NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
When Julius asked me to curate content for Curate This I knew I’d have to have an article about how terrible the murals in Philadelphia are, because 1) he works for Mural Arts, 2) the murals in Philadelphia are emotionally empty, poorly rendered, politically naive ugly shit, and 3) I’m an asshole. Fortunately, I have a friend, Josh McIlvain, who views mural “arts” the same way. I met Josh when we both wrote for an evil non-profit; we used company time reserved for boosting the profile of the chemical industry to set up a series of literary anthologies. Josh is artistic director of Automatic Arts, information manager for FringeArts, and an all-around good guy and fellow asshole. He’s my favorite playwright in Philadelphia, and his plays are pretty good too.
-Christopher Munden, curator
MANNY A: male, 50s., glasses.
MANNY B: female, 30, glasses.
A and B are playing the same person, MANNY, side-by-side. While they share the same space and story, they should be played by very different types: different genders, different ages, different style of dress. They should not try to both act like the same character, but individually show the character as two different possibilities. They share a belief in the same essential truth, and they exist side-by-side in the same set of circumstances.
A community hearing about the Murals Project, attended by community leaders, local government officials, and interested neighbors. The audience plays the role of those gathered at this meeting, and MANNY is speaking directly to the audience as if they were characters gathered for this purpose.
A long banquet table is set out, with a black cloth covering it. Two folding chairs are behind the table, facing the audience, for A and B to sit in. In the manner of government hearings, there is a bottle of water, a plastic cup and two bar napkins to place the cup upon, one set of these items for A and one set for B. At a larger venue, they should have microphones with table microphone stands.
MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS
MANNY A and B walk out to the table and take their seats. They open their water bottles and fill their cups with water, screw the caps back on, take a drink, place cups back down, move napkins towards them, and place the cups on one of the napkins. These actions should be in unison, though the movements do not need to be perfectly synced up—they should appear natural. However, only at two other spots in the play do they take simultaneous action. They should not be imitative of each other otherwise.
A: I painted murals because I wanted to make the world a happier place. My specialty were paintings, several stories tall, of proud, contented men and women, shoulders squared, looking up at the sunshine, a new dawn, some shit, a collage of types—the farmer to the social worker to the medical doctor, young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, mixed-race, every once in a while a Native American. I thought, we all thought, that positive, uplifting images, especially of those who persevered against great odds, people on the street would look up at these happy, positive images and maybe think happy positive thoughts? Where there had been an ugly gray spackled façade now you had a colorful picture of people working a garden, coming together as a community, celebrating their heritage. We were communicating in images—what message did a blank, gray wall make?
(B turns her head, looking at A.)
What did that say to people? Our pictures could make that little difference which maybe could make all the difference—a gleam of hope when you’re feeling down, an extra push as you face a challenge, a bright light of encouragement to help support your dreams, the fight against discouragement. Look, we changed this wall, you can change your life.
B: But the strange thing, I later came to think of, [turns back to audience] is why would all these people, these giant humanoids we painted on the sides of buildings, why would they be looking around at these decrepit, run-down, bleak and depressed pot-holed streets and crumbling sidewalks, with smiles? If they could see, their faces would be full of rage at what the hell did you drop me in this neighborhood for?
A: The murals ran the gamut of scenarios—they still do. Some are landscapes and farming scenes, some are manufacturing tableaus for neighborhoods that once had manufacturing and now have squat, nature scenes with animals and people—peaceable kingdom stuff—in neighborhoods that have no nature except for the spindly trees growing out of decay and the alley cats and stray dogs. Kids like the ones with animals. I once got a commission for an animal mural, but it didn’t work out. I painted a giant house cat playing with a ball of yarn. I thought it would be comforting, but it actually freaked people out to see this four-story house cat staring down at them. Made people feel like mice. Lasted two months before it was whitewashed, and another mural went up, this time of wondrous children observing a sundial, touching it, touching a sundial—what they hell does touching a sundial do? Truthfully, I thought the cat was a little scary too. If a house cat really were that size no doubt they would bat you around like a cat toy, get you caught on his claw and then fling into a wall, you know, on the third try, because it would take a few times to get you off his claw.
B: This shift in perspective, a cute thing made large—suddenly becoming a thing of terror—was the beginning of my dissatisfaction with the murals. Before then I had been a true believer. Save the world, one mural at a time. Paint over your blight with positive images and colorful hues and downtrodden folks can look at those murals and become uplifted and it’s a brand new day, by golly I will pull myself up by my bootstraps, and go out and change my life for the better. And suddenly, instead of the same old same old, it’s a neighborhood of opportunity zone—jobs are made, enterprise is created, the mercury-poisoned earth in the abandoned lots suddenly yields a golden crop and the people rise up singing, all because we transformed a gray wall into an image of hope and pride.
A: Like putting a new coat of paint on a prison. I bet in a prison there’s a lot of talk about a new paint job, I bet everyone has an opinion about it, because there’s nothing else to talk about.
(A and B remove their glasses. They clean them with a napkin from the table in silence. They put their glasses back on.}
People would come up to me, tell me what a nice job I was doing and that felt good. It’s nice to see someone finally starting to clean up the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, the sidewalks are still cracked and everyone still slumps by, going back to their shitty lives. Sure there are shitty lives everywhere, but in a shitty neighborhood, there are more shitty lives.
B: We had community help, making the community part of the process, teaching them, I don’t know . . . the way to paint over their troubles with images of hope and pride and perseverance. The funny thing is, if you see a mural like that, you just assume it’s a shit neighborhood, right? They don’t put uplifting murals in neighborhoods where people are already uplifted, right? In the neighborhoods where someone doesn’t have to commute on a stinky bus two hours for a minimum wage job at a drug store, you don’t have murals. In an uplifted neighborhood, they’d be like, hey, don’t put that shitty mural there.
A: But they learned to paint, sort of, learned team building. There’d always be a couple people who got laid because of it, so that was a plus. Everybody feeling good about themselves, good time to get in on that.
B: But what did they do really—the wall’s still a wall. You can’t do anything with a mural, can’t even walk on it. It’s still just a wall. There’s something brutal about a wall, especially a wall that tells you everything that you’re not.
A: There was one I worked on where one of the central figures was a blacksmith, hammering on his anvil, a proud figure. It was a mural about the pride of craftsmen, and the blacksmith also symbolized the forging of strong neighborhood bonds. You know, a metaphor, subtle as a hammer. Doesn’t matter that aside from a renaissance fair, the craft of blacksmithing is extinct. There’d been a foundry in the neighborhood at one time. But seriously it had been gone for thirty years. And it had been an incredibly dangerous place to work. This old guy was talking to me about it. One moment he’s saying, when the factory shut down, this neighborhood went to hell, that it was a damn shame, and the next moment he’s telling me what a terrible place it was to work. That every three months someone was either maimed or died on the job. And somehow it was always employee carelessness, and people got burned all the time, sometimes badly. But nobody was there hammering an anvil. Wasn’t a bunch a metalworkers with their individual workshops making horseshoes. Plus the whole neighborhood smelled like poison when the wind blew the wrong way. But people seemed to like that one. Workers pride. Now that’s work, real work, I like that. We got to have more of that. I began to question the people who I worked for, like what are we doing painting these images of things that people don’t have, I don’t think visualization is going to turn things around, I think the problems may be deeper than that.
B: We’re starting a discussion, is what Bronson would say. Bronson was the mural guru. We give people something to talk about, and maybe that can be a starting point for an idea. People need ideas, people need to be empowered by the power of their own ideas. And then what? It’s an entry point, it’s a beginning.
A: They’ve been painting these things for like 20 fucking years and it’s always a beginning.
B: The last one I did was a farm, harvest time, the fruits of labor spilling out of baskets in a neighborhood where everyone was living off of food stamps. Think about it, here’s a big basket of apples. Each apple is bigger than your head. You could feed an entire family with one of those apples. Don’t they look delicious? Sorry, not for you! Why not, instead of paintings a picture of a garden do you not build a garden? Maybe the soil is so full of toxins that anything you’d grow would be poisonous, if you were lucky enough to grow anything at all. I once knew a guy who talked about living on the beaches of Mexico and eating thistle. You can survive off of thistle, he’d say.
(A turns his head, looking at B.)
So instead of the farm, I painted an empty lot full of thistle, big thorny thistle plants, a three story building covered in thistle, made your skin crawl just looking at it. People would ask me, what the hell is that? And I’d say thistle! You can live off of thistle.
A: I got about three-quarters done before they took me off the project. [Turns to audience.] They said I needed a break, and gave me a month of paid leave. I mean, they’re very considerate, they were concerned with my feelings, and the stress. They were upset that someone who had been with them for so long could go off the deep end. Only I didn’t go off the deep end, I had woken up. Sure, there was stress, but I had woken up.
B: I couldn’t tell them, they still have a dream, and you can see it in their eyes, and the way looked at me, so caring and concerned. A casualty in the war. Your whole thing is bullshit, I wanted to say. But it would be like telling a creationist that no, the world is more than five thousand years old. Because people choose fantasy over reality. Because every objection is always met with, well, it’s true that there is still much work to be done. Still a long road to go down. We’re just one organization. But these murals, we’ve established a legacy, people think they’re great—I tell people what I do, and they think it’s so great. We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so much further to go . . . and I’m seeing this long, long path through shitty block to shitty block with these stupid murals like guide posts, guide posts to what? To each other. That’s all it is—it’s a path for itself. It’s the insanity of not facing a problem.
A: Took me a while to find a job, a year or so, wasn’t sure what to do. They put me on unemployment. So thoughtful. I spent a lot of time indoors, watching TV. Then I decided I needed to get out so I started taking long walks about town, but I’d always see the murals and seeing them didn’t make me happy. First they pissed me off, but then I just stopped caring, and then I started seeing them the way I think most people see them, something you don’t care about, another wall, that’s it. Another fucking wall in the city.
B: Thank you, no questions.
(A and B rise from table, give a slight nod of acknowledgment, and exit room. The end.)
MAKING the WORLD a BETTER PLACE through MURALS premiered November 1, 2013, as part of Nice and Fresh performing arts series at Moving Arts of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. With Steve Lippe as A and Emily L. Gibson as B. Directed by Josh McIlvain.
Photo by Said Johnson
I was blown away the first time I saw a play by John Rosenberg. He writes plays as if he is a human and his characters are human, and if you’ve seen a lot of new plays or TV or movies, you know why that’s special. I write about theater and meet a lot of theater folk, but despite—or perhaps because of—this I haven’t become friends with many. But John became one of my closest friends and remains so despite moving back to California. We chat on google chat quite a bit, and our conversation often turns to theater. We have strong opinions about this. These are some excerpts from our chats.
