January - March '05: South Pacific Tour / Lecture
March 12 Cuyahoga Falls, Akron, Ohio
There is a massive waterfall, partially frozen, outside my
window. There's also a blizzard.
March 11 LA/Cleveland
Waking up and emerging into the dark lobby and hallways of the W
hotel where I am staying is like suddenly being tossed into an
(upscale) whorehouse. At night the entrance and lobby is dark and
moody and filled with scantily-clad women in various states of
inebriation. They wobble on their heels and hike up their bustiers
as the guys around them attempt to act cool. The staff, all dressed
in black, affect an air of efficiency as they move through the
crowds — talking on their earpieces and walkie-talkie phones.
Addressing drunks in tones of utmost respect. Well, you never know
who they might be, I guess.
A couple of nights ago I did my presentation at the nearby Hammer
Museum. No relation to MC Hammer, or even to Arm and Hammer baking
soda. Related to Occidental Oil. There's a wonderful show of local
sculpture up at the moment... along with a video installation by
Hiraki Sawa, whose work I'd seen and enjoyed previously in NY. (In
the video his little apartment becomes filled with tiny planes
flying around, like the airspace over a large metropolitan
The main show, curated by their Scottish curator, is called
Thing, which is appropriate, as the stuff sometimes elicits a "what
the hell IS that?" reaction. A full-sized car made of unfired clay,
crumbling and decaying in one room, a sloth sits on a metal table
which in turn squeezes one of those big bouncy balls that kids play
with, a sisal doormat on the floor includes a sisal dog sleeping on
The show and book signing go fine. Afterwards I walk (in L.A.!)
to a nearby restaurant on the way to my hotel to have a drink and a
snack. A businessman at the bar was at my presentation and he says
hello. He deals in California abstract art from the 20th century. He
reels off a list of artists and I've never head of any of them. Soon
he's joined by his date, a young yoga instructor, and he proceeds to
impart tidbits of random wisdom to her. It's obviously their first
meeting, and I can't help but overhear everything they're
I drive the next afternoon to meet Pat Dillett who is working on
a Mary Blige CD. He's been here for months. She likes the way he
records her voice, while other producers "create" the tracks,
delivering pre programmed beats and sequences that she writes over.
All hip hop royalty are involved. Producers like Dr. Dre and Swizz
Beats are involved, along with other hip hop and R&B royalty.
Some of these guys are getting as much as 100K per track (are their
beats really THAT good, to be worth that much money for some BEATS?
Well, maybe they are, they certainly jump right out of the radio.)
Jay Z stops by. The list goes on. Pat says the record budget MUST be
around 2 million. No surprise. But as they'll make that back in
sales (presumably) it's a safe investment. On a vastly different
scale from what I do. Am I jealous? Maybe. Maybe not.
We meet for lunch at the Farmers' Market, one of the few places
in L.A. with some history and genuine atmosphere — or so I remember.
Now it's been engulfed by a huge shopping and movie complex called
The Grove, which is truly amazing. It's like a Disney version of a
street of shops in a small town, but all the shops are chains and
franchises. The Las Vegas casino malls are similar, laid out like
streets, with lampposts and, in this case even a trolley, but of
course it's all completely artificial, like a movie set. No surprise
there either, I guess, but I'm still in awe. Shock and awe. Maybe
here movies ARE the reality, so the idea of making real life appear
to be a set is perfectly natural.
We walk through the movie set street and enter the old Farmers'
Market which hasn't been a farmers' market for years, but has a
slightly run down (unusual for here) and casual eating area where
you get your food on trays from various vendors and share tables,
mostly with retired folks. In fact, the whole place seems to be
retired folks, tottering buy holding their trays with their cream
pies and giant apple deserts. I get a fresh broiled fish and it's
pretty good. I offer to bus some of the trays scattered all over,
but am told to leave them alone.
(Man next to me on cell phone here in LAX where I begin writing
this entry: "I've got to do this PowerPoint thing for this big case
we’re working on.")
Later in the afternoon I drive to Irvine for my talk, 50 miles
south of here. I'm advised to leave at 3 in order to arrive by 5:30,
and judging from my Santa Barbara experience I take this advice
seriously. I join the traffic crawling on the 405 and we inch our
way south. Past the airport, then towns that seem to consist
entirely of auto-related industries — huge car dealerships and oil
refineries, sometimes right next to one another. It's bearable for a
while, but after an hour I feel like I'm going to go out of my mind.
I've made a few phone calls — that seems to be how people pass the
time in their cars here — and I've scanned the radio countless
times. I check the vehicles around me, lots of SUVs, monster trucks,
and folks stuck in deluxe sedans, the luxe is of no use to them now.
I wonder if people here realize that the rest of the world doesn't
live like this? I wonder if, as all this traffic just gets worse and
worse year after year, people will eventually confine themselves
exclusively to their home communities — people in Silverlake will
NEVER go to Santa Monica and vice versa, hell, people in Santa
Monica will probably eventually stop going to west L.A.!. The area
will revert to little isolated villages. It's already somewhat like
that, but as gas doubles and quadruples in price, as it's bound to
do in the not too distant future, well, then only the wealthy will
be able to suffer these hellish commutes.
The rented Prius hybrid car I'm driving does indeed get amazing
gas mileage. The drive to Irvine and back and the one yesterday to
meet Dillett and the gas gauge has barely moved. Why haven't all car
companies quickly adopted this technology as an option? There's
nothing inconvenient about it, as with the all-electric cars, and
it's super quiet, so phone conversations and listening to music are
easier too. Still, if I count all the hours spent in a car in the
last few days, well, I'm appalled.
The talk goes well. Beforehand I take a nap on the carpet of the
sponsoring professor's office. I wake up and have rug marks on my
face. Angela Davis is doing a visit apropos an exiled Kenyan writer
who teaches here, but I don't see her.
There is no dinner or reception afterwards, which I'm grateful
for, as I need to drive back. Leaving the campus I see a flash
inside a neighboring car — a gaggle of beautiful and slightly chubby
Asian girls are taking pictures of each other using their phone
cameras. A radio host — or maybe it's a U.S. senator — on the radio
says he doesn't need another investigation into the abuses at Abu
Graib — "they're terrorists and are dangerous and I don't need
further information. Our people are doing a great job over there and
should be allowed to do it." O.K., hear no evil.
The plane to Cleveland has just passed over Hoover dam. I can see
that the water level in the "lake" is low. The desert is in bloom, a
dirty yellowish green from up here, apparently it's filled with
flowers due to the torrential rains here this year (then why is the
water level low?) We're approaching the Grand Canyon. From this
altitude and angle one can really see that it is a cut into a land
mass which is like a humongous mesa. One can imagine the mesa rose
up under a river, and that the river stubbornly stayed its course —
not only its course, but its elevation. The water level remaining
constant in regards to sea level, while the land slowly rose up, and
the water sliced a huge gully in order to maintain its original
place and level. Unlike the Australian outback, where all sign of
human intervention vanishes, here there are numerous roads,
powerline cuts and landing strips that etch across the
I'm headed for Cleveland — the Akron Museum, actually, for what
will be the last of these talks. I think I'll put this one to bed
after this. Retire it.
Now we're passing over Monument Valley. I recognize The Mitten
and Shiprock in the distance. There's Gouldings hotel where you can
rent videos that feature the rock formations you see out your
windows. I remember watching John Wayne in The
Searchers taking months of movie time to go a few miles.
Toni Basil told me over the phone that it must be the effect of
doing these "stand up" routines that have improved my comfort level
and relative ease on stage evidenced in my recent musical concerts.
She said the last one she saw there was a huge leap from how I was
previously. Hmmm. Could be. These talks, when I began doing some on
another subject some years ago, were terrifying. Working without a
net. Of course, I made it worse by trying out unscripted and
unrehearsed material. I thought I could just riff on a series of
images as I do in the office and studio. I thought I could be as
clever as I thought I was in the company of friends, but in public.
I imagined that a series of random riffs and musings would, through
accumulation, magically add up to a coherent point of view. Maybe I
am not as clever as I think, even amongst friends. In public the
initial talks were a bit stilted and hesitant.
I tried changing them — and at one point the flow if ideas and
images began to take on an arc, a structure. It was better. So,
encouraged, and somewhat enraged by current events, I decided to
make further changes — I added a beginning section that was a
political rant — this was just before the U.S,-led invasion of Iraq.
It went down like a lead balloon.
Confining the thing to one subject has proved better. I can use
PowerPoint as a springboard to talk not just about presentations,
but about perception, visual language, theater… well, a lot of
stuff. And yet the spine of the talk kind of holds it together.
More than once folks asked that I show more of my own work as
part of the talk. Maybe I should. Especially if there is no
accompanying exhibition. Haven't figured out how to do that without
killing the flow and the nice interaction between me and the
audiences. Well, there's time to think about it — I'm going to take
a long break from these things for a while.
March 9 L.A.
The drive to Santa Barbara yesterday was from hell. After
arriving at LAX and getting a hybrid car I decided (unwisely it
seems) to take Pacific Coast Highway as it's right by the airport
and is scenic and hooks up to 101 pretty soon. It was bumper to
bumper — moving about a foot a minute and no way out... 2+ hours to
go less than 6 miles!! What do people who live here do? Suffer, I
guess. Is it some kind of weird cosmic payback for having an
exclusive house on the beach? ...maybe there was a mud slide or
something? I finally bailed out and took Topanga canyon over the
pass to the 101 and made it to the auditorium at 8:15 or something,
just hopped out of the car and onto the stage — the audience never
March 8 San Francisco
Did the PowerPoint talk in Berkeley for an audience of IT legends
and academics. I was terrified. The guys that originally turned
PowerPoint into a program were there, what were THEY gonna think?
Well, couldn't THEY just get up to talk about their invention? The
rest of the room was other IT illuminati and U Cal academics on
computer science etc. They could call me out and denounce me!
