Thirty four years ago I made a couple of mix tapes for the holiday store at New Langton Arts, and having recently digitized them, I thought I thought I’d share them here. My gift to you: 180 minutes of music, not all of it holiday related, but filled with hiss and pops and other analog goodies from the record bins of San Francisco thrift stores.
This past year has been the culmination of a reckoning for the institutions of the art world, particularly museums. The current delaying of a proposed Guston retrospective brings up again the question of what are museums actually for and how do they function as places where culture is supposed to happen.
There is a lot of talk around the spaces I’m involved with of “hosting the debate” when it comes to conflict and disagreement about works of art. The current social strife has put the lie to museum’s actual capacity to do this: “debates” happen far more quickly than museum programming ever can be organized or structured around and “hosting” assumes that museums are neutral platforms rather than social actors themselves. They are places where certain things can happen and certain other things cannot. As social instruments they stand against change much more than they stand as tools for change. They are ponderous, and in the west, their efforts to shift their message from “worship the treasures we have amassed” to “appreciate the range of human creativity” have failed to change what the essential experience of museum going is. Appreciation is not so very far from worship, and both imply an attitude of servitude on the part of viewers.
Which brings us back around to Guston and the decision to delay the show for four years. The ostensible reason is that because Guston was white the display of his Klan images would be another example of museums displaying and capitalizing on black pain and suffering, without listening to the black people who have actually suffered. I don’t disagree with this in principle, but I do ask what the delay is actually going to do, other than to wait until people are not so direct on their confrontation of institutions that they increasingly see as oppressive. Presumably the people who arranged this show knew the content and knew the conflicts when they started. The catalog contains a number of “responses” from artists that address the complexities of race in Guston’s work already. Why is this okay in a book and not in a museum?
It’s because museums have remained temples in people’s imagination – they are not forums, they are not town halls, they are not sidewalks and they are not bulletin boards. This means that they are particularly bad at presenting works that are internally conflicted, that contain within themselves contradiction. And that is what these Guston paintings are. Guston was a white artist making art about race in a way that revealed his own self loathing, his own disgust with what white people were capable of. And in museums we worship genius unironically. We appreciate, we value. So when when it comes time to deal with race, the onus is put on people of color to describe their suffering and uplift so that a public can value it and in valuing it insulate themselves from the reality of experiencing a particle of the discomfort they have imposed on others. Museums imagine that the simple display of that valuing will shift them from be institutions of oppression to engines of equity. But racism will never be undone until white people acknowledge publicly that they are doing wrong. Until they admit they have been living a lie built on other people’s suffering. And by them I mean me. Half of my family is white and they and I have benefited and continue to benefit from a system of racial injustice that structures all of our current reality. Maybe that is what makes me attuned to the self loathing in Guston’s work. Internalized racism flows through mine and I continually grapple with it. I will say that it is the hardest thing to make legible to other people in displaying my work. And museums still haven’t come close to experiencing that self loathing.
Showing the works of people of color, hosting discussions and forums are programmatic solutions to what is not a programmatic problem. But I have learned from my time in working in and with non-profit arts institutions that they reach for the programatic solution first for the simple fact that it is the easiest, the least painful one for funders and boards and the many professionals that work in these institutions. These past years have shown us that people are done with settling for the scraps of programming. The times demand structural change.
It is not enough to simply value BIPOC people’s words and acts. Institutions need change the way they do business AND acknowledge that they benefit from racism and colonialism. Showing a white person attempting to do that now would jump start those conversations in a way that would be uncomfortable and discomforting for the white people who go to museums and the white people who run them. It would mean taking the work seriously and opening institutions up to real change. It seems to me that it is the fear of that change that is making these institutions back off now. Punting the whole issue for four years isn’t going to make any of the change less urgent. Nor will it make the institutions better equipped to make those changes. They called the show Philip Guston Now. They’re acting like it’s called The Show will Come Out Tomorrow.