– Christopher Munden, curator
Excerpted from gchat conversations between Christopher Munden and John Rosenberg:
I just read a play you’d like
John M. Rosenberg
who wrote it?
John M. Rosenberg
google and then thank me
John M. Rosenberg
this guy seems fantastic
I miss you, my friend
I miss you too mang
John M. Rosenberg
how was [REDACTED]’s show
It was good.
he’s improved it since the last iteration and there was a good crowd.
John M. Rosenberg
where is improvement?
pacing, pauses, visually.
how are things with you? Yael? etc?
John M. Rosenberg
things are good. Yael is doing good.
closed play last weekend, started new one.
what is new with you?
I’m moving to Kensington.
John M. Rosenberg
I saw [REDACTED] and hated it and it’s getting all these good reviews and it hurts my soul and I feel like I need to say something
John M. Rosenberg
i think if it hurts your soul, write an op ed
i don’t know what that would do
but i thought about doing it after it closes
i mean, why else have Phindie really?
but it feels like it’d be pissing in the wind
John M. Rosenberg
what did [REDACTED] think of the show?
he hasn’t sent review yet
John M. Rosenberg
i mean, sure you can say it is pissing in the wind
but if you say it sucks and everyone is dickriding it then fuck it
have fun and say how you feel
you are never going to be a barrymore judge, take pride in it
this company is just safe bullshit masquerading as cutting edge
if that is independent theater in philly then heeeeeehaw this place can french kiss my dog pussy
i’m maybe more upset with the reviewers
do they really think the things they wrote?
it is like they didn’t see the same play
i think a lot of it is just not wanting to call a shit a shit
John M. Rosenberg
why shit on a company run by philly barrymore winners?
they are taking chances producing new work!
i am not as down on the company as you, but they deserve to be held to a standard
John M. Rosenberg
this new show got all these reviews
that should tell you something
what should it tell me?
John M. Rosenberg
that there is money behind it and people are gonna go to bat for them
i go to bat for them
but to me, supporting an artist includes telling them that their shit stinks
i want them to succeed
but by that i don’t mean sell tickets and get good reviews
John M. Rosenberg
it isn’t the work, chris
it is the breeding ground to get bigger shit that isnt real shit
it is well thought out marketable stuff
hollow assed shit
[REDACTED] will tear apart a kids play about rainbows if it deserves it, why wouldn’t she criticize this one?
John M. Rosenberg
i have no idea
Josh would totally do all that marketing shit and more though, right?
if he thought it would work he would. But he’d do it so he could put up whatever the fuck he wanted.
And it wouldn’t just be workshopped theater 101 garbage.
John M. Rosenberg
the funny thing about joshua mcilvain is he wants to get the pew money and get produced by the theater companies
but he isn’t a hack
Josh could write better plays than that while changing diapers.
John M. Rosenberg
and i dont know if josh will ever be invited to center city to do his stuff
but i love he is just banging out his own shit
so i love talking about this because shit will continue to succeed
i hope [REDACTED] sends me something real or i am going to have to write something
because otherwise i may as well just close Phindie
i don’t want people to go see theater just to get out the house and to pay actors
John M. Rosenberg
who pays actors?
John M. Rosenberg
i liked that!
i have never heard it
i went to see Ween reunion show in Denver and I’ve been revisiting my love for them since.
John M. Rosenberg
“from a sojourn away from a major market in Montana”:
Thank you for getting back to me. I am always interested in quality work, and my training and background is in theater. New work is also exciting, and having some affiliation with a theater company in Los Angeles is one of my goals. I have been back here (from a sojourn away from a major market in Montana) for just a few months. I looked at your website and some of the press notices and it looks pretty cool. I am confused about the venue though…when you say in ‘an apartment’ you mean an apartment set on a stage in a theater or literally in an apartment? Honestly I am not so sure that even my love of the craft affords me the time to do work that is being performed in an apartment without a legit audience. Coming from regional theater I am well acquainted with the idea of doing theater for no pay, really my experience is that doing theater actually costs an actor money. Could you elaborate on how these performances actually work and to whom they are performed for? Thanks.
when you say in ‘an apartment’ you mean an apartment set on a stage in a theater or literally in an apartment?
John M. Rosenberg
what a cunt
they all think they are special out here
you should invite him to your “set”
John M. Rosenberg
John M. Rosenberg
how is you?
how is fringe?
Oh it’s alright
Nothing blew me away but a bunch of fairly good stuff
John M. Rosenberg
are we going to continue conversation about stuff with philly theater or eh?
Well, there seems to be a point to Phindie, for me, during the Fringe
In a way there isn’t always at other times
So I’m going to regroup after and see
John M. Rosenberg
I think there is a point
At fringe or in general?
John M. Rosenberg
John M. Rosenberg
I like the idea of you raising the bar for plays and criticism in philly after fringe
My plan is to review a bunch myself
But what if people do lifeless though not terrible shit
John M. Rosenberg
I really think your job is to demand the type of work you like and foster that type of work
One word reviews: Lifeless
I can testify that this was a play that was performed
These were the actors:
These people worked on sound and stuff:
John M. Rosenberg
At the end there was applause.
115 minutes with one intermission
Show runs through October 6
John M. Rosenberg
John M. Rosenberg
what did you do last night?
i went to two dance things
John M. Rosenberg
how were they?
One was really good
She was charismatically crazy and she collected trash though so I may have been swayed by that
The other was by a someone I know
John M. Rosenberg
it only helps
And it was fine
John M. Rosenberg
what you doing?
i was putting together a theater calendar for October
I’ve decided to pretty much review everything for Phindie myself that month
John M. Rosenberg
what is coming up that looks bearable?
Um. A Philip Ridley play
John M. Rosenberg
i like the title
He wrote Mayfly or something like that
look him up, he’s an asshole
John M. Rosenberg
who is putting it on?
He directed a creepy 1990 horror movie The Reflecting Skin
Also, Curio is doing a Conor McPherson adaptation of the Birds
There’s an Exile show that might be okay
Guards at the Taj
PTC is restaging Rizzo
John M. Rosenberg
i like you reviewing for the month
I can write a mediocre review as well as anyone else in this town
John M. Rosenberg
time to clean house
time to write a letter to philly theater being like i am worried it is garbage, let’s see what October brings us
I am going to publish an edited version of our chats sometime.
John M. Rosenberg
hahahahahahaha, why edited?
you’re too antisemitic
John M. Rosenberg
i was hoping you would say not antisemetic enough
i was writing with an eye for publication
Of all the authors I’m curating this week, Sean Lynch is my most recent acquaintance. He appeared on a short-run podcast I co-hosted to promote his poetry collection Broad Street Line. I was struck by the way his verse was informed and infused by political awareness, while remaining grounded in the concrete details of the everyday people affected by elite political decisions. This focus on accessible, independent, politically informed work can also be seen in Whirlwind Magazine, which he edits. I asked Sean to submit a piece on the real issues that art can address, and he did, using his art.
—Christopher Munden, curator
The shooters are invisible from the artist’s point
of view, beyond those dunes firemen ignite
fuses that cause colorful explosions
because the sky seemed too blank
a canvas, bodies of gold light live
out their finite lives like fish that float
above the beach and boardwalk stuffed
with herds of tourists, sparks spread
in predicted paths toward the abstracted
as ash rains on wood and eyes aimed
in arcs traced thousands of miles east
through the ocean that separates minds.
A holy land erupts again.
hover above cages
where smoke pours in like blood brewed
in boiled over data. The artist is asked,
“what’s wrong?” There’s no easy answer
except that fireworks disturb too few
Americans without ptsd, everything out of context,
everyone commoditized. The artist glances
at young men in blue who holster death machines,
sport childish faces, pimples, and crew cuts
or even Mohawks in mockery of the extinguished natives.
These officers of the peace laugh at girls
wearing booty shorts stamped with male names.
This is the Wildwood boardwalk
where toys made by the enslaved a half a world away
sell as bounty won by local boys for lust,
where the feasting Gerasene swine arrest
a dreaded kid who stole some paltry item
and will be branded criminal for life.
They’ll shoot him if chance begets
the moment, but Jesus will not drive
this legion into the sea. No one
bears witness on the boardwalk.
And yet something doesn’t feel right
to the man commissioned to draw a child.
And the parents cajole the artist
as to why he can’t do his job
any faster; it’s just a caricature.
The artist is no longer immune to violence.
Close by in a makeshift
storefront aquarium more consumers
gather. A hooded boy dumps the contents
of a plastic cup
down a PVC pipe
as two young girls film
the scene with smart phones
waiting, gazing at the tank now
clouding under a sign that states:
“Feed the Piranhas
a live goldfish!!!
$3.00 each or 2 for $5.00.″
As sharp teeth turn yellow bodies into red clouds
and deafening explosions are cheered
by the crowd, the artist places final touches
on the piece – then turns the easel to show
a swarm of jets dropping bombs
over the naked child’s decapitated head
as the kid’s corpse is covered
in luxury goods: jewels, designer clothes,
electronic gadgets and the like.
The parents gasp and grab
passing authorities to nab the perverted
artist who sits in catatonic disassociation.
Then a smile appears as the officers
place handcuffs onto his wrists,
since the fireworks have finally subsided.
I met Penelope when she was recently separated from her husband; she married as a Texas teen and came to Philadelphia as a newlywed. They would separate and reconnect and re-separate. She moved away and returned, trying different things: crime reporting, Occupy, investigative reporting on a corrupt Caribbean island, ill-fated love. Through each misadventure, Penelope would become more disillusioned and more radical, but never hopeless. And after each supposed failure she’d show me a better piece of creative writing. She now has multiple publications and her first novel was accepted for publication by Scarlet Leaf Publishing House. For some of us, our failures drag us down; Penelope’s seem to drag her up.
– Christopher Munden, curator
Every time I move somewhere I evaluate my surroundings by asking what would a nervous breakdown look like here? I ask that question in the same way that other people ask: what is the feng shui of this residence going to do for my waistline? Or will the rent go up due to gentrification? Or where is the nearest green space or Whole Foods? I think about who is there, the neighbors, and the accommodations, and I think of them all in terms of madness. I have a commute, back and forth, about a three year long commute. It helps not to have roommates. I look for wider than average streets, old buildings with good architectural bone structure. A river nearby is like finding a vein in the body of nature which we all share. Lower density is best, too.
