Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Last Chants for Health Care Reform

Within the whimsical title lies the mission of the previous weekend: a stroll with another 699 or so hardy souls across the Brooklyn Bridge.

That we were culled from the rolls of Obama supporters was a cinch. Who else would stage a protest in mid-February over the span of the windy East River? I would not rule out Tea Baggers, except that most of their activities seem to be confined to optimum climate conditions and never without adequate press coverage (meaning: Fox News). As much as memory serves that there were some official-type cameras out there, but the only one I recollect as being part of some media was the live webcast of the guy behind me carrying his iBook open to the built-in lens as his buddy carried a sign saying "KEEP IT ON THE CHEEP" written in copper paint and more significantly (and photogenically, I might add) while wearing what might be a classic Yves Saint Laurent grey twill suit, his jacket liberally coated with shiny pennies.

Ok. So I lied. It wasn't that cold. It was actually very nice. After gathering at the North end of Cadman Plaza under the eyes and prodigious muttonchops of the bust of some NYC mayor from 1910 (whose name escapes me), there was some attempt made to stage manage the presentation. First, it was important to get the health care professionals up front behind their banner, and it was ok to not wear a white lab coat either, as long as you were one. (Honor system.) Second, a variety of placards were distributed; some pre-printed, some homemade. Some people (like the above) brought their own banners like, "Upper West Side Baby Boomers for the Public Option" or affixed their own slogans to paint stirrers or a pizza box. (Liked that one--so American.) What impressed most about this melange was how random it was: the only homogenity was (probably) geniality. This is pretty much EXACTLY what I saw in the campaign: old, young, black, white, asian, dumpy and dowdy, sleek and chic, athletic and last legs. A common purpose, yes, but that defining factor as well: not just to talk the talk--a desire to walk the walk...literally.

That is not the subject of this, however. You want to read about the whole thing, I understand the Daily Kos has some mention of it. It is one thing to go on at length about the experience and its minutae; it is another to add the critique from that perspective.

The reason for the cutesy-pie play-on-words title is that the quibble here really is with one of the whole activities behind ANY march: that is--to protest, to RAISE A HUE AND CRY! (Ok. One aside: Without looking, I'd venture that the "Hue" part comes down to something like "Show your colors" or such. Any bets?) They spent a few bucks, most likely from the DNC, on the placards. But zero on the actual function of the whole thing.

That is: to raise your voice. To be heard above the din. To stand out from the noise.

That is: to chant, too.

Having been in a few of these in the past, experience teaches that a bunch of people carrying signs are a lot more effective at attracting attention when they speak with one voice. Or at least one snappy rhyme.

So, to wit: this.

Point ONE: Not enough megaphones. For even 700 people you need one at either end and one in the middle. Battery-powered bullhorns are cheap; hardware stores carry them for probably no more than $20 bucks. If you want to unite people somebody's got to lead and keep time, and fill in the gaps when weaker, meeker folk fall faint. These are people for whom volume is unnatural (sans sporting event).

Point TWO: Iambic pentameter. This is obvious--don't make it too rhythmically complicated.

Point THREE: If you ARE going to have more than one, you need to pass out cheat sheets...and rehearse!

Below are the ones from the cheat sheet I got when they were to be got. Comments are between the brackets.

Two four six eight
Time to reconciliate!

[Everyone knows the first line. The second is a chore, and a word few people outside of the Office of Budget ever use.]

President Obama, Senator Reid,
the public option is what we need

[Too many syllables! No way to gauge the stresses on vowels!]

Hey, Congress, you've got health care!
Don't you know it's nice to share?

[This asks people to do not only a CONTRACTION! BUT! to add an inflection to make it a question! Much too subtle.]

Hey hey, ho ho
pre-existing conditions have got to go

[Too many fucking syllables!]

Two four six eight
health reform cannot wait
Anthem Wellpoint is raising rates

[Too obscure. Also as this whole thing was organized--by MoveOn.org at least partially--to protest the aforementioned insurance monster jacking up rates in California by 39%, it makes a fine speech...but becomes utter nonsense in an exhortation.]

