nationalistic sentiments via recourse to nationalisms. This clear divergence from the Stalinist aesthetics of internationalism informed by economic categorizations, not then usable as such totalitarian aesthetics had yet to be formed and enforced, explains why it was that such paintings later again became classified as undisplayable.

A work that was dealing with the religious elements that were affecting Russian development at the time was Konstantin Savitsky’s “Meeting the Icon”. Here a crowd of villagers converges excitedly on a carriage, from which a miracle-working icon has appeared. The throng of kneeling peasants are well kempt, the men respectfully attired, the women in colorful clothes that are their “Sunday best”. They show a range of expressive emotions in reaction to the icon – piety, apprehension, confusion and devotion. Understandable as at this time the Western medicines were making their ways into the common knowledge and such notions that an icon could heal people was offensive. An example of this growing shift is evident in Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons. The treatment in this painting contains a strong vein of ridicule as we can see that the priest emerging from the carriage is doing so with great effort as he is quite rotund. It is so difficult that he needs an assistant to do so. By contrasting his large size with that of the much slimmer peasants we can detect a critical note alluding to the parasitism of the clergy in pre-revolutionary Russia.

At this exhibit I also got to see Nickolai Ge’s iconic barefoot painting of Leo Tolstoy, as well as the picture of a student returning from prison that is on the cover of the Oxford World Classics version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A portrait of a female student, at the time deemed subversive as it showed a woman outside of the role of household laborer traditionally ascribed to her, and Valentin Serov’s “Portrait of the Artist Issak Levitan” were also particularly arresting for their style. For this to catch my interest I knew to be special as portraiture has never been a style that attracted me.

I write all of these details about these Russian painters as a type of corrective. Due to their association with the sentiments that found shape in the Russian revolution their work has been largely overshadowed by a Cold War mentality that more positive valuated French works dealing with similar themes. These works, the narrative goes, had some sort of barbaric or atavistic elements in them that led to Bolshevism, which was never as intellectually or culturally refined as their French ruling class counterparts. Such logic is of course intellectually and historically void, yet continues in many areas to this day despite the warmed atmosphere that has relaxed international tensions somewhat. Foregoing this holdover from the 90’s, we can come to appreciate the masterpieces produced by individual Russian artists and those collected under the umbrella term Peredvizhniki.

After looking through here and a small collection of French paintings from the 18th and 19th century, Josselyn and I skipped the whole first floor of this museum as neither of us find modern functional to be exceptionally compelling and we wanted to go to the Modern Museum before it closed.

At MMS there was a special exhibit on Turner, Monet and Cy Twobly. The showing was organized thematically and placed together works that were “in conversation” with each other. I place “in conversation” in quotations as I find it hard to attribute explicit references to other paintings outside of the artists avowed intentions considering the enormous body of art which exists in the world and the limited number of subjects possible. Such “conversations” are more of a signifying game. Such games have value by making the works themselves take on additional values that are potentially worth discussing. However when a curator claims that a particular abstract work by an artist has a direct, allusive relationship to an Impressionist painting that was made one hundred years before I’m reluctant to take such claims seriously.

That caveat in place, I must admit that I was impressed by the selections and “conversation” presented at MMS One instance of a particularly well-done themeotype was a selection highlighting melancholy. A Turner painting set in Florence, absent any of the motorboats then just starting to make their appearance on the waterway, was placed next to one of the same setting by Monet which was also lacking modern machines.

With this absence of present technology, Turner seems to see this new invention as intruding upon and ruining the peaceful waterways that were for hundreds of years navigated by hand and wind. He is melancholic for simpler times. Monet completed his painting after several months of not working following the death of his second wife shortly after a long stay in Venice. He appears to be melancholic for the time that he shared with his beloved wife. While the type of melancholy informing these two paintings is clearly not equivalent, the two side by side did indeed inform each other well and was touching.

