2016 resolution : teaching artist

In 2015 I created a teachable framework for artists to become more sanely comfortable working with “dangerous” content.

Making art, the artist must spend a lot of time with the subject matter. If the subject matter is painful, or overwhelming, or is something intractably painful as reported by popular news media, how do we tolerate studying it for awhile, to make art from it?

I taught this step-by-step method to a small group of undergraduate and graduate art students at Northern Illinois University when I was a visiting artist this fall. Each artist adapted the method to their own use pretty much immediately, identifying places where they “get stuck” with the content, or when and how they allow the content to give them too much stress.

Further discussion with other art teachers point to how useful this framework may be for creatives struggling with the ‘safe space’ discussion.

I would love to be able to bring this workshop to more art departments in 2016! I am not so skilled at “how to apply to be a visiting artist” and would love to get better at that, so I can teach more of this to more people.


[ taking things apart ] at NIU

Hello, Wednesday . . . Its sunny and quiet here in Milwaukee. I’ve had a few days to mull over my first-ever turn as a Visiting Artist, at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

I was invited there by Josephine Burke, the Art Museum director. She had programmed UNLOADED into the museum exhibition schedule. Susanne Slavic, UNLOADED’s curator, had included ungun in the show. This work – excerpted here – pulls at our media-presented gun, as used as an actor in films and other stories. The glitched image invites the audience to construct their own inward image, built of memories of either physical experience with the object or the media presentation of guns.

In making the work, I kept cutting through fear, frustration, and rage. People who saw the work in progress asked me to continue working in that way. This has happened with other past, difficult content – the audience pulling me along through something public, something from history, something painful, to make sense of it. The repeated “please make this” response to SPOILED HEAT and VIGIL, as I was making them.

I know the tension of not wanting to work with something broken ‘out there’ that I can’t fix in my creative life. I’ve chosen to do the work because of my need to reconcile with ’the pain out there’. I come from a family of doctors. To me its natural, to see and contend with ‘the disease out there’.

I have watched other artists and poets struggle with public pain in a variety of ways. And over the years, people have asked me, “how do you do this?” Mind you, I don’t deal with deeply painful content all the time. I do it enough of the time that I have a protocol of creative practice and self-care that facilitates deep consideration of traumatic material.

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJ

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus [ the new angel ]

Historian Walter Benjamin invokes this image as the angel considering
the mountain of traumatic information inherited from history

Why teach this now? Well, our history is full of horrifying material; we can access disturbing simulacra of this material on the internet. Additionally, the internet reports new traumatic stuff to us at an overloading speed. At times, it feels like the horrors silence the joy. Or, rather, the overload asks us to silence our hearts in order to have the mental capacity to look at the litanies of awful.


Some artists I’m connected to talk about getting flak for making ‘aesthetic only’ art during a time of great social upheaval, of great public pain. I think its revolutionary to remain creatively alive right now. It is also so important to do whatever brings us deep joy, that is not self-destructive, almost to inoculate us against the ‘news of the world’ by providing us with lifeboats of joy and satisfaction in our work, in art we can share with each other.


The taking things apart workshop arose as the answer to the repeated question, ‘how can I move in that direction and stay sane?’ I also come from a family of teachers; I’ve been teaching or tutoring in many places to make my living since finishing grad school in 2002. Why not teach what I’ve learned?


Artists know that good work often arises after long contemplation of subject material. What if the subject material is particularly emotionally charged? What if the people around us can’t talk about that content, and we feel alone with it? This methodology honors the mind’s quickness at apprehending information and the heart’s slowness at making meaning. It provides artist with an externalized routine and perspective that can serve as the protective gear for considering painful evidence from the world for long periods of time. Techniques for “putting it down” and respecting one’s own capacity for contemplation are built into the practice.

I taught an early version of this methodology last Friday morning at NIU. Each participant took to it to help work through immediate blocks or difficulties with their own content. Teaching the methodology was a privilege. Every student expressed gratitude for the new tool-set, which would help them each in quite different ways.

I’m going to build it out, of course. I look forward to teaching this workshop in other places. If you have ideas for where those places might be, put them in the comments!

[ comfort food ] on poet at the end of the world

No one lives outside the walls of this sacred place, existance. ~ St Francis of Assissi

My contribution to Rob Hendler & co’s Chicago-based poetry podcast, Poet at the End of the World, comes third. I follow Mojdeh Stoakley and Greg Curry;  Andy Karol closes the show for us  . . .

My contribution, Comfort Food, is on surviving the media’s mindless re-presentation of gun violence in America.


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ode to completion : i.thou

i.thou now stands as a 40 minute experimental film.

The stills collected here are moments from the making process.

The film is as much about the illusion of filmmaking as it is the illusion of perception, the malleability of our senses . . . A meditation on social vs. personal [ lived ] identity. Lived self and the dance of projection.