Get it done, do it now!
You bailed out Wall Street, HEALTH CARE NOW!

[Confusing the message, and, as if it matters, repeating the rhyme word.]

We need health care across the nation --
Time for reconciliation!

[See the first here.]

As for the rest? Just read.

Pass the bill, don't pass the buck!

We didn't vote for the status quo
Health care obstacles have to go!

Let's finish Teddy's fight:
Health Care is a Human Right!

Health care for people,
Not for profits!

Health reform for people,
Not the special interests!

If special interests win,
We the people lose!

and finally...

What do we want?
Healthcare! (Change!) (Public Option!)
When do we want it? NOW!

The last here is the only one that managed to get anything going. Period. Part of the problem is, as well, the Doppler Effect. As the Yell King (to borrow from collegiate rah-rah, pep rally terminology) went down the line, people DID pick it up...but at different points. This produced the smear effect of having some sections in sync and others way off, turning an aggressive statement of position into something approximating LaMonte Young's Harmonic Series or "I Am Sitting In A Room" by Alvin Lucier: canceling out the frequencies over time.

The singular charm of this last one is that it is the only one with a call-&-response format. This was good enough to come out of black churches in the South and have the SCLC bring segregationists to heel, its good enough for the present. So, yeah--good structure, easy to remember, easy to know your part. And then there's the other side: do NOT give Democrats (or liberals for that matter) too many choices. They will argue about anything as much as Republicans follow a party line like baby ducks. The only way to deal with Democrats is to LEAD THEM (you listening, Barack?) and they will follow, reluctantly, but eventually.

How do I know? Because I did. Having seen enough "boot camp" sections of war movies, the beauty of cadence count was not lost on me. One strong, well-nigh monotonous shouter can do the same to a bunch of raw recruits as it can for disaffected-but-disgruntled New Yawkuhs. So, I basically blew out my pipes on the Brooklyn Bridge. Sonny Rollins did the same on the Williamsburg a few blocks North. He made great music and I got a bunch of raw recruits to make a tempo.

Nice day for a stroll, anyways.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tino Seghal, Guggenheim Museum - a meditation

negative space, positive emotions
positive space, empty emotions
full house, empty chatter
empty house, talk-filled

The world engages us at many points, enticing us to enter into the dialogue with it at whatever juncture chance and circumstance permit or dictate. We never know at which encounter we shall find paradise or disaster but we have no other choice but continue along, seeking some meaning even when it is obvious further intersections at specific junctures are no longer available. All around are examples of fruitful and intense discussions of the moment while all you have left is the knowledge that you can go to the edge and hurl yourslf over. Or watch the lovers in their obsessive embrace of each other from afar.

This is not a suicide note or a Beckett commentary but a review of the latest work by Tino Seghal. The Guggenheim Museum has taken a bold and startling step into the void. By commissioning a work by this "artist" they have actually taken Kierkegaard's leap of faith as well.

The tradition of performance art is one in which the line between the creator and the viewer is often no more than an participant and a non-participant. Theater, after the end of the Greek mixture of story and parable, myth and religion, was pretty much the set proscenium until Brecht destroyed the fourth wall--that separating the actors and audience. the main difference would be that the actors have a set mission, the audience none. The heyday of this was the '60s, mainly, with Fluxus (as a group) and individuals of various stripes and stars, planting their flags to claim...whatever territory they could as an experience of neither one nor the other cited above, but, perhaps, with bits of both somewhere in there. As far as I read it, the final product wasn't a piece of commercial art, in any sense of the term, as much as a concept or conception of reality. What comes for the viewer/participant (and in some cases, witness) an attitude or philosophical view you could take home with you. That's why these things are of the moment and the moment only. Afterwards, you can think about it and ruminate on meanings and the whys and wherefores until the cows come home. This is what they use as the dividing line in the Law--it is called the "bright line". (For anything else on the law, see the other blog...)