Yesterday I went over to the gallery to get reacquainted with and to help install “Magic” a piece of mine from 1991. It’s included in a show organized by Vincent Fecteau, and my piece will sit alongside works from Vince and Lutz Bacher, from about the same time, when we were all residents of the Bay Area. I think the last time I saw “Magic” was in 2009, when we installed it at Location One Gallery for my show there.
It’s one of the most directly elegiac pieces I’ve ever made, and Vince and I were were joking about all the memories it surfaced while we worked alongside the handlers setting things up. Vince is showing work he first showed in our friend Rick Jacobsen’s Kiki Gallery, and Lutz’s piece is one that he helped fabricate. All in all it’s weirdly familial and creepy as a show, resurrecting a bit of 1990’s San Francisco, even as it demonstrates how very far we are from those days now.
Magic is about silenced voices and the uncanny nature of stand-ins. It’s about the drive to create characters who can say the things we can’t or won’t on our own, and whether we can trust that impulse. It’s about entertainment, and weirdly enough in the years since I made it it’s about what happens to that impulse when we shut it away, even in the name of preserving it.
Sunday was a long day, spent celebrating birthdays with Lolita, Thor and Patrick. The two latter are our Leo pals who trade joint celebrations with us Aquarius/Pisces types. This year they scheduled a series of meals, exhibits movies and shows. Starting at Pondicheri for brunch and ending with Justin Sayre’s queer cabaret at Joe’s Pub near midnight.
In between was a thorough exploration of the current shows at The Museum of Sex and a screening of the Oscar nominated animated shorts. Oh and cupcakes and ramen.
Running through the whole day was a thread of pageantry, dressing up, and the disruptive power of sexual honesty. I thought about this a lot in the Leonor Fini show at MoSEX, where it seemed clear that much of her obscurity as a figure in the history of modernism has to do with her frank polyamory and sexual agency. I first heard about Fini from my friend Jonathan Hammer while we were at Bard, but in my mind I kept confusing her with Leonora Carrington, which was just sloppy thinking.
Seeing Fini’s work brought together made the case for her as a much more careful constructor of a public persona , one that was articulated through imagery , performance and photography. She drew from the same well as Cocteau, and was part of the the orbit of Genet, Bataille and other sexually focussed writers. When I saw posters for the show at MoSex, I was skeptical, mostly because i know how constrained their space and resources are, but seeing this show reminds me how hard most art institutions work to erase sex from their shows. This erasure is especially apparent in situations where the sexuality is not mainstream. Many of the students I work with these days are groping for a visual language to match the complexity of their identifications, but they wouldn’t think to cite Fini or look to MoSex as a location that would be helpful for them.
It may be that I’m seizing on this images because for the past few years I’ve been thinking about the importance of explicit, public appearances, of reasserting our queer dissonances in the flow of streets and events, of dressing up for ourselves and for each other. Both the Fini and Punk shows at MoSex are part of that trajectory as well as brilliance of Sayre’s event at the public.
Then best gifts are those that remind you of everything you have yet to do, so thank you Thor and Patrick for setting it all up and thank you Lolita for your ongoing co-conspiracy.
I got here. I’m just as incoherent these days. Growing up, I always thought I would be dead by thirty, although I can’t tell you why exactly. My continuing presence is as source of constant surprise. As of today I’m working at the job that I’ve held longer than any other, and my current apartment is the place I’ve lived in the longest in my life. Continuity and stability? I’ve never really expected them, but that’s what I’ve made for myself.
So much in the works, it’s hard to catch a breath. This past weekend proved that the antidote to alienation is connection, being among people trying to work on problems and also creating things: Hosted a second crafting party and started planning the next one. Heard words of challenge and inspiration at the Decolonize town hall. Was beautifully shamed by my ignorance of Stephen Varble‘s work and life. Shared music at record club. Made valentines with VisualAIDS. This is the stuff. Let there be more of it.
Inspiration isn’t hard, habit is. Hard to maintain and hard to depict. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, just the same thing over and over again. It’s why training montages are montages: doing the gradual work isn’t photogenic with out visual compression and uplifting sound queues.
