Monday, January 30, 2012

The Vault and Arch of Landscape Is All

In the dream, Susan Sontag is standing outside the empty shop window where Hunt and Gather on Jefferson Street used to be. I recognize her by her hair's skunk white streak, and well, I just recognize her from having read her critical essays and the novels, notably The Volcano Lover. She's gesturing at the abandoned enterprise, like there was something very particular she had been hoping to shop for there, some object that she was counting on getting that she cannot now purchase. On behalf of the entire town of Farmington, Missouri, I grab her by the hand and walk her over (it's not far, I tell her, you could hit a golf ball from here to there, I say) to a place, the only place this side of St. Louis, where I am certain she can fulfill her desire, whatever it may be—The Vault—our local lunch spot cum nightclub, and so much more, our Ground Zero for a diverse community who love live, original music and value its practitioners.

"Go with me to the vault." — William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene 3

Upon entering The Vault, Ms. Sontag immediately esteems the grayscale décor and relaxes as she surmises that she's in a place of indelible memories. She traces with her forefinger the white labyrinth swirl of the hypno wheel decal—or is it a vortex?—sealed on the surface of every table top. She sits in one of the  comfortable padded black chairs, looks up at the high ceilings, heat ducts and industrial piping traversing the long rectangular room in what once was a shirts and pants factory and says, the Lower East Side? I shake my head no. Williamsburg? No, not Brooklyn, either, I tell her, Missouri. Farmington, Missouri. Amazing, she exclaims. Amazing, I agree.

Her eyes soon travel admiringly past the compact food and beverage kiosk where artist owner Kerry Smith  whips up her culinary wizardry—the beautifully composed panini, gourmet hotdogs, and enticingly named salads—the Harvest, the Lux. Kerry put the Mean Bean on the menu without even trying it herself first, just because she liked the way the ingredients sounded together, I tell her, and it's delicious!  

KDHX St. Louis DJ Bob Reuter's Band is coming back to The Vault on March 9th!

Susan's big eyes scrutinize The Vault's distinctive signature posters and banners announcing upcoming shows, all designed by owner, bass player, and musical curator Tim Smith, and she gasps with pleasure at the representations of burlesque troupes and bizarre circus emporia that have moved so many people here, myself included, right out of our comfort zones. I wonder if she's already noticed the same small hidden image Tim often includes in The Vault's posters, the thing you can look and look for and not see, but then when you see it, you see it always. She approvingly reads the canvases of the other artists whose work the Smiths so generously feature on the walls of their club, before giving her full attention to The Vault's focal point, its raison d'être—the custom-built stage.

Tim goes to the back and puts on a little Zoe Boekbinder for her, followed by a little Shenandoah Davis, Hymn for Her, End Times Spasm Band, then Sleepy Kitty, keeping it a mite cerebral just the way she likes it, and she taps her foot while taking in the black curtains and spotlights, reveling in the good acoustics and sight lines. Her face breaks out in a eureka smile and she intones in a lofty voice that Kerry will mimic perfectly later, not creationism, not intelligent design, but designed intelligently for Farmington's evolution and flourishing. She listens as I tell her of seeing a production of Waiting for Godot in Barcelona on my honeymoon, and that it was performed in Catalan! And she's about to say something about Beckett, about absurdity, about waiting, I don't know and never learn, because, in the dream, Kerry comes over with an Apri-Goat with slaw and a Schlafly bitter brew and Ms. Sontag hungrily devours it, muttering between bites and swallows of beer,  form, content, form, content, form, content...and I wake up.

After this dream, at the sold out Whistle Pigs show Friday night, I thought about how important nightlife is for adults if for no other reason that when driving to The Vault you can look up to the night sky, experience the expanding universe, see the stars and moon on your way to, on your way fro. There it is— the Milky Way! And also for the pleasure of the people watching, we are stardust, we are golden. Seated in the row just in front of me Friday there were two middle-aged couples, in their late 50's I would guess, and I couldn't help but notice that in one, the man flung his arm around his woman and pulled her close every chance he got (and she loved it!); in the other, the woman with outstretched fingers on two amorous hands scratched her man's back without inhibition, while he purred like a contented tiger.

At The Vault, grandmothers dance with their six-year old grandsons, men and women flirt outrageously with each other, same sex couples can feel at home. At The Vault we always laugh about something, we always cheer each other on. At The Vault, someone in the band will invariably say how attentive we in the audience are, how you can hear a pin drop, how they can't wait to come back and perform for us again. And it’s true, we are— attentive and grateful for the chance to feel and be part of the larger musical currents criss-crossing the country.

