I’ve became obsessed with two music videos. Neither is particularly new; albums with both songs were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. And, although I came across them this past summer, sometimes it takes a while for things to take root. So, it wasn’t until the fall, when culture revives, that these songs became my referents. Fall in South Florida is verdant, bright, humid.1 These songs are stark. Both videos deal with space, technology, and feature blank whiteness and voids of black. Both videos have a solitary man as protagonist. It was a strange fall, to say the least. It haunts me. Sometime around the autumnal equinox, something slipped/tripped/stumbled, changed course.
That’s why, I think, I gravitated toward Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and its corresponding video:
An error in programming and, poof! trapped alone, adrift. How must it feel to face the universe with no tangible connection to generative life but a wedding band?
I know this story. It’s Space Oddity, it’s Moon, it’s Captain America.2 And yet, I’m obsessed with the shape of this man’s fingernails, the way the light catches his eyes and reminds me of my own eyes. And when his wife and son, swings and the beach, a sunset, a playground, birthday cake and candles flash across his mind and across my screen, I think about the history that made those moments possible for us. And I think about the mission that asked him to risk it all.
The song that anchors the video is analog warm and unflinching; in its opening notes, I hear strains of Nearer My God to Thee, and then, toward the end, Brittany Howard sings I want to touch a human being. Yeah. I wish I never gave it all away…
I am on the ocean sailing adjacent to the North American continent, sailing northeast, sailing home. Distance isn’t what I thought it was. On this trip, I learned you have to go there to know there. Or, rather, you have to go there to know here. I understand now why the hero must journey away for a time only to eventually return home. I also understand that home is a collective project.
Damon Albarn has a gift for melody, for melancholy. He gets credit for his abilities, but I don’t think it’s respect: his music is so pretty! his adoration of other cultures’ music is too unabashed. For the well-informed, liking a guy like him too much is dangerous as he’s liable – at any moment – to be too popular or to transgress and offend. With the song Everyday Robots, however, he manages to pull off Semitic-sounding strings, Global South percussion, Hip-Hop’s looping, and a vernacular sample of a stand-up comedian. There are echoes, too, of Radiohead, his arch rivals for respect, in the title and in the piano that anchors the song. Yes, Albarn wears his influences on his sleeves, but he’s fearlessly earnest, and I respect that.
Even before seeing the completed 3D model at the end, the watcher knows that the head that’s being generated throughout the video for the song is Albarn’s. It’s a gesture that doesn’t seem hubristically self-involved; in the way that, or, more rightly, because white men and their images have been made to define ‘human’, the watcher knows that the head is Albarn’s and symbolically – perhaps potentially – the watcher’s as well.
The video is hypnotic. It follows rhythms within the song. It answers questions like, ‘Do you want to see this side? Inside? How does this look to you?’ I can almost feel my hand on the mouse or stylus or keypad pointing and clicking bones into place and smoothing lips and fingering hair. The video is seductive.
It is also, obviously, a speculative death mask for everyday robots getting old…
And I find myself generally unconscious of it for the vast majority of the video, but when I am aware of Albarn’s voice and the lyrics, the child-like legibility of his singing is heartbreaking.3
- As opposed to our overgrown, blinding, sweltering summers or our winters that bloom and glow and breeze or our springs when the earth smells fresh and trees are ripe with mangoes. We do have four seasons. ↩︎
- Its absurdly optimistic opposite is Gravity. ↩︎
- This is where, I think, Albarn bests Thom Yorke: Yorke’s Expressionist singing only works when the listener is in whatever mood the song conveys; although his writing is too straightforward, Albarn’s voice is always lovely and compelling and always perfectly accompanied. ↩︎
REDACTED and REDACTED were in line at the Canadian border for six hours trying to cross into the US. They weren’t going to the Women’s March, but their slow crossing was because US border officials were looking for and identifying, finger printing and then turning away potential protestors – regardless of their citizenship status.
