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Artists follow me

16 May

I taught this past semester at Brooklyn College, and on my next to last day I had the kind of remarkable cosmic experience that seems to irregularly punctuate my life.  As it happens, I overslept and had to drive in from New Jersey for only the second time, which unfortunately is the fastest and perhaps cheapest way to commute, even as it is environmentally unsustainable and prevents me from getting any work done (other than audio books).  I park on the street near campus and as I was driving around looking for parking, I saw a delivery truck with wonderful deeply colored graffiti on the back.  I made a mental note where it was to go back and photograph it, so I quickly found a parking space, dumped the car, and backtracked to go take pictures.  As luck would have it, the truck had moved up the block, as it was delivering phone books (they still have them?) and so it was perfectly positioned on a side street corner and I was able to take pictures of all three sides.  The delivery guy didn’t mind even though his boss was in the driver’s seat in the cabin.

After I finished I turned and walked toward the college. Half a block away I hear someone behind me ask, “Do you like graffiti?” Up pulls a pizza delivery guy on a bicycle. He had seen me taking photos and tells me his friends had just painted that truck, right after they got out of jail for painting graffiti. He added – and I have to check this – that it’s now a felony and they will no longer send graffiti artists to Spofford (which it turns out has been closed since 2011), but now they are put right “in The Boat” – when I looked puzzled he clarified, “Riker’s Island,” where they will be held for a month. That’s why he’s given up graffiti, it’s not worth the risks, and he was leaving New York to join the Coast Guard soon. He also added the guys who had painted the truck I photographed had also done the tattoos on his arm.

Now I see there actually is a prison barge that’s part of the Riker’s Island prison complex. Another amazing thing I’ve learned about New York City this semester.

I told him I had been talking about graffiti artists in my class, and we had gone to several programs at City Lore on street art, including their current exhibit on subway graffiti of the 1970s. He hadn’t heard of City Lore so I wrote their address down on my card and told him to pay them a visit.

Then after class, I decided to go to Brighton Beach since it was my last free night in Brooklyn with a 7-day unlimited MetroCard. I went to an Uygur restaurant I had been meaning to visit for the past year. When I walked in I was clearly the only non-Uygur/Uzbek/Russian person in the place. (I am trying to protect confidentiality here, so I will leave out the identifying details for now.) But when I asked one young man in the restaurant if he was studying here, he said he was here in this country for exhibitions. “Of what?” I asked, imagining sports, actually. He said, “Of my painting.” It turns out he is a traditional artist from Uzbekistan who first started learning from his uncle and then getting training in school. He paints on wood, leather, and silk paper, and he showed me photos of his work on his cell phone. It is incredible work with a level of professionalism, especially the decorative paintings on wood, that I had not expected. His English wasn’t very good, so when I tried to explain my degree is in folklore (after unsuccessfully trying anthropology and ethnology, which I thought he might have been able to recognize the words for) he had to look on his phone translator app. He’ll be in a show next week so I’m going to go and see all his work for sale.

OK, so the first guy just happened to see me while he was delivering a pizza, taking pictures of graffiti on a rental truck that his friends had painted. It’s understandable, given that amazing good luck, that he would know I am interested in art – and more power to him for coming up to me and asking about my photography. But how did the second artist that night know? What signals do I give off that, like some kind of dog whistle even I don’t know I possess, people are still drawn to come up to me and tell me their life stories. I’ve noticed this ever since I was about 22. I know wherever I am people ask me for directions. And I know statistically that there are many more artists out there than meet the eye, so it should be no surprise that I run into some from time to time given that I am more likely to speak to strangers than many other people.

But still. New York remains a city of artists. Some come to follow their dreams. Some are criminalized.

I also just learned that if there were a 2% dedicated tax on art auctions they could double the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts in just two days in New York City.

Color, grey, black and white: Notes from the 37th Montreal World Film Festival

6 Sep

I know that reading other people’s reviews of obscure art films may not be the most gripping reading, but I need to do justice to some of the films I saw at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival. I’ve been going roughly every other year since 1995 at least for part of the Festival – my record for most films viewed in one week is 19 – and this year I managed to attend for four days. To their credit, they show many non-commercial films from a wide range of countries, and lots of documentaries, and tickets now cost C$7. I have seen some of the most memorable films of my life there over the years, including Postmen in the Mountains, The May Lady, Children of the Pyre, The Way to the West, Love Letter, In the Navel of the Sea, Siberia Mon Amour, and others I still can’t find online references to, and others which are memorable in every way except the title. (I’ll update this later as I find more links.)