Also invariably, they will say thank you, Tim and Kerry, and we love it, because then we can clap and stamp our feet and whistle and woot-woot for The Vault and the Smiths, and express our appreciation for their considerable aesthetic risk-taking along with their daily sacrifices to keep the shows, excitement, and inspiration coming our way. It's a labor of love, really and truly it is, and they lead from the heart.

We've got some really great shows to look forward to here in Farmington, Missouri, now that Tim Smith has single-handedly put us on the musical map as a destination for national touring bands—the Black Belles, Eliza Rickman—those shows will sell out quickly. But it's the ones in-between, the oddities, the acts you've never heard of until now, the things that for whatever reason have caught Tim's interest that he wants to share with us, these are just as much fun to go to, if only to see who else shows up! What a year in music I've had since the Smiths opened The Vault's doors on March 22, 2011:

Long live The Vault. Viva! Viva! Viva!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Earth is Always Talking Along the Fault Lines

Tucked away in plain sight in Madison County, Missouri, there dwells an unmapped caldera of an artist, a Melville in the customs house, unabashed in his Joycean “silence, exile, and cunning.” His name is Bill Knight, and in recent weeks I have had the great good fortune to spend hours in focused conversation with him, and his indigenous stone sculptures.

Seeing the works in their variety, touching them, feeling them both tactilely and vibrationally, has stirred me to my depths, suggestive as they are of a fantasy place, a Shenandoah, or an even earthier Glocca Morra. They seem to obtain to an almost painfully beautiful biosphere, where such strange and wondrous objects might be found strewn willy-nilly amongst Bonsai trees and Tibetan sand paintings.

If one is lucky, an encounter with extraordinary art forces a confrontation, or summons in one the willingness to confront one's own vast ignorance of the world. I am just such a fortunate tyro, learning from Bill Knight and these perturbed objects of his creation how to fruitfully think, talk and write about stone sculpture. Until I'm far more accomplished, I'll restrict my role here as deliverer of Bill's unvarnished thoughts, prompted, perhaps unearthed, by my probing:

"They don't need names; they don't exist in language! If one day they become objects of commerce then we’ll have to have ways of referring to them. But until then, no names." --Photo and words by Bill Knight

On the relationship between his use of Missouri relics to Michelangelo's marbles...

Michelangelo worked with quarried cubes, soft rock, carving chalk lines along the Cartesian grid. Found rocks are much more intransigent—will they break in two, three, four, ten, or more pieces? Found rocks are odd shapes, not large: one can locate something both difficult and small in them. Found rocks suggest nothing: they are fine the way they are. Sculpting overrides the way the rock is, it simplifies the rock from a much more complicated condition, roughness is taken away, husks are ground off with carbon-based pneumatic drivers and diamond wheels. These [processes, material and conceptual] are totally outside of Michelangelo’s perfect system.

Bill looks to Japanese style...

God only knows where it came from—an honoring of the pre-existing condition of the stone.

On the stones, their colored states, and their provenance...

This part of Missouri was a volcanic region, and is filled with pyroclastic rocks (broken by fire), pieces essentially of exploded volcanoes. My valuation of local rock is in part a rejecting of imported stones—no need to ship from Vermont! I can live without that, I can find something valuable here in this neighborhood.

These are the reds and greens of igneous geology: alkaline-based magmas or hematites with respiratory pigments, iron oxidation creating energy for life. Some are colored like a trout with an iridescent aquamarine, first noticed by me via my camera lens. The camera instructed me, it could see the colors first: digital brains prismatize things, achromatizing them, [shaping perception]. Lately, stone culture has fallen for glitter, moving ever more toward gold, moving toward the stone itself as money.

I work with hard rocks like Rhyolite Porphyry. Porphyry is a purple stone, imperial. Roads are built with it, it's so obdurate and refractory. John Keats' poem The Eve of St. Agnes has a character [a successful lover] named Porphyro who personifies those very qualities. Rhyloite is formed from lava ash dating from 1.4-1.7 billion years ago, one-tenth of the age of the universe. Geology is cosmology. Geology is the founding science, the one where people first looked around and asked where we are.

On the hazards, physical...

It’s an awful business, staring at a rock, made worse by dealing with toxic dust and all that entails. I use breathing tubes, a mask, my lungs have surely been adversely affected. This art requires pneumatic chisels, diamond wheels, saws. The main tool is the right angle grinder, four inches in radius spinning 10,000 rpms—it’s shrieking loud, one has to cover one’s ears, one’s eyes, sharp edges fly out into your face. My eyes, my vision, there's been some damage. You have to take off your clothes before going in the house, the infernal dust. There are water lines involved, polishers, pads, it’s very much machine-based. Let the tool do what it can do and say what it can say—see what this ignorant tool, this infernal machine combustion does in fact do.