/ / /
When I was 25, and my mom was kicking me out of the house, I had to call my uncle, her brother, to come assist, to cool things off. I was barefoot in the backyard because she had locked me out of the house before I could put shoes on. I had my cell phone and my cigarettes. She had just attacked me in the kitchen. I had been living there, again, for two weeks. I was broke, attempting to leave my husband, “bipolar,” unemployed and carless. I was putting away groceries. We were fighting. I had borrowed the car when she didn’t want me to, to go to the store. And I had failed to put the toilet paper roll on the thing when it ran out, and I had not placed the bathmat over the lip of the tub, which had to be done because otherwise the fourth cat—the forlorn, clearly autistic, runtish low-man-on-the-feline-totem pole—would vent his rage at his status by peeing on it. (You’ve seen the movie Misery with Kathy Bates? Well, the penguin always faces 45 degrees Southeast! She loves you dearly; she’s your biggest fan, but you can’t leave with both your legs on.) Plus I was ignoring her. So she came up behind me and threw me onto the floor and tried to wrest my iPod lanyard off my neck, like, through my neck, because my neck was in the way, and my head and my face. It wasn’t exactly strangling, but it wasn’t exactly not.
/ / /
When my uncle came, as we were putting some of my bags in his truck, he said, “There has to be a novel in this somewhere.”
He was trying to be sweet.
/ / /
Over and over again, people have called me “resilient.” At this point, I think, I’d rather be called “diligent” or even “succulent.”
I am like that old mobster who must sit in a restaurant at a table or booth facing the door. I am waiting for myself to show up. I am an importer/exporter of the past at the same time that I am a refugee from it. I write little these days, but most of my current stuff is my real life revisited. I must admit I think of them as puny consolation prizes compared to my fiction. Like this essay I kept trying to write when I was running at a local park and instead I got the above poem to come out first. It was a precursor work. The essay is about the time in the Virgin Islands when I dated a drug dealer who told me that he had killed three people and then gaslighted me by fucking me up the ass and texting me that I/he/we were HIV positive.
Misadventure. Yeah. You must, you must, write about it. It’s so much fun. The same way you must endure poverty, have bouts of mental illness, go to the tropics or die an expat, live in a boarding house, be a journalist, be wildly sexual or at least pretend to be in print, work for social justice and befriend at least one Communist leader in your life. You must collect and absorb and obey clichés until one day you look down and you’ve grown a dick and people are calling you, in Spanish, Papa Hemingway. Misadventure, disgrace, I call it now, is a cliché you must collect in order to be a “real writer,” which is itself a cliché.
As suicide is the last cliché, you must earn that, too. Ain’t no such thing as a free career in this world.
But first you must live it: misadventure, disgrace. Which means that in order to write about it, the drama in your life must be two things: strong and worthy of words, even when you yourself are not, even when the pain and humiliation feel unspeakable.
I’m talking about the time I was arrested in the deep backwoods of Kentucky for public intoxication but I actually thought I was still in Tennessee. And I wasn’t even drunk. And I mooned my arresting officers. They added the charge “resisting arrest.”
I’m talking about the time I was so manic I wandered in the middle of the night into a tent of Evangelicals, then thought I was levitating—hell, I think they thought I was levitating—because a storm came in and the strong winds uplifted the tent flaps and some of the flimsy benches they were using as pews. I went to sleep on such a bench by the woodburning stove, and a woman from the congregation came up to me, put a blanket over me and asked me: “are you an angel?” And I said, again, manic, “Ma’am, if I am, I don’t know it yet.”
I’m talking about a completely undocumented spiritual life underneath the life you think you live. Friends and family who have been in the military have said this line to me: “They break you down completely and build you back up again.”
But you can leave the military.
I’m talking about escaping from a mental hospital and hitchhiking back to home in nothing but a hospital gown, panties having been taken from me, no buttons or zippers, just homely sheets split down the back.
I’m talking about my best friend calling me in the midst of a similar misadventure— she was running away from Girard Medical Center in a sweatsuit, security guards in tow—and asking me, “What should I do?” and me telling her, as I am getting dressed for work, “Run faster.”
I’m talking about same best friend calling me years later and telling me about the poetry scene in Philadelphia becoming claustrophobically bipolar and academic at the same time. “D. and C. and A. shredded up Kafka texts and made suppositories out of them. Also, they are smearing monuments and statues of Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin with their menstrual blood and semen in some bizarre invocation ritual. These people have PhDs, Penelope.”
“This is why I don’t do poetry anymore and live in Connecticut,” is what I said.
Some scenes are heavy on misadventure. They are not to be missed, but not to be embraced either.
/ / /
I think I read somewhere that in his stories drawn from his real life, Hemingway managed to make everyone around him, particularly rival writers, look like twerps and sniveling, uppercrust cowards and intellectual tightwads and himself look like a manly hero. Supposedly this is historically inaccurate. Imagine. The ego.
Let me be clear here, I’m being arch. I’m not an advocate for this pattern of self-destruction and self-excoriation and self-redemption through art. As a writer, I’m not an advocate for self-anything, at all. Because it’s all cyclical, and once you start on this path it hooks you the way Benzadrine got Kerouac and heroin got Burroughs. And because there’s a tendency to develop a tolerance.
But you can quit drugs. To live this kind of life is to be bested over and over again by demons of your own making. The last thing you want to do is to develop a tolerance to that.
For the longest time, I was a self-help book junkie. I hated them. I thought they were vile, inferior products. I couldn’t stop buying and reading them. I think my baseline happiness level jumped a few increments when I quit that shit. Same with therapy, which is proof of its success.
In my twenties, I hated myself. In my thirties, I tend to hate the world. Maybe in my forties I will hate just…men? You see how this is progress, in that old, “awful rowing toward God” sort of way?
/ / /
In kindergarten, I was a hyperobedient child because, again, white trash violent parents. My first day I peed my pants. Here’s how: The teacher had explained the rules of kindergarten to us. One of the rules which was different from pre-K was that we had to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. We couldn’t just get up and go. We had to ask silently, by the use of a hand signal. We had to make a fist and put our thumb through our fisted fingers and hold our arm up in the air. When the teacher touched your thumb, it meant you could go to the bathroom.
After she explained the rules to us, she gave us an assignment to do. Then she sat with her back to us. I had to go. Really bad. I used the hand signal. My powers of five-year-old logic told me that this would not work, given the logistics of the room, but if I had just had the rules explained to me, and if one of the rules was that you did not voice your request, and if another one of the rules was that you did not get up from your chair without permission…Well, I waited, fist raised, until all the blood drained out of one arm, then the other. Then I pissed myself in front of everyone. Then the other children told her what had happened, she turned around and made me fetch paper towels and clean it up myself. She made everyone else watch. The next day I was transferred to another class, which I thought had to do with the peeing but was more likely because I had tested out of that group in reading ability. Still. For the rest of the year, I refused even to sit down in a chair for long periods. Damn private school. Damn school.
/ / /
When I wrote the essay about the drug dealer trying to convince me I had AIDS, it was the first and last time that I had ever written anything and felt a cathartic release from it. I resisted it, the feeling of having calmly conquered something painful through writing, because that seems to be another clichéd idea non-writers have about writing: that it can do that, that there are selfish benefits, writing as therapy, etc… I had never bought into that idea. Writing was always about what I could bring to an audience, not the other way around. But it’s not always one or the other; they are not exclusive categories, and there are some misadventures, disgraces, so deep that, potentially, everyone stands to benefit. Just like sometimes, in real life as opposed to fiction, there are real villains and cowards and intellectual tightwads.
/ / /
It’s very barren in psychiatric wards. The humans there are very barren; the mind goes barren there. This is called healing, by some, because they are barren, somehow. They already were, and they are in charge, and this is how they got to be in charge.
/ / /
A disgraced person is a hundred times more likely than everyone else to question authority, and that can be a great boon to an artist. But the greatest thing I have learned from my misadventures is to seek unadulterated joy and fulfillment (fulfillment is different from achievement) and to know that I must cultivate a life that only includes writing. I used to include quotes from Hemingway in my personal essays about my mom, my family life, the drinking, the fights, the psychiatric disorders: “stronger in the broken places.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger bullshit. That was before I met Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller, the Hamlet-like protagonist of the TV series Sons of Anarchy. ‘Jax’ is heading up an organization of community-minded, gun-running motorcycle club outlaws in a made-up town in Northern California called “Charming.” They are fiercely opposed to franchise outfits such as Starbucks getting into “Charming,” which is kind of like Bridgeport, Pa, which is kind of like walking out into 1968, replete with Pabst-swilling, Gadsden flag-flying white supremacists and it’s weird. Anyway, ‘Jax’ writes letters to his sons, as his father, the patriarch of the motorcycle gang, did before him. To pass on wisdom. In one of these letters, he writes:
“Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold onto these simple moments—appreciate them a little more, there’s not many of them left. I don’t ever want that for you, finding things that make you happy shouldn’t be so hard. I know you’ll face pain, suffering, hard choices, but you can’t let the weight of it choke the joy out of your life. No matter what, you have to find the things that love you. Run to them. There’s an old saying—that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—I don’t believe that. I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad. Strength comes from the good things, your family, your friends, the satisfaction of hard work. Those are the things that will keep you whole, those are the things to hold on to when you’re broken.”
This is the truth: the things that try to kill you just make you angry and sad. They don’t make you stronger, or a better writer. You have to be that from the get go, and give a damn about yourself and other people, in equal measure. In the end, it’s happiness, highly unoriginal but highly selective in who it endows, happiness, happiness and caring, neither danger nor vainglory, that is the most bad-ass thing.
Run to it. Send notes back.
/ / /
P.S. I love what you’ve done with your hair.
John Rosenberg came to Philadelphia from California, put on a bunch of great plays in a converted industrial building in Kensington, then left Philadelphia for California. We became friends, and I asked him to write about his thoughts on the city and its theater.
– Christopher Munden, curator
i love love love love love love love love love philadelphia. when i think of philly i think yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes. My lady friend for eternity is from philadelphia so what is not to love? It is white wine and 24 packs of tall cans of becks for $20 and parliaments my wife bought and fuck i should really eat something i didnt eat dinner i should eat a cheesesteak from little petes before going to bed for work the next morning. it is quarters of xanax when i got to work, 30 minutes of work spread over eight hours while working on a play and then printing out a copy after my boss left and regional railing it home and hooray my wife wants martinis and then smoking all her cigarettes and watching tv and working on a play.
philly is where i figured out for the most part how i wanted to try to do whatever the fuck it is i do, which is write plays and find actors to be in them and then put on the play and hope the actors die before i have to pay them.
philly is where i hit the fucking lottery and got the chance to have my very own theater i could rent for $6000 a year in kensington.
philly is where i got not legally married to my wife.
philly is where a dude asked to rent the theater and then stole all the fucking lights but got caught by a neighbor.
philly is where my wife’s father threatened to kidnap a site reviewer from the pew foundation.
philly is where i was on a ladder in the papermill theater trying to turn on a ceiling fan for a fucking actor and the fucking ladder collapsed because i am an idiot and i fell 15 feet onto my elbow and there was a piece of my elbow floating but i didnt have health insurance so I just left it the fuck alone for three months
philly is where i learned to get an idea, not wait on it but find an actor who wanted to work and write the thing and put the motherfucker up.
philly is where a critic got stopped by the police after one of our shows because they thought she was a prostitute.
philly is where a cast got an outstanding fucking review and a fight broke out during a pick-up rehearsal.
hello! i hope you are working on a thing. maybe in your head or in whatever medium you do shit. but i hope you are working on a thing. i hope you are working on the thing and planning on putting it on somewhere in philly. i hope you pay to put it on and don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. unless your shit is super good or you got it like that.
i really think it is fantastic when people make stuff and then put it on. it is the fucking best.
it is hard to do and hard to earn respect but it is the best. it is YES YES YES.
there are people who are straight up and down real motherfucking talented artists and get their shit put on by the pew foundation or fringearts or the powerhouse theater companies in town and win barrymores and shit. People like Gaby Revlock and the young dude who does shit with the people that i cant remember his name but he is a nice dude and knows how to go about getting his shit done. Not Brad. Fuck. What is his name? I can do this without looking it up. He wrote the play shitheads that azuka is putting on.
i dont have the courage to send my shit out so i like to do it myself.
chris the brit asked me to write this thing on my time in philly. What is heehaw is i just did my taxes from my time in philly. i should have done them before, yes, but i dont have the courage to send my shit out.