In any case, this year I saw eight films, of which four were particularly memorable, including three documentaries. Here are a few profiles of the most memorable films.

    Cidade Cinza (Grey City)

This breathtaking film from Brazil depicts the work of half a dozen street and graffiti artists in painting colorful murals around the city. Color is the operative word here. Their spraypainting utilizes bright, rainbow colors as a means of breathing life into an otherwise drab and stultifying megacity. At the same time, the film follows the work of a crew of city officials – one of them a former graffiti artists – as they roam the city painting over the murals with grey paint. They decide – or so they claim – not to paint over the artistic ones, but the film opens with the painting over of a massive mural and its restoration by the artists, with the blessing (literally!) of the city.

Cidade Cinze (Grey City) is one of the greatest depictions of the artistic process I have ever seen on film. The images of the artists at work is fluid and dynamic, interspersed with interviews and clips of their work elsewhere around the city, and around the world as they achieve greater recognition. Their struggle to inject color into the city is nothing less than the struggle to inject art (and life!) into a neoliberal economic system that demands utility and cost-effectiveness over the freedom of expression.

Why is grey the color of the new city, the new state, urban life as we have come to know it? The aerial shots of the rapidly built city that open the film could just as easily be Dhaka or any number of other megacities in which natural green has been replaced by the color of cement. (As an aside, the mayor of Kolkata decided to make Kolkata “the blue city” – her favorite color – and created a public works project to paint everything blue, including tree trunks, which were poisoned by the paints.) The larger aesthetic issue is why a top-down approach to color – and the designation of uniform colors – is the objective of the state. What is the state trying to achieve by driving color out of our lives? Lately there has been a response, through the vibrant street art of the hip-hop movement, and also in the rainbow symbolism of LGBTQ movements worldwide as well as the most recent struggle to protect parks in Istanbul from being turned into shopping malls.

The film also raises the question of aesthetic judgments and who gets to make them. Everyone is indeed a critic. The city over-painters make judgments on the spot about which murals are too artistic to be covered over and which ones are considered pollution. At the same time, a central question of our time is who owns the walls – whether private property or public space. I have long wondered why graffiti is considered offensive to the eyes and something to be covered, while more and more public space is turned over to advertising, whose only message is consumption. Yet there is never any state-sanctioned effort to paint over billboards or ads on buses (sometimes taking up the sides of entire buses).

But above all there is the pure delight of the artists themselves, the way they express feeling alive with a spray can in their hands. There is also the question of whether the practice of art is a worthwhile occupation, as clearly in our economy it is not seen as such. Again, the struggle of a global economic system of efficiency is to marginalize aesthetic expression as a hobby and to destroy opportunities to make a profession out of being creative, practicing the arts, and teaching them. All of these questions are raised in this profound film.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not also point out how extraordinarily beautiful this film is visually. The editing, the cinematography, and even the animation, make viewing this an exuberant experience. Documentaries about art can be visually enlivening, and this film does its subject justice. It is a work of visual art just like the murals it depicts. The filmmakers not only get inside the heads and hands of the creators, but treat our eyes as well. The camera never stops, the editing and montage work are brilliant. And the use of color, appropriately enough, serves as a weapon, and a challenge to all of us to live our lives and make even our ugliest surroundings beautiful.


The greatest fiction film I saw at the festival this year was (ironically, given my previous description) in black-and-white, a Korean film called Jiseul. Its use of black and white spans all the way from purely white screens to purely black, and every shade and combination in between. Its amazing and stylized cinematography, while referencing the silver-light quality of Kurosawa especially, creates a new language within the constrained cultural palette of the black/white spectrum. That in itself makes the film a stunning display of technique, not to mention the composition and remarkably original mise-en-scène by director O Muel with unforgettable tableaux of villagers nestled within a cave, two soldiers conversing in a lengthy dialogue sequence while suspended upside-down, a smoky house-to-house search for suspects, and more.