Some friends came by which made me feel more comfortable. Some of
the Extra-Action Marching Band came by too — there was
a "reception" in the faculty club — a charming Meerbeck building on
campus with fireplaces and a massive moose head looming over the
(I'm writing this in the airport, my flight is delayed, the
businessman behind me is saying "isn't that the worst slide you've
ever seen?" as he holds up a printout of a PowerPoint slide — a
triangle with words in it. Gloria Steinem is sitting on the next row
of seats in leather trousers talking on her mobile phone)
My talk goes fine. I can relax, they're laughing. Bob Gaskins,
Denis Austin and Peter Norvig were there. Bob declined to be
introduced — so I stuck with the picture of the concertina that
usually stands in for him, which always gets a laugh anyway. He did
tell me afterwards that he liked the PowerPoint as theater idea,
which was a relief. I mean, there is a lot of hatred for this
program out there, and a lot of people laugh at the mere mention of
bullet points, so he must feel kind of vulnerable.
I finished reading Bob Dylan's book. It's beautifully written,
though I think it should probably be filed under fiction. I always
thought his persona, which early on was that of a young Woody
Guthrie, was just that, a persona. It worked as a way of delivering
those songs, so who cares? ...and he partly, but only partly,
abandoned it later. But this book is, in my opinion, pretty much
written from the point of view of that imaginary guy. What a
conceit! It's a brilliant literary idea, but I hope people take it
with a grain of salt... and humor. It's as if Mr. Rogers wrote his
autobiography and continued to talk the way he does in the TV show.
Some of the writing, the language and the metaphors that this
character comes up with are brilliant. Moving and unexpected. For
example, he describes rappers and "serious, throwing horses off
cliffs" (Call me skeptical, but a Jewish guy from Minnesota talking
and writing like a backwoods hick/poet, huh? What's that
March 5 Seattle
Went to see a show of contemporary Chinese art at the museum
here. Mostly photos of performances and some videos. Almost all of
them had to do with Chinese history, especially the last century,
when everything seemed to get thrown into a washing machine.
Lots of references to change, memory, tradition, globalization
and capitalism. And lots of artists, especially the men, in various
states of undress. I was reminded of the late 20th century art of
Eastern Europe, which, as with this stuff, featured a lot of artists
using their bodies as the canvas or subject. Commentators claimed
that Eastern European body art took place partly because under an
oppressive regime the body became something that "belonged" to the
individual. They also claimed that lacking art materials the body
was a cheap and handy focus and subject. Maybe some of this Chinese
work developed under similar circumstances — much of it was done in
Nice to see so many Chinese folks checking it out — seems they're
curious what's going on in the motherland — and how the artists'
responses to history and the present matches with the visitors'
own impressions and information. It's as much an Op-Ed piece as an
art exhibit. A way of asking, what do they think about this? ...and
what do I think about this?
Went to breakfast w/David Wild and his daughter Michiko at the
Swedish Cultural Center. They serve pancakes with lingonberries or
strawberries with ham at a buffet in the basement one Sunday a
month. Ladies in costume played accordions on a little stage while
other costumed folks danced. Through the window we could see the
water — the sound, maybe? — trees and houses on the opposite shore.
A seaplane took off. The accordion ladies were replaced by fiddlers
and an elderly woman on guitar. A woman sang but seemed not to be
moving her lips — as if she were lip synching to a voice from
elsewhere. The dancers did skips and leaps. A man did a
Being close to the Redmond Empire I was slightly apprehensive
that the humor in my talk here might not be as apparent. People
might take Microsoft products and behavior as something essential to
the survival and the economic health of the region, and therefore
not a laughing matter. On the way back to the venue I imagined, what
if everything that got laughs previously was suddenly met with stony
silence? Humor is such an undefinable inscrutable thing, what if one
time it's just not there? It could vanish into thin air, couldn't
it? I wonder if standup comedians go through this? No wonder so many
of them are a mess.
But in the end I got pretty much the same chuckles and guffaws as
elsewhere, though being a larger hall the feeling of intimacy was
lessened... but they did have an overhead projector backstage that I
could wheel out for some show and tell.
March 4 Portland
The extinct "little people" (about 3 feet tall) from the island
of Flores (see my earlier entry) have had their smaller brains
analyzed against their skills — and the result has upset a central
concept — that brain size equals intelligence. It turns out they
were pretty damn smart, and though their brains were 1/3 the size of
ours they seemed to have an awful lot figured out.
The scientist claims that their brains may have been "wired"
differently, and that using different pathways and connection they
could cover most of what we think of as intelligence. It's all about
the connections, the network, and not about how much gray matter or
anything else there is.
Seems this probably is a metaphor that be applied elsewhere.
The US has tried to block — by demanding a new added amendment —
a declaration of women's rights due to be released on the eve of the
International Day of Women's Rights (next week.) (So much for all
that freedom rhetoric.) The declaration is 10 years in the making,
being left over from the Beijing conference of women's rights way
The United States proposed adding wording noting that the
declaration created neither supports "any new international human
rights" nor "the right to abortion."
The American effort produced objections from every regional group
at the conference, which had argued for the statement's approval
without amendments. After days of lobbying, the Bush administration
was virtually alone in pressing the issue, and the many advocacy
groups in attendance accused the United States of injecting national
political views into an international forum.
On a closely related subject, here is Mukhtar Mai:
A woman who was gang raped at the ORDERS of the local village
council in Pakistan. It was a revenge/justice rape... but I think
not against her, but against her husband. Her eye for an eye,
sort of thing. The revenge motive turned out to be partly in
This happened some years ago, she's been founding schools and
suffering death threats.
March 4 Atlanta
Arrived in Atlanta and drove past Bobby Brown Boulevard. Past a
billboard with a big picture of Elton John proclaiming Bennie and
OUR Jets. I'm staying in a dorm room that is part of the art college
adjacent to the High Museum. Lisa, who curates the shows at the art
college gallery hands me a package that contains pamphlets
describing the past exhibits she's curated.
One of them is of a series of half-scale wooden sculptures of
people done by a young (white) South African artist, Claudette
Schreuders. They are mostly replicas of the artist's sisters,
neighbors and acquaintances — stoic, passive, slightly stiff
portraits, a little like folk art, that look like white person
versions of West African sculptures — (this is an Ivory coast
here is one of hers:
They have a similar powerful presence, but there's a weird
rupture because hers are (mostly) of white people.
The artist grew up in a Johannesburg suburb under aparthied. Lisa
said the artist told a story that although she and her brother knew
their system was somehow in someway bad, they were, like most
others, so sheltered by the situation and the censorship that
existed then that they couldn't imagine other possibilities.
Apparently it wasn't until her brother went to Europe on summer
holiday and saw a U2 concert in Berlin in which everyone was
shouting "Down with apartheid" and "Free Nelson Mandela" that it
struck home. They didn't know who was this Nelson Mandela that had
to be freed. And apartheid was, as are most situations for children,
simply a given. That was the way things were.
White South Africans traveling in Europe at that time were looked
down on — as if they were all tacit supporters of the apartheid
system. They were certainly beneficiaries of that system, but being
kids it was not always by choice, and as their eyes were opened and
other things intervened things changed rapidly.
What's shocking is how a regime can limit perception. One wonders
if this can still happen in the age of the internet — I suspect it
can. I know the U.S. public in general is pretty ignorant and
mystified by how the rest of the world perceives the U.S. Alternate
versions of the past, of history and of recent events, exist all
over the place. Is it all relative, is there no truth? I think there
is a truth, but one that incorporates the contexts and relativism of
the various parties involved. You can see things from 2 sides but
still pass judgment if one side has wronged the other. Simply being
able to see from someone else's point of view doesn't make one
The talk here in Atlanta goes better than the one in N.Y., I
think — I get more laughs. Here the audience is mainly art school
types and in N.Y. there were a lot of business folks and
professionals present — so the arties were maybe less familiar with
PowerPoint and it was all fairly new to them. Carol the dean of the
school suggested afterwards that I might have played one of my
pieces as part of my talk. Many, herself included, were unfamiliar
with what exactly I do with it.
I do play them on a screen as people were taking their seats, but
maybe most weren't paying attention. And in the past sometimes there
would be an accompanying installation, so playing a piece would be
redundant. I'll think about it. I worry that it would halt the
talk's momentum, but maybe she's right, the question of what I do
with it is sometimes left hanging in these situations. I also like
to engage the audience, throw out ideas and questions for debate or
Afterwards I'm taken to the nearby home of a former photo
gallerist who now has the job of overseeing the Elton John
collection. What is it with Elton John and this town? Jim White and
his fiancé came down from Athens, and they join us for
March 3 NYC/Atlanta
Reading a New Yorker piece on Cy
Twombly at the airport. It has some great aphorisms — "...conviction
is overrated, Mere whim will serve just as well." What the article
(a review of a Whitney show) leaves out is for me some of the most
obvious points — his paintings challenge you to proclaim them as
The bullshit part — the paintings are so barely anything, so
purposely meaningless and wispy that, well, some look like
poorly-erased blackboards and aside from giving one a newfound
appreciation for art "found" in classrooms they could be said to be
almost inconsequential on purpose. Something guaranteed to piss a
lot of folks off who already suspect that Modern Art is a huge piss
take at the expense of the common man.
They're undeniably beautiful, unlike the macho slatherings of
some other abstract art… but that could be a problem for people, too
— beauty, what's it mean? What's it for?
It's offhand, casual, but effete. That probably offends people
too. It's aggressive in its quiet way. A "fuck you" that is all the
more jolting because it's whispered, not shouted.
I begin a speaking tour today. Well, last night actually was the
first date — at NYU, in NYC — the McLuhan lecture, which is
sponsored by the Canadian government (I lived briefly in Hamilton as
a child, so they said maybe I'm an honorary Canadian.
The talks are PowerPoint presentations about PowerPoint. I did
some of these previously, some months back, mostly at places where
my PowerPoint pieces were being exhibited — SECCA in North Carolina,
and Eastman House in Rochester.
I decided that, like my other art talk, which is largely about
the ubiquity of advertising and marketing in our lives and in art,
this one would also not be about my own work. I'd seen too many
artists and designers do talks that were basically a walk through
their résumés — which one could just as easily find out by reading
their books or even online — so I decided to try a different
approach. In this talk I decided to try and talk about PowerPoint —
what it is, how it came to be and what people use it for — and the
various ramifications of all that.