My wife and I did seven full length shows and a bunch of shorter things from september 2010 to feb 2014 in a warehouse in kensington called the papermill. i think we spent about $30,000 and made about $1.00 in ticket sales.
there is a way to talk about this stuff without it reading like glory days shit and you had to be there bullshit. i am sure there is, but i am unsure how to do that. maybe by mentioning i think i made about $1500 in ticket sales and spent over $30,000 to play make believe. this does not include late penalties from the irs. i am also sure that my shit is never gonna be as great as it was there, so boo-hoo for me, hooray!
the papermill is still there as of this morning. You should rent it and put on a play. Why the fuck not?! Rent it and tell people to see the show! take the market frankford line and get off at somerset. ask anyone where the local theatre is, because you are there to see people play make believe as they trot lightly on the boards. they will point you in the right direction.
i miss that shit hella but thank the fuck god i got out of there before someone got fucked up. THANK FUCKING GOD. i used to say that the papermill was the most dangerous theater in america and that shit was slightly true. you could get fucked up coming to see a hella fresh theater show in soooooo many various ways. you could get in a car accident, but whatever. you could get your ass beat getting off at somerset. highly unlikely, but i also did my shows during the day. you could decide that you wanted to take the edge off before a show and get pills or a bag of something and there was no better place to do that than at the somerset stop. you could be a season subscriber to hella fresh theater and die from the fucking mold or the asbestos. you could come see a show in the dead of winter that we heated the theater using open flamed propane tanks and this thing best described as a jet engine/banshee and one of the actors could have kicked it over and KABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. you could have died from boredom from the bad shows i put on or attempted to drink away the pain from the show you saw OH MY GOD I SHOULDNT HAVE SMOKED IN BED AFTER THAT TERRIBLE SHOW BUT I WAS SO DRUNK BUT NOW I AM IN HEAVEN AND CAN SEE ALL THE THEATER I WANT FOR FREE.
i consider myself a philly playwright, whatever that means, hooray. i would get sick before every show i put on. i would feel terrible until the actors for the show got to the theater. it is a terrible thing to say, but actors make me feel safe. i love them. i look forward to when i will be able to use cyborgs and not have to pay them.
my time in philly was shaped by my friendship with josh mcilvain. he interviewed me for the fringe back in 2010 because of the space in kensington. we saw each other’s work and saw enough in each other that we respected so we became friends. josh is a super real playwright and is a great fucking writer and knows what he is and what he isn’t. we read each other’s stuff, gave notes, took turns directing each other’s shows. the thing i miss most about philly is working with josh. he has his eye on getting put on by companies and shit because he isn’t a moron, but josh is devoted to making new shit and putting it on. his nice and fresh series is an awesome vehicle for artists looking to show their new polished work. if you are gonna do a nice and fresh, don’t be a useless talent, help set up and clean after the show.
Doing theater in los angeles is like in philly, except it isnt. there is a theater alliance here in los angeles and it seems as stupid and worthless as the philly shit with the barrymores and large companies acting like they care about the work and the idea of community in theater. there are people banging out great work, people putting on stuff just to get noticed and people using it as a step ladder, just like philly.
i have put on three shows in our apartment in los angeles. All of them are plays that take place in apartments. i dont think it was good because it was in an apartment. it was good when it was good and bad when it was not good. actors have a few great shows, a few not great shows. one actor kept sleeping in our backyard without our knowledge or consent. I am right now trying to figure out how to turn our living room into an russian airport for a play called let it snowden.
but hooray! kiss my dog pussy with the negativity and just do some new work! everyone is a champion! If you are working no a thing and want someone to read it or want to run an idea by someone, email me at email@example.com.
Header photo by Josh McIlvain.
For whom do we make things, and what do they represent? This is the question posed by More Stately Mansions, an art exhibition currently running at Kitchen Table Gallery. My contribution to the exhibition, Window of Enlightenment, explores the contradictory relationship between the Gilded Age elite and the American wilderness. Camp Santanoni, a sprawling estate built in 1892 by an Albany banker, serves as a lens through which we examine wealthy industrialists’ excursions into the woods and their underlying motivations. Five miles down a dirt road outside an isolated village, Camp Santanoni epitomizes the rustic style of Adirondack Great Camps. Its story and ethos are uniquely manifest in its design, representing the conflict of American expansionism and an emerging public interest in experiencing and preserving the wilderness.
As cities boomed at the turn of the twentieth century, the wealthy sought respite from urban living. The New York elite invested in family camps upstate—private destinations to be enjoyed by their owners and invited guests. In contrast to the grand homes of big cities, the Great Camp was designed to blend into its setting, and employed local materials and craftsmen in its construction, featuring rough hewn logs and granite fieldstone chimneys. Though designed with rustic ideals in mind, Great Camps, like any country homes, were still an expression of status and privilege.
Camp Santanoni is distinctive from other Great Camps in its design. Considered “more understated” than similar camps, Camp Santanoni embraces a Japanese aesthetic, specifically the concept of shibui, meaning “tasteful in a rustic manner.” Robert Pruyn, Santanoni’s original patron, valued Japanese tradition as an alternative to the “fragmentation of modern life” reflected in urban American architecture. Evidently, the year he spent living in a repurposed Buddhist temple in the suburbs of Edo (now Tokyo) would significantly inform his vision for an ideal wilderness retreat.
Interior walls were paneled with tatami mats, and guests were called to meals by the strike of an antique temple gong. But the components reminiscent of Japanese temples at Camp Santanoni reflected more than just aesthetic preference. Robert Pruyn and his wife Anna sought a communion with nature intrinsic to eastern architecture. In Pruyn’s own words, “It takes time to make a comfortable place to live in this great wilderness. You cannot merely buy land and build a house. A patient contest with nature is necessary.”
Pruyn commissioned renowned architect Robert H. Robertson to design his Camp. Intentionally integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, Robertson prioritized enjoyment of the landscape. The Japanese-inspired arrangement of spaces comprised backswept wings of freestanding structures linked by a promenade. Robertson designed a walkway in eight segments, punctuated by scenic outlooks offering panoramic vistas. One critical text described a traverse of the verandas as constantly shifting compositions: “slivers of lake appear and disappear through a colonnade of trees, the forest dappled with sunlight.”
At his Camp, Pruyn’s “patient contest with nature” manifested as ordered control over the land. An ambitious farming operation sustained his guests, who enjoyed ample luxury despite their remote location. 35 bedrooms spread across four complexes housed the staff, which included butler, chef, chauffeur, and Mrs. Pruyn’s personal maid, who traveled with the family from Albany. According to Charlotte K. Barrett’s A Visitor’s Guide to Camp Santanoni, “staff was expected to create an illusion of rusticity that allowed the Pruyns and their guests to adventure in the wilderness but return to the formal rituals of upper class life.”
Enthusiasm for the great outdoors reflected a burgeoning, distinctly American perspective on The Wilderness and how one might best experience it. Pruyn’s guests expressed profound connection with nature, which they experienced in the comfort of the extravagant Camp. Huybertie Pruyn Hamlin, cousin of Robert and frequent guest, wrote:
It would be hard to express all I feel about those Santanoni parties . . . They were a very bright spot in our lives, not only giving greatest pleasure but also showing us another kind of life—that to me at least was absolutely new.
In the early 1890s, as Pruyn developed his estate, a newfound movement for wilderness conservation spurred national debate. Large tracts purchased by private individuals, including the Santanoni Preserve, strategically shielded lands from excessive logging. Camp Santanoni was built seven years after the establishment of the Forest Preserve, and the same year as the creation of the Adirondack Park.
By the mid-twentieth century, public perception of wilderness, and the question of how and by whom it should be experienced, had shifted. A 1935 article celebrated the opening of a highway nearby Whiteface Mountain as a progressive step towards inclusion. The highway, the article appeals, symbolized a transformation: once the “spiritual possession” of an exclusive elite, the outdoors should serve as recreation grounds for all citizens.
The Pruyns owned Santanoni preserve until 1953, when it was purchased by the Melvin family of Syracuse. Camp Santanoni evolved into a more casual experience, as the new owners and their guests sought a different sort of encounter with nature. In 1972, the Santanoni Preserve title passed to the Nature Conservancy and then to the State of New York. The Pruyns’ Adirondack home is now maintained by the Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Many of the buildings are in disrepair or no longer standing; those that remain have been restored for public access. Visitors can lunch on the broad porches and take boats out on the lake.
“Adirondack,” from the Mohawk word meaning “bark eater,” recalls a primitive wilderness experience, when natives ate buds, roots, and bark to survive harsh winters. In the Main Hall at Camp Santanoni, bark becomes a decorative motif. In my work, Window of Enlightenment, the viewer looks through a birch bark paneled “window” at a party of Camp Santanoni guests wandering down a road on the preserve. Images and surfaces are made with naturally and locally sourced materials—charcoal, iron oxide, and natural inks. Not shown are the workers who made this casual stroll in the wilderness possible.
More Stately Mansions inquires: for whom do we make things, and what do they represent? What are the power structures necessary to build these objects and spaces? In my work, Window of Enlightenment, I investigate these questions by contrasting the grand private estate with the publicly accessible trail, lean-to, or campsite.
While the estate represents an extension of the individual’s social stature, the campsite and trail serve as vehicles for public experience and appreciation of nature. At the forefront of Window of Enlightenment is the tension between these two modes by which we strive to experience the American wilderness.