REDACTED said that Women’s March in DC was different to stereotypical protests: the mood was ‘authentic’ not sensational; there was a wide variety of protesters including women and men of color; but, yes, protesters were primarily white women of different ages and backgrounds.1
- I’m recording as much anecdotal history as I think of as we make it through however long this lasts. We’re going to have to remember what happened. Who knows what the ‘official’ record will look like… ↩︎
I didn’t cut my hair – I washed it. I didn’t wear a black tent dress – I wore my yellow and black skull sneakers. I did light a candle. I did yoga.1 I didn’t take the day off. Actually doing the thing, meeting the day, is rarely, if ever, as imagined. And so it goes.
Without tv broadcasts, without seeing plumes of smoke through my window, this morning felt to me very much like 9/11, and my conclusions about how we’ve arrived at this moment are, interestingly, very similar to the ones I arrived at then.
I’ve been thinking of the town’s reaction to Sula’s return:
Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst.2
In Sula, this excerpt describes a specific group’s reaction to a specific character. The passages leading up to and away from it detail the Bottom’s suspicions of Sula and give insight into who Sula actually is and why. But, forget that for a moment; for my purposes, this quote describes what I see happening on ‘the Left’. We’re straightening up and flying right3 now that we are outnumbered in every branch of the Federal government – and in many State and local governments, too. What were we doing before? What does it even mean to be ‘on the Left’?
It’s not that I abdicated my civic responsibilities – I’m a public high school teacher, for crying out loud, ideas of community ground my art practice. But I could have done more. I know it. In all honesty, I figured that I’d teach public high school at a ‘school like REDACTED‘ and focus on getting the message of higher education to as many first generation kids as possible. In my art practice, I work with community-sourced narratives and embed my work in community. I explicitly said to myself, ‘My job is my civic engagement’. I explicitly said to myself, ‘I am a community-based artist’. One person can only do so much.
For the last eight years, when terrible things happened, I knew that President Obama’s response would be researched, thoughtful, measured, respectful. I took solace knowing that the public face of the nation projected ideals that I as an individual hold dear. Because he did the public job of showing up, reflecting, explaining, and comforting with humanity, I didn’t have to do anything beyond my work as an educator and artist and feel my pain and outrage.
But now, I don’t think that’s enough.
I’ve had a creeping suspicion that without targeted community dialogue and involvement, the students I send to college, give or take an extraordinary few, will go off and do what’s been done before. They’ll get jobs, have families, be decent people. But, as a teacher and mentor, I have never set as an explicit expectation or mandate ‘We – you included – need to work toward expanding to others the opportunities we’ve had.’ I have a sinking suspicion that colleges are no longer reliably the bastions of ranging thought and idealistic possibility that I remember. Rather, they’re becoming more like public K12 schools that are now hosts to special-interests, standardized testing, corporate influence, the demand for ever-increasing revenue, and entities that seek to dismember and reconfigure them entirely. As an Alum, I didn’t give back and I am certainly not involved in any conversation about how Howard, FAU, or MCAD should move forward.
I should have been more strategic.
There is a part of me that thinks that holding it down right where I am, being excellent at these things that I do – where ‘excellence’ includes wrestling with the importance of and extending my own civic engagement – might be a way forward.
And, of course, for me, ‘the Left’ is where ‘a way forward’ is shaped.4 Very simply, to be conservative is to reserve, to hold on to, to hold back, and, to be liberal is to share, to consider, to flex. Sharing is important to me. The things I’ve learned have made my life so rich that I cannot help but share them with others. As a teacher, I would rather work with other teachers rather than compete – and if you don’t think we compete… As an artist, I would rather work in the same room if not always collaboratively than hide my work until it’s ready for the world in fear that my ideas will be stolen. Competition is what happens in a capitalist environment. We implicitly teach capitalism to toddlers even as we explicitly teach them to share. But some of us have to share in order to survive. Our communities exist through sharing, through flexing at the edges to let people who want in in and those who want out out, through consideration of perspectives other than our own to make it for another generation.