It became obvious after doing just a couple of these talks that
it was going to turn in to a standup comedy routine. PowerPoint is
maybe the laughing stock of computer programs and here I am using it
as an art medium and calling my talk "I [heart] PowerPoint" — well,
all I had to do was throw up a typical PowerPoint slide with the
usual bullet points and there'd be howls of laughter. I initially
thought some of it might be mildly funny, but I didn't expect it to
be as full of guffaws as it turned out. I wasn't disappointed, but
now I sort of had to play out this turn of events for what it was. I
felt that the laughs now had to keep on coming, and I had to keep
the momentum going.
I'm not by nature a vivacious speaker — I am hesitant and maybe
mumble sometimes — but I find the stuff that gets thrown up on the
screen is amazing, funny and resonant — it's as if I am seeing it
for the first time, and sometimes I am, as I constantly add slides
I haven't gotten there yet, but I wonder to myself if I could
even take this beyond being self-referential, beyond being
PowerPoint about PowerPoint and make it a more emotional, conceptual
and universal kind of performance — because it is a performance, a
form of theater, one that uses very clunky and limited technology. I
haven't discovered how to do this yet, and I don’t know if it will
evolve into stand up with slides or maybe something altogether
different, but it does seem possible that the slides are my
ventriloquist dummy, or vice versa. One of us is the straight man
and the other gets the laughs.
Amid all the guffaws I do manage to make some points, some of
which have been made more succinctly or in greater depth by others,
and I throw as many of them out there as I can. PowerPoint as a
lousy conveyer of information (Tufte's argument), PowerPoint as
theater, the idea that software has a point of view (Neil Stephenson
is good on this), PowerPoint presentations as essentially phatic
communication, etc. Here is where the audience often stops laughing,
but occasionally I add a zinger that keeps the energy up.
According to a paper on PowerPoint by Jamie O' Neil that I
received recently the percentage of communication that is non-verbal
is between 65-93% (he got this from a book, Communication In Our
Lives that I presume explains how these figures were
I'm not surprised... in fact I'd lean towards the upper end of
the percentages. Part of this might be included under phatic
communication — technically, verbal utterances that are not
conveying a message or information in an obvious way. "How's your
mom?" "New haircut?" "Want some coffee?" This banter establishes and
affirms relationships, hierarchies, class and status. Sometimes the
definition of phatic is broadened to include non-verbal remarks —
ums and uh-huhs — but there's more going on than just verbal sounds
and words. Gesture, posture, facial expressions, clothing — and
that's just the interpersonal stuff — there's also all the visual
and audio stuff surrounding and enveloping every situation and
meeting. The room, the lighting, the way the chairs are arranged —
and in the case of media, color, design, typeface, visual references
— jeez it goes on and on.
The frustrating thing is that if indeed more than half our
communication is non-verbal then why haven't we got words to talk
about it? O.K., there are academic terms, but for most people it’s
sort of denied that this communication exists because there’s no way
to talk about it. Wittgenstein's the limits of my thought are the
limits of my language, or vice versa. People certainly feel it —
emotionally and intuitively — and may refer to it or allude later to
what they felt as opposed to what was literally said. But other than
mentioning body language stuff — twitching, scratching, slouching or
stretching — a lot goes unreferenced. We can't talk about music,
dance or love very well, either — but they're awfully big parts of
In other forms outside of meetings and conversations this gap is
even more prevalent. In ads, displays, altars, graphic design,
fashion, magazines, signage, architecture, television, movies,
websites, on and on we’re being addressed and coddled and seduced
and terrorized and we can't talk about it because we don’t have
words for it. Visual "language" is a one-way communication.
The businessman beside me on the plane is twitching. He's fallen
asleep with his inch-thick contract that he'd been marking up in his
lap. He's doing that head bob thing where his head droops and then
he jerks awake only to fall asleep again. Ouch.
March 2 NYC
"They are discovering what they are saying at the same time you
are" — theater director Richard Maxwell on actors. It could just as
easily be said about any live performers. (I guess I'm thinking
about the PowerPoint presentation I will be doing later today.) Part
of the thrill, and part of the tightrope effect, is suddenly
discovering a new meaning or deep feeling imbedded in something
you're saying because the audience reveals it to you. You discover
what you're really saying.
|Feb 26 San Francisco
We all had a couple of days here to recover from ferocious jet
lag. T and I rented bikes and after lunch with my friend Darcy we
rode along the Pacific coast up past the cliff house to the
Presidio. It was one of those gorgeous SF days when I had to keep
reminding myself this was in the middle of a city.
One afternoon I caught 3 art shows at the Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts — one consisted of photos of pretty severely
mentally and physically impaired adults — all had been given art
therapy by a common teacher — and there were examples of some of
their work. The glyphs of a man named Dwight, now passed away, I had
seen before — they're powerful, as were some bound objects by a
woman who was pictured burying her face in one of her constructions.
Her pieces consisted of ordinary objects, more or less appliance
size, bound tightly with multicolored yarn, bits of cloth and
anything else that seemed to be available — they resulted in
powerful talismanic objects, at least that's how they appeared to
me... and judging by her photo she wants to merge with them — she
was pictured hugging one, her face half submerged in the loops and
layers of yarn.
To be honest, the photos of the artists were pretty intense. As
much as I love and am inspired by some of this impassioned desperate
work I maybe find it easier to feel the humanity of these folks by
looking at their works rather than at their person. Obviously their
therapist is beyond this stage. But for the person not accustomed to
looking at these folks it's disturbing at first glance. That's not
very PC, but it's the truth.
A second show was of large labor-intensive contemporary works,
some of which were great. One was a wall of fans in a room that you
activated by sitting down and breathing into a miniature version of
the same thing on a desktop. It was as if your breath was being
amplified, made more powerful and louder. A third show was lots of
18th and 19th century posters and handouts from the collection of
Ricky Jay, the magician. There were flyers for mesmerists, automatic
writing machines, the pig faced woman, and in one instance, an
elephant — the first one to tour North America. The typography was
Barnum ("there’s a sucker born every minute") was represented by
a small poster for a man he claimed was 161 years old. It turned out
to be a fake, and Jay claimed that the European image of Americans
and America were partly formed by this showman who was less show and
more con man. Maybe not much has changed in that respect.
We did 3 nights at the Fillmore. It was a way to balance the
budget (The Australia/NZ part didn't quite break even), break up the
jet lag and it's loads of fun, it's such a great place. I had
already invited the Extra-Action Marching Band to join us — and to
join us more extensively than they did 2 years previously — Tony
Fino did an arrangement for "Burning Down The House" and it was sent
ahead of our arrival for them to look at.
As before, they entered the room after our set — how could we
possibly follow them? — they entered from the back doors, wading
into the audience and eventually making their way to the stage where
we re-emerged to join up with them. Some of their cheerleaders (male
and female) were pretty close to naked... which added another layer
of headiness to the incredible grooves they were playing. (I think
some of the rhythms and riffs must be Balkan, there are some odd
time signatures going on.)
here to link to an audience member's video posting of the Fillmore
After our last show (our last for a LONG time) we went to the
rehearsal/living space in Bernal Heights neighborhood where the
Extra-Action folks and their pals were having a party with live
music — one set was a guy playing cello through electronics
accompanying a young woman who managed to smile almost all the time
as she sang. Tracy said they teach you that in chorus class, but I
think she was just genuinely enjoying herself. She said hi
afterwards and she was still grinning. And...there was a genuine San
Francisco light show — 2 movies projected onto the same screen — and
on another wall oil and water made old school light show blobby
shapes. The Extra Action band did a short set — how they had the
energy after playing earlier and it was after 2AM at this point I
don't know — though their music and show seem to generate energy
rather than suck it up.
Once again, as happened 2 years ago, with this bunch I have the
feeling of entering a chaotic and somewhat sexy utopia. People are
wearing all sorts of outfits — Victorian hats and mustaches on some
of the men, wigs on some of the women, and some folks wear not much
at all. Haircuts are all over the place. I myself am in a baby blue
western jacket and golf shoes. The music is varied and made with and
generates sheer joy — that singer wasn't the only one smiling.
Why do scenes like this develop here? One of the players has some
connection with Survival
Research Labs, which is maybe another slightly more dangerous
variation on this impulse. Maybe there's something in the weather,
in the water, the light, the unstable land?
What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific
attitudes? Am I imagining this? Do people who move to L.A. from
elsewhere lose a lot of that elsewhere and eventually end up making
L.A.-type work? Does creative attitude seep in through peer pressure
and causal conversations? Or is it in the water, the light, the
weather? Is there a Detroit sensibility? Memphis? New Orleans? (no
doubt) Austin? (certainly) Nashville? London? Berlin? Düsseldorf?
Vienna? (yes) Paris? Osaka? Melbourne? Bahia? (absolutely)
Does New York foster a hard-as-nails no-nonsense attitude? Not
exclusively, but maybe a little bit. Here creativity is a career, a
serious business, something that can be achieved only by absolute
focus — and sometimes by what seems like paradoxical means —
silliness, sloppiness and studied anti-seriousness can all be
Is it in the layers of historical happenstance that make up a
city? The politics and local laws? The socio-ethnic mix? The
evanescent weight of fame and glamor that weighs upon all of L.A.
mixed with the influence of the Latin and Asian populations that are
fenced off from that zone — that and the hazy light on skin might
make certain kinds of work more appropriate. Yes? No? Maybe?
Maybe in some cases, but not all, this is a bit of a myth, a
willful desire to give each place its own aura. But I think every
myth at least stems from a kernel of truth... which might be as
slight as the need for that myth to exist. The myth of urban
character and sensibility exists because we want it to exist — in
order to lend meaning and order to a sometimes senseless world.
George W. Bush is in the news preaching democracy to the
Russians. From a grade school civics kind of mindset this might seem
to have some basis in reality, but in fact it is pure arrogance
coming from a man who was not even elected, has established a string
of illegal penal colonies around the world, illegally invaded a
sovereign nation and rejiggers zoning lines to disenfranchise half
the population. The recent revelation that more and more
"journalists" and white house press conference "reporters" are
actually Republican plants — and are not even reporters at all, is
an old Soviet trick. The pot calling the kettle black, as they used
to say. That doesn’t mean it isn't in fact black, but... (and isn’t
this a sort of racist aphorism?)