Windows are literally framing devices, revealing scenery to be contemplated. An ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Genko-an, features one circular and one square window. The circular window expresses harmony and enlightenment while the square symbolizes the suffering of human life. The bark-paneled architectural form of Window of Enlightenment is a square, with the image revealed through a circular opening. The woman, seen walking with two companions, is young Huybertie Pruyn, enthusiastic naturalist and privileged intruder. Whatever our contemporary interactions with the American wilderness, our experience is mediated by the structures, usually designed and built by others, which allow us access but are frequently marred by transgressions not perceived, and shaped by values we no longer share, or even have the ability to understand fully.
We are squirming under the thumb of an economically and racially oppressive system headed by a horrible orange monster. Anyone who cares about their fellow human being is devastated. Chances are you already know about or are starting to be aware of the massive inequalities all around us in this country. Perhaps you’re living it every day. Race, gender, economic, you name it. They are all connected to the class divide. The city of Philadelphia is still segregated. According to census data, many of us still live in neighborhoods where a single racial group represents 75 percent or more of the population. In our country, 1% of the population holds 90% of the wealth. Our healthcare is in constant jeopardy. We have always lived in a system that punishes the poor, rewards the rich, and blames “the other” for society’s ills.
What is the artist’s role in inequality in America? Because we in the art world are responsible for noticing, learning, reflecting, and presenting the world through visual language, we play a key role in cultivating important conversations like these. The time period in American history that best illustrates the artist’s relationship with inequity and the uber wealthy is the Gilded Age. This was a time when a small quantity of wealthy families (the Rockefellers and Carnegies, for example) made large sums of money by exploiting the labor of African American and new immigrant laborers. The wealth disparity would have been visually striking at this time, with workers living in tenements and the elite living in the enormous mansions on the horizon. Artists and craftspeople made those mansions the iconic monuments to the broken ideology of the American dream. We gilded their foyers, painted their silk wallpaper, carved their cornices, and painted their portraits. The artists and the robber barons of yesteryear are intertwined because without artistry, no one would want to visit mansions (today, they’re all museums).
This is not to say that those artists were wrong for making a living wage. In fact, it’s a testament to our power as creators. From unassuming materials, we can make history. We have historically worked for the wealthy, giving them the trophies they need to display their social class. These American mansions represent a longer history of systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property to further the social standing of a few. They also represent the time period when Americans started worshiping the lifestyles of the rich, a symptom of a deeply flawed value system we are still saddled with today (*cough* Trump *cough*).
Art’s relationship with the wealthy elite during the Gilded Age also directly relates to the classist stigma in the arts. Jessie Clark and I started Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) because we saw a need for exhibitions that are relevant and accessible to all people (outside the echo chamber). We saw this need because too many people feel that art galleries and museums feel sterile and uninviting (terms like highbrow and lowbrow refer directly to class). If you come from a working class family and are an artist, you know this stigma. We need heady, conceptual, art historically-self referential and philosophically geared exhibitions. We also need cookouts that double as a video art and independent film screening (Dinner and a Movie) and everything in between. You shouldn’t need a college degree to be invited to view artwork, but often, that’s how it feels.
An integral element of the solution to this classist stigma is to provide more opportunities to connect artists, curators, and art institutions with geographic communities without contributing to gentrification. Art spaces have the ability to connect communitie with art and artists. Unfortunately, permanent art spaces and institutions are often used by developers to spark real-estate investment and then gentrification by enticing a demographic of higher income people into neighborhoods to increase property value and thereby initiating the gentrification process, evicting the people of lower income, artists included! According to an Artnews article on the top 200 art collectors in the world, nearly 60% of the list consists of mostly white heterosexual couples or white males a vast majority of whom work in either the investment or consumer industry and likely are purchasing art just as they would purchase stock for trade or sales.
This is who drives the art market and this is the kind of demographic developers are shooting for when they gentrify. They may decide the monetary value of art, but they don’t get to decide its actual value: what art is for and who gets to be impacted by it.
More Stately Mansions, an exhibition and zine I’ve curated which opens at Kitchen Table Gallery on August 6th, provides the opportunity for discussion among artists and art viewers regarding these issues and stigmas that affect us all. Discussion, visual and verbal, inches us toward common ground through the most effective tool for communication and culture building, the arts.
My intention with CHER and the More Stately Mansions is to simply provide an avenue of discourse outside of the existing institutions and among a larger variety of people. I do not pretend to know any clear solution to the long-standing, complex, and deeply rooted problems we face with inequality in American society. I simply wish to take my small set of skills and do what I can with them. I am an artist and a teacher, I am always going to look to engaging in open communication in troubled times as a means of forming vital connections and empathising with what other people feel and think. This is the overarching purpose of the More Stately Mansions exhibition.
The title of this exhibition is an intentional homage to two famous works. The first is the Aaron Douglas painting, Building More Stately Mansions, which links the labor history of African American men and women with the foundation of great civilizations. The painting celebrates their artistic and intellectual contributions to society despite the perpetual imbalance of power throughout history. The second is The Chambered Nautilus, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. that uses the imagery of the mansion to represent the “self” and the nautilus as a noble creature that symbolizes continual growth and therefore continual re-building of the “self.” The final stanza reads:
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
(Holmes, Sr. 5. 1-7)
These two works are a jumping off point for two ideas. First, The United States owes their iconic structures, infrastructure, and heritage to the contributions of people who had little to no power in an imbalanced power structure just as many of the wealthy elite, particularly of the Gilded Age, owe their station in life to this same power structure. Second, those of us who create have an uncanny ability to create “something from nothing”. Since the nature of art making requires constant self examination and evolution of skill and concept, we are in many respects, a symbol for perpetual grown just as the nautilus is for Holmes.
In response to the discussion of the class divide that has been at the forefront of political debate, More Stately Mansions will harken back to a historical symbol of wealth inequality, the gilded age of the 1800s and 1900s. This was a time when great American mansions were built, largely on the backs of slave, non unionized, and/or new immigrant laborers. These mansions have continued to be glorified and highly valued in today’s society as beacons of the American Dream. Visitors pay admission to view their lavish interiors with guided tours that glaze over the subservient work and slave labor it took to create said building. The American mansion represents a systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property. Asking artists to transform the gallery space into a rendition of these iconic structures is a way of investigating the artist’s role in the class divide, the role of the class divide in the exclusionary stigma in the arts, and the unspoken elements of the value system in the American dream as represented by these places.
The More Stately Mansions exhibition features local artists who were selected by Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) founder and curator Veronica Cianfrano to create work that discusses themes of wealth inequality, the class divide, and the notion of the American dream as it relates to both the art community and the community at large. The artists were asked to reference the time period of the American robber baron, the Gilded Age, using only recycled materials as a means to discuss the artist’s role in the class divide and the power of the artist to create value from “nothing.” The following is information on the exhibiting artists, and the work they are making for the exhibition.
Dena Shottenkirk is a philosopher and artist. Her project, Philosophers’ Ontological Party club (POPc), is the marriage of these two worlds. Her work encourages conversation and a free exchange of ideas in a personal and intimate way.
Her piece, POPc: Making Thought about Speech, will encourage discussion between viewers and the resident philosopher in an enclosed space.
I make work that involves both publishing philosophical writing (generally in book form) and making related artwork. After that input, I hold events within the framework of an organization, POPc. The most recent topic [of discussion] has been censorship and free speech. I then take those conversations and along with the original input of mine (book/artwork) I build an installation that gives the whole “conversation” about the topic. In addition, the artwork is never for sale; instead it is part of a related project called the Lending Library, where people borrow the artwork for approximately six months, and then do an interview about what they thought. That also is added to the “conversation.” This project is in keeping with the theme of [More Stately Mansions] as it is entirely against the role art has come to play in our society: decor for the wealthy. Instead, the project emphasizes experience and thought. The viewers who come into this gallery will be able to leave their thoughts behind as well as take physical pieces of the installation with them. – Dena Shottenkirk
Stephan Dobosh’s studio practice employs a careful consideration of Symbolist literary devices, automatic writing, and visual free association. He uses art creation as a physical documentation of his experiences and state of mind. Through the subconscious psychological connections between color, sound, text, and implied imagery, he wants to provide an entrance for the viewer to be able to free associate, transforming these elements from static objects to dynamic associations.
My installation “The Joneses’ Sitting Room” is a spectral fragment of the American suburban home, an “achievable” standard of wealth, made up of commonplace household items. Including a chair, a painting, a rug, and an end table are all spray painted gold. The installation stands as a satirical metaphor, an artifact documenting what “The Joneses” have achieved on their economic quest toward “The Mansion.” -Stephen Dobosh
Tiernan Alexander knows a lot about art as decor and social status. She holds an MFA in ceramics and a second Master’s degree in Material Culture from Winterthur, the DuPont mansion in Delaware (yes, those DuPonts).
Chandelier is a piece that juxtaposes refuse and the style of the chandeliers of the wealthy elite of the Gilded Age to illustrate extreme wealth.
The chandelier is one of the great examples of Gilded Age extravagance that was costly to make, used excessive resources, and required hired help to maintain. By building this one out of mostly garbage, equipping it with very moderate lighting resources, and providing a remote control, all of those historic conventions are inverted. The piece will also call on the history of using natural phenomena in an anti-contextual decorative fashion that lets the participant enjoy nature without any personal risk or worry about the destruction of nature. -Tiernan Alexander
Siri Langone creates work that uses themes of repetition and time to draw connections between the banal objects of our daily lives and our impact on the world around us.
Siri’s piece, Trash Core, serves as a core sample of refuse. Each layer of the resin sculpture is a different discarded trash item organized by the time it takes for that material to break down, starting with glass on the bottom then maxi pads, fishing line, plastic, aluminum, and batteries. Each section is divided with dirt and neon layers that glow green when exposed to darkness. She states:
You have to look into the resin deeply in order to see what’s visible inside the different-colored layers. As familiar items appear, one can only wonder if each layer represents the time of decomposing. All materials were used for their purpose and then thrown away, possibly without any regard to where it may end up or what it will do to the environment. -Siri Langone
Jim Dessicino is a fine artist and teacher at the University at the Arts. He creates sculptures that investigate the relationship between power and sculptural forms.
Though he typically deals with the portrait, More Stately Mansions has allowed him to expand the scope of his critique to architectural forms and luxury objects. Mining from his grandmother’s pole barn and Atlantic City’s self-cannibalization. In his piece, Between the End and Where We Lie, he presents us with objects that have fallen from luxury into a refugee state.
Harry Sanchez Jr.’s experience living in a border city has made him keenly aware of the boundaries everywhere. His work often serves as a response to this feeling of inaccessibility.
His piece will be a detailed recreation of typical dining room from the Gilded Age made of duct tape. The duality between material and environment is a reflection of the facade and falseness present in the setting of the lavish dinner party. The duct tape material is used as a reference to the working class who use it to fix that which is broken.