No matter how center-Left President Obama is, notions of sharing, of considering, and flexing are the heart that guides him as a public servant. It is obvious. It is undeniable. And now he is gone from the most powerful office in the world. So, for anyone who is interested in the wonderful sharing that can happen in public schools, in the consideration and dynamism that art nurtures in communities, we no longer have in that space someone who fundamentally gets it – regardless of his approach. We have to do it ourselves now. And I think, perhaps, should we ever have a representative like him in that place/space again, we should remember that we have to do it ourselves, we should remember what he exhorted us to do at the beginning and at the end of his time in office:
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.
- Interesting thing about yoga: I can do the same movement every morning for years and, yet, inevitably, one morning – as I did this morning -, I discover something new about that movement. ↩︎
- I really wish she’d used an Oxford Comma here. ↩︎
- Puns intended ↩︎
- I refuse to go into the cutesy history of the Left and Right in Parliament during the French Revolution. I just assume it’s now common knowledge – or should be to anyone who uses the term. ↩︎
Let’s take care our ourselves – our health and well-being, our minds. Let’s be excellent to each other. Let’s be mindful stewards of the world around us.
On Monday evening, just after sunset, I re-installed (there goes the neighborhood…). It felt right. The trees surrounding my home have been cut back, so the projection was very easy to see from every direction and elevation outside. To me, the waving family was frantic in their happiness. Beginning Friday morning, I will run it every day through February 28th at 5:30AM rather than in the evening. An assertion? Like a harbinger? Who knows.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be marked and unmarked, seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized. My life as an artist, as a person, really, is a series of exercises and experiments with the aim of achieving the perfect expression of… something. Whenever I get it right, I know it, and nobody can tell me otherwise. Indeed, I needn’t even ask for confirmation. I know that (there goes the neighborhood…) is pretty damned-near perfect. I also know that it doesn’t fit neatly into any existing art world narrative. Oh, well. I’m ok with that because it is right.
This is all very odd; yesterday I said, “What’s the point of making a movie if no one is going to see it?” When I turn that question on myself, it makes me realize that my art practice is founded entirely on the sub-conscious belief that few – if any – people will see my work much less weave its threads and tangents into a larger narrative of Contemporary art. My life is founded entirely on the sub-conscious belief that few – if any – people will see me and weave my threads and tangents into a larger narrative of life in this place at this time. And yet, that weaving is precisely the work I do – in relative isolation.
It is Sisyphean. It is hermetic. It might need to change. I might need to change.
A few days ago, Lucas and I were talking about his unabashed, and, dare I say, untempered love of writing. I remember that feeling.
But it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way. Currently, writing, like making art and teaching and staying healthy and being good, feels like a chore. Yet, I don’t think that that is a bad thing at all. Before, my words spilled out onto the page. Now, I write very slowly1 because I edit as I go along2 and I constantly check the clarity and validity of my statements. Perhaps I am now easily distracted, and maybe that accounts for the change in pace. Maybe writing on the computer rather than on paper makes it easier for me to see errors and bad form and faulty logic. Either way, at the end of our chat, I quoted3 Romeo and Juliet‘s Friar Laurence:
These violent delights4 have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.
Like playing with text and reworking images, writing is a reflective process where I work out my ideas. And, lately, I’ve been noticing how my ideas have become actions in the world. It’s very subtle, much more nuanced than I imagined it would be – and I never expect instant or explicit change.
I want and go after different things now. I stand up and advocate for myself and those around me now. I check myself faster and with more humility than I did before. I am a better listener. I’m slower to come to conclusions. I fail – often – , but I’ve learned to live through my failures. Huh. If only these things made me a better person. Alas, they do not; they just make me a more refined version of myself.
Yesterday I read somewhere that, if you write long enough, eventually you end up writing about politics. This is true of me. At this moment, in particular, my every key stroke is mobilized to address the coming storm. It is coming.
Two mornings after the election, I went for a swim in the ocean. The waves were hard, insistent, the water cold and crisp and dark blue. I let the waves pound me. I waited and ducked and dived. I found no relief. The waves just came.
I shouldn’t swim alone, I know, especially on an empty beach.
I am certain of one thing: we are here to help each other.