In the same way addiction is much more photographic than recovery. The guzzling of booze looks better and more exciting than the thousands of daily decisions not to drink.
But without habit, nothing occurs, and artists who only wait for inspiration don’t stay artists very long. The special circumstances of inspiration leave you high and dry most days. Most of the time I look at my paper and pencils tired and disgusted, thinking “What, this again? I have no idea what to do and no desire to do it”. And this is after I’ve done all the work of preparing a space to draw, and bought an abundance of supplies. The pettiness and tedium of not knowing what to do in the midst of abundance seems even more churlish. My only options are reminders that in the end, my interior drama doesn’t matter, that there is no audience to empathize with my block or my struggle. There’s just a simple instruction:
Do what you can, when you can. And then do it again
Jonas Mekas has died. Part of my education as an artist came from regular treks down to 80 Wooster Street, the second home of Anthology Film Archives, where my friends taught me what real film was and where I first ran across Flaming Creatures, a work that spoiled me for middle-brow gay culture from then on out. When I went to Bard Collage in 1978, I went in part because of the film department, headed by Jonas’s brother, Adolphas. I never met Jonas, but saw some of his films at Bard, and only really knew about him as Smith’s declared nemesis, the person who was made to represent some of the many things that Smith detested about the way that art is treated in contemporary society.
There is no denying that Mekas created an arts institution that successfully provided a home for many different types of eccentrics, and that no institution could have satisfied Smith’s transformative vision of society. Anthology remains an outpost of aesthetic territory that few other institutions show even a passing interest in, one that I feel we need more than ever. It’s one of the places that allows you to acquire an education on your own terms, while constantly pointing out new and unexpected voices.
More than that Mekas was one of the people who made Sixties and Seventies New York into one of the centers of the counterculture, creating an underground scene that made the city loom in the minds of many more people than ever walked through Anthology’s doors.
Still a little out of it from watching both Fyre Festival documentaries back to back last night. Can’t escape the feeling that somehow the pervasive sense of catastrophe and bad faith invaded my dreams and left me ill at ease when I woke.
Beneath the easy schadenfreude of watching things go badly for other people, I’m thinking about how the problems of the people around Fyre come out of the speculation of the start-up age and the collision of two tendencies in out current economy.
The first is the notion that there are piles of money to be made by inserting oneself as the digital mediator of a social interaction. Fyre’s business was supposed to be one where the interface of Tinder is applied to talent booking, bypassing booking agents, and presenting the illusion of celebrity proximity. The festival, had it been planned rationally, could have been part of the splashy launch of that service – an event designed to make physical the buzzy ethos Fyre’s owners played out in their social media accounts, but not a money maker in itself. Fyre as a stand-alone service would have proved it’s value by functioning as an influencer echo chamber, and high end mailing list that could then be monetized in various ways.
The second is the notion of vapor-ware, the fact that you don’t necessarily have to ship a product to acheive “success” in the current economy. In fact as long as you keep flipping different promised “visions” between investors, you can make more money that if you actually ship.
Fyre the service never really had to succeed as long as it corralled the right contacts and eyeballs. If people don’t get their software, or get it late and patched, they can get angry but it’s par for the course in startup world. But Fyre the Festival had to deliver what it promised on the day it was promised or the results would be… what we know them to be.
In both documentaries, I watched people sliding towards the cliff of the festival dates, unable to stop themselves because of that little voice that rings through contemporary capitalism:
“Everyone who has done something like this before says we can’t do this, everyone with experience says it will fail, but maybe we’re doing something new, something no-one ever has done, and if we keep acting like it’s going to happen maybe it will actually happen”
In fact there was nothing unique about the Fyre Festival except how poorly the creators understood what they were actually trying to do. There was nothing unique about the tactics they used to silence doubters and squeeze their victims as the clock ran out, nothing unique about their bullshit of “we are about solutions not problems” and noting unique about the emotional story of their grift.
