Going Low

The Black Hole in My Pocket

I first saw Jake in a weird production of Waiting for Godot. I can’t remember if he was Vlad or Estie, but I remember he was quite good. Many years later, he got married to my friend Jenni, and I scored an invite to their amazing wedding where they served donuts and coffee instead of cake.

Jake has done many things, like acting and directing and playwriting, and is the rare person who is both very kind and very smart. I say “rare” because the cynic in me believes that all smart people must be acutely aware of how disturbed and unfeeling the universe is. But Jake carries himself with such compassion and warmth that extends not only to family and friends, but to everyone he encounters. This is precisely why I asked him to write an article: I think we could all benefit from the profound joy he brings to his work. – Jenny Kessler, curator

I read once that Ray Carver could knock out an entire short story in an afternoon. I thought: that fucker didn’t have to contend with a smartphone. And he had cigarettes.

Cigarettes never made me productive. I always wanted to be the guy who typed a hundred words a minute with a bogie hanging off his lower lip, but I’m very clumsy and I worried about ash falling into the crevices of my keyboard. Also, the sludge I made in my French Press every morning reacted with the nicotine and made me feel like I was coming onto a heart attack and/or a particularly unpleasant potty session.

But I still miss smoking: the smell, the whispered crackle of tobacco, the suck and inhale, the meditative targeted exhale. If I quit my iPhone, would I miss it the same way? And is it, I wonder, the sensory experience that I’m addicted to: the overstimulating light from the screen, the surprisingly effective speakers, the bounce of my thumbtips against the glass?

Doubtful.

More likely, I’ve become dependent on the distraction a phone provides from boredom and loneliness. I can listen to any album, watch any movie, stare at any picture, order any pair of cutoff jorts, read any Twin Peaks recap, and thus obliterate the idle moment at which my mind might otherwise have wandered into deep thought. Which—

remembers that his phone, which he set down on the other side of the room so he could finish what he was writing, has very low battery, goes to charge it, is lost briefly in a heavily circulating New York Magazine article about climate change which unnerves him so that he needs to take another look at the picture of a dog’s head on a giraffe’s body that he finds oddly soothing, sets his phone down, remembers that he meant to plug it in . . .

This is all anathema to creativity, as I’m sure you’ve read in several motivational or finger-pointy blog posts and interviews by the artists you look to for spiritual guidance. Time and again, young creatives are told to physically disable internet connectivity, to switch the phone not just to airplane mode but all the way off, to bury all smart devices underground in a nearby park for an hour or two while drafting, sketching, practicing, thinking, spacing out. Statistically, it’s very unlikely that anyone will need to contact you in the time that you’ve set aside for art. The world will not change unalterably when you unplug, and you will return to check your text messages, email, and social media accounts with a sense of accomplishment and productivity.

Or, in the time you were away from your phone, you will have putzed around for a bit without having gotten anything done, and you will wonder why you decided to put your phone away in the first place, and you will feel a strong sense of your own mediocrity. You will then spend an inordinate sum of time on social media checking the feeds of those who appear to be doing better than you, and you might wrap up with another few feel-bad pieces about our ongoing national nightmare, only to find that you’ve passed forty minutes on the couch without moving.

You can’t quit your smartphone, can you? Sure, there are places in the world where no one owns a cell phone at all, but your partner, best friend, colleagues, parents would all be pretty irritated to find out that they’ll no longer be able to reach you at a moment’s notice—this is, after all, 2017. Then again there are, I believe, still companies in the world which produce flip-phones, or other similarly graceless devices, on which one can make and receive calls and text messages and little else. But then you might go up to eight hours without being able to check your email, and this may drive you insane during a long, slow shift on the floor of a restaurant or behind a retail counter—many young creatives do not otherwise have internet access during day-job hours.

Which, now that I think of it, isn’t such a bad thing—would Kafka have gotten bored enough at his own day-job to write “The Metamorphosis” if he’d had a Pixel?

That slightly older generation of artists and writers is right to warn us to get off our phones, of course. But I’m hesitant to think that the only reasonable reaction for creatives (or for anyone who wants to get anything done) to these distracting and exhausting devices that have pervaded every corner of our public and private lives is a hardy shun.

Can we lean into our smartphones, instead, as a force for some kind of artistic good? Is there a way that my iPhone could make me more creative, not less? Would my writing life begin to expand if I stopped lurking at the fringes of social media and became a contributor instead? Can I repurpose the internet as a sort of endless writing prompt—the stuff which garners enough of my attention for a click and a minute or more of eye-time becomes fodder for fiction?

Maaaayyyybee…

About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to meditate every morning after I woke up. I’d been having trouble managing my anxiety, and I thought that meditation was probably the healthiest non-pharmaceutical, non-exercise option. It’s working, I think. At my day-jobs, or when trying to solve a creative problem, or when puttering around the house, I’ve gotten a little better about keeping my stressors in perspective.