Zach Zecha uses materials to show us how disjointed and chaotic language can be. His work shows us an urgent and somewhat futile need to understand and make sense of a cacophonous, hyperreal world.
His work, High Tea, will tackle this theme of wealth inequality and inaccessibility by creating a projection-based installation that taxonomically displays information regarding distribution of wealth in the United States. Accompanying this information is a table, set for tea, paint oozing out from the vessels as the excess flows from the capitalist structure that we live in. Chairs on either side of the table sit empty inviting one to sit. Yet even these are just projections, symbols of the illusion of power of the American individual.
Lauren McCarty embraces the opportunity to create work that is interactive. She often assumes the role of the keeper or collector in her work, emphasizing the preciousness of materials and found objects.
McCarty’s Window of Bewilderment employs imagery, materials, and architectural components from Camp Santanoni, an Adirondack “Great Camp” built in the 1890’s by an Albany banking family. Camp Santanoni was built in the style of rustic Adirondack log construction typical of Great Camps. The complex of buildings is unique in its evident Japanese design influence. While the buildings are grand, they are discreetly tucked into the landscape. Indoor and outdoor spaces are thoughtfully blended, blurring distinctions between the two.
This piece is a birch bark-paneled circular window. The painted figures seen through it, which are made of artist-produced charcoal and inks, are members of the privileged class enjoying the wild Adirondacks at the turn of the twentieth century. As the great American cities boomed, these newly affluent industrialists sought out refuge in the mountains. This refuge in the wild Adirondacks reflects the wealthy elite’s tempered and curated wilderness.
Steven Earl Weber uses objects, images, and their arrangement to contemplate questions of subjective identity within the issues of class, religion, and politics. His work addresses personal identity and social commentary by fusing craftsmanship and concept in a variety of mediums.
Steven’s piece, Regression to the Mean will be a cross-section of a domestic scene of the wealthy elite presented to us from an outsider’s perspective with an emphasis on the imbalance in social status.
More Stately Mansions runs from August 6-25, with a performance night and zine launch on Saturday, August 19. Kitchen Table Gallery, 1853 N. Howard St.
Dre Grigoropol has been a staple of the Philly comics scene for years. An award winning comic artist, zine-maker, and performance artist, she is the creative force behind both the webcomic Dee’s Dream and the comics appreciation site Comixgab. Never one to shy away from talking shop, I sat down with Dre to talk the nitty-gritty details of her art, including tools, techniques, influences, and inspirations.
Corey Bechelli: How long have you been drawing?
Dre Grigoropol: I have been drawing since my earliest memories. As soon as the question “what do you want to become when you grow up?” was introduced, I knew I wanted to become a professional artist.
CB: Do you have any kind of formal art schooling?
DG: I went to art school. Before that I took art and design electives in high school and focused on my art classes in my early school career.
DG: My comics are usually comedies or dramadies about daily culture and relationships. I have a webcomic I work on called Dee’s Dream. It is about a novice DIY indie rock band. The feedback I receive from readers is that it is really hilarious.
CB: What are some of your favorite art tools? What are some of your favorite techniques?
DG: I like to draw on bristol. I really take advantage of the paper weight since I use a lot of Speedball Super Black Ink and Turner Design Gouache in white. My favorite drawing tools include Pentel’s Pigment Ink Brush Pen and the G model nib in a Tachikawa Comic Pen Nib Holder. I always have had a great deal of respect for traditional comic art and I feel pride to work in that way, but lately I have been making some comics completely digitally. Since the start of this year, I have been drawing on an iPad Pro with the free software MediBang. I have really been enjoying drawing digitally. In the program my favorite pen to draw with is the G Pen.
CB: You are a big fan of anime and manga. What are some of the works that made you a fan of the genre?
DG: I was heavily into video game culture since a super young age and I had a subscription to the magazine Nintendo Power. When they started to include monthly manga based off of their game characters like Super Mario Adventures and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, I felt captivated. The collections were printed in trade paperbacks and recently were reprinted and are available at any comic book shop. The art looks just as beautiful today as it did back then.
The first animated work that really drew me into the world of anime is the ninja movie The Dagger of Kamui. I saw this movie when I was in 5th grade. It is a very deep, complicated, long and sad story. The animation and art really resonated with me.
At the end of the VHS tape was a life-changing preview of Urusei Yatsura which was also distributed by Viz. I was so captivated by how odd and quirky that clip was. Soon, I realized I could pick up the Urusei Yatsura manga at my local comic shop. I started reading other work by Rumiko Takahashi like Ranma 1/2, Maison Ikkoku, Rumic World and others. I grew my manga collection by picking up any issues I could find and urged my friends to do the same.
Another milestone in my manga gratitude memories was manga anthology MixxZine by Mixx Entertainment, which later became Toykopop. It included Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Ray Earth, Harlem Beat, Ice Blade and Parasyte. I subscribed to it as soon as it was advertised and anticipated the issues being mailed to my house.
CB: Name your top 5 all-time favorite comics.
DG: I really like lighthearted series like Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, Blue Monday, Archie and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
CB: The Yucky Nerds is the name of your performance project. What is it? How did it start? What is its goal?
DG: Yucky Nerds is a “nerd rock” band my friend Ken Richard and I created. It began under my comics and cartoon art appreciation podcast Comixgab’s umbrella when I asked Ken to write a theme song. Soon, I wanted in on the musical creativity and the band was formed, more songs were written and shows were performed. The mission of the band is to increase solidarity towards nerd culture, while having fun.
CB: Where can people find you on the internet?
CB: Does art have the power to change the world?
Corey Bechelli is a comic creator and art-enabler of sci-fi psychedelia that plumbs the likes of American fascism and the internal realm to create work that is buoyant, meditative and, as he calls it, “pro-living.”
As one of the founding members of the Artclash Collective, he’s put together the annual West Philly Fun-a-Day, now in its 13th year. His live, kinetic reading-performances of his comics (such as Astral Sass, a “psychedelic cosmic philosophy comic”) are as spectacular in their vim as his accompanying illustrations to his musical co-projects Blown Away and charm/strange experience are (verbally) quiet and (visually) bold! But whether bright and central or behind-the-scenes, Corey’s multiple kinds of art can be linked perhaps by their ethos of introspection and vivacity. I highly recommend Corey’s canon for its soulful narratives, soaring foundational-existence questions and big, blocky designs and colors: sunny and scary, he’s a reasonable and reliable detailer of the everyday human horror.
– Rebecca Katherine Hirsch, curator
Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: You are an individual who comes together with others to create art experiences with galleries, art shows, music, and performances. Tell me about that.
Corey Bechelli: Under the name Corey Bechelli, I draw comics, usually by myself, but sometimes collaborating with others. Under the banner of the Artclash Collective, I helped found the annual Fun-A-Day project and show, which is an art project encouraging participants to work on a creative project every day during the month of January, with a group art show in February. Under the name charm/strange experience, I created projected visual accompaniment to composer Gina Fontana’s piano music. Under the name Blown Away I performed live projected rhythmic mark-making along with Sammy Shuster’s original music. Under the name Corey Bechelli I project my comics and read them to audiences, usually using weird voices.
RKH: In a sentence, describe your arts (comics, lifestyles)
CB: Preposterous psychedelia attempting to offset a growing cultural nihilistic malaise.
RKH: Who are you as an artist alone? And how does this enable the art you create and curate with others?
CB: I am heavily influenced by the psychedelic experience. My comics all explore similar themes of transcendence, enlightenment, and the quest for continued awareness. In my mind, these themes make up a “pro-living” philosophical stance. When collaborating with other artists, either as a visual artist or curator encourager, I try to continually promote a “pro-living” stance, encouraging creativity, spontaneity, and self-actualization. The world can often be devastatingly horrible, but it is also amazingly mind-blowing. The creation of art is a safe space to work out “anti-life” feelings and find our own individual “pro-living” practice.
RKH: What genre is your art? How do these genres affect your LIFE?
CB: Most of my art could be categorized as cosmic sci-fi. This makes sense to me as science-fiction is usually used to project a world that we as a species can strive to get to. We need to use art to express our creativity and practice our creative thinking, to better mold the world around us into a direction we feel it should go.
RKH: Can you tell me the genesis of your art experiences? What are their FRAMES, what are their MODES and how do they OPERATE?
CB: For some reason I really understand visual images. I began drawing as a child, where I used it as a coping mechanism to help me feel better about the outside world, often the source of overwhelming emotions. Making marks on paper made me feel better. This coping mechanism has never been abandoned; instead, it was reinforced continuously by myself and others, until I began to actively use it as a tool to disseminate ideas. I gravitated towards drawing comics simply because any drawing with a story or plot is a comic, and the more complex the story, the more drawings are needed, so the more I could draw and ignore the outside world. In a way, creating comics forced me to create my own interior world, of which comics are some of the few things that purposefully escape outside. Ideally, my comics are infused with specific ideas or themes that are carried through in both the art and story, the goal being the emergence of an abstract concept that is transferred from the comic to the reader’s imagination. Once the reader has the idea in their head, it can live on and mutate/die/combine with other ideas into something else. I’m just making colorful memes.
RKH: Can you go over the storylines for one of your comics or illustrations and explain WHY and HOW it emerged?
CB: “Beyond death, beyond ethereal physicality, exist innumerable energy levels, realities with a logic unto themselves. An untold number of beings wander these fantastic planes, exploring the unknown, pushing the boundaries of the conceivable. What happens above space, outside of time, in the outer reaches of the unthinkable?”
This is the gimmick text for Astral Sass, my ongoing comic series and occasional performance piece. Each issue features tales from the Higher Vibrational Realms, following Energy Beings on a quest for Ultimate Awareness. It’s a psychedelic cosmic philosophy comic.
At one point in my life, I was heavily influenced by Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan books. I hold a kind of cognitive dissonance with these works, as I find them fascinating and full of profound existential truths, but at the same time they are a greatest hits collection of new age mumbo jumbo, used to manipulate and abuse a generation of desperate truth seekers. Astral Sass is my attempt to reconcile my paradoxical feelings about Carlos Casteneda… and really, about life itself.
Its emergence happened when I let go. Using everyday tools, not subscribing to a particular point of view, I began drawing various scenes taken almost verbatim from my inner monologue. Allowing myself the freedom to draw whatever I wanted to, in whatever way I wanted to, with whatever I wanted to, opened my mind to become a sort of conduit for spontaneous creative energy. The characters I draw write their own stories, as they are living embodiments of a larger transcendental energy, and I am just the substrate through which they take form in this specific reality.
RKH: What are your influences?
-Being alive and all the horrors and joys that come with it.