"And if the tools are the mouths and the tongue—the sculptures are themselves the words."

On the hazards, psychic...

The energy consumption involved has weighed terribly on me. No way to avoid that the sculpture is a result of the destruction of the planet; goddamned machines are eating the world. It’s zesty work, that, the releasing a potential, causing the chemical reaction that releases energy, the exothermic electric potentialities. And the people, we’re the filaments, we’re receiving the energy. We've eaten the earth—having the requisite calories to do the work, we've created machines to increase our wealth; we've unleashed the machines on the rock and most probably the original wealth that's been eaten out eating the stones. Herds of cars instead of herds of beasts that the land once did carry, and the result—20,000 kinds of mega fauna gone!

" Rubbing stick gets the nice articulation. Here is the junction, so proud of it."

The rocks make us...

The chert from Knobs Lick is the same material from which the Cahokians' axes were fashioned. Spear points carved from chert killed the animals in the hunt. Chert in some sense made us. It was here two million years before humans discovered that by breaking rocks you could get something sharp. That we could break them, collect them, carry them around, kill with them—if that hadn't happened we wouldn't be who we are.

People like rocks; many are rock crazy. Rocks know things; they possess a characterizing and deep form of intelligence. The bluff is saying something; the shape it has chosen is an expression of will.

"And Chert is the hardest of them all!"--Bill Knight; Photo by Steve Hull
On the mysterious barricade between sculptor and sculpture...

There is a fault in this work, the fault of shining every surface. Polishing is a fault, shining up rocks, hiding all the intelligence of the rock, dumbing it down. In the completeness of the surface, there is not left any connection to a greater center. Sculpture as removal, the rocks deracinated formalistically. When one becomes aware, something changes.

"The white marble rose was my last ambitious piece."
My impulse has been toward less and less ambition, less pushing a form with a crushing arbitrariness. That's a really hard thing to move against—and to do it—in complete isolation. The rock is a strong faceted shape acquired over a billion years, or less than that, but nonetheless, weathered out of the matrix. One is constantly forced to question oneself. More and more my sculptures are reduced forms, slightly modified tubes and cylinders. Do I have good ideas? Better than the rock’s own for itself?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Color Puffs Out of Existence

                                                                                                Martin Luther King Day, 2012

Dear Reader of The Democracy of Objects,

We're going on a cosmic journey tonight. Traveling from a place of not having touched each other to a very sweet and rich, soft and wet place of touching each other most intimately. Without knowing where it's going to take us, how far into pleasure, how far into sea sickness—our Voyage of the Beagle.

Before we embark I wanted to remind you (and me) that this opportunity that we're giving each other to come closer, is an opportunity to deepen our erotic relationship with ourselves—to be that sensual man and sensuous woman we have always wished to be. To seek the truth about our lives and our capacities, not just for orgasm (when that comes), but for whole (or collective)-bodily intimacy, potentially a redrawing of the map. I'm that open to the possibilities that may emanate from our encounter.

I declare to you that in my arms, no harm will come to you. My body is as an oasis for you, a refuge from whatever torments you, and a source of refreshment for your spirit. I'm looking forward to calibrating my future touch to what I sense of you from this encounter.

Pastel by Kerry Smith -- Contains Information

As the Missouri legislature contemplates mandating the teaching of creationism in public schools—the functional equivalent of turning all the lights out in the public hospital's emergency room and pretending it remains operational—I am waiting and wondering, weighing my hopes and fears.

My hope (or series of hopes) is that The Democracy of Objects will be: 1) read hungrily by those with a penchant for theory and those who wish to cultivate a taste for such a penchant; 2) pressed into ready hands and hard drives (it's available online for free) by the scores; 3) that it be translated as quickly and carefully into every possible language so that its wisdom can be grappled with and absorbed across the globe and the conversations it should justly generate commence. And this is more faith than hope, that reading it will propel us into a specific ontological imaginary—a post-prophetic age. What other book so boldly undertakes to demonstrate the exciting ways far flung conceptual dots can be connected fruitfully, composing new collectives of thought? 