The substance of Seghal's previous work has been the use of concepts involving human interactions. One I've heard of was a Whitney Biennial where the security guards at the exhibit suddenly began bursting into song. At one gallery on 57th Street, I sat in a room for an hour or more as various persons, in one or more groups, meandered about in the traditional "white cube", perhaps stretching like dancers in the middle, standing or sitting, moving between clusters but always chatting. the thrust of this one had to do with the idea of sustainable growth, as much as I could figure. But the key point was their selection of certain individuals--average gallery goers (or gawkers) for their opinions (or contributions) on the topic as participants. They then might be engaged for a few lines of exchange and dropped when another actor/speaker comes in from a direct approach, followed by another at oblique or even a non-sequitor, until that "thread" has disappeared or mutated into another discussion altogether. The one contiguous line that was sustained between a participant and "actors" was about recycling and waste considered as an asset rather than a problem or a hazard to communities. And this was fascinating. Moreso because, after hearing the elliptical chat come around at least twice previously, I could sense when the set of instructions given by Seghal were beyond the reach of this digression. The only way to bring it back was a reset by (I suppose) the event "leader". This was conversation as cocktail party, sans social lubricant.

What his work emphasizes is the abiding fact that we, as social beings and cultural participants, all understand, inherently, implicitly: conversations are not scripted dialogues; they are living breaths--an expulsion of gases to project an ephemeral thought into the air, just to see what happens. Sometimes it immediately offends (especially when there is neglect of dental hygiene), at others it might merely rankle as it disturbs our preconceived notions. Then, there are those that draw us in, sometimes slowly, sometimes via an immediate spark of recognition. And the maddening thing is, among a group, you can be having the most engrossing discussion with one or more persons and then, suddenly, one remark from someone will completely change the subject, and what was an alternate universe (where two more sentences and you might have discovered the meaning of life) goes spinning off into the aether as a possible-but-unrealized, magnificent completion.

But that's all it is, all it was. And the wisest thing you can say about that moment is that it transcended itself. (What? Nevermind, it becomes clearer soon.)

The present case is a study in space and time--but not of quantum physics or the cosmic as much as human dimensions. For one thing, Saturday night after 5:45PM is the pay-what-you-will period. Whoever shows up is therefore...frugal, but with an avid interest in art. Also, this being if not the coldest f*king night of the year then pretty close means, as well, that these are not only a hearty but determined lot. Once in, the first thing are confronted by is the fact that you pay at the entrance--not at the usual one in the center of the ellipse. That is already occupied by les amorants. The French is there just because the man and woman making out in the middle are so locked into each other it looks like a Rodin mobile, wherein they circle about, writhe and join (all clothed--don't get the wrong idea), kiss and carress almost as if they should have a Michel LeGrande or Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack. I mean, it has been a while since P.D.A. meant more than personal desk assistant to me, but I know it when I see it. (And if they are acting, one can only hope that they won't be, after a bit.)

The elf and I were joined by a friend who knew a bit more than I about the doings, and said, instead of doing the usual elevator to the top, that we said we should walk up the ramp. As we stopped by the side of the first turning to view the obsessed two, he was approached by a little girl, who introduced herself with the statement, "This is the work of Tino Seghal. Would you like to come with me?" He shook her hand and they were off. We followed at a discrete pace but couldn't catch the entire drift. My friend attempted to bring us into the sphere by explaining they were discussing technology and economic growth. With a 12-year-old, no less. Intriguing, to say the least, but she did not seem to know how to react to a 3rd party opinion. Deferring to the young lady's lead, she took him into a side corridor while we looked around.

If you know anything about the Guggenheim, you know that it is one long spiral from bottom to top. Inside of it, it looks like a perfect white orange peel on the surface. It is on the secondary peel where the artworks hang...only there aren't any right now. Bare walls--that's all. Absent the paint; naked as the day it was born.