Feb 20 Perth
The last Australian show was at a rock festival in Perth. In the
afternoon, after a morning sound check, I got my surfer wish and
Kristin, Ames, Jennifer, Graham, Mauro, Paul and I went to
Scarborough beach just outside the city. The guys were hooked on
trying to get it right, as if guys won't. I managed to eventually
catch quite few waves, but never got up above a kneeling position.
But I was thrilled, as it was my first time and the water was
perfect, brisk and blue and clear, and no sharks either. Mauro,
however, ruled — almost immediately he managed to stand up and soon
he was catching wave after wave even though a lot of them were
deemed too small for any of the other local surfers to bother with —
but Mauro managed to wangle a decent if short ride out of these.
Later, at the festival backstage we met Ray Manzerak of The Doors
who is touring with Ian Astbury "doing" Jim Morrison. He recently
moved to Napa valley and says he is growing fresh gourmet
vegetables. He’s holding a Budweiser, so one of our group goes and
fetches him a decent local beer.
I don't really like doing outdoor festivals much. Except the
Italian ones that are spread out over a week and which allot an
evening to each act. I feel like the audience is primarily there to
party, to dance, drink, whatever... and the music is simultaneously
the focus and the background. That's all O.K., but some artists are
better at providing that than others. Most festival audiences
naturally therefore have short attention spans — it’s a natural
result of being outdoors, daylight, etc — so our normal show, which
"takes you on a journey" as the cliché goes, has to be edited in
this context, and the unexpected detours on that journey — often the
stuff that makes it really interesting and in my opinion special —
have to be curtailed and we just hit the high points. It's the
Classic Comics version of our show.
These festivals have evolved into money-makers for the local
promoters — staging one big gig or a weekend festival is way easier
than doing a string of dates for each act in town — and the acts get
paid well, so they show up. The booking agents use them as cash
points between less well-paying gigs.
As we're playing I wonder to myself how these things got started.
Maybe they began innocently enough with festivals like the Newport
Jazz and Folk festivals and semi-spontaneous celebrations in the
parks and town squares of various cities. These then moved to
stadiums and became more formalized. Occasionally some transcend the
efforts to make them a big machine — the early Lollapaloozas, the
New Orleans Jazz Festival.
Festivals are also used in the old argument given to bands:"it
will expose you to a new audience." Which is true, but so would a
lot of things that don't necessarily help one's career. My counter
argument is that if the audience isn’t paying attention and you've
edited your show then it doesn't really aid your career or attract
Again, this isn't always true — as much of a mud fest as they can
be, I remember playing Bumbershoot (Seattle) and Bonnaroo
(Tennessee) and weeks afterwards in other cities folks would come up
and say how much they enjoyed those sets.
Blondie is on after us — their set is perfectly tailored for this
event — they play hit after hit (at least they're all memorable
songs to me) and they play them without pause, as if a DJ were doing
a Blondie set.
Hooley freaking dooley
Besides vegemite there is Spearmint-flavoured milk!:
After we do the three Fillmore shows this is more or less the end
of this tour cycle. There will be a week of dates in North America
in the summer, but those are an afterward. My feeling at the moment
is that this tour was in a way a continuation and refining of the
last one. An amplification of what that one was hinting at. These
shows use the strings more fully and the music ranges more widely. I
think overall it went over well — actually I know it did — and in
some areas it made money. (This last leg is break-even at best.)
I suspect I'll want to radically change things after this. Two
tours and records over 4+ years with more or less the same format
might be enough. I can return to this format, but I suspect in the
upcoming months I'll want to challenge myself with something that I
will feel more intrigued and less confident about.
|Feb 17 Sydney
Kristin arranged that a primo surf photographer give some of our
group surfing lessons on Manley beach. I couldn't go, I had
interviews and meetings, but was jealous of those who did, as I've
never been surfing in my life.
I did catch Bill Henson's retrospective at the Museum of NSW,
across the park. I liked the photo collages in one room that seemed
to imply some sort of tribal urbanism — groups of naked youths among
foliage with the lights of a city in the background. Most of the
photos are dark and moody, as is the exhibition installation — the
lights are low and I think the walls are dark too, which made for a
nice semi-creepy mysterioso vibe. I almost feel that the lighting
and atmosphere are as important as the actual pictures... which is
not a criticism.
In the park as I walked back I saw the hundreds of massive bats
that cling to the branches of the park's trees. Occasionally one
would flex its massive wings. They swarm over the park at sunset,
dispersing over the city.
Near the little park ponds were ibises — weird birds with long
In Brisbane there was recently a "wet" — a period of rain — which
resulted in an infestation of jellyfish and echidnas — a marsupial
(well, related to the duckbilled platypus) that has spikes like a
The local dogs are also reportedly getting addicted to licking
cane toads, the skins of which are poisonous, but a little taste
gets a dog high. Some unfortunate dogs overdo it and end up in
violent spasms, but most learn to regulate their toad poison — after
a dose wears off they return for more.
We arrived in Sydney and I went for a run around the opera house
and the Domain, the adjoining park. It's hot out, and I paused on my
run to have a drink and some oysters with Leigh, Tracy, Paul and
George at the opera house café, so it was more of an effort than
In the evening we went to see Rufus' club show at a place called
The Basement. He was here in Australia to do a Leonard Cohen tribute
and also some dates with his "family", but this was his own show. It
was packed. The audience was pretty much 50/50 straight and gay,
which sort of surprised me, as Sydney's a pretty gay town and I
expected the locals to represent for Rufus. The gay/straight mixture
was refreshing — proof that his songs are personal, yet also
Afterwards, Kristin introduced me to the singer (Pelle) from the
Hives who was hanging at the bar. They'd played the Big Day Out
festival here and he and his girlfriend went on a wine tasting tour
along the Margaret River in Western Australia. He was dressed in
what looked like a sort of sailor's outfit. I mentioned we'd gone on
a hike in New Zealand. I was mildly surprised that someone who
appears as a wild young rocker in their videos would choose a wine
tasting holiday, but maybe Scandanavians develop sophisticated
tastes early. And the wines here are awfully good.
Our shows were at the Enmore, a traditional theater just outside
the center of town. The shows went well. A Melbourne band, Architecture In Helsinki, opened. I'd heard their
EPs in NY and liked them — so I requested they open the Australian
dates. They seemed an eccentric collective, and they were. Clarinet,
Xylophone, Drums, Bass, keyboards, sax and trombone, a young woman
on tuba... maybe more... I think there were 11 of them. At times
they seemed like a school project, often switching instruments and
moving from place to place on stage. That might seem a criticism but
they had pretty catchy tunes imbedded in all that
|Feb 14 Valentine's Day
Long day yesterday. Flew from Adelaide after a show... arrived in
Melbourne and immediately went to the Arts Center to catch the 2nd
half of an afternoon concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) who had
approached me some months earlier about a collaboration. This
particular collaboration was not in the cards, as my spring schedule
is too tight, but in the future, who knows?
So a bunch of the strings and I trooped over and were met by
Jessica, an old friend and former Sydney Festival business manager,
now working for the ACO.
In the 2nd half of their program there was a piece by the
Estonian Tüür, suitably minimal, spiritual and modern all at once, I
liked it. This was followed by Bach #5, which I didn’t care for, not
being a Bach fan. (I just don’t "get" it — to me I hear someone
jamming over chord changes with no particular end in sight — Jerry
Garcia was much better at this back in the late 60s early 70s)
The end of the program was a Piazolla tribute by fellow Argentine
Goligov which was full of fire. The strings must have liked this, as
they are a tango band themselves.
The ACO is led be a young handsome man named Richard Tognetti,
which I sensed made the concert slightly more alluring for some of
We rushed back to our soundcheck. It was a warm summer day and
the streets of Melbourne were packed.
The show went fine, though the audience must have been enjoying
their comfy seats, because they took longer than most to be up and
dancing, but that's O.K.
Afterwards said hello to Kara, Michael, Beck and John Paul — all
former NY residents who now have returned to live here. DJ Spooky
was in town, too — for his Rebirth Of A Nation piece at the
Sydney festival... so he was hanging out as well with some
Jessica then led some of us to a bar café where we'd arranged to
meet Richard and Bill Henson, the artist whose images will be part
of a future ACO presentation. On the way in to the bar someone
called out "David" — it was Rufus W, whom I guess was in town for
his own show. I'd been trying, in vain it turned out, to convince
him to join me on the Bizet aria in Sydney, as I knew he'd be back
there the next day. But he'd already planned a camping trip (!)
beginning that day.
As we sat down Spooky/Paul seemed to have friends in common with
everyone at the table. He seemed right at home. Graham, Paul
Frazier, George, Jennifer and Kris arrived too and sat at a nearby
table — I suspect this may have been the only place open at this
hour — 1 AM — really nice place, too. Wish there was a place like it
Did a show in Auckland last night, our first after a sizable
break. I was pretty nervous, even tough we rehearsed all afternoon.
It went fine.
As I did in Australia 2 years ago I decided to get to NZ a few
days before the tour started in order to do some sightseeing. Having
read the guidebooks and talked to friends it was decided that in the
time available a trip to the Wai-O-Tapu and Rotorua thermal area and
then a drive down to Tongariro to do a hike (known as a tramp
here) called the Tongariro Crossing — because it goes up one side of
the mountain, skirts a crater or 2, then comes down the far side.
You have to therefore arrange to be picked up on the far side, which
we did. I sent out e-mails describing the trek to band & crew
offering a class trip and there were a lot of takers — Jennifer
(merch), George (stage), Kris (production), Tracy (violin), Ames
(viola) and Graham (drums) all went for it. Leigh (violin) and Sara
(cello) opted to return after the thermal area day in order to catch
KD Lang’s show.
The strings arrived in Auckland after me. We went to Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World and Antarctic
Encounter in the afternoon. It’s a relatively old aquarium that
lies mostly under the Auckland coast highway — the part that is
really surprising is the Antarctic Sno Cat ride. It's a cheesy
version of a Disney theme park ride though an indoor snowy habitat
with real penguins, preceded by a sort of simulated arctic "white
out" experience in which the Sno Cat on rails pushes through some
car wash flaps and then goes through a revolving white lumpy tunnel
(suitably disorienting but nothing like white out)… the whole ride
ends in a room where a plaster seal looms at the Sno Cat and a
plaster Orca with a screaming seal in its mouth rises mechanically
from a pond.