My fear, though, is that the very cohort who could ignite that fire is (now that the previously  withdrawn lines of income inequality have been brought to their attention so vividly via the Occupy Movement) 100% preoccupied with jockeying their adult children into position to assume those few slots among the 1% not already long ago bought and paid for. Drilling, fracking, pimping, and enslaving as long as they can sustain the illusion that their own personal biological issue can somehow be safeguarded. A second fear is that The Democracy of Objects is the sensuous object intellectuals like to fuck all night long, but don't want to publicly date. Conveniently forgetting a fundamental moral and evolutionary law: if someone goes to the trouble of figuring out how to fuck you blind, and then actually does it, you have to give it up to them. 

Bryant enfolds his central metaphor in thrilling terms, referring to the volcanic on eleven separate occasions, making a sublime word/numeral poetry while “plod[ding] along in the world of the concept.” Which flower of rhetoric erupts in his poem? I perceive a heat devil shimmering in the air.

Hidden volcanic powers irreducible to any of their manifestations in the world (70)
harbor a volcanic reserve in excess of their qualities (85)

Variations volcanically locked within substances (92),
volcanic potentialities hidden within objects (93),
volcanic powers coiled (95), volcanic, yet unactualized, powers (103),

Encounter the volcanic potentials harbored in the depths (114),
volcanic powers objects have folded within them (169)

Discover what volcanic powers they have hidden within themselves (185),
dark volcanic powers harbored within (281),
the subterranean volcanic core with which its
being…is haunted

And what peculiar strange fruit does the devilish philosopher depict in his dark prose?

Faced with decades of content-based cultural criticism that implicitly, at least, adheres to Marx's formula that the aim of philosophy is not to represent the word, but rather to change it, it is peculiar that such theory doesn't seem to recognize that such cultural critiques seem to be fairly unsuccessful in producing their desired change. Here one would think that social and political theorists would become aware that this absence of change suggests that perhaps meanings, signifiers, signs, narratives, and discourses are not the entire story. (288)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Loft and Turf

For me, Elkin, while an odd bird, is incantatory. Like me, he's a New York/Missouri hybrid, and also like me, or me like him, he's absolutely hunky-dory with over-the-top. This, in pregnant parentheses, no less, from Stanley Elkin's 1991 novel (his late period)―The MacGuffin:

(“What's this all about?” Loft, the director of the airport, had asked. “A little slogan I thought up,” Druff said. “What? A slogan?” 'Change planes in our town and we'll show you a time'?” “Sure,” Druff told him, “if they had even a two-or three-hour layover we could pick them up in buses and show them around. No city in America has thought of this yet.” “There's such a thing as turf, Druff. You're the street man here. You of all people ought to know that.” So [Druff] took his case over Loft's head. “Look,” he'd argued to a chilly City Council, “what's the worst that can happen? That the bus has an accident and everyone in it is killed or maimed. Don't worry, it won't happen, we'll use only the most seasoned drivers. It won't happen, but even if, God forbid, it does, most of these people are covered by the credit cards they use to purchase their airplane tickets, by their travel agencies, by the bus company itself. I asked counsel to look into this and he assures me we're in the clear.” Going at his job in those mercantile rooms of yore as if City Hall were still a department store. He was a good old City Commissioner of Streets and only wanted to be a better one. Why not? Streets were roads, roads were what the Romans built, and he, Druff, was road man here, Imperial Commissioner of the Way to the Empire! So give me a little credit please, he'd thought. I understand about empire, why wouldn't I know about turf?)  

Photos by Steve Hull
This past First Friday I traveled a recently resurfaced country road―Highway OO―to one of the more interesting, candid and boundary-extending conversations I've experienced this year in Missouri. One almost hesitates to tell the truth about what happened for fear that some premise will be found to blow the candle out. Fredericktown is one of many small towns around here already undermined and gutted by empire and left to rot or cannibalize themselves. It’s a place where a tacit bargain's been struck: as long as the social security, welfare, unemployment, and other government assistance checks still trickle down, many people will remain fiercely and willfully ignorant, blaming “muslims” or “illegal aliens” for their own sure and steady downward spiral into the void where the center, the one that's most assuredly not holding, used to be.

But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, The Loft is a pocket of tolerance, or a pothole of tolerance on the otherwise smoothed over road to extinction, in a place where a strict and punishing conformism is fiercely policed by volunteer bullies patrolling the local coffee shop, and law enforcement personnel cruising the desolate roads. One man I know tells of being routinely beaten as a boy for the crime of riding a skateboard, and decades later he’s still in the trenches. So one has to risk that which one has to risk.