The upside-town sequence is a metaphor for the film itself, as it turns commonly advanced assumptions of heroes and villains in the Korean War upside down. The story is based on episodes after the Jeju Island uprisings of 1948, when the U.S. military gave the command that every Korean living outside the Korean peninsula itself could be considered a communist sympathizer and shot on sight as a result of local uprisings against the Korean government, unless they came forward and registered. While according to the film the U.S. continues to deny its involvement, as many as thirty thousand Jeju islanders are now estimated to have been killed – two years before the start of the formal conflict – and two-thirds of the villages on that island permanently destroyed. The film depicts the struggle of about thirty villagers to escape the slaughter by hiding in caves for two months, and at the same time, shows the range of South Korean soldiers from those who sadistically supported a military approach to pacification and tortured those soldiers who wouldn’t follow along, to those who considered desertion and refused to kill civilians. The would-be deserters and alleged communist sympathizers emerge as the heroes of this film – now supported by a more open South Korean government – in ways that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago. This indicates there has been a re-examination of the Korean War, at least on the Southern side, over the past few years, while such a reconsideration has yet to take place in the U.S., even after all this time.

Apparently, I learned later, the actors portraying the military speak in standard Korean, while the local actors playing the villages speak in the Jeju dialect. The title represents the local dialect word for “potato,” the main subsistence of the refugees during that time and a central metaphor for the film. I also read that the local actors were non-professionals, but I had no idea. I can’t wait to see it again, because the broad cast of characters and intertwined episodes makes following what happens to each character complicated, whereas I’m sure on a second viewing, more of its storylines would become clearer. (Also the five section headings, which cry out for a better English translation – not to mention the burning paper inscriptions at the very end.) Overall, though, this is an incredible war film about refugees and survivors, and I hope it gets attention and added to many lists of great films about life during wartime.


Also remarkable was a slice-of-life documentary about the Gypsy tradition of Flamenco dance and music in Barcelona, called Bajarí,. Focusing around two outstanding performers, a young woman visiting Spain from Mexico, and her 5-year-old prodigy nephew, the film captures great examples of Flamenco dance and the accompanying music. The director, Eva Vila, has framed compelling long takes of flamenco dance, concentrating on the feet, and other isolated body parts rather than try to capture the entire body. Daring composition and long sequences that depict the spirit of the dancers are hallmarks of this distinctively shot and ultimately thrilling film. And it’s not all dance and music, as wonderful as that is. One of the most compelling sequences concerns the purchase and design of a new pair of dance shoes, but I won’t say more.

Like many great works of art it raises as many questions as it answers. In this case, even with the background on flamenco it provides, there are so many issues the audience walks away wanting to know about, not least a little more background about the Gypsies of Barcelona, and how two of the greatest dancers ended up moving to Mexico. I can’t say what is flamenco necessarily, after watching this film, nor what its role is within the Gypsy community itself. But its vibrancy, traditionality, health, power, all that is celebrated throughout. My heart was racing during the entire screening.

One linguistic note. While I know in Eastern Europe the term “Gypsy” is shunned and replaced now with the term “Roma” or “Romany,” the Castilian word “gitano” seems to be used here mostly, and the subtitles still carry on that unfortunate tradition of not capitalizing (in English) the word “gypsy.” Why this should still be allowed to pass unchallenged remains perplexing. But I have chosen to use the English term “Gypsy” here because that is what is used in the film.

    My Way to Olympia

Because of my interest in the Olympics, I was one of only a few people at the screening of the film My Way to Olympia, which the director, Niko von Glasow, jokes at the end he wanted to call “Triumph of the Will, Part 2” but it would require a copyright battle with Hitler. Von Glasow is kind of a German Michael Moore, a documentarian who occupies center stage in his own film, right down to the baseball cap, but one difference is von Glasow was born with the birth defects characteristic of mothers who took thalidomide when they were pregnant. Despite having no interest in sports, he decides to make a film profiling 4 Paralympics individual athletes and one Paralympics team. He uses his own disability, and social skills (awkward or adept?) as a way of opening up a discussion about disability with these athletes and asking daring questions that would be taboo for anyone else.