It’s also a 40-minute hallucinated, irrational, unbelieved, outrageous homage to women who have disappeared – – an imagined resurrection of the body of ‘the dead girl’ so many stories are built on in our media.

Silence, voice, image, experience, ownership . . .

. . . I’m putting the final touches on the audio mix today and tomorrow.

[ thoughts from the gallery of stills on flickr ]

motoi yamamoto’s salt installations



poetics of annihilation : motoi yamamoto’s salt installations

“In Japan, [salt] is indispensable in the death culture… In the beginning, I was interested in the fact that salt is used in funerals or in its subtle transparency. But gradually, I came to a point where the salt in my work might have been a part of some creature and supported their lives. Now I believe that salt enfolds the memory of lives.” Motoi Yamamoto

the comprehensibility of dying squid

Earlier this evening I saw Bill Viola’s “Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” in an intimate screening. The artist was present, along with faculty members and an audience of thirty to forty people. We sat in a small auditorium in a small, excellent liberal arts school.

“Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” is about eighty-five minutes long. On the surface, it scanned like Chris Marker’s film, Sans Soleil. I say ‘on the surface’ because it was just a moment that inspired that connection – the moment ‘pachinko’ is on screen, and then, later, a man lighting a cigarette, one of the only completed human gestures in the piece. If Sans Soleil had been made on video and without the narrative, then they could be twins. Instead they are distant relatives, only connected by the fact that the audience is considering moving images that, scene by scene, unfold like a photo-roman . . . if each of the photos is a technically-perfect, gorgeous long moving-image shot. Oh, and both works were shot in Japan – Viola’s in its entirety, while Marker’s Sans Soleil was mostly filmed there.

What’s the distinction between video and film? As Christopher Zimmerman put it in the liner notes for the evening’s get together, “”Where film is a succession of individual still images … video consists of constantly vibrating signals.” That’s key. In each work’s case, the maker’s use of the form is perfectly mirrored in the expression of content presented by that form. Marker’s film is a series of shots, of images expanded. Marker uses mostly jump cuts as he provides a long sequence of images which become narrative, when paired with the voiceover.

Video, particularly analog video on tape, is about signal. Talking about his work this evening Viola repeatedly referred to signal. The technical metaphors for him, of signal being a way of accessing an inner world or imagined world, of signal’s liquidity, its nature as carrier of light ~ that’s the core of the medium for Bill Viola. The series of scenes transitioned by fade-to-black are usually slow-mo. Visual information shifts in a series of liminal perceptual spaces; the viewer can lose themselves in sensory input or decide to recognize the information displayed on the screen.


During Q&A I admitted to the artist that I was so tired I was closing my eyes in the middle of the opus. Viola interrupted me to reply, “That’s OK, I slept through parts myself.” About two-thirds of the way through the film there are shots of dying squid, on a Japanese fishing boat. They’re beautiful. Captured in the highest fidelity Sony cameras available at the time, glossy, a particular coral peach, they are just dying. We watched them die, in slow motion.

Squid death was discussed by the academics with some horror. Kira Perov, Viola’s creative partner, spoke to the difficulty she had when they were originally shooting the work on the fishing boat. She struggled with the question of putting the equipment down to rescue the animals. It horrified her to watch them die.


Today, I took a long trip to a small town in Wisconsin to meet the artist, to see the work. Bill Viola’s work has sustained me for a long time. I am a multiple near death experience survivor; Viola’s own NDE experience deeply informs his work. His work is oxygen for me.

On a Greyhound bus I split my time between Twitter and Facebook attempting to find out if my Boston friends were OK. What in Gods name happened there. I somehow kept my stomach firmly in my belly, not becoming nauseous even though the fragments of information did not piece together. Made me disoriented. The speed of (dis)information, insistant squabbles about authenticity, tweets that stated “quit just retweeting things”. The utter lack of clarity as major news outlets chose the wrong information to publish to those who still use TV, and then retracted, then asserted something else.


The long slow shots of dying squid made sense. Watching the beautiful, projected analog video – no, I couldn’t look away. It was slow. In its slowness my mind and heart were allowed to come into a shared rhythm of comprehension that respected my whole being. Horrifying, yes, but in a comprehensible way, an acceptable way.

Now I pick out the shrapnel from the fragmented “communication” about the bombings at the Boston Marathon out of me. I have a bit of skill witnessing difficulty like this, I’ve practiced with the ‘poetics of annihilation’ attention/artwork over the years. Yes, I say, once again, media’s doing it wrong. I think we already know that.

homicide watch: journalism from the poetics of annihilation

A website documenting every homicide in Washington D.C.