Thanking about what I watched, I was suddenly back reading Anthony Trollope’s novel “The Way We Live Now” which is built around a financial boondoggle in 1870’s London, and is full of the same grasping, decorative, morally blinded “influential” people as the two documentaries. There the investment engine is a railroad and not a festival, but the greed and the damage is the same.
I’m hungry and grateful for any little bit of individualized attention this indifferent city can condescend to give me. Today , when the counterperson at the deli on Seventh and 40th took my grey travel mug from my hand and without a word handed it back with just the right amount of coffee in it and then unquestioningly rang up the oat meal and fruit I had assembled in the other mug I’d brought from home, it felt like a sweet, sweet gift. And that feeling was compounded when I then rounded the corner, and climbed the stairs to Midtown Comics, where I picked up my weekly pull and joked with the staffers.
On one hand New York is about speed and efficiency, knowing the quickest route to someplace, getting a good deal. On the other, it’s about being the insider, the one who knows the stuff others don’t. Between those two, I hunger for being part of a neighborhood, knowing that that my encounters with people remain distinct in their minds. Is this pathology? My morning experiences were just encounters with people doing their jobs, which in part are about convincing me to come back as a customer. That I take this as special can just be my own delusion.
But so much of modern experience is about standardization, of eliminating the peculiarities of interaction in the name of convenience or safety. We treat each other uniformly so that we aren’t caught in an awkward encounter that puts us at risk. The staff at the comic book store has to deal with thousands of folks in a week who could turn belligerent or obsessive. It’s a type of dynamic that never want to fall into, and I like to think that I do the work of building trust, so that my presence there can act as a respite from the work week and not as a problem. But then, do we know when we’ve become one?
The desire to be special is different from the desire to have humane interactions. We may want to be noticed by the world in general and turn peevish when that wish is thwarted, forcing individuals to notice us when the world will not. But while all of us deserve love, none of us is owed attention. We can only make those gestures of paying attention, of trying to treat those we encounter as individuals. In the same way that I have time when I make time, I can change the tenor of my interactions by focusing on my actions.
Is it possible to have bipolar cluttering disorder? For every few months I have of haplessly watching my piles of things grow and spread across my apartment, I will have periods like last weekend, where I manage to get granular with my sorting and reorganizing. In the past few days I have accomplished some of the goals I’ve thought about for years with old files and hard drives.
The problem with digital clutter is that for the most part it is invisible: an organized hard drive looks no different from a disorganized one. But the emotional effect of it is vastly different. Clutter feels to me that my life is both oppressively present and yet ungraspable: there is stuff all around, but the thread of what I am doing and what I need to use for it is lost in the mess. All of my incomplete decisions are in front of me, competing for my attention. It becomes easier to just let an object drop and go on to the next thing, even though to do so means that I have also created a tiny addition to my fears about the future.
The clutterer lives in dread of that moment sometime in the future where the decision must be made, even thought that decision is one of liberation. There are times when I can genuinely say, no I don’t need this thing any longer and I can let it go, and that begins to grow my ability to move other things out of my life.
The difficulty in all of this is that is can come to very quickly resemble the binge/purge cycles of eating disorders. The challenge in all of these is how not to become stuck, to all ow both food and possessions to flow through my life in a way that is nourishing and pleasurable.
At least this week I was able to migrate my digital music collection and photo archive off of a mechanical hard drive that was performing erratically and onto one that seems more stable and capacious. In the process I also managed to discover archives for some earlier art projects as well as some personal photos that I hadn’t seen in ages. I got a chunky drive off of my desk, and felt a bit more in control
Saturday morning and I’m getting deep with the Au Pairs. Why don’t they have a jukebox musical? Also they do an excellent version of Bowie’s “Repetition”, which I always thought was his attempt to write a Talking Heads song.
I hear things differently when I turn of the streaming options and just haul out records and listen to them all the way through. In fact I’m trying to reimagine my current audio set up – to refocus on quality, now that I don’t have to shove fifty different multimedia boxes through he same amplifier.