Still, I suck at meditation. My mind drifts away and I think about the food that’s going bad in the fridge, the movie I watched before bed last night, my concerns about money. And then I return to the breath. I keep breathing. I drift, I return.

Perhaps this is where we can start with regards to putting away our phones. Sooner or later, we’ll hear the buzz—a NY Times alert, a text message, a glitch—and we’ll follow our first swipe with fifty more until we remember to return to the breath. We set it down. We get to work. The buzz will come back. Notice and adjust. Return to the breath, to the work.

And if you’re having a hard time, just remember: this guy wants you to return to the blank page. Don’t disappoint him.

doggiraffe

Popo + the future phone, Eva Wǒ, Curate This

Going Low

NSFW Gifs in an Apocalyptic Settings

Eva Wǒ is a mixed race queer femme originally from New Mexico now solidly based in West Philly. She is a self-taught photographer, videographer, curator, and digital creative interested in unconventional human aesthetics, homoeroticism, and survival. This year her work has been screened as far as L.A., San Fransisco, Toronto and Berlin, and been published in Mask Magazine, Afropunk, and Autostraddle. See more of her gifs at evawo.com/gifs and follow her on instagram @snaxho_.

In her portraits, Wǒ likes to set her subjects in desolate, even apocalyptic worlds. Against these backdrops we clearly see boldness of her subjects, or, perhaps, the strength of the signals they send. In this way, Wǒ subtly complicates identity and persona, person and place.

In these two gifs, made for Curate This, she explores how our newest and most vicissitudinous “place”—the internet—tangibly affects the ways we think, behave, and are seen.

Popo + the future phone, Eva Wǒ, Curate This

Popo + the future phone
the first gif depicts my PoPo’s hands holding a future phone and experiencing an immersive digital landscape of textures and stimulation. i imagine her perceiving my work and in this way transporting her with me into a future contemporary fantasy. wifi signal is strong and lipstick samples are silently raining in the back. the model on screen is Lux Plastic with 99 new likes. – Eva Wǒ

I like your energy. I wanna experience it. Eva Wǒ, Curate This

I like your energy. I wanna experience it.
the second gif features a selection of recent texts/private/direct messages i’ve received from lovers, suitors, and creeps. it also explores my sexual and social media identities which are influenced heavily by technology, community, and being a fully young millennial. the image is a self portrait and the dove symbolizes the purity, respectability and conservatism i reject. – Eva Wǒ

Swell series, Iceberg #2. Photo by Julianna Foster_small

Going Low

Telling a Story Outside the Frame


Julianna Foster is currently (2015-2016) a visiting assistant professor in the photography program at the University of the Arts. Foster has been a guest lecturer at Rowan University and Temple University and has sat on Fulbright and Graduate Thesis Committees at UArts. She received a BFA in Design from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2001) and an MFA in book arts and printmaking from the University of the Arts (2006). Foster was an artist member of Vox Populi Gallery in Philadelphia from 2006 to 2013. Solo exhibitions in Philadelphia include Philadelphia Art Alliance, Painted Bride Art Center, Fleisher Art Memorial (2013 Wind Challenge recipient), and Gravy Studio and Gallery. View Julianna’s full bio here.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

For years I have kept a snapshot of my mother, my older sister, and me in a square yellow frame. It was taken in the early 80’s on a mountain in North Carolina. I don’t recall that day at all, but my mother told me that it was a very windy day. We picnicked on a bench near where the photograph was taken. Whenever I look at this image, I envision what it was like on the mountain that day. I have (re)created a memory that can only exist in the periphery of the image, outside the margins of the photograph.

Maybe it’s longing. Maybe it’s compensating for loss. But for me the photograph is never only about the thing photographed. I imagine what is unseen, not necessarily what the photograph itself describes, and I want to tell that story. There is life in the peripheral, there is history in the margins.

Mary Todd Lincoln and her famous husband

It is well documented that for more than a century after its birth, photography, with a few exceptions like spirit photography (a sensational example of which is the portrait of Mary Todd with Lincoln’s ghost), was assumed to be authentic: because of the immediacy of the photographic process, it was believed to be a veracious account of whatever the camera lens was pointed toward. Photography, more so than any other medium, has been used to document—in the strictest definition of that word—cultural history. The power that a photograph can possess is immeasurable, and is crucial to understanding the world around us.