Having listened to the definitions and etymology of loft we read aloud (some surprises there), after reading and discussing Richard Jones' poem The Loft, noting its theme of lies of omission, after reading selections from chapters 2 and 3 of Cooperative Village in which the protagonist is out touring the streets of her neighborhood accompanied by the corpse of her dead neighbor on a luggage cart, “showing her a time” as Mr. Elkin says, we talked to each other about the possibilities for the future. I heard someone say that we in America live in a culture of disrespect, and that that can change. I heard someone say that she urges parents to pick up their crying babies in the aisles of Walmart and that American children don't spend enough time embraced in loving arms. I heard someone express a fear that many people don't know basic survival skills―how to plant a seed, or fix a home-cooked meal. And in the course of the forthright conversation, a 14 year-old girl, a brilliant and serious girl who aspires to be a neuroscientist, declared herself as an atheist.

What happened next was truly marvelous. No one demanded to know who's been deceiving her. No one thumped a bible or screeched scripture about Satan into her angelic face. There was a moment of profound silence, some of it pained to be sure because believers were among us (one man told me the next day that he had gone blank when she said it, that he had to leave the room he was so hurt for her), but the rush to condemnation was stayed. And soon after someone said that maybe The Loft could save Fredericktown.

We talked about confronting the absentee-landlords and cycling the art currently exhibited in The Loft into the many empty storefronts on street level. One painter volunteered to have her piece, an oversized color-saturated landscape of pinnacles, moved to a vacant shop window. It was a hallelujah moment, like the fine artists were just waiting for the literary artist to replenish their vocabulary of hope and daring. One is giddy at the prospect of the bullies stopping and staring at the unlofted art, unleashing their ridicule at objects they can plainly see to be beautiful, well-formed, shaped with intelligence and care, until finally, they get it out of their systems.And then...?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Grizzly State of Affairs

A business owner in Farmington, challenged me to define a term I had used in the inaugural post of this blog: “What do you mean by Police State?”

I was thrilled with this question. I adore questions generally because they cut through the sameness and  dullness, and proceed dispassionately to the heart of the matter. Moreover, I not only welcome them, but listen for them. Often one can hear a question (or questions) shambling around inside even the most seemingly straight-ahead declarative sentence (e.g. the title to this post). In some sense that's the most thoughtful aspect of the daring writer's job: to be attentive enough to hear those suffocated questions, even at the lowest of signal strengths, and to unearth and amplify them so others can hear them too. Then the conversation becomes of the moment, it's fresh and alive, and almost always transforming.

By way of answering the question, I offer a brief apologue. Some years ago, my husband and I spent a three-week vacation in National Glacier Park. During the long flight from New York City to Kalispell, Montana, Joseph had picked up the in-flight airline magazine and read a horrifying account of a couple who'd gone there on vacation and were mauled by grizzly bears on a well-trammeled wilderness trail. Both the husband and wife were severely injured. Injured and grotesquely scarred, their wounds requiring multiple surgeries and subsequent plastic surgeries. They suffered 10 years of lost productivity, living in a hell of pain—physical and psychic—trying to forgive themselves for their lack of foresight.

It was August in huckleberry season and the bears—Grizzlies and Brown—were out feeding in full force. After what Joseph had read, and had forced me to read, we were determined to avoid proximity to them at all costs. But what to do? Pepper spray, bells, walking with a heavy stomping foot, hand-claps while calling “bear, bear,” and some of the other suggested bear-repellent techniques struck us both as fanciful, at best. And at worst, a marketing device for products in the park's many gift shops—on a par with snake oil.

After days of avoiding the trails that would lead us into the majestic forests and possibly onto the path of an oncoming bear, Joseph confronted a seasoned, weather-beaten park ranger and said something on the order of, “I've done the research, I've studied the products and noise-making suggestions, and have come to this conclusion: It's up to the bear, isn't it? Whether he passes you by or eats you for breakfast, the bear is in control.”

To which the ranger, locking on Joseph's earnest and steady gaze, replied: “Yes.”

A few weeks ago a local 14-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was suspended from his middle school in Park Hills for "sexual harassment" when in fact he had hugged the bus aide. The story appeared in the local paper, but was also all over Fox News and made it as far as the New York Daily News. When I heard about it, it reminded me of this story about a 12-year-old Queens girl arrested for doodling on her desk. 

What is one to make of these absurd attempts to criminalize children for the crime of being children? Is it now happening to our kids because we were silent when 13, 14 and 15-year-old "terrorists" were locked up in Guantanamo and the keys thrown away, and remain thrown away 10 years later? Has the tortured spirit of Guantanamo finally settled upon St. Francois County, like a ghost of Christmas past, present and future?