The next day when the others arrived we all drove out past
Hobbiton (odd hillock lick mounds dot the sheep meadows) to Rotorua
where the landscape is dotted with thermal vents and bubbling mud.
Even the golf course is pockmarked with holes with steam coming out.
What happens if your ball goes in there?
The entire area smells like sulfur — the town, the golf course,
the motel, everywhere. Driving down the highways you look over at
the side of the road and there’s steam coming out of the ground.
Of the many geothermal choices we opted for the Wai O Tapu
thermal wonderland, which sounds awfully cheesy again by the name,
but was actually a lovely hike around hot weird lime green lakes and
bubbling mud pits. Everything in the park belongs to the devil — the
devil’s ink pots, the devil’s paint box, the devil’s wastebasket.
The devil has the coolest stuff.
We stay at a little motel with mineral tubs on the back porch of
every room. We wake up to the smell of sulfur. We were warned not to
bathe with jewelry, as it would tarnish, but it didn't matter, as
the very air tarnished people's silver rings and bracelets.
The next day the hiking group drove south to Tongariro, a
national park with a couple of dormant volcanoes, to do the tramp.
It's supposed to get colder as one reaches elevation, so we bring
jackets and sweaters. And rain ponchos.
The hike is supposed to take between 6–8 hours, depending on your
speed and how many breaks you take. After the first hour or so of
gentle ascent through a lava flow the climb steepens. All birdsong
has ceased. There aren't even any flies or bugs around. The silence
is something unusual, something we rarely hear, or don’t hear. It's
a long slog up a lava ridge. We pass some Dutch backpackers with
collapsible walking sticks and all the pro gear who seem to be
stopping every hundred meters or so to rest and light up more
When we finally gain the top of the ridge one path splits off to
climb Mt N, which doubled as Mt Doom in LotR. We can't see it...
it's shrouded in clouds this morning. In fact, this whole area
doubled for Mordor. We're at cloud level now. As we walk on past or
into the south crater it's like we're suddenly nowhere. All around
us is a lunar landscape with cloud and fog eliminating all bearings
or sense of direction. We're ecstatic.
It's wonderful. Everyone is excited, jabbering, energized. After
crossing this plain on nothing we climb up another ridge until we
reach the rim of the red crater. More sulfur smell and more steam
coming out of the ground. The very earth is warm, almost hot, to the
touch. The volcano is dormant, O.K., but looking into this red
smoking abyss is still pretty freaky.
From here we slide down a ridge to another plain where there are
brilliant azure lakes. Of course there's steam coming out of the
From there we cross a truly otherworldly valley that takes us to
the far ridge that will take us down the far side of the
Down is a long slog, and it has begun to rain. We pass
waterfalls, more steamy goodness and we eventually descend into a
lush ferny rainforest that leads to the pickup spot. It's been 6 ½
hours. We have a meal at the hotel and a hot soak and collapse in
The next morning Jennifer suggests that we stop on the way back
to Auckland at Raglan Beach which is not far out of our way. It's a
surfer beach and its spectacular-tree covered volcanic mountains and
cliffs surround a massive wide beach where a handful of surfers and
swimmers are in the water. There are no commercial vendors except a
kiosk renting boards and wetsuits... and the everpresent (in this
area) lifesaving club. For that matter the whole of NZ seems
relatively free of commercial intrusion into its landscape — there
are almost no billboards on the highways — none except the
occasional safe driving advisory (To: funeral, From: driving while
tired) ...this, for someone used to the U.S. onslaught of signage,
is incredible. The farms, fields and pastures pass by as the road
twists and turns... it's relaxing, beautiful.
An article in the local paper even proclaims New Zealand as maybe
the most tolerant and progressive country on Earth. A bit
self-congratulatory, maybe, but they claim the standards of living
for all, including the Maori, are improving. Education, medical,
standard of living, all going up. Amazing. Especially when compared
to other places with indigenous and/or immigrant populations —
Australia and the U.S., for example — where the native people are
mostly isolated, cut off, alienated and sad. NZ proves it doesn't
have to be that way— the Maori are maybe not totally integrated, and
maybe don't want to be, but they are everywhere — in shops,
businesses and services — at least so much more than in the U.S. or
I pick up a book by an early 20th century Anglo artist and Maori
portraitist named Goldie (yup, his name is Goldie?) They are formal
portraits of elders, heroes and chieftains… done in a super
realistic style, featuring extreme and beautiful details of the
cloaks and facial tattoos. When I saw some at the Auckland art
museum they had captions that gave short paragraph histories of the
paintings’ subjects — why this chieftain was important, why this
woman was regarded as a hero. Sadly, this information is not on the
facing pages of the catalog I got, but maybe it’s hidden in the text
Not surprisingly his work is controversial. Some Maori are
honored that their ancestors should be commemorated in this way
while others find the possible marketing of their people as exotica
offensive. It's an unresolvable dilemma, at least at present — maybe
someday when relations are not quite as out of whack these paintings
can be seen in a clearer light.
In New Zealand dog food is marketed as large liverwurst like
sausages in the cooler sections of the grocery shops.
The 12 hour flight is filled with what appear to be school
groups... possibly Australians or Kiwis returning from (their)
summer holidays in the US.
The stars out the window are amazing — they're all around... they
go all the way to the horizon.
Upon arrival the Auckland airport seems reminiscent of Glasgow
Airport, or maybe Manchester. The same British carpeting, same
colour schemes, same doors, signage and airport seating. First
impression is that NZ is or was under the influence of the U.K.,
while Australia has a strange frontier California feeling.
For a future project I've been reading biographies of Imelda
Marcos. The Rise and Fall of... Steel Butterfly... and now
The Untold Story. As a kind of theoretical counterpoint
I've also begun William Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising
Down (the abridged version) — his attempt to determine if
violence is sometimes justified, and if so, when. I think there may
be a connection between the two sets of books, we'll
Sat in with The Arcade Fire, the Montreal band, last night at
Irving Plaza. The music biz was out to see both of their sold-out
shows. In October they played Arlene's Grocery as part of CMJ
convention and now they’ve sold out 2 shows — at Irving Plaza and
Webster Hall. They're being courted by quite number of labels I
imagine, lots of press clamoring for interviews and calls from
friends they never knew they had.
They did a cover of a Talking Heads song when I saw them at
Bowery Ballroom ("Naïve Melody") ...we communicated by e-mail
afterwards, so asking me to join on that tune was sort of natural. I
loved it. Their crowd was lovely and energized as was the band and
the room felt like it was filled with genuine music lovers — the
word of mouth and internet buzz has all been fairly natural.
Their label/distributor at the moment is Merge, a little
label out of North Carolina — bandmembers from Superchunk run it —
and they've done incredibly well.
So the question is, can the larger labels that are courting them
do better? They can offer larger advances, facilitating larger
recording budgets and providing some living expenses for a little
while, but beyond that? I wonder. Yale (Luaka Bop) says
larger labels have the financial muscle to pay for retail marketing.
The CDs that are displayed prominently in stores — those positions
at the tops and ends of shelves — are all paid for. Stores where the
staff decides which records deserve visibility are few and far
between. So this could mean more sales for them — but those sales
then merely go to pay off that larger advance the band got — and the
larger recording budget. Little of it actually ends up in the
musicians' pockets unless things really break big. And most things
don’t break all that big.
So, I dunno. I dunno how many records they've actually sold
through Merge... but unless it's pathetic then maybe they're doing
alright right where they are. Hope they do well whatever they
I was passed an e-mail by someone at my own label, Nonesuch,
who was told by Kris at the label Domino that apparently a video of
me singing with them is already up on the web.
As I crouched near the pay phones at the airport waiting for my
delayed flight to board, a man came up and said he liked my music.
This happens occasionally, and it's always wonderful to hear, but
this was special
This man mentioned that his youngest son, maybe 5 or 6 years old,
has a debilitating disease that may eventually kill him. The father
had recently been to a conference of other parents of children who
suffer from this disease, and driving on at the end of day he was
pretty wrung out emotionally. He said he put on Look Into the Eyeball and he smiled and laughed
and it brought him out of it.
Then he said he visited his elder son in a nearby town. The son
is almost a grown man. This young man had burned a CD for his dad,
and though the father said their musical tastes never really
converged, there was one of my songs on the CD. I sensed that this
meant they had found some little thing in common, important after
what the Dad had just been through.
He then gave me, to keep, a snapshot of the two boys, the elder
one holding the younger. Jeez, I was just about in tears at this
point. I thought, will he think to himself in a minute "what did I
give him their picture for?" But he did it — on pure impulse. It's
in my pocket.
My daughter Malu asked me "Dad, why do the police go after the
people on the street that sell knockoffs?" She was referring to the
Vuiton and Gucci handbags and the Rolex watches, I suspect. Not the
possibly fake Duracell batteries that are also everywhere.
I suggested that the manufacturers of said objects see them not
just as objects, but as fruits of their "creativity" however
specious that might be in this case. The color of the bag, the
design of the clasp, the shape of the strap and buckles and seams
are all the result of vaguely creative decisions, and these people
see the bags are embodiments of much personal creativity and
research, and therefore a kind of intellectual property. The cheap
copies, besides being possibly of inferior quality, well, the makers
of these bags have more or less bypassed all that time and
investment. Their ideas are not theirs... but they are using someone
"O.K.," says Malu, "so what?"
She suggests why not let people sell and buy the knockoffs if the
name companies won't sell cheap versions themselves. Malu believes
that anyone (i.e. her classmates) can tell the difference between
the "real thing" and the knockoff. Therefore those who want that
status can pay for it, if they want, and if they can afford to — the
others can enjoy pretending. Or something. Are the people who buy
knockoffs trying to fool anyone? She thinks not. (I have my
doubts... but more on that later)
So, if the real thing and the knockoff are as easy to tell apart
as she claims, then maybe she's right.
Playing devil's advocate I try to personalize the situation.
Let's see where this line of reasoning goes. I say what if you made
something and someone else sold a cheaper, less well-made copy on
the street. Well, maybe that's O.K., she reasons, as you can still
get the good quality version in the shop next door.