My interest in photography was piqued when I discovered artists challenging these traditions. While researching cinema and its influences on photography (Jean Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman), I was introduced to artists using the medium in a more directorial manner: “making as opposed to taking,” creating instead of capturing what already exists which became prevalent in the 1970’s and work by artists such as Theresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Uta Barth, Sophie Calle and James Casebere, to name a few, were highly influential. This cinematic mode appealed to my desire to create invented narratives, opened doors for me to explore the medium in a new way, and ultimately led to a sequential way of thinking that resulted in me making books, videos, and photographic series.

once, you were an island, 2 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 2

Over the last few years my work has veered towards objects that I have hand built on a tabletop scale in my home studio and then digitally combine with subjects I photograph that can be found in the world, particularly landscapes and seascapes. Although the impetus for the imagery derives from an existing narrative, the use of characters and plot are less relevant than they have been in the past and ideas relate as a series instead of a sequence of events.

once, you were an island, 3 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 3

The studio environment has allowed me to consider subject matter and narrative structure in more of an illusionist, metaphorical space. While the photograph continues to be a representation of the thing photographed, the thing photographed is now a fabricated reproduction of what could be out in the world. An example of this in some of my recent work is a smoke machine simulating clouds, white styrofoam carved to resemble an iceberg, a dilapidated dollhouse damaged by floods and overgrown vegetation. All of these I build by hand, photograph, and then combine digitally with my own archived images.

Swell series, Iceberg #2. Photo by Julianna Foster
Swell series, Iceberg #2

One of the reasons for this change may be that I now have two small children. Photographing in my home studio became more of a necessity, opposed to scheduling models, scouting locations, and organizing shoots. While the work has increasingly moved away from sequential imagery based on a directorial, cinematic linear narrative the photograph remains constructed in terms of its fabricated stories, whereas each image can be read/viewed as a singular experience.

once, you were an island, 1 photo by Julianna Foster
once, you were an island, 1

The series Swell started with a story I read in a newspaper years ago of an eye witness account of the aftermath of a nor’easter in a small town on the Atlantic coast. This evolved into a retelling of events, based on what I imagined the witness experienced in the aftermath of the storm. Similarly, the series once, you were an island originated from a story told by a friend about the the demise of a woman who comes to the midwest to reunite with her married lover. The media picks up her story and embellishes or misconstrues it to the point where legend and truth are intermingled. Through my process of creating images in response to these narratives, the intention is not to illustrate, faithfully reconstruct or document the story, but to interpret and embellish, taking liberties with their account of events, allowing fact and fiction to intertwine. Maybe in the same way I do with the snapshot of my family in that square yellow frame, insert what I imagine exists on the periphery or margins of these stories. The camera captures a moment in time, yet the story of that day isn’t explained in what is visible, but in what is imagined, the life outside of the frame. The existence of the photograph proves this moment did occur, there is evidence the three of us stood on the mountain that day together, arm in arm. What happened next is up to you to decide. The power of a photograph is immeasurable.

All images courtesy of Julianna Foster.

 

The gold frame makes the image nicer_small

Going Low

What Theater Can Do that TV Can’t

Television is by nature more conservative and commercial than theater. The comparatively massive cost—on average, $2 million to produce a network TV episode—puts producers in a position of having to justify their budgets, and justify them with viewers (8 million viewers, for instance, saw the first episode of Game of Thrones this season).

A network, which presents and bankrolls shows, is a commercial enterprise. Networks take a subservient role to audiences, doing whatever it takes to add a thousand viewers—and to keep them in their seats for the full 21 or 44 minutes. Producers must always work to grow audiences, thus eliminating their ability to experiment—try untested structures, language styles, visual worlds, physical styles—and do what art, necessarily, must always be doing: trying both the boundaries of the medium and its audiences. In art, experimentation is the opposite of commercialism.

The range of programming, and the emergence of what feels “new” in TV, reflects, more often than not, a progressive and inevitable acclimatizing of audience sensibilities, an arms race to break through thickening viewer skin. Take, for example, Breaking Bad, which is hailed for its gritty realism. This is a trend which has been moving forward since before Mary Kay and Johnny first portrayed a married couple sharing a bed. Even watching a show like House of Cards I find my mind instinctively turning off in response to the high emotional stakes and flashy visuals. It’s delicious, but it’s not engaging intellectually, spiritually, ethically, or aesthetically. Like any other TV show, like even the news or a political debate, the House of Cards producers know that the audience can change the channel.

If a show does not function in the way mentioned above, it gets cancelled. Twin Peaks entranced an unexpectedly large viewer base with its self-aware, genre-influenced dialogue, surreal sequences, and unusual stringing-along of audiences (they refused to answer the question the show started with: Who Killed Laura Palmer?). The network hassled creators, forcing them to tweak the uncomfortable format, until it was effectively no longer itself, failed, and was cancelled.

What’s not guaranteed very rarely even gets tried.