In doing so, his difficult questions and editor’s ear for the significant quote fill this film with insight after insight, about the nature of sport, humanity (in its perseverance as well as cruelty), and even the idea of winning. “The biggest disabilities are invisible,” says one coach, “the psychological traits pushing [people] or holding them back.” When von Glasow protests that he hates sports, Greg Polychronidis, a brilliant Greek bocce player with muscular dystrophy counters, “Sports are one of the best things in the world we live in. Many more things are worse.” Von Glasow: “But the Paralympics are expensive.” The bocce player responds, “But much more is spent on weapons.” Game, set, match.

Von Glasow asks Polychronidis if he fears his coming further incapacitation and death. He doesn’t, but his full-time caretaker admits to being frightened himself about what will happen to his friend. With echoes of the Lou Gehrig Story, Polychronidis – mostly paralyzed from the neck down and using a motorized wheelchair, he pitches the balls by means of a head set with a small extension arm – continues, “You may be the poorest, but if you find what you live for you will be happier than everyone. I consider myself lucky being one of the best in the world in something.” This is a film about winners and the importance of winning, in all of its multiple dimensions, about learning to stretch the abilities you do have to the extent you can achieve precision, speed, teamwork, a different kind of beauty.

The long arm of the law may bring justice for Victor Jara

3 Jan

Victim of an assassin’s bullet, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously echoed the words of the 19th Century Abolitionist Theodore Parker when he noted “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Well, here’s another example of that long arc bending towards justice. After 39 years of investigation, Chilean authorities announced this week they had implicated eight men in the murder of singer-songwriter Victor Jara five days after the coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende in 1973. According to Reuters, after the case had been closed and reopened several times, four arrests were made, with others to come. One of the suspects, former Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Núñez, now lives in Florida, in the United States, and may be extradited. (Interesting that despite his connection to the military dictatorship in Chile he still managed to get a visa to come here.) One of the other soldiers implicated in the killing, Edwin Dimter Bianchi, received training at the U.S.-funded School of the Americas, at the time located in Panama (and now in the U.S. state of Georgia).

Jara joined a list of famous artists who have been assassinated for political reasons, including Federico Garcia Lorca, and is possibly the most significant artist to be executed in my lifetime. Although thousands of people were killed under the Pinochet regime, Jara’s killing had symbolic significance throughout Latin America.

A great bibliography about him and his work, as well as his influence on other musicians around the world, can be found in his especially detailed Wikipedia entry.

Cassandra and the curse of prophecy

2 Jan

On seeing the Metropolitan Opera epic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz last night (one of their best designed and directed productions, in my opinion, by the way), I was struck by a scene in the first act when Cassandra speaks about the curse of prophecy. If I understand the original libretto, by Berlioz himself, correctly (“Tu ne m’écoutes pas, tu ne veux rien comprendre/ Malheureux peuple, à l’horreur qui me suit!“), Cassandra laments that she has the gift of prophecy, of seeing the future, only no one believes her or wants to listen. This is the result of the curse of Apollo.

In Catholic social teaching, “prophetic” has come to refer to those who speak out against injustice, who are part of a tradition that is trying to build a better future by denouncing unjust practices rather than enduring them. Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are considered to be leading lights in this prophetic intellectual tradition.

But what is made explicit in the Greek, and not in the Catholic, is that true prophets are ignored – at best – sometimes reviled or mocked. Cassandra’s curse is a case in point. She sees the bad that is going to happen, but no one believes her, no one wants to hear her, and they only realize she is right when it’s too late.

This too is the side of the prophetic tradition that we forget. We rally around prophets, especially in death, but when they are alive, there are few who want to listen and take what they say to heart. No one would want to hire them. If I am trying to develop a prophetic social science, for example, it is little wonder I will be unemployed – unless I am super-productive in ways that are valued in the industry. Are people willing to listen to – and hire – the prophetic voice in the classroom and the lecture hall, especially if it rallies against inaction?

Prophecy is a curse in all economic systems and educational environments. Nonetheless, it must be kept nourished.