Simple, direct reporting that could not happen without the ‘net. Innovative – the content works outside the ‘newspaper’ model. The site removes the narrator from story, which suits the content, a social trauma almost too difficult to narrate.

The site uniquely provides a wailing wall, or public emotional container for those affected by the crimes profiled. The click-response, the intimacy of the internet allows for this kind of virtual community around grief. Something like Facebook or Twitter simply capitalizes on the ‘net’s illusion of immediate connection. In this context, something else can play out, answering a social need [providing a container for grief] in a unique way.

Documentation of the mechanisms of justice applied to each particular situation, simple witnessing without the intervention of the narrative voice of the reporter. Presentation of court documents in each case, instead of a narrator telling us about what was filed, who was charged in each case.

Happily, their Kickstarter fundraiser to continue publication recently met its goal. Check that project description for Laura Amico and Chris Amico’s bios and more information surrounding the project.

Thanks to @aaronsw for the link to this in-depth supportive post from Clay Shirky. That discussion fascinates me from the practical standpoint of managing an internet startup company, which the Kickstarter fundraiser was, in part, built to address.


refreshing the the poetics of annihilation

Sometimes the mistake comes from seeing it all the way through to the end, without having begun.

The ease of overplanning facilitated by computers kills work the cradle. Once the imagination knows what the trip is going to be like, it doesn’t want to take it.

The drafting process is the first third of the path to having the work exist outside the mind/body. Editing is the second third. The audience meets the work, ‘publication’. The last third.

Each stage has its own demands, its own peculiar kind of sweat.


I live in a culture steeped in violence. There is violence in the work. Or there is consideration of recovering from violence, contending with it. I have made work that is psychologically or spiritually violent, yet I sit on it. Right now, I do not want to inflict it on an audience.

I am an American. Like other Americans I walk around with the blood of indiginous people on my feet, with the blood of slaves on my feet, with the blood of domestic violence on my feet. History soaked our nation’s birth with blood. We consume images and stories soaked with violence.

We can create peace. How do we create peace from a violent fabric? How does the transformation happen? Does it start with forgiving the past we have inherited, in order to simply let it drop, in order to make something new?

The poetics of annihilation are my name for looking at the violent stories of the 20th century, looking at our inheritance, and figuring out what to do with those stories. There is so much: the US government infecting african-americans with siphilus. The German government killing millions of civilians. The US dropping atomic bombs on Japan. The hundreds of millions of acts of war that individuals perpetrated at the behest of their governments.

How do we choose to witness this? We have our methods of recording, our films, our books, our internet. How can we face the weight of that violent fabric woven by those who went before us, and move forward without re-making that?

How can we, the talking monkeys, see, but not do?

this is how they wait

how they wait


March 16 2012 somewhere around 5:30 pm a pedestrian went under the wheels of a metra express train. Delays were for 75 to 150 minutes. People at Des Plaines station were frantically calling for cabs or family members to pick them up, or trying to figure out buses. I started walking, to process a long day at work.

I headed towards the next station. I passed this metra train, waiting, in the dark.

Only after I started taking pictures did I realize the train was full of people. Later, when it finally moved, I discovered a second train was parked behind the one I had been photographing.

Link through to the set on Flickr

the artist posed as bully

“I hate this song and Eminem. His music is filled with misogyny.” she wrote in a comment.

Each of us makes something of what happens in our lives. We each put our excretions into the world – this is Sufi philosophy.

Eminem argues with himself, his experience, his hatred in public. To answer hate with hate is to dance with him on his terms. That’s a big part of his movie 8 mile – he learns to control his own behavior, chooses to define the terms of the dance in the world, instead of reacting to the other’s provocation.

Eminem seems to struggle with his own illusions of control, addiction, and issues of relational dominance. He makes from that struggle. He sorts through his own shit.

He voices violence against women in relationship to him. If we as women can’t face that down, can’t learn to redefine that dance as we face people like Eminem, what strength do we have in this world? I’m not saying to distract ourselves by arguing with bullies, I’m speaking to something larger …

I like the fight he has, his commitment to making his way.

There are many tricks in his lyrics. He may be tricking himself too. Don’t confuse the entertainer with the mask they are wearing … There are entertainers I know who preach peace but walk in the world with an incredible amount of violence/social dominance. You never know till you meet the person.


september eleventh two thousand one

Ten years ago I was on a train in Boston, heading to Colin Owens studio to do some recording. All of a sudden cellphones started going off. When I switched to a bus downtown, I asked one of the blank-faced evacuating office workers what was happening in the world. He said “We only had radio, but something hit the Pentagon.”

When I got to Colin’s, he opened the door and I asked, “Do you have TV?” and he asked, “Do you have cigarettes?” The F-16’s that were scrambled from outside of Boston buzzed the house in Jamaica Plain as we smoked on the porch after watching the second tower come down.