-Works (performance, art, music, writing, and so forth) that subtly hint at the profound effects of Living on the psyche.
-Jack Kirby, Eric Drooker, Carlos Castaneda, Terrence McKenna, professional wrestling
RKH: Can you tell me why you’re interested in the story of Gilgamesh?
CB: Apparently the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in human history. In reading its plot and story details I was looking for some kind of universal truths that would unite a person of today with a person of antiquity. I did discover a unification, and was interested in exploring the idea of exalting one specific person into demigod status. From what I understand of the story, it is a sort of redemption narrative for Gilgamesh, who begins as a murderous raping tyrant, and ends as a humbled beacon of cultural preservation. I explored these ideas through a lens of the current Neo-Fascist American Oligarchy in a comic called “The Parables of Gilgamoid.”
RKH: Is it helpful or harmful to draw powerful villains?
CB: Helpful, especially if the goal is to create a powerful antagonist that a protagonist can somehow overcome. If the protagonist itself is a villain, it’s a bit trickier, but exploring villainy through art is a better way to deal with the concept than actually being a villain in real life. I’ve explored villainy through a protagonist before. I personally don’t see a point in contributing to a larger cultural nihilistic death worship, so I used the constraint that I still needed to acknowledge the negativity the villain creates, and show its destructive consequences, not revel in its transgressiveness. All that being said, the “anti-life” side of living needs to be explored in some way, as we all have to deal with the concept of death.
RKH: What’s it like to make art by concentrating on the faces of terrible people?
CB: Of course terrible is subjective, but some of these people seem completely terrible simply because they seem to always inhabit an “anti-life” frame of mind. I once drew a series of trading cards called “All-Star Scumbags,” featuring George W. Bush and his cabinet. In a certain way, I began to feel bad for these people, bad for humanity in general. I drew them in black and white, from photos, so I was creating abstract representations of their likeness. Distilling their image down to its core components just made me think that we can all be broken down to similar parts, thus we all share a similar experience on some level. I was creating images of people who seemed to have forgotten that we all share more similarities than differences, that we are all basically in the same position, and that this forgetting is just a trait of human nature. We can all forget this from time to time . . . but these people forgot it more? They were at least in a position where their forgetting had an enormous negative effect on large numbers of people.
RKH: What is your process? How does your work get formed?
CB: Almost everything I do is collaged in some way. It’s great because you can see both the larger structure of the work and the intimate details at the same time, while leaving room for spontaneity and letting the work itself come alive and show you where it needs to go. With my comics, I generally have an idea of a theme and just start drawing things, scenes, whatever. Sometimes it’s characters or random scenes, other times I draw multiple pages. There comes a point where that initial burst of energy dissipates, and I take a look at what I’ve got and figure out where it’s going, if it’s viable, what I need to do to keep working on it. Sometimes I’ll rough out a whole comic, other times I’ll start writing a story or dialogue, sometimes I’ll redraw what I already drew to get it right, other times I just go with what I have and keep drawing. Eventually through a kind of start-stop-start approach something will emerge.. I always have various projects going on at one time, at various stages of completion, and kind of rotate through them, like they are ideas on a lazy susan. I work on something until I can’t any more, then spin the wheel and see what’s next. Somehow things actually get done this way, but external deadlines like comic shows or performances help keep it all on track. There are plenty of finished works I have that could be reworked and “made better,” but I’m learning to let go and leave finished things finished. If I “messed up,” then get it right next time. Done is better than perfect. We have a finite amount of time in this world, so I need to keep going.
RKH: You create visual art. What has this art created of you?
CB: A being with a pretty well developed sense for non-verbal communication, with the ability to, in moments of acute awareness, understand the underlying intent and/or emotions of specific works/situations and examine them from multiple perspectives from within a rich interior world. On the flip side, I believe this has hindered my ability to communicate effectively verbally, as I learned to comfortably process my thoughts/feelings through drawing, not talking. On the flip side of that, I’ve also developed a keen understanding of the underside, the unspoken forces emanating from the Transcendental Object outside of time and space (God, higher calling), and the idea that there is so much more to life that we can explain. The sense of mystery, and exploration, remains essential.
RKH: What do you do for fun?
CB: I like to go on random adventures to weird places or weird situations with a partner, then recapitulate in detail how weird it was. Sammy Shuster is one of my favorite people to do this with.
RKH: Does ambiguity play a role in your work?
CB: Yes. I think it’s good to leave some wiggle room for the viewer/reader to have their own interpretation of a work of art. It will happen regardless. If the work can be intentionally created with ambiguity, that just creates the possibility of more potential interpretations, which is a good thing in my mind. It’s all about the transference of the meme and letting it be a living, evolving construct.
RKH: What ideologies and questions can the comic reader detect in your work?
CB: A brief list of ideologies explored in my work includes socialism, capitalism, communism, anarchism, racism, patriarchy, misogyny, white supremacy, self-actualization, destiny, afterlife, transhumanism, monogamy, polyamory, nihilism, and death.
-Can we shift levels of awareness?
-How do we maintain specific levels of awareness?
-What is the responsibility of a self-aware protagonist to the other characters in a narrative?
-Is there a hierarchy and who does it benefit?
-Can we topple oppressive systems of control? If so what is it replaced with?
-What is beyond death?
RKH: I love the kinetic momentum and bigness to your artwork… How would you DESCRIBE the visual experience of creating it?
CB: It’s completely nonverbal, and for me, the level of information packed into any one line, shape, or color can often far exceed something like 10 pages of writing. The visual experience comes at me from the underside, a deeper level under girding verbally constructed reality. In a comic like “Astral Sass” I am attempting to create a purposefully psychedelic environment, so I push colors to the limit, making them as bright and varied as possible within the confines of CYMK printing or RGB color space, while using lines as a sort of containing unit to get across a type of plot. I don’t necessarily see swarms of rainbow colors in every psychedelic experience I have, but there is a level where under every color there is a Crystal Matrix of All Color ready to burst forth, so constant use of rainbow color is in a way a visual shorthand implying the understanding of the Matrix. I also purposely change the way I’m drawing, or the tools I’m using, to better reflect the emotional core of the narrative. This is partly helped by collaging a comic together over time . . . one day I will draw a scene with colored markers and crayons, two days later I’ll draw a different scene with just a black pen. Just like in real life, each moment can feel different, so having that reflected in the drawing is important.
RKH: What’s your performance philosophy? Do you write in the aim of performing?
CB: I think I need to have some type of practice before I perform, simply because I find it too difficult to both perform and watch myself on the first try. Practice helps me take mental notes, and gets me accustomed to the specific amount and type of energy I need to bring to make the performance successful as a meme transference device. I don’t always plan on performing every comic I draw, but I’ve found it’s easy enough to transpose comic panels into single images for projecting, so with a little work, every comic could be performed. Like anything, it’s a different medium and changing the form will change some things about the narrative, but as long as the core themes are still communicated, that’s OK. The core idea is the point. It just gets adapted to different mediums.
RKH: What other projects are you working on? For example, the podcast you spoke on with Dre [Grigoropol]…
CB: I have a number of projects in various stages of completion. Here’s a short list:
-I’ve been a guest on a few episodes of Dre Grigoropol‘s Comixgab podcast. I actually am planning on interviewing her about her work soon.
-I recently completed a Psychedelic Romance comic called “Psychedelic Gaze,” which contains four short stories. I think I have a few more stories to add to it, so I will either make another issue or just expand the one that already exists.
-I’m working on an All-Ages Coloring and Activity book called “Call of the Cosmos,” which, like “Psychedelic Gaze,” I’ve already published but plan on adding pages to.
-There’s a performance project in the works with Gina Fontana that seems likely to take up the bulk of my summer. More planning is needed here but I think it will be good.
-I’m always working on my comic “Astral Sass.” I have published 5 issues so far, and have 6 others in various stages of completion.
-There are a few projects on the back burner that aren’t getting a sustained push, but I work on regularly, including a psychedelic action comic, two different capitalist revenge fantasies, an illustrated manual describing white supremacy as a corrupting virus, a sci-fi collaboration with Richard Cocchi, and a continual mail art exchange with James Jajac.
-I’m also tabling at the Scranton Zine fest in June, the Lehigh Valley Zine Fest in August, and hopefully the Philly Zine Fest in November.
RKH: Can we find you on the Net?
CB: Yes. In order of actual activity:
RKH: Please finish the sentence: Art, sorrow, desire, ____
CB: Art, sorrow, desire, transcendence.
RKH: What don’t people know about your art?
CB: It’s readily available for free, for trade, or for purchasing.
All artwork by Corey Bechelli.
I met Dan in the spring of 2011. An innocent time! . . . but what IS innocence? Dan Pasternack, the creator of Never Forget Radio, would never submit to such simplified understandings as innocence or experience, good or evil. NFR is “a feminist podcast that approaches our post-9/11 era as history, cultural quarry, and ongoing catastrophe”
I love Never Forget Radio: its humility, its humor, its many layers of analysis, warmth and rigor! (admittedly, my own feminist-pod-about-Palestine has collaborated with Never Forget Radio on many occasions!) It respects ambiguity, plumbs experience and engages historiography not in the aim of “reliving 9/11 itself, nor cataloging the myriad conspiracy theories associated with it” but rather to resummon “the ongoing responses, memorialization, art, wars, and repression, that we understand as the ‘post-9/11 period’”
For four years Dan has participated in the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, talking about World War I, Bono at the Superbowl and the Civil War. See him at this year’s festival on July 23 at Kitchen Table Gallery talking about either Bush’s self-portraits or Bin Laden’s compound . . .
– Rebecca Katherine Hirsch, curator
Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: Dan, you created a podcast. But what has this podcast created of you?
Dan Pasternack: What has the podcast created of me? Well, for a long time I identified as someone who was frustrated because he really wanted to write something, or be working on something, but wasn’t. Now I identify as a person who wishes they were working on their project.
RKH: In a sentence, describe your podcast.
DP: My podcast is about how 9/11 is/was remembered and used. It’s not about conspiracies or patriotism. I don’t care what happened, just how it was treated.
RKH: In a short paragraph, describe how your podcast could be helpful and then in that same short paragraph tell me how it could be harmful
DP: Well I think it would have been helpful to take a long quiet view on this tragedy, and subsequent ones, instead of taking a quick angry view. And even though the worst happened (wars started, security state was established, far-right ideas became normalized) and keeps happening, I think it’s important to at least mark how that happened. You’ll look up and the period will be taught using only the right’s talking points. Because of privilege I worry about historiography, how things will be told in the future, rather than say present danger or politics.
RKH: Does ambiguity play a role in your work?
