I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.
I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.
His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.
I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.
Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.
This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.
My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.
It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns.
Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –
How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?
I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation. That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.
I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.
She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.
Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.
This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.
The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.
So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.
I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED. It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.
Chicago’s West Side School for the Desperate, a poetry collective living and working together in Logan Square for the last 2 years, hosted their final show Saturday April 13. Lease issues and the collective’s need to grow in new directions mean they’re closing up shop and moving on.
Its been amazing to watch the regularly-attending open-mic poets grow since I’ve been photographing (& occasionally reading) at the Bad News Bible Church monthly event … All performances at that show were energized by an audience willing to play ‘net’ for every new poetic acrobat – every poet, musician, lyricist, or other experiment here surfed the crowd, at least in spirit.
Creative community for the sake of community is a sacred space. WSSD gave Chicago this for 2 years. I don’t think anything’s gonna come along very soon to take its place.
Photo gallery for the last installment of Bad News Bible Church over here.
I might be movin’ to Montana soon
Just to raise me up a crop of Dental Floss Raisin’ it up
Waxen it down
In a little white box
I can sell uptown
I met him through his daughter, Moon Unit, who had a pop song that did really well in the early 80’s. I loved him for the kind of music that he made that was all squiggly (for the lack of a better word) that had lyrics like the ones to Montana, which run through this little essay.
Later he became Seriously Important. His testimony at the PMRC labeling hearings before Congress were aired on TV. His testimony declared creative freedom, defended personal liberty to create.
Frank’s testimony provides astute insight into the gap between performer and audience. His description of audience as ‘consumers’ back then touches the contemporary audience identity of those who now get their music without paying for it.
Movin’ to Montana soon
Gonna be a Dental Floss tycoon
(yes I am)
Revisiting his testimony, I reflect on his discussion of ‘the music industry’. Record labels mediated the relationship between composer (Zappa’s language) and audience. Music was a product, to the audience. For the composer, music is an activity. The industry itself transformed music from activity to product. Congress was acting to regulate that – the way that music as a product was marketed to the audience. Zappa was testifying to how that regulation would affect the creator.
I’m ridin’ a small tiny hoss
(His name is MIGHTY LITTLE)
He’s a good hoss
Even though He’s a bit dinky to strap a big saddle or
Blanket on anyway
Zappa’s core message has been ignored. Why regulate music, declaring it good or bad? Why not provide music education in the public education systems funded by the government, so that people can decide for themselves what is good or bad? I mean, that’s the function of the constitution, right? To provide us with the liberty to enjoy our deciding of good and bad in our own lives.
He’s a bit dinky to strap a big saddle or
Blanket on anyway
Any way I’m pluckin’ the ol’ Dennil Floss
Even if you think it is a little silly, folks
I don’t care if you think it’s silly, folks
I don’t care if you think it’s silly, folks
His loopy, scribbly music. He talks about finding musical lines from the cadences of ordinary speech. Music as conversation. I’ve been learning how to write a fugue, more recently, with all of Bach’s etiquette. And here, in the fugue, is the process of conversation – a musical idea is passed back and forth between voices, evolving through slight shifts in notes and presentation. The vocabulary for the techniques of the fugue is a vocabulary of conversation.
Zappa takes that conversation from music theory to include the waveform. He talks about that in a wonderful documentary made after he was diagnosed with cancer.
Peefeeyatko contains the transition from instrumental music to the computer as performance tool. Today’s software puts Zappa’s programmable synthesizer into ordinary computers anyone can walk into a store and buy. This is important, and overlooked, I think, in the fight over who gets to better identify our discontent.
Every other wrangler would say
I was mighty grand
By myself I wouldn’t
Have no boss
But I’d be raisin’ my lonely Dental Floss
Raisin’ my lonely Dental Floss
Raisin’ my lonely Dental Floss
Our culture struggle with the problem of music-as-product vs. music-as-experience. The form by which the audience purchases it is so easy. Click a virtual button, a virtual thing downloads to an imaginary space inside a computer. Keep track of one’s sonic possessions by looking at lines of text on a screen. Keep track of those virtual possessions using a tool that you use to write email, read the internet, and do other things. Listen to that data file by clicking on it using a virtual tool, a mouse or trackpad.
The audio file is an invisible body. LP records, 8 tracks, cassette tapes, CDs are things, they give music physical weight. Does the iPod get heavier when I sync my music to it? The experience of listening is easily forgotten. The appreciation of value provided by the listening experience? Often overlooked, for it is our experience. American culture teaches the art of dissatisfaction, in order to fuel ongoing consumption.
Its so easy it makes people forget, or never learn, that the act of creating music takes a lot of work. Work which I need to return to – I want to learn how to write a fugue by writing a fugue, and writing this essay is a little bit of a distraction from that (I’m about a third of the way through that process).
Technology makes many things very easy for us. Technology makes it easy to consume. Remember to value what comes from us, what the tools themselves can’t do – like create the music, like play or speak from the stage.
They sent Mistake on purpose. Mistake, the poetry chapbook they published, the title of the collection they chose.
Make stuff, send it out. Sometimes I send the stuff itself – poetry manuscripts, DVDs. Sometimes I send the plans to make it happen – descriptions, to do lists, sketches. A feedback loop of non-response, acceptance, rejection.
I keep a semipublic sketchbook on this blog, on flickr, bits and pieces go to google+, to the Facebook page. The undialogue of ‘like’ing and +1-ing. The undialogue of no negative feedback. People are afraid of hurt feelings, people are afraid of alienation.
I found Mistake in my mailbox. Meredith Stricker’s manuscript won the 2011 Caketrain poetry chapbook contest. My entry did not. Glancing at a poem here, a poem there, her manuscript won it worthily, the work looks excellent. Right up my alley, too. I’m looking forward to reading it.
The nice thing about submitting work to poetry markets? So often they send content to read later. Not so much with the art shows, or the galleries. What did they do with that proposal, I wonder? That’s the non-response black hole the polished, tightly edited paperwork and supporting documents and DVDs go to. I have the delivery receipts. Blank refusals of no answer.
The editors, curators, gallerists I have enjoyed working with most have a useful etiquette for critique, for saying ‘no’. They provide some insight into why – “the inconsistency of your punctuation use tells me you haven’t figured out what that communicates yet”, “we like to publish work with stronger emotional punch”. That provides some insight into how to adjust my approach. At least, my approach to them.
What do I want for the work? Do I want it to be that way? I fold the critique back into the dough, as it were, and keep making.
A young musician struggling with how to get his creative life moving asked me what to look for in a creative relationship. I said, “Find a bass player that can tell you ‘no’ in a way that works for you”. He thought about it pretty hard. Apparently the kids these days like to take their ball and go home when the friends they play with give critical feedback.
I found Mistake in my mailbox. I had the privilege of starting to learn how to make at a very, very young age. I was four. Violin is hard. I was lucky, I had really patient teachers who validated my person while teaching my clumsy hands and wrists. I was lucky. I decided that my hands made the mistake, not me, when I had a tough teacher from second through 7th grade. (Thanks Mrs. Brandenburger!)
Mistake. Does mistake carry blame so our hands don’t have to? Its cousin, Accident, also a common target for our negative emotions keeps our egos blameless. Both mean our skills lack, not us. They can be a common foil for not developing our skill. We have to come back to the workbench, the practice room, the studio, to keep making.
Keep practicing. Keep sending. Excellence will follow. Or, what is good will find the right pair of eyes, the right set of ears. Some day, I will find my chapbook in the mailbox.