We spent the rest of the day recording my super-slow violin performance of Ave Maria. That’s what I had planned to record that day.

how do we tell ourselves about war as it happens?

Windows on the War at the Art Institute of Chicago

During World War II they made posters. The exhibit includes display of stencils used to make one image, since most of these posters were made using spray paint and stencils in a modified printmaking technique. Each country used painterly images to talk about enduring the process of making war, giving faces of sorts to enemy leaders, and create images to tell the story of discovering the atrocities perpetuated in the Germans’ Holocaust.

windows on the war : gallery view

The Art Institute of Chicago currently displays an enormous selection of these posters from its own collection. Of course I thought about how we talk about war now. I thought about the lack of created images representing the struggle with America’s wars abroad. I thought about how the more publicized American artists fiddle with ‘beautiful decoration’, cleverness, and technology. I thought about how young artists crucify themselves on the pursuit of fame in the castrated visual language of the academy. I thought about how digital media will not survive in the way these works on paper have survived. I thought about how each poster did not have an ‘artist’s signature’ yet somehow ‘credit’ was given the artist, or the group of artists, responsible for the work on view.

Then, I thought about the work.

I am interested in the artists’ choices as they created visual language of the evils unfolding somewhere else.

ben shahn poster describing nazi brutality

Wall text accompanying the 1942 image by Ben Shahn, published as an offset lithograph by the Office of War Information, US Government Printing Office:

This is one of only two designs by Ben Shahn printed for the Office of War Information. Inspired by the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, an industrial village razed by the Nazis in retaliation for the 1942 shooting of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, Shahn portrayed a cornered man cloaked in a hood, fists clenched against a high brick wall.

This design prompted critics to ask what kind of “realism” could best communicate to the American people – the storybook folk realism of Norman Rockwell, or the chilling documentary realism of Shahn.

nikolai denisovskii : straining in vain

Nikolai Denisovskii’s stencil poster, one of an edition of 650. Russian.

From the wall text : Despite the fact that Germany’s human resources are exhausted, the Fascists keep announcing new “super-total” mobilizations.

Plucked clean from all ends,
There sits the blood-drinking vulture.
But no matter how hard the killer tries,
He cannot get his chicks to hatch.

Against an ominous sky, a Nazi bird of prey with Hitler’s features sits on the skulls of slain German soldiers as if they are eggs from which it is possible to hatch new recruits. The text by the young satirical poet Mikhail Vershinin displays an admirable economy of means, underscoring all the ironies of the image in just four brief lines.

a statesman for contemporary germany

Nikolai Denisovskii’s stencil poster, one of an edition of 1,000. Russian.

From the wall text : The Lublin camp, with its calculated and fearsomely methodical technique of exterminating people, again strongly underscores the STATE-SPONSORED nature of the German organization of mass murder and torture. From the newspaper, Krasnaia zvezda.

In this chilling poster, the soldier being honored symbolizes all of the occupying German forces along the Eastern front, which were Hitler’s willing executioners. This poster coincided with the Red Army’s first encounter with a Nazi extermination camp – Majdanek – on July 24, 1944.


The wall text describing what it was like to discover the concentration camps broke my heart. I have read anecdotes of American GIs suffering post traumatic stress responses (sleep disturbances and more) years after they discovered what they discovered freeing those camps. The Russian stories are in its own category.

For images from the Art Institute, click through here.

how do we talk about it when we talk about atrocity?

They supposed it was a muslim terror cell.


Its easier to talk about Amy. Especially in the creative community, we know people who struggle with that self-destructivity.

What happened in Norway traumatizes every member of the human community. Its a trauma because it is unfamiliar. Its a trauma because we don’t have words for it. We do not want to imagine ourselves among the hunted.

Mass killing by a single person only is familiar through our violent films and video games. Those arenas provide us the privileged illusion of control with our game controllers, our remote controls.

We feel powerless witnessing Norway. Who wants to feel powerless?


schadenfreude : pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others

‎”Our media though is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall. ”

Russell Brand on Amy Winehouse: ‘We have lost a beautiful, talented woman’

This particular poison, schadenfreude, allows the witness the vanity of feeling superior to someone who otherwise would be an object of jealousy. Schadenfreude’s cheap ego boost also provides an out. One does not have to offer a helping hand to someone one snarks while stepping over them as they lay dying, while giving you their best.


I think that we need public rituals for witnessing distant atrocities, distant suffering. We need ritual mental and emotional space for what we see in the media.

Once I went to New Orleans to figure out what it meant for that place to survive a hurricane. I don’t know how to get to Norway from here. I only know the media, with its cheap made-up stories built to ‘tell us something first’, fails us.

Just look at his picture. You know, of the highly-organized, white-faced, conservative Christian.