Some of my favorite paintings here, were Turner’s work dealing with the sublime. Images of immanent shipwrecks with people on the beach ready to make a living by salvaging the debris and a dangerous ocean filled with craggy rocks has a disturbing yet wonderful effect on the viewer – hence its categorization as the sublime. There is little need for me to comment on these two masters as unlike the Peredvizhniki they have universal recognition and as continued comment on other conversational combinations of paintings could lead to a short book so I’ll not go into detail about it. That said I wanted to comment on Cy Twobly’s inclusion and one of his works, specifically his painting entitled Orpheus.

This work I found to be like so much of the post-modern art, aesthetically alienating on the basis of its nihilistic embrace of vitalism. On a huge mostly white canvas on the middle left side was inscribed the name Orpheus, and above it was Greek and Roman words that were covered by a flesh colored paint that allowed some of the shapes to be legible. Put into a sentence, the significance of the painting is that in these modern and supposedly mythless times it is impossible to depict Orpheus. The abandonment of easily recognizable figures and their replacement with traces intended to be explicated by a cultural elite is indicative of Twobly’s work and the general turn towards abstract art. It’s the logical conclusion of reacting to the trends in the art world market following the conceptualization of the type of social realism embraced by the Peredvizhniki with socialism or tendencies sympathetic to it. This position against meta-narratives and replacement with subjectivist epistemology is premature and the valorization of such obscurantianism compounds this error. When reflection on Gods has left our minds, people are confronted with the realization that it is humanity’s history and accomplishment to which is now turned to for inspiration. Yet Twobly would take this away from us as well by deeming it mythological thinking. While I respect the right of artists to create as they see fit, I find the lionization of abstract forms like this as high art to be out of line with the personally and socially emancipatory aspects of human creativity. The abyss is something to be built upon, not embraced as the finality of development.

In addition to the Turner, Monet and Twobly exhibit the museum also had an excellent collection of photography on display. Some of my favorite photographers such as Capa, Koudelka, Witkin, Cartier-Bresson, were displayed on the walls and there was also dozens of books with prints of the photos. After we finished looking at the former we decided to leave.

The next day we took the train a few kilometers north of the city proper is Millesgarden. Millesgarden was the home of sculptor Karl Milles and his wife Olga, who was a photographer. Now that they are deceased, their home and garden is open daily for people to visit the hundred or so statues there. Just like at the Swedish Palace, the repeated allusions to classical Greek mythology in Milles work surprised me and amusingly enough two of statues were of Orpheus and Eurydice. Despite my attraction to public monument and sculptures I didn’t find most of them to be particularly compelling. Visiting as we did in the winter, the fountains that operate in the summer and spring were not operating, removing the functional and aesthetic elements out of several of the statues. It didn’t ruin the experience, but I would have preferred to see them in their proper context.

Inside of the house on was a logia containing classical Roman statues and pieces. One of the rooms containing these pieces was filled with lemon trees, which was a pleasant addition as it evoked the open Roman villas that once displayed such works.

In the Millesgarden temporary exhibit was a large selection of works of glass partially created by artists who don’t typically use glass. I say partially created as these artists were the instructors of the glassblowers, who followed their directions. I wasn’t particularly taken by any of the works, with the exception of a glass crown of thorns.

After this we went to Fotografiska. I was very excited to go as I’d seen advertisements for a special exhibition featuring works selected by Anton Corbijn, however upon walking through ice-cold rain we discovered that they would not be viewable until the next day. After having taken so long to get there, Josselyn and I decided to go in regardless.

Our stay here was rather short as minus the main exhibition hall there were only three other small exhibits consisting of a total of 10 rooms given to three artists. One photographer I disliked so much I won’t even comment or give her name while the others were photos by Ron Haviv and Aitor Ortiz. The thirty or so pictures by Haviv were taken in Haiti following the January 12th, 2010 earthquake. It was moving journalistic photography but would have benefitted from more information related to the rescue effort and the world economic situation that has made Haiti so vulnerable to human and natural disaster.