Yale (and Danielle) bring up another point. That the goods Malu
is focusing on are all luxury goods, goods of a very specific type
in which the value has been greatly added on by attaching nebulous
To be more specific — the actual cost of making the designer bag,
the Rolex watch or especially the name brand perfume is not all that
much more than what the knockoff charges. But the branding that has
been accumulated on the designer version by expensive advertising,
carefully considered associations and the history and reputation of
the brand allows the designer to multiply the "value" manyfold.
Twenty times at least. Sometimes more.
So, with luxury goods one is buying aura — a set of associations
that the buyer hopes will generate a feeling of status, class and
well being. The carefully assembled house of cards based on images
of celebrities, beautiful people in glamorous places living the vida
loca is something the buyer hopes will be magically imparted and
transferred to him or her by simply carrying the bag or smelling a
They’re not buying designer bags because they hold more, last
longer or are more practical.
Do people really believe that aura is transferred by a bag? Is it
that simple? I don't think so. I think the ads, the perfume bottles
and the very sound of the name — every little thing — all of it
combined — contribute to pushing buttons that make us helpless. At
base we're less rational that we like to think, both for the good
and the ridiculous. Advertising and branding breaks free from the
Enlightenment Cartesian mechanistic view of the universe.
This then is what the police are doing when they harass the
knockoff merchants. They are making a show that the system has some
reasonable and justified basis — they are using law and threat of
force to bolster a basically irrational system.
The luxury goods market is like the art market. Stuff is only
worth what someone will pay for it. Its value — whether it be a
designer handbag or a Damien Hirst — has nothing to do with its
utility, the labor that went into making it or how well it is
So we can eliminate that argument right away. The knockoffs are
not about quality. There's no reason to pay over $1,000 for a
handbag because maybe it's that much better made — because though it
might indeed be better made it's not $1,000 better made.
According to Malu the $1,000 might gain you entry into the cool
club, which is why we suspect people pay that much money. So, that
means the folks she claims can easily be spotted with the knockoffs
are left outside the velvet ropes.
That's also why this situation can’t be moved over to apply to
CDs, music and feature films. We don’t pay more to see a movie with
Judy Davis in it than an exploitation movie because she’s a better
actress. All movies cost more or less the same. There’s no status in
owning the "real" Usher CD. Even if it has a little more artwork,
it's just not enough of an incentive.
Where is this going? I'm getting lost here. Anyway — the luxury
goods arena is special case and it is beautiful in its nebulousness.
It becomes a weird philosophical exercise, a conundrum, a labyrinth
— thinking about stuff that has added value attached, that's worth a
lot more — combined with the fact that you can't measure see or
perceive in any way what makes that thing worth more. The aura comes
from outside the object, it's not intrinsic.
It's as if I had two apples, not exactly the same, but pretty
close to one another, and one had a brand name on it — and therefore
I could charge about 3 times as much for it.
Flying over snow-capped peaks now. About another hour to LAX...
maybe less, as I think the smog that flows from the L.A. basin
eastward, cascading over ranges of hills and into valley after
valley, is becoming visible.
Went to the opera. Pelleas and Melisande, by Debussy. I
had read a glowing review of a different production in the
newspaper, and since I like Debussy's orchestral works and a bigger
production was opening I thought "why not?"
Lots of ladies in furs. A few bizarre hairdos on the diamond
necklace set. I don't get to the Met (Lincoln Center) all that
often. And I don't know opera or classical music that well. It turns
out Debussy had some peculiar ideas. He didn't want this piece to be
popular — maybe he didn't want any of his works to be popular.
Popularity would have meant failure. "Music really ought to have
been a hermetical science, enshrined in texts so difficult and
laborious as to discourage the herd of people who treat it like a
handkerchief! I would go further, and instead of spreading music
among the populace, I propose the foundation of a Society of Musical
Sounds like a very "downtown" sensibility to me, mixed with an
elitist academic point of view. There is indeed a downtown P.O.V.
here in NY and elsewhere that likes to guard its favors. Downtown
tastemakers will quietly rave about something or someone until that
music or art achieves a relative popularity — then it is denigrated
as having "been better when I first saw them." A lot of alt music
publications and websites share this weird snobbism, it's a way of
establishing a little in-crowd.
There were lots of orchestral passages and interludes, all of
which were, in my opinion, beautiful and haunting. But when the
singers started (Anne Sophie Von Otter among them), well, there was
not a memorable tune to be found. Claude D. had achieved his goal, I
guess — there was nothing here to grab a hold of, and maybe that
explains why this piece remains somewhat obscure. Congratulations,
According to the program he had some oddball theory to justify
the monotonous limited vocal melodies, saying he wanted to achieve a
kind of mythic stylized speech in a new way — and maybe he did, the
whole thing seems like recitativo, the boring talk-sung parts in
between the arias in many other operas. I realize I may be speaking
out of ignorance here...
And the story! It's linked to the work of the Symbolist poets
(Verlaine, Rimbaud, etc), so it's highly symbolic, nothing being
very direct. Reading a description it appears to me a parody of
absurdist theater, a Monty Python piss take on arty drama or
something akin to L'age D'Or, the Bunuel
surrealist film that I can never make any sense of (not
surprisingly, I guess.)
Here’s an excerpt:
"Yniold has lost his ball among some rocks. He tries
to move one of the boulders. A flock of sheep comes bleating by. He
calls out to the shepherd, whose reply makes it clear that the sheep
"They emerge into the air. Pelleas relishes the
breeze and the scent of 'sprinkled roses'. It is mid-day, the clocks
are chiming, children are going down to the beach to swim. He
notices his mother and Melisande sitting by a window in the tower.
'They are sheltering on the shady side' says Golaud."
The story features lots of beaches, caves, towers, sick monarchs
and mysterious women. It would be a trip to actually see all things
described, but Jonathan Miller, the esteemed director, went for a
massive rotating set that looked more like a scene from a Cocteau
film — a decaying chateau, marble busts, furniture with sheets over.
This all made it seem like a social satire. I might have maybe been
able to wallow and submerge myself better in an even weirder
mysterioso setting. Caves and towers and dark forests as the story
I left before the scene in which the Pelleas gets his face
tangled up in Melisande's hair.
Went to some art openings last night. At Pace/MacGill was a
photographer Jim Goldberg who I had first seen in a book he did
called "Raised By Wolves" in which he documented street kids in San
Francisco for 10 years.
In the words of one of the kids:
"You show us how we are and let us tell our own
story. Young people will only listen if society lets them speak too.
Make sure that your work tells true stories, show people that they
are not the only ones who matter, and that they do not have the
right to categorize kids, for that won't make them disappear."
Now he's showing some other older work — similar to the picture
above but this other series contrasts images of rich and poor people
accompanied by captions written by them. One of the poor young men
pictured in this series was present at the opening, now older and
bearded, dressed in a cowboy hat, boots... and spurs! He was talking
loud to all who would hear — obviously proud to be a past subject
and he was representing Goldberg's work to all who would listen.
There was another long wall piece, an autobiographical timeline
montage that in less sensitive hands would have been a spilled
drawer of pix from a stranger's attic glued to foam board. Somehow
he managed to make the events photographed in his life resonant,
touching and tragic — there were trips and travel — judging by the
pictures these were inspiring and enlightening — lovers, relatives
and children — sad partings and old age, birth and sex. There were
years spent among the down and out, druggies and society's
There were collectors, some museum curators and a lot of art
students at the opening, in contrast to the next one I went to.
Down to Chelsea to an opening of new work by Bob Rauschenberg,
whom I've known for years, ever since he did a Talking Heads LP
cover. The big Chelsea gallery was packed and Bob arrived in a
wheelchair — he had a stroke a few years ago and part of his right
side is paralyzed — but he's come back and, according to his partner
Darryl, he's been working nonstop, and has at least 4 large
international shows this year.
The new stuff is made of color photos that Bob took (I assume),
transferred to canvas by first printing them on paper using
water-soluble inks — then the paper can be placed on wet canvas and
the image inks, or most of them, stick to the canvas. It makes the
images look rough, imperfect, like color Xeroxes, but larger.
I liked these much better than some other recent shows of Bob's
I've seen — I like when the use of photography is less painterly,
and to be honest I always felt the drips and smears in much of his
earlier work were guilty remnants of abstract expressionism, an
attempt to give photo-based work the credibility of painting.
Anyway, these have none or little of that. There were lots of
colorful images of orange traffic cones and roadwork, a subject I
focus on sometimes, so I was a little jealous, too.
I ran into acquaintances from Bob's studio, folks from various
print edition studios he's worked at — some folks I hadn't seen in a
long time. Most of the other attendees were of a "certain"
generation of the art world. Wild and crazy once, but hardly now —
the men were in suits or jackets at least, most of them with gray
hair like me, and some of the older women had oversized glasses that
they might have worn glamorously in the 70s.
Then I biked to a dinner that the gallery owner was having for
Bob at his Upper East Side aptartment. It's a part of town I don't
venture into often, but this would give me a chance to say hi to
some old friends and acquaintances outside of the crowded gallery
The house was of course filled with art. There were real
Picassos, hanging Calders and a giant Donald Judd on one wall. The
windows looked north and south on the FDR drive, so one could see
the Queensborough Bridge nearby out one side and from another window
the east coast of Manhattan and the in the distance the Williamsburg
Bridge downtown. Wow.
Meryl Streep said hello(!) Saying "we used to be neighbors" which
is true, as we both lived on the same block of 12th Street a year or
so ago. We'd never met. I asked if she'd ever seen the web posting
that compared and contrasted her townhouse with ours when they were
both up for sale last year,"Real Estate Celebrity Smackdown" I think
it was called. Using images and descriptions posted by the various
real estate agents they compared the exteriors, some of the rooms
and the appraised value of the two houses. It was snide and pretty
Sat with Sidney B Felsen, of Gemini editions in L.A., who does a
lot of stuff with Bob. Jim Rosenquist and he are big jazz fans and
when Jim was in New York he would hang at the jazz clubs. He began
to tell stories of encounters he had. He met Thelonius Monk, who,
when approached repeated over and over “Nitsky Noo, Nitsky Noo”,
which according to Jim was the name of the child of a 50s comic
strip character. Once Jim, a huge Monk fan, traveled all day with
some friends to catch a concert that Monk was participating in. Monk
came out, played exactly one note, and departed.