Yesterday I enlisted help with overhauling this site to make it more useful to visitors. It might be nice if you could look at some of the images of my work and find out what the piece was called, for example.
Also revisiting a project from 1997 : Hare Follies, a performance collaboration with Chris Cochrane and Patricia Hoffbauer and Ishmael Houston-Jones. It reads to me now as the culmination of all of the rabbit – hole – racial images in my work from the early 1990’s onward. For a long time I couldn’t bear to watch myself in it. But there’s a lot in there i feel actually good about, even though it’s my biggest most public fan letter to Richard Foreman and Kathy Acker ever. At least I trod the boards of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in my union suit, narrating all my fears of internalized racism.
The show is about me owning my shit, and looking at it now, there are parts that prefigure the ways that my performance would move out of public spaces and into the kink/BDSM context. There’s a lot of humiliation, dominance and restraining in the show which incorporates my rewriting of things like Blacula, The Turner Diaries, The Octaroon, and transcripts of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I wrote the script, designed the costumes and sets and directed. I wanted to have someone else act the central part but I remember during the audition process when I was trying to get Stuart Sherman to take the part he just looked at me and said “Really, these are your issues, you should do it”. He was right, but that has lead me to shy away from watching myself in it for twenty years.
New lunch place on the block and it’s Cava – the Greek(?) version of fast casual whatever – in other words: here’s a pile of stuff in a bowl. I’m not complaining much, since some of these places give me just what I want – a little bit of a number of different flavors all on one plate. They must be nightmares for any person who hates to have their food touch, but I enjoy poking around in them.
I was trying to figure out what sort of an eating experience they were modeled on however, all these rice bowls and grain bowls and such and while I think they started out as the offspring of salads, at this point they draw on another eating tradition: leftovers. Single folks rarely experience leftovers of much variety, at least I don’t.If I’m cooking something I either make enough for one night or enough for a week, and it’s usually one dish, not five types of vegetables. These bowls are like someone rummaging through the family fridge after a holiday. There’s a couple of tablespoons of everything, and some sauce to tie it all together. That’s why the are so comforting to eat at your desk. It’s like someone cared enough to put together all the scraps and send you off to work with them.
As environments, all of these places are the same, extensions of that I’ve been calling The White Tube, a visual retail environment that makes all urban locations into the same location through careful deployment of Edison Bulbs, white painted brick, reclaimed wood, and uncomfortable stools. These places, with their attached apps for online ordering are never about lingering, they are about getting you your food with the smallest possible amount of human contact possible and getting you back out the door. Given how similar they all are, it’s easy to foresee a future they start to merge and you just order via app and pick up food from any number of comapanies via something like an Amazon dropbox, your packages and your bowl of noms delivered to you in the Automat of the 21st century.
Today is the day that I mark as the one when I first joined the furry fandom and thus it’s the day I celebrate the arrival of Gnomen, my first fully conceived animal surrogate. A birthday of sorts. A naming day. Somebody is six years old.
Gnomen is something very distinct from the other ways that animals have cropped up in my work, even though I’ve used images of monsters and beasts for years. There was so much rabbit imagery in my work in the 90’s that in most people’s minds I became “The Bunny Guy”. Even today much of my drawing language stems from being a child absorbed by cartoons, comics and animation. I wanted to exist in the frames of a Bob Clampett cartoon as much as I wanted my work to hang on the walls of a museum, if not more so. Animation cells remain magic objects for me, especially ones that show weird bits of a sequence that you wouldn’t think to look at otherwise. I’ve thought alot about how the rebroadcasting of classic studio cartoons on TV in the sixties was a generation’s conduit to the legacy of disreputable American entertainment: burlesque, vaudeville and minstrelsy. Bugs Bunny cracks wise in a voice that includes immigrants, genderblurred and the dispossessed, even as he traffics in blatant stereotypes.