Television is not bad, but it is nearly uniform in its message: you are here, you are safe, turn off your mind, turn off your thoughts; all revelations will be irrelevant to your life, all questions will be answered, the women will be unrealistically sexy, the language will be like yours, the last ten minutes will be hypercharged, you won’t feel stupid, this is not a dangerous place. As Donald Trump knows, an idea doesn’t have to be right to be appealing.

In his overview of the television medium, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman (a student of media guru Marshall McLuhan) posits that TV speaks the language of entertainment, and that all of its success is based on its ability to entertain. Unlike the written word, the power of which lies in exposition and reasoned argument, television exists startlingly in the moment, turning off our thoughts of past and future and dazzling us with an anodyne but delightfully saccharine present.

And he’s not just talking about sitcoms and TV dramas. He’s talking about political debates, the news, music, even religion.

“Because of the way [a medium] directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world,” Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.”

Postman is talking about the power of dominant discursive medium—a mode which dominates our way of communicating messages, such as the the written word did after the printing press, the spoken word did before that, and television does now—to not only tell all messages in a certain kind of way, but in the end, to only be able to communicate certain kinds of messages.

So entertainers, politicians, newscasters, preachers—all of us turn to entertainment to reach our audiences and maintain a market share. And in doing so, we either learn to speak its mass-audience-appealing language or perish.

This twists the TV-watcher’s (all of our) expectations of every mode of discourse, from political debates to the news to music and, eventually, to theater. Thus the 15-second TV twitter vid supplants the 7-hour Lincoln-Douglas debate as popular recreation.

Time and again, I see a play and it says to me: art must monitor your mood, art has to make sure you are smiling, art has to make concessions moment-to-moment to make sure you remain engaged; art entertains. Plays ape the quick-fire dialogue, oversimplified solutions, cliché wisdom, broad comedy and low audience expectations of TV.

In his First Prologue to “The Bite of the Night”, English playwright Howard Barker tells the story of a woman who is taken from the streets and cajoled into watching a play. She leaves, puzzled, but finds herself drawn back, and this time brings friends with her, one of whom says “because I found it hard I felt honored.”

What’s commercial is what’s successful, and it’s successful because it is in demand. There is a deep human need for art that engages and switches off our minds.

There is, on the other hand, a need for art that challenges. That denies emotional subterfuge. That puzzles and confuses. That leaves us out, a bit bored or worried, and makes us try to re-connect. That doesn’t answer every question, or requires work from us. That isn’t afraid to speak over our heads. That doesn’t dance more quickly because that will keep us in our seats. That challenges us to stand up and leave.

Shakespeare, I will be reminded, entertained. But in his best plays, clowns and idiots sideline stories which poke at unknown quantities.

Theater exists differently than television. It is present physically, and it is insanely cheaper, therefore able to speak to individuals rather than demographics. Television doesn’t work if the hundreds of highly-trained people in the credits don’t get paid; theater can be made by a single amateur, or five, or seven highly-trained people, or twelve, something we often forget in our fiscally crippling search for spectacle.

Even more than in the 80’s when Postman wrote, TV as a medium is defining the way consumers consume. TV isn’t even TV anymore, it’s the internet, its seductive clichés have crept into our pockets and even our prescription glasses, they creep into every aspect of our lives, so even in the impoverished arts culture we’re trying to make theater in, here, in Philadelphia we attempt to cajole audiences into theaters by providing spectacle, entertainment, mindless joy. By maintaining the old forms which work. Endlessly bashing away at naturalistic acting which looks like what we’ve been taught to expect. By making theater a province of TV, with canned philosophy and plastic morals.

TV’s great at this, it’s got the budget and the convenience to boot. Theater isn’t; it can’t cut quickly, can’t give a convincing zoom-in to add the emotional impact that unbelievable writing needs in order to land properly, and it takes a lot more effort to go out and see it. But because we are trained to look for TV everywhere, we have actors and plays aping TV’s tropes like dodos flapping their wings.

Often, theater grows best not in the gardens but as a weed through cracked sidewalks. In Philly, the capital-T Theatres which produce their own work in Philly are pretty consistently not nurturing new forms; experimentation, instead, happens in basements in South Philly, in hallways between Kensington studios.

Theater must be its own medium. It must argue for its existence on its own terms, not on the terms that TV sets for it. It must allow itself to say new things, allow itself to create new forms, and allow itself to eschew entertainment in order to truly challenge, and let audiences turn on their minds.

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and administrator based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, has served as theater editor of Phindie, and writes for thINKingDANCE, Philly.com, The Smart Set, and the FringeArts blog. His recent performances include Micromania, The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster, and The Mysteries of Jean the Birdcatcher with {HTP}, On the Road for 17,527 Miles with 14th Street, and his Phindie Fringe Bike Tours. With the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Restored Spaces Initiative he coordinates community-led environmental arts projects.