Jim was at a bar where jazzers hung out and in walked Miles Davis
and in his raspy voice said "What mutherfucker is going to buy me a
drink?" Jim took him up on the offer.
A lady with big glasses is taken by the statement Bob wrote for
his catalogue. She's going to read it aloud. Bob's sort of
embarrassed and sort of proud.
Then the woman reappears and announces that Sigourney Weaver will
be doing the reading instead. I didn't even know she was in the
room. She borrows the giant glasses and begins — people poke their
heads in from the other room full of chairs and tables. It's a
charming inspiring paragraph, and she doesn't over dramatize it, as
it's naturally funny.
Joannie, Sidney's wife and partner, spots Marc Jacobs and says to
Sidney "Get to work!" as she pulls him out of his chair to make an
introduction. Sidney isn't a pushy person, but he introduces himself
and tells Jacobs about Gemini and Jacobs says he's opening his first
L.A. store almost across the street from them.
Being a fashion designer he's naturally the most slovenly dressed
person in the room, aside from Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim Museum
director, who may be the most powerful person in the room, in some
ways. Maybe it's a sign of status NOT to feel the need to dress up,
in fact, maybe more status is implied if one intentionally dresses
down. Jacobs is wearing baggy clothes and white running shoes and
Krens entered wearing a nylon running outfit — though I'm sure
neither of them were running recently. I'm in dress shoes, collared
shirt and a pin striped jacket, dressed up for me, though I rode
over here on a bike. (I find that if I pace myself I don't
necessarily get sweaty while pedaling, so the skin-tight bike riding
pants some folks wear seem an affectation to me — unless the person
is seriously in training.
Talking with Christof De Menil whom I met through Bob Wilson
years ago and with Keith Sonnier, the artist. Christof and Keith
wonder who painted what appears to be an all blue painting on a wall
nearby. The assumption is, of course, that it MUST be some important
modern artist, it couldn't possibly be a nobody. I throw out Yves
Klein, as it's blue, as does Streep's husband, a sculptor — but that
idea is given the thumbs down.
Someone identifies it as an Ad Reinhart — an appropriately
influential name in the modernist cannon — and points out that it's
actually stripes of two different blues, so close in color and hue
that the difference is almost imperceptible.
I look closer. I love this effect. I stare at it and it plays
tricks with the eyes. Kind of like some of Bob Irwin's work... and
that of his acolyte Jim Turrell. I stare and the dividing regions
appear and vanish or become indistinct — it's a surprisingly retinal
work for an artist who became known for intellectual games.
Bob and Darryl have temporarily relocated from Captiva Island,
where his home and studio was, to Fort Meyers, FLA, the larger town
on the mainland. Captiva was hit pretty hard during the recent
hurricane bouts. Many of Bob's buildings were heavily damaged and
the trees were uprooted and the place is a mess. Miraculously, no
artwork was damaged, but the fish house, a little wooden structure
on the end of short pier — where I once wrote some of the songs for
my CD Uh-Oh while visiting there in the
early 90s — was pretty much destroyed.
Dick Tracy’s associates:
Enemies: 3-D Magee (used killer ants), 88 Keys,
Angletop, B-B Eyes, Big Boy Caprice (Tracy's arch enemy, and leader
of the Apparatus gang), Big Frost (killer of Brilliant), Black
Pearl, The Blank (face destroyed by gunshot), Blowtop, Bony,
Breathless Mahoney, Broadway Bates, The Brow (Nazi spy), Chameleon
(disguise expert), The Claw, Coffyhead, Cueball, Cutie Diamond,
Deafy Sweetfellow, Doc Hump, Faceless Redrum, Flattop Jones
(professional assassin with mis-shapen skull), Flattop Jr., Gargles,
Gruesome, Haf-and-Haf, Headache, Heels Beals, Honeymoon, Itchy
Oliver, Johnny Scorn, Larceny Lu, Lips Manlis, Littleface Finney,
Matty Square, Maxine Viller, Measles, Miss Egghead, Mrs. Pruneface,
Mrs. Volts, Mr. Bribery, Mr. Crime, The Mole, Mousey, Mumbles, Olga,
Peanutbutter, Pear-shape, Perfume, Pruneface (Nazi spy), Puckerpuss,
Putty Puss (able to change his features), Rughead, Scorpio, Shakey,
Shoulders, Sphinx, Splitface, Splitscreen, Spud Spaldoni,
Squareface, Tiger Lilly, El Tigress, Tonsils, Torcher, Yogee
Known Relatives: Tess Trueheart (wife), Bonny Braids
(daughter), Junior Tracy (adopted son), Moon Maid (daughter-in-law,
wife of Junior, extra-terrestrial, deceased)
Here is a comic book cover from 1955!:
Marina's mom, who is Japanese-American, has a Japanese face but
doesn't speak Japanese. She was born in the USA, but people who meet
her expect her to know about Japan (which she does a bit) and to be
fluent. I sensed in talking to her that she almost feels she should
learn Japanese, as a way of knowing herself better. Then she'll be a
little bit more what people expect her to be. Maybe she'll also be
more herself, maybe a self that never existed before, that lay
buried. Maybe our identities don't always match our faces, and we
either put up with the mis-match or try and be somewhat
accommodating. Identity is what we make it, we as individuals and as
people. It's malleable, invented, true but not true.
Until fairly recently, the Finns spoke Swedish (except for the
peasant class) as Sweden dominated not just Finland, but a lot of
the region. But in 1828 Elias, a country doctor and folklorist,
began collecting tales from the peasant class — they had a meter but
no rhyme. He strung a bunch of them together — wrote some connecting
bits himself — and it was received as the national epic saga, The
Kalevala. This helped give the Finns an identity, it helped unite
them as a people, and as they were feeling a bit nationalistic
anyway, the moment was right and it eventually led to their
independence. Finnish began to be taught in schools and songs and
symphonies were written that were, or had claims to be, uniquely
Finnish. Maybe some of the adoption of Finnish was a way of
distancing themselves from the Lapps as well. National identity
implies superiority to someone. And to think that a big part of this
particular identity was partly made up, invented, by one man!
Language divides and unites. Not just nations, but classes within
those nations. The upper and aristocratic classes hold and guard
their use of language as being official, correct and proper. In the
past royalty often spoke a completely different language than the
peasants, a way of making the separation obvious and evident.
Russian and many others spoke French. Lingua Franca. Controlling
language is a way of maintaining status.
The newly wealthy, the nouveau riche, uncertain as to their
status and standing, tend to be more demanding in their adherence to
the rules or language. They want to be sure, in language and in
appearance, that the lower orders can see and know that they who
have arrived are no longer a part of the messy crowd.
The language and accents of U.S. TV announcers tells a story. In
the past the accents were of the American Brahmin castes — the sound
of the upper class voice said, "here you find quality and
reliability. You can trust this man."
More recently, according to a book "Do You Speak American?", the
Midwestern twang had replaced the upper class honk as the voice of
U.S. TV. The perceived neutrality of the Midwestern accent which
dominates now was, they claim, a reaction to the incoming waves of
Jewish and Catholic immigrants — and stemmed from a need to assert a
primacy, a dominance and superiority over those uncouth foreign
Could this get out of hand? Could a nation adopt a wholly
fictional identity? Lots of people would love to live in Middle
Earth. Histories get rewritten all the time. School kids in Texas
are shocked to learn that the brave defenders of the Alamo were
actually land-grabbers, stealing land from Mexico. And who knows if
the stories that we call history could get rewritten once again, and
again. Could the next story be less self-serving but more fantastic
than the first one?
Here is a picture of a Hasidic reggae artist named Matisyahu. If
he wasn't real I'd think it was a Saturday Night Live skit. But he's
Back in NYC.
Talked to a woman at a friend's house who has been spending a lot
of time in the Peruvian Amazon who says the Shining Path still
exists. She said the global media just lost interest after Guzman
was captured, but the organization mutated and lives on. She said it
now is more involved with the drug traffic that passes through the
jungles where Peru, Brazil and Columbia come close, and that the
Shining Path use indigenous people — both Meztizo and indigenous —
as necessary guides and forced help — they would get lost without
local guides and wouldn't be able to find food either.
Conflicts arise (these people are basically kidnapped) and
individuals and villages are massacred. It's a low grade war, as it
always was for the Shining Path, but the ideology has almost
vanished. Where originally it may have been a Maoist peasants
revolt, it became, like the Red Guard or Khmer Rouge, an excuse for
both the neighborhood bullies and the aggrieved to avenge themselves
and wield power. Kids with guns. Imagine a thousand Columbines.
Apparently, the U.S. armed the Columbian militia groups by
routing arms through Peru. (It was illegal for the US to actually
supply arms.) Vast amounts of guns passed through this region — the
woman said that if all those arms reached their source, Columbia
would be the best armed country on Earth. Naturally a fair amount
got skimmed off.
If conflicts and wars go unreported do they exist? Well, yeah
they are happening, but they don't exist in the global sense — they
aren't affecting policy and finances in ways that we are aware of —
at present. I suspect, optimistically, that what should be news
eventually becomes history. At some future point there will be an
interest in this area and someone will dig and ask and discovers
what was going on. The massacres, drug and weapon running with
become the back story to some future present situation. Maybe.
I wonder if there are lots of other conflicts dragging on in
other regions below the media radar. How much do we not know? How
much is hidden from us or have we forgotten? We marvel that the
Arabs were the repository of so much science and literature for
hundreds of years — that the genius or Rome and Athens was
"forgotten" by medieval Europe but the Arab world kept it safe — we
wonder how could that be? Surely now, with the world wide web and
global communications we wouldn't never "lose" a whole area of
But maybe we could. We wouldn't know, would we?
We stayed at a B&B near Montezuma that was pretty isolated —
surrounded by farms and jungle. It was being run by a Belgian couple
and the man, Henry, liked to sit with a whiskey and chat with the
guests after dinner.
I mentioned that this was the first trip I'd taken with no
cultural agenda, such as previous trips to Brazil, and he mentioned
that he’d lived there for a few years.
It was decades ago, and he and partner were in a town somewhere
in the middle of the country. The town may have bordered on the
jungle, because he told a story about penetrating the jungle, a
kilometer a day, by machete.