First thoughts on “Cloud Atlas” and civilized narrative

1 Jan

For personal reasons, I haven’t been reading as much as I want to be or should be reading these days. Having said that, the book that lodged in my consciousness the most last year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I knew nothing about it when I was handed a copy at World Book Night in Cork, Ireland last year – coincidentally (or perhaps not) the city where Mitchell now resides. I was spurred to read it when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and Roger Ebert, one of my favorite writers to follow on Facebook, wrote an enthusiastic review but urged readers to read the book before going to see the film, if only not to be confused by the multiple story lines. If you love literature, I think it’s always better to read the book first, although for me A Clockwork Orange is the exception that proves the rule. I still refuse to see any of the books based on Toelkien because I don’t want to cloud the image in my mind’s eye with someone else’s imaginary. I learned that from storytellers who decry the use of illustration in folklore books. The film of Cloud Atlas, while it has its own pleasures – especially the editing, the makeup, the acting, and some gorgeous cinematography – can only be disappointing to those who love the book, its rich characters, and distinct narrative voices. And for me the vision of some of the stories was so different from my own interior vision that what I remember from the screen is distinct from what exists in my mind’s eye. This is especially true of Zachry’s narrative that forms the exquisite middle novella at the heart of the book.

I’ve heard Mitchell interviewed – and by the way he could give lessons on how to be gracious with readers and call-ins – and much has been made of the master vs. slave dichotomies at the core of the six narratives. Like a lot about the book, though, it’s easy to oversimplify in that way. Far more significant, to my reading, than the master/slave conflict is the eternal conflict between the savage and the civilized, redefined across centuries in ways that are not immediately apparent. The master/slave dichotomy is there in some of the narratives, and it’s not exactly coterminous with the savage/civilized dichotomy that is also there, and that is more dynamic as well. Characters are faced with a stream of opportunities to show themselves as civilized, defined by Merilyne (I think), as those who think of the future generations and those who thing beyond their own individual gratification. It’s an easier reading of the book to see it as a reflection on the master/slave conflict, because we all want to see ourselves identifying with the noble slave, and there’s a feel-good quality to this reading. Who would identify with the masters? It’s more complicated and more painful to read the six stories through the lens of our own age which, like so many others, (perhaps all?), is dominated by savages and the savage urge to accumulate wealth. Mitchell doesn’t hold up a mirror as much as he places us in a hall of mirrors: we may think we see ourselves in the slave or anyone striving for freedom, but what we actually are are the proud descendants of generations of savages. Our relationship to the civilized is more ambivalent. Look at the treatment of Autua or Luisa Rey, for example, even Sixsmith. People, and the characters in the novel, can make choices about whether and when to think of others, think of the future, and be civilized, but we are all inconsistent, deeply flawed and ambivalent ourselves about the struggle to become civilized, before we all destroy one another in one way or another.

One of the things in the book that disturbed me, ironically enough, is the manifesto that ends the book (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it but gets this far in my humble blog). It resonates, about the choices we make to construct a more moral world – issues that I am dealing with in my own life’s work and mission – but it’s also kind of comforting and feels a little like a bromide at the end of a long struggle which one would hope is more unsettling to one’s consciousness. I also think that would make for an oversimplified reading.

The book is not just about the sides we choose and the moral choices we make in our actions. It is equally about the sides we choose and our moral choice in our narratives, the way that our historical moment is not just constructed of the actions of generations that have come before, but also the narratives about those actions, real and fictitious, the ones that are told, the way they are told, and the ones that remain silenced histories. Read this way, there is significance in the selection of six different genres of narrative within the novel. The fact that the book is a compendium of genre fictions makes the stories go down much easier, but it is in the interstices, the way the narratives interlock – planned in the author’s mind but random in terms of actual probability (unless one believes in cosmic connections).

I am shaped equally by the actions of my great-grandfather coming to this country, by the actions of those European settlers before him who cleared the land of its Native inhabitants by killing them off, and by the narratives (and non-narrative morals) passed down in the family about who came here and why. We are shaped by the actions of those that came before, but also by the words about those actions, the self-reports and the third person accounts, by the masters and the slaves, by the savage and the civilized. To write, to narrate, to tell stories like a civilized person, speaking for the generations that come, this is a complementary mission to living a life that enslaves no one.

I’ll return to this later, but wanted to begin the New Year with some reflections on writing and storytelling in this vein.

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