The Ortiz exhibit was interesting. I particularly liked the way in which the darkness of the room combined with the tight lighting of the pictures to give the exhibition an meditative ambiance. However the Photoshop altered pictures which were illuminated were not as apocalyptic as suggested by the art historian Fransisco Javier San Martin. In fact, I heartily disagree with his interpretation of Ortiz’s works as presented on the information cards adjacent to the pictures. In one card I read: “The decay of the structures in these works is evident and can be interpreted as an allegory of Western economic decline.” Even an intellectually adolescent group like OWS recognizes that it is not the whole of the economy that is suffering from the current economic downturn but only segments of it. This erasure of class, history and humans from the buildings made and the subsequent conceptualization of this as being an art that provides meaningful commentary on the issues currently facing by the developed countries is clearly ridiculous and typical of artists who work are motivated by sentiments rather than social science. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find some of the pieces to be pleasing in appearance – I particularly liked his Amorfosis 004 – however I found that the exhibit would have been preferably if the baroque commentary on the deepness of Ortiz’s use of motion and placement were gone.

After this short trip we walked to the Nobel Museum. Because of the connotations with Alfred Nobel and considering the long history of prestigious people who have received his awards I assumed that The Nobel Museum would be a grand place. This day seemed to be, however, all about my understandings being wrong as first the was no Anton Corbjin exhibit and now I was face with a museum that was not but five very small rooms.

Upon entering I immediately noticed a series of banners moving across he ceiling on what looked like a modified dry cleaning rack. On them were pictures of past winners. On either side of the entrance were computer terminals that allowed the visitor to view the Nobel Prize website – which seemed to me to be a somewhat peculiar aspect of it considering there was nothing site specific about it. After entering there was another row of touch screen computer terminals with information on the decades and winners of the prizes. Once again, that I could simply get this information from the internet in an identical manner I also found upsetting. Josselyn and I sat down in the two rooms playing films though both of them only briefly. The first room that was playing a series of student short films that were connected to the Nobel prize in a manner that escaped me. To be quite honest, though I could see he thematic connection to the material it seemed to me forced and simply a method of occupying space with visuals and seating.

The largest room was a series of panels devoted to Marie Curie and radiation. These focused on the large obstacles she had to overcome as a woman in a field as well as those she had in working in a new field. Most interesting amongst these displays for me was the depictions of the various beauty products that were made from radioactive elements prior to the discovery that they were deadly. The implications that this historical occurrence has for discussions regarding animal testing, state regulation of commercial health and beauty products is of course explicit, as is commentary on the at times dangerous pursuit to achieve beauty. The victims of this included Curie herself as well as thousands of others.

As is evident from my above description I was disappointed that this was the full extent of the museum. I asked the cashier at the gift shop if perhaps there was more on the floor above and he responded that no, above them was the Swedish Academy. He did state that in four years if all went to plan they would finish construction on a large building dedicated solely to a new museum with more exhibit space, however this was of little consolation to me at the moment.

Around this time my foot was also in so much pain from my sprain that we decided to go back to the hotel.  Because of the time of our flight was at 6:30am and we were leaving from Skavsta, we had to wake up very early to get there. Being extremely sensitive to caffeine and having had a coffee at 4 p.m. I didn’t get any sleep before the trip and entered Berlin having been awake for over twenty-four hours straight.

La Maleta Mexicana

Since moving to Barcelona several events of regional import have occurred. A ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, viewed as a cruel and solely Castillian pastime, has been put into effect. The Popular Party, which began from the ashes of Franquismo and still contains elements of it, has ejected the PSOE from national power. Wide scale revelations of Catholic social agencies falsely pronouncing newborn children dead to their mothers so that their children could be given to deserving Francoists has happened. Additionally, the Civil War pictures of Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro have returned to Spain. While this last event is of the least world-historical significance, there is good cause to recognize the pictures themselves for their artistic value but to see in it also a return of something precious once lost to Spain’s cultural history. If it weren’t for the fact that the photos reproducible, the return of the photos to Catalonia for the first time would be similar to the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece.