When I turn again, I see my friend has acquired a new companion, a post-teen or college-age male and they are deeply into whatever the topic has become. We continue up, at a discrete distance, looking for whatever cues are next. After passing several clusters of similar folks as ourselves--hanging at the rim and occasionally peering down at the evolving embraces--I note my friend has another person, and far down and behind us. Also, there is the overwhelming sense of the utter strangeness of this event, or, if you will, exhibition.

You see, there are few opportunities where one of the world's great buildings is the star of itself, and this is one of them. Even as I realize that there is some connection missed to the piece in question, there is the overwhelming sense of its opposite. I am reminded of the Library of Umberto Eco as described by Nicolas Nassim Taleb in "The Black Swan" (cited heretofore, and probably waay too much). NNT was more fascinated by the books Eco had not read, but more, as an extension of that thought beyond the potential for what might be learned, at the information NOT available, and especially how that information would shape what IS known.

And what is known is that the building is a hive of voices; not a buzz so much as rumble, the echo of so many people shuffling and murmuring. And as you check out the pair down there, it becomes more startling to see everyone else doing the same...and then you, as them. Remember: these walls are empty, their hard surfaces bouncing every nuance of sound, but also highlighting our silhouettes; outside of Kara Walker, no other "art experience" comes near it. And this is the other salient object of a performance piece; after the author, the audience. The constant evolution of contours notwithstanding, we move alike and apart yet without differentiation. It is also evident that we are looking at each other because we were not chosen to be active in the piece's positive aspect...but are fully the background to it: neutral actors in a positive space.

When I meet my friend at the top in the small side gallery (where there is a neat cache of surrealist canvas gems) he explains that it was as I suspected. Each talker conveys you to the next in a chain of increasing age and intimacies. This realization had come to me already: I have no access point by which to enter the relay. Even as he expresses intense enthusiasm for the exchanges with his handlers, I am examining my choice, and find it not that far from Robert Frost's "The Path Not Taken". My mistake was in believing that my previous exposure to Seghal would continue to rule the game here. At the gallery, it was completely non-linear and looping; here, it was not only linear but fixed duration. And of course it should be: a spiral is nothing more than a line. Yet there is more geometry going on here than that of coordinates on an x/y/z set of axes; there is also the minus signs on those integer sets. The place where one's feelings may curve into negative space.

In the earliest known work of Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" a fragment entitled "Excursion into the Mountains", he has personified loneliness (or alone-ness, if you will) into a character refered to as Nonexistence. (Now that's what I call an imaginary friend!) In the course of this brief, he also forms concepts out of "nothing" and "non-doing". But, unlike the standard issue emotional content of these terms, Kafka finds a serene joy, and even a kind of comeraderie, joining in a trip of these no-ones ("Diese Niemands"), these solos, walking arm-in-arm with the other numberless no-ones. The virtues of a negative experience require more justification, to those with a positive experience, and will never be envied or probably even asked about their journey, but is not less fulfilling. Perhaps many would say, this comes under the same heading as "differently-abled" but cannot be dismissed as a "short bus" ride.

On the walk down, it remains an open question as to whether I should take the hand preferred by the little 12-year-old girl at the bottom and have the positive experience everyone is here for...but not for me. What all these people are happy about is not a good conversation as much as an invitation to a dialogue and a one-to-one performance; half-script/half-inquiry, all-customized to their reactions. And all I can think of is Eco's unread books--the unknown vs. the knowable, that which remains available: the potential. I can say, as easily, that I missed it. But what was it? If I asked any of the participants, how many views would I have, and how many would be right? Would they be "winners"? And if I asked "Diese Niemands", would their answers be worse, or better? Or that of "losers"? Should they have settled for less and wanted more, or settled for more and wanted less?

At the end, if there is wisdom at all, comes the realization that being alone is neither sad nor tragic but an eventuality we all must face, and the sooner one gives up on hope the better...to admire the view.