I mentioned that I'd recently read Claude Levi-Strauss, the
famous French anthropologist, whom I thought, being Belgian, he may
have been familiar with. No luck. I said I thought Levi Strauss was
a wonderful writer but that his behavior was questionable —
traipsing into the jungle with relatively huge retinues and trading
guns — unavailable to the Indians at that time — for artifacts.
Henry seemed to concur. He and his friend eventually encountered
a tribe in the jungle, and were made welcome. But, Henry said, as he
realized what a totally different worldview and universe they had
come upon, he began to ask himself "what are we DOING here?". He
felt ashamed, embarrassed. He said "We didn't belong there, we had
no business there."
He recently talked to this former partner who recently flew over
part of the Amazon in a Cessna and, according to Henry... he cried.
So much has been chopped down and the land, once the trees and
everything else is removed, is not good for farming or even
ranching. It becomes a wasteland.
Henry claims it is the Japanese who are bribing the appropriate
politicians and are paying the requisite prices for the
It is Xmas everywhere.
...and in Costa Rica.
I'd brought some snorkeling gear, which we tried out at beach on
the Northern Pacific Coast, but the water was cloudy and we couldn't
see much. There were pelicans near us, which Tracy said meant there
were fish in the water, but we couldn't see them.
As we left the coastal areas and were heading back inland we had
one more chance to go snorkeling — we'd pass by Isla Tortuga on the
way to the car ferry and I figured there'd be enterprising small
boat owners who would take us to the island, which is supposed to be
surrounded by reefs and good for snorkeling.
A sign on a tree offered snorkeling or scuba boat trips for $15,
which seemed reasonable, and we were at a point where the island was
closest to the mainland, so the trip wouldn't take long and we could
presumably get back in time for the ferry.
At the beach where the boat left from, part of another reserve,
we were told to wait for Juan, who was due to leave for the island
at 10:30. As it was already 10:45 we wondered how accurate was this
information. By almost 11:30 Juan and another man appeared from
around the corner in a little outboard.
The snorkeling was OK, not fantastic, but I love drifting amongst
fish and coral so it doesn't have to be extraordinary. I'm glad
Tracy suggested we give it one more try. Scuba diving is even more
delirious, as one experiences a pleasant dislocation — up and down
are less meaningful and one can spin, rollover and slither
uninhibited by gravity. Even I become graceful in my own eyes.
Jan 1 05
Took a lovely hike up around Rincon de la Vieja, a volcano in the
north with an area on its lower slopes with bubbling mud pots and
hot sulfur pools. Lots of iguanas around too.
We decided to take a trail that let to a hot spring in the jungle
— a few kilometers away according to the markers. A dip in a
secluded hot spring sounded wonderful, and the day was early. But
this "enchanted" forest, as they referred to it, was on a
mountainside, mainly uphill, repetitive, and after a couple of hours
and no sign of a hot spring we decided to turn back. The forest was
indeed lovely — lots of twisted trees, some covered in palomatos
vines (tree killer vines that eventually take over their host trees,
which is left as a hollow center.)
Back near the boiling mud we came upon a coati crossing the trail
— there was a noise in the bush and soon there were more of them,
all rushing away from the source of a hooting in the forest over on
the right. Soon there were at least 30 of them, surrounding but
almost ignoring us, leaping out of the bush and crossing the trial.
In a minute they were gone and we could see that the hooting was
coming from a group of howler monkeys with white faces high up in a
Dec 31 04
Naturally, I was curious about the music there. The Costa Rican
radio played mainly stuff from surrounding areas — some good stuff —
Carlos Vives, Juan Louis Guerra, and lots of dopey cumbias (well,
the lyrics are dopey.) Not much local stuff. We saw a live cumbia
band in Liberia’s town square on New Year's Eve and the horns were
so out of tune it seemed like it had to be a prank, or some kind of
biological aberration — as if they couldn't physically hear how out
of tune they were. It was painful, and loud too. No one was dancing.
Maybe they would later. It seemed to be more an evening to parade
and be seen.
So we went off the square to eat at a restaurant which had a
large video screen playing Animal Planet.
The show that was on featured cheetahs and leopards making kills.
The next program was about the good dog catchers in NYC — they are a
division of the ASPCA — who rescue abused and abandoned pets. It was
sad and a gruesome subject, and a bizarre accompaniment to a
Why hasn't Costa Rica produced more of its own music, art,
literature? As maybe the most stable nation in the region one
wonders once again if there is any truth to the adage that
creativity is born out of repression, strife and suffering.
Nicaragua, to the immediate north, produced its own music — I
remember a lot of Nueva Trova coming out of there, naturally enough
— it being the "protest music" of that generation. Nicaragua also
produced famous poets and writers, and of course was also the site
of a revolution and a bloody endless war, partly funded and extended
by the U.S. (Oliver North, Bush 1, Iran-Contra.)
Panama, to the immediate south, boasts Ruben Blades as a musical,
and sometimes political, son. Panama was created and "run" by the
U.S. as a vehicle to protect the all-important canal, a strategic
waterway that had to be controlled at all costs. Repressive and
corrupt regimes were installed (Noriega was ousted when he stood up
to the U.S.) and the appropriate people were paid off, and the canal
remains secure. Hardly a forward thinking place, though, compared to
Costa Rica famously abandoned their army many years ago — adding
to the funds that could be channeled to education and social
services — there is, it seems to me, less abject poverty than in
their neighboring countries. And the tourism is, for the most part,
small-scale, reasonable. There are few if any mega beach strips such
as in Vedado, Cancun or Acapulco. Tourism has permeated the country,
but it's not a lot of hulking behemoth hotels, at least. There are a
few exclusive resorts tucked away here and there, but they don't
dominate the landscape.
So, the country is a model in the region — but what about the
arts? Does there have to be suffering and pain to produce art and
music? Does one personally have to experience pain to feel driven to
drive it out by creative means? Isn't this such a cliché that it's
I often wonder, though, if this is true personally as well. Hope
not. Do we have to be unhappy, fucked up, out of balance, to be
forced to deal with our demons through creative outlets? Isn't that
an old idea?
Maybe it has something to do with history and geography. There
were no big Spanish colonial cities in Costa Rica, and there was no
node in the slave trade here, as far as I know. So the mixing or
African, European and indigenous cultures never really happened here
in the way it did in, say, Cuba or the Caribbean coastal towns of
Cartajena or in Salvador do Bahia. The place didn’t have the massive
Mesoamerican civilizations, either — there are no pyramids, temples
and cities buried in the Costa Rican jungles. Those civilizations
end to the north and south of the isthmus — it is as if the land
bridge between continents that is Panama and Costa Rica formed after
the big cultures were established.
Here is a frog on glass. It looks like it's been cut in half, but
it's not. Those are its sucker toes — the little whitish blobs
tucked under its blobby body.
Other frogs, called glass frogs in English, were tiny and semi
translucent (no photo). They are so delicate that the guide said
"they could be killed by a raindrop." This seems an exaggeration,
but the frogs do shelter on the underside of leaves or the place
where leaves join a branch, so who knows? And we think our lives are
Near Arenal Volcano there are two hot springs visible from the
road. One has tour busses parked out front and a massive walled
edifice. It is obviously connected with the luxury Tabacon lodge up
the road. Through a gap in the wall one can see swimming pools. The
other is down in a hollow and seems to be avoided by the tour groups
— it's for the locals. It costs about 1/5 what the upscale one
charges. We went there at night and though it doesn't have the
rumored bar at the side of the hot pool we snuck in some beers. The
upscale area also has a view of the volcano — and when it erupts,
which it does regularly, they say one can see hot lava pouring from
the summit as one relaxes with a drink.
The downscale springs are marvelously unsupervised, especially at
night. The hot water cascades over little waterfalls and slippery
jagged rocks — one woman slipped and really hurt herself. Further
down there are rough concrete and rock artificial pools that Costa
Rican families gravitate to.
Having watched the Tico dudes prove their manhood by disappearing
under a waterfall of hot spring water in one area we did the same.
You crouch, clamber in, grab onto some wet rocks and the waterfall
goes over your head. Surprisingly you can breathe. It was like a
sauna that was incredibly noisy.
Dec 28 04
Went to Costa Rica for an eco holiday (as it is referred to) with
Tracy. That means a lot of hiking and some snorkeling, but not much
culture. In the past I would go to places like Brasil, Cuba or
Andalusia for the culture and music — but having just amassed many
boxes of CDs after a year touring I suggested maybe a respite from
that might be in order. In the picture below I am on one of the zip
line canopy tours. It's a fun ride, not scary at all, though one
doesn't really see much of the canopy, and it’s chilly and it’s very
wet. It isn't called a rainforest for nothing.
pic by Tracy Seeger
am looking with all my might. It's hard to see anything. It's
drizzling, and to someone unaccustomed to it the forest is chaotic.
We look this way and that, occasionally a weird plant or an animal
or insect becomes apparent, separates itself out from the green
mess, but mostly not. Most of them are so well camouflaged that it
all blends together. When one thing does become apparent it's almost
like a semantic distinction — the outlines of its body shape are
hazy and indistinct, looking away and glancing back the thing might
be once again impossible to see. Like words their outlines and
meaning change from minute to minute.
Dec 25 04
A magazine article on PowerPoint claims that "all life is a
presentation". Well, maybe for some of us. Sort of like saying
everything in our lives is about salesmanship too, which maybe takes
the dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest idea a little too literally.
We know more, instinctually, than to merely "always be closing".
From New Scientist magazine:
The Pentagon considered developing a host of
non-lethal chemical weapons that would disrupt discipline and morale
among enemy troops, newly declassified documents reveal.
Most bizarre among the plans was one for the
development of an "aphrodisiac" chemical weapon that would make
enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Provoking
widespread homosexual behavior among troops would cause a
"distasteful but completely non-lethal" blow to morale, the proposal
The proposals, from the US Air Force Wright
Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, date from 1994. The lab sought Pentagon
funding for research into what it called "harassing, annoying and
'bad guy'-identifying chemicals". The plans have been posted online
by the Sunshine Project, an organization that exposes research into
chemical and biological weapons.
Although the above is absurd and funny — there must be plenty
more bio and chemical weapons programs the U.S. is engaged in that
are illegal, and scary serious.
Politicians are masters of the intellectual disconnect. Here's a
to the top
© 2005 David Byrne. All rights reserved.