DP: Definitely. I’m generally going over subtle shades or tones of things that are long since decided, trying to define feels, senses, small places where changes in messaging happened, such as speeches and ceremonies. And I try to allow for alternate possibilities—what if this public ceremony stressed different values? What if this monument played to peaceful archetypes instead of martial ones? And of course while talking about small-but-meaningful things I also try to stress that these are after all small things I’m talking about.
RKH: What is your analytical process? How does the way you think inform the pod you make?
DP: Well, first, the reason it is a podcast in the first place instead of any other kind of medium is that I feel that I think best while talking. I don’t know, I just find I’m best able to articulate an argument or find a useful digression while I am speaking. Otherwise, I would say that my best skill has always been memory, and recall, and so the process is basically making a lot of associations, through whatever fields I might be either really comfortable with, or remember vaguely, and then finding a way to link them up in a hopefully leftist, feminist, antiwar way. With jokes and references that I can imagine myself listening to months later and not hating.
Also I’d like to say that my research process is literally reading to the 20th or 30th page of Google results. Especially for the small stuff I’m working with—an incident, a gaffe, a phrase, a song. After a while you get to old blogs, forum posts, local articles, or even if you read the same take on something 15 slightly different times, it gives you a sense of how an issue or event was framed or understood.
RKH: Your podcast includes humor, facts, footage from the far and recent past, recreations of blog post dialogue, and news footage. Why?
DP: Well, it’s recent history, and we have an unprecedented amount of primary sources, if we’re willing to see them as usable historical artifacts. I try to break up my voice, also. One of the first things I did when I started this project is borrow the six hour audiobook version of George W. Bush reading his autobiography from the Free Library. I did a whole episode basically on the first chapter, where he talks about his father, mainly, the war hero, the star baseball player. I thought about doing more with him, but ultimately his voice is too oppressive—and worse than that, too sympathetic. If you spend too much time with him, he sounds reasonable, friendly, measured. I’ve spent a lot of time with him, first eight years, and then researching, and watching clips and listening to Decision Points. I don’t recommend doing that. And I definitely would stay as far away as I can from the current president—don’t listen to him, don’t watch him, don’t dissect the words he says, don’t let him into your body! Read what he does, quickly, and get out of there. Too much contact will only lead to normalization, and eventually, understanding and forgiveness. These people do not deserve your attention, and the process of watching is more powerful than your resolve. The form of the media that politicians are presented in—even the process of paying attention itself—is more powerful than you. It will change you and it does not deserve your time!
RKH: Since its inception, what has inspired your pod? What has hindered it?
DP: The immediate inspiration for the pod was in January 2013, when George Bush’s emails were hacked and his first paintings were exposed to the world. Bush in the shower mirror, Bush in the bathtub. A lot of things came back to me at once when I saw those. Maybe because I felt that Bush was so caught up in my adolescence, puberty, and first (or lamented lack of) sexual experiences—a lot of this inferiority under patriarchy and high school came back to me when I saw those oddly introspective, vulnerable paintings. I was angry—I’m still angry, even as I’ve helped this along—that he’d become humanized. We always forgive the powerful and sympathize with their emptiness and loneliness. We don’t celebrate their small comeuppances, we pity them. Politicians in history are treated like gangsters in biopics, everything is explainable, understandable, everyone has their reasons. We give away everything, sit through a whole 90 minutes of shootings and torture and domestic violence, just so we can watch the boss pace at night or smoke a cigarette in silence or call on God alone, and think, what a shameful man, what a repentant man, it’s not his fault, the times made him this way, his father made him this way, what a human story.
RKH: At what age did you know you first were going to grow up to write a podcast about 9/11?
DP: Well I do have a personal connection to the event, like so many people do, so I guess I’ve known since I was 14 that I’d be obsessed with this event for the rest of my life. I wrote poetry about it in my ninth grade creative writing class, and then nothing, but I always “followed” it, obviously, not just the big stuff like the two wars or the 2004 election but little things like memorials and sports ceremonies. A couple of things happened in ‘11 and ‘12 to get me thinking about it, the tenth anniversary of course. But then, during an unusual night on 9/11/2012, I was actually able to see the blue memorial lights against the cloud cover while I was going for a long, depressed walk at my parents’ house in White plains NY, 30 miles away. And around that time I was a guest on the John Hodgman podcast. It was a big relief to start writing about it in earnest rather than carrying it around all the time.
RKH: Tell me about the ethical interlinking and underlining between understanding trauma, capitalizing on trauma, monetizing trauma, repressing trauma in favor of memorialization, and memorializing trauma as a means of transcending trauma?
DP: Wow, this question. Well, hopefully that’s the crux of a lot of episodes of the podcast. I explore a specific setting—say, a Yankee’s game, a wrestling event on 9/14/2001, or a particular memorial—and try to follow all of those overlapping threads at once. But it’s always been hard for me to imagine earnest intentions on the part of, say, a whole stadium of people holding a moment of silence, or a leader giving a statement of surprise and condolences.
DP: A couple of things influence my focus in monuments. There’s the 99% Invisible mantra “always read the plaque”, and a beautiful phrase that stuck with me from the the comic strip Great Pop Things. They ask, what will the punks do on their big day out in the city? “We’re gonna catch the last train home, we’ll sit on the steps of the war memorial.” After a while those kind of public spaces are only used by kids and homeless people. Their heroic meanings are totally lost and they become a place for undesired people to sit. People who the monument builders might gasp to see defiling their sacred spaces with their 40’s.
As for masculinity in sports, that would come out of a long-term attachment to baseball that was actually complicated by post-911 pageantry. Being a sports consumer had to be political—[because] being apolitical is a stance, can’t be neutral on a moving train, etc. And then when I was exposed to basic feminist ideas, on top of a lifetime of engagement and entanglement with rules of masculinity, those frames became (another) axis that it was impossible to be neutral on.
RKH: Where are you in your pod TODAY? What kinds of pods are in the works? On the backburner? What we expect next from Never Forget Radio?
DP: I’m about to record a long interview from 2012 with several friends of the pod, which will be the culmination of a long delayed double episode on blogosphere culture wars of the Bush era, through the prism of sabermetrics, plus the “nerd”conquest of politics (538) and Hollywood (superhero franchises). The interview took place right after the 2012 election and is very uncomfortably hopeful and even triumphant. Plus I’ll be appearing at the Philadelphia Podcast Festival on July 23rd at Kitchen Table Gallery, either talking about Bush’s new paintings of injured veterans of the wars he started, or maybe about the way that diagrams of Bin Laden’s “lair” in Abbottabad were gendered in a way to appeal to boys who grew up with fantasy world maps in novels and shooter games. I hope I finish that episode eventually. There’s a lot I want to throw in there about the coverage of Bin Laden’s “seven foot privacy wall” on his third floor balcony and how it resembles present day gentrification construction.
RKH: They say it takes a village to raise a child. Who raises your pod?
DP: My pod could not exist without many friends volunteering to edit drafts and listen to early versions, including Jamie Goodman, Harry Waksberg, and Humble Mumbles. And it relies on music donated from friends’ bands as well, especially Old Table, No One and the Somebodies, Cave Cricket, and Snow Caps. I would have said that my podcast was the world’s foremost fan art dedicated to the band Old Table, until the 100-song tribute album came out.
RKH: In your opinion, which were your best and worst pods and why?
DP: As much as I’ve tried for variety, the majority of episodes have been about 9/11 memorials, post 9/11 sports pageantry, and George W. Bush. I think the interview with my friend Emilie about their illegal four-day detainment at the 2004 RNC might be the best, if very difficult to listen to. I do a lot of remembering on the pod but this one foregrounds someone else’s experience, which I should really do more often.
The worst one is probably the episode about Moby Dick being written and taking place in 2003 (from chapter one, “grand contested election for president of the United States—whaling voyage by one Ishmael—BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN”), which I have been assured is completely incomprehensible.
RKH: Tell me about your process!
DP: I write down some feverish notes about something topical, then revisit them months, months later. Then I get lost on Wikipedia or Google Images. Then I have to edit and record, edit and record, plus go to work. It’s a heavily written podcast, it’s not interviews or conversation. Each episode takes one hundred years to produce.
RKH: What’s something you’ve experienced lately that has informed, redirected, or otherwise affected your work?
DP: The 2016 election, which started in 2014 or so and unfortunately has not ended, has radically slowed my work, and made everyone’s lives impossible.
RKH: Does the work lead its own life? How involved are you in the process? What IS art?
DP: Unfortunately it doesn’t, it just sits in exactly the same unfinished decay as I left it. I have many, many underway episodes. But it is very rewarding to put in the time and actually finish one. My first experience of history was diligently keeping my own history—putting away records, memories, documents for myself, to preserve the essence of myself for myself in the future. I have boxes of notes, diagrams, maps, lists from elementary school through college. I no longer think this archive will be valuable for future generations. Ultimately the work is for myself only—I have to listen to it a hundred times while I’m making it, and I’m the only one who will ever listen to these things in the future. So I try to ensure that I won’t be embarrassed about it, that it preserves something that seemed important.
RKH: Where were you on 9/11 and why don’t you like this question?
DP: I don’t like the question because it frames the event as personal and temporal. It over values initial reactions and crowds out everything that happened afterwards, and everything that happened before. There’s an assumption of pastoral lost innocence in that question that I dislike. The us was not attacked “out of the blue,” out of the easily metaphorical cloudless sky. While I like that this frame expands ownership of this event (because everyone over a certain age has an instant answer), it also restricts access in an unhelpful way (to people age ~20 and over), like some corporate decade-nostalgia TV show. And it crowds out all other historical events and disasters. And the frame has always been used to advance revanchist agendas—remember the Alamo, remember the Maine, never forget. A better question might be “how do you feel about 9/11 and the post-911 era now?” which I guess the pod is my open-ended slow answer to.
RKH: Were we all pods once?
DP: I guess you could stretch this question to mean that one of the first available means of expression to us would be stream of consciousness half-recognised-language half-private-language aural addresses, which could be recorded now and presented as toddler-pods in a modern adaptation of the vhs-recorder holding historian-parent.
RKH: After we die, what happens?
DP: Nothing, I think. I was a very nasty, argumentative atheist in middle school, trying to convince kids that they were being lied to, but I don’t do that anymore.
An answer relevant to this podcast might be, if you have the misfortune to die in certain ways, you are used by the state to justify wars and oppression.
RKH: What other projects are you working on?
RKH: What do you do for fun?
DP: The New York Yankees play 162 games per year, and I watch about 100. What can I say? I feel like I’ve used that number . . . a hundred times during this interview. 9/11 is a good topic for someone easily swayed by numerology.
RKH: Tell me something about yourself that confuses you and that you seek to understand via your creation of Never Forget Radio
DP: The podcast definitely ends up as a repository of whatever I’m thinking about/wondering about/interested in/confused by. “Significant-seeming things that have happened since 2001” is a pretty open-ended topic.