Much of my earlier work was speaking through that imagery, using it to point to discourses of race and queerness. Furry seems to me to be about something very different. It is a kind of working, of identity formation that has more to do with embodiment, than it has to do with pure imagery. Gnomen is a character who has adventures that Nayland can’t. They undergo transformations and troubles and at the same time they embody my own sense of hybridity and mutability. Gnomen is a kind of working that rarely finds a place in galleries these days, but weirdly enough has landed on the cover of a magazine.
Owning my relationship to this fandom has brought some important things into my life, and I think this year is going to be about doing more of that. Here’s a picture I drew to celebrate Gnomen’s presence in my life. If you want to see me drawing it, I put this video up on youtube.
Part of the new year’s experiment is Twitter reduction. Here’s some things that would have been tweets. Now they’re…aphorisms? observations? pointless?
Empires rule by convincing you that your horizon is the same as their borders, and that nothing lies beyond. (About the “art world”)
Saw Catherine Opie’s recent show at Lehman-Maupin : A glam vision of burning it all down. Couldn’t shake the wierdness of the context, given how nothing in the gallery was a millimeter out of place.
Utopian Queer sex parties are still happening in New York. Blessings on everyone doing that work!
No matter how hoity-toity New York galleries get with architecture and intimidation, they still have recourse to dorky laser-printed signs made of office paper, scotch tape and plastic inserts to tell you when they are closed for installation.
Adult Nay buys themself the toys young Nay wished for, if they even had existed. I can only imagine what play scenarios would have sprung to life if I had had access to action figures like this during Batman 66’s initial run. As it was, myself and my friends ran around schoolyards and neighborhood playgrounds spinning dramas of capture and control, escape and rescue. Most kids wanted to be Batman or Robin in those games. Not me.
King Tut started in the tv show, not in the comics, which I wasn’t reading then anyway. He was fat, gaudy, imperious and used his hypnotic powers to break down Batman’s vaunted mental control until the hero vacantly intones “Your every wish is my command…”
I was in enthralled. Everyone called Tut king, but we know he was a Queen pure and simple. His bombast, as enacted by Victor Bouno, is delicious. Everyone in Batman 66 delivers their lines like they are in film by Jack Smith or John Waters, which is the gold standard of acting as far as I’m concerned. Last week I went with a friend to watch Desperate Living and minus a few profane elements, it plays like an episode of B66. King Tut and Queen Carlotta of Mortville are rulers cut from the same cloth.
Seeing “8 Inch Retro” Tut in my comic store brought many of those memories back, and I grabbed the one remaining figure from the rack without thought of cost or room in my overstuffed apartment. Kids find the signposts they need, to create their future selves. I need Tut to find my past. A konk on the noggin and once again I rule.
What a year that 2018, eh? After spending a couple of days recouperating with good friends, and much time huddled in my anxiety pits, I’m trying to figure out this, the last year of my 50’s. Where my work will go, what sorts of interactions I will value, when and how to connect.
It’s hard not to feel bruised and mistreated in this time. And that’s from someone whose wounds are almost entirely self inflicted. By just about any standard I am living a life of immense privilege and luck. I’ve found a way of living that allows me to engage creatively with my world and with friends. A very good life. So if I’m feeling pained it is from the things I drag into that life, the time I spend misusing media, the drains on my attention and energy.
There have been more and more days this past year where I have woken up, and immediately grabbed my phone, scanning twitter until I located the perfectly upsetting piece of news, and then flipping over to instagram to see how many endorphin nuggets of attention my latest picture has received. Buzzing with distress and self-satisfaction, I then head out to meet my day off center and with no plan for action. Time slips by, things don’t get done, the fear of deadlines looms until I flop down to sleep and wake and do it all again. Hardly sustainable.
For a while this year I had the luxury of remembering what my days used to be – how many books I read, how my ideas and investigations were guided by my intuitions and not driven by the priorities of platforms. I need to value my attention at a higher rate, and have the faith that I do not have to be part of every conversation. Deeper and slower can be the watchwords.