The Civil War is a taboo topic in Spanish society. According to one of my Spanish instructors, the extent of its teaching in schools is that “it happened” and the only to the extent that Franco took power. The sundry reasons for the war, the scope of the tragedy during the war and that afterwards political purges against those sympathetic to the Second Republic killed tens of thousands more are disavowed. Yet what cannot be silenced is the profound influence that such occurrences had on the current makeup of Spanish society. When all that is spoken of is that a political liberalization followed Franco’s death it ignores the fact that many of the potential political activists, intellectuals and other people that could have been significant in institutional statecraft or non-governmental structures were exterminated.

Yet despite the potentially painful and conflict inducing nature of this exhibit, this hasn’t stopped many people from visiting the museum and coming to see them. I have no figures to say just how many people have gone, but I can relate that it wasn’t until the second time that I went to the museum that I was able to see the pictures as the first time the exhibition was filled to capacity and had a long line of people going outside of the MNAC.

The exhibition was organized from the start of the Civil War. The narrative thrust of the pictures, from the speeches of agitators and crowd shots of peasants and factory workers, the first preparations of defense from an assault by those that had once been their neighbors, the ruins following aerial raids, and ground combat was gave an idea of what was going on, however with the above historical understanding there is many things implicitly missing. Unseen are the roving squads of Nationalists going through conquered cities at night in search of those that had been enemies or sympathizers by day. Visible are the poor conditions that the Republican Army and International brigades fought under and their stoic faces when preparing for an air raid by Nazi planes. At the end of the exhibition we learn through that the photographers felt they must flee to Paris and then the United States in order to survive the continued victories of fascism.

The exhibit is designed to show a dialogue between these pictures that were known of and printed in international magazines documenting the war along with the 4,500 other negatives that hadn’t been published. It exudes a certain sadness to it in that not only is the effect of though we see widely publicized pictured hinting at what a new conflict would look like amidst the advanced industrial powers of Europe, people were still unwilling to mobilize in order to prevent it’s occurrence. Along with the pictures themselves were two videos, one of which was an American newsreel, with subtitles in Spanish and the other a film reel shot by Capa, as well as original magazines from the period which used the pictures of the three authors. One of these magazines includes an article by Winston Churchill, which tellingly states that unless the United States is willing to openly declare that it won’t allow any one power to control the European continent that there will be war. Such articles are an interesting accent to the exhibition as they openly hint at the historical context outside the immediate pictures. It displays not only the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, but the idealistic isolationism of the latter and the devastating effects of it’s unwillingness to replicate the balance of power diplomatic policy used by Britain for hundreds of years.

In this regards, despite the fact that very little attention is given to the details of the Spanish Civil War, Henry Kissinger’s writing about this in Diplomacy is highly insightful in pointing out the context wherein virtually every Western power saw a Fascist Spain as less of a danger to their interests than they did a marginally Leftist Spain presumably tied to the Soviet Union. That such a position was radically misinformed, as the Spanish Republicans and Libertarian Communists were not puppets tied to Stalin and certain sections of the myriad groups supporting the left only later came under Soviet influence after the total isolation by the world community left it little choice, only became clear in hindsight for those involved.

While all of this is only visible through a dialectical reading of the pictures, the pictures themselves are significant not only in their documentary nature but in their composition as well. The photos of Branguli, which I wrote about earlier, are another set of images quite literally helps provide a fuller picture to the economic and political developments occurring in Barcelona at this time.

If you cannot get the chance to see them in person – I would highly recommend buying the book showing all of these once thought to be lost pictures.

I’ve not gone into too much detail on the history of the photographers as there is an excellent documentary on Capa and La Maleta Mexicana that once released is eminently worth viewing.