Today, a sunny mid-morning on the corner of Hester and Centre streets. That same corner where you can get 5 items and a soup for $4.95 in a vast buffet of various Chinese cuisines. Outside, a young Chinese man departed from two women; he headed east towards Centre and they west away from it. They were all wearing sunglasses and casual, colorful weekend wear – tanktops, jean skirt, flip flops, skinny jeans, a purposely crumpled short sleeve button down shirt, Diesel sneakers.
The guy, holding a large ice coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in one hand, and a muffin and the brown paper bag it came in in the other, swiftly approached a trashcan at the curb when he turned his head back around, uttering a forgotten remark. At the same time, he blindly let go of the crumpled paper bag, missing the garbage can badly. It landed with surprising loudness on the ground a foot from its target.
It’s unclear whether he noticed this or not, but he kept tracking across Centre as the two women looked towards his purposeful strut. It’s also unclear whether they were fixated on him or on the paper bag which was now being taken by a gust of wind downtown on Centre. They simultaneously turned forward and began to step, but then paused and looked back again towards him, towards the bag, in identical glares of amazement and disgust. They finally made their way down Hester Street into the shadows of scaffolding. They became shadows themselves as their friend’s garbage sat unattended, left to the wind, on Centre.
Cameras on smart phones are pulled out and scenes snapped as breathlessly as pointing a finger at something and saying, “Check that out!” Photography is a global transmittable form, unlimited in its immateriality and able to effortlessly bear the burden of truth.
My parent’s photos from China, Hong Kong and our early days in America are kept in photo albums which are stored underneath a counter in their kitchen. My dad was and is obsessed with picture-taking. He planned annual trips to the photo studio at the mall to get a proper family portrait behind a dull, splotchy blue background. My sister and I, dressed awkwardly in formal clothes, smiled uncomfortably when the bored teenage valley girl demanded. We didn’t get it then, but this ritual, these photographs were a big deal to my dad, and to a lesser extent, my mom. We seemed to go on holiday trips to Yosemite, Disneyland, or the Russian River just for the photo op. In middle school, when my basketball team had our team picture taken and I was the only kid who wore a t-shirt underneath my jersey, he scolded me for looking different than anyone else.
The function of photography today is a dense subject and one I’ll return to frequently, but I believe Chinese families like mine, newly settled in America, use photography to sort out their own figure/ground relationship in a new land. It’s a way to locate themselves in a foreign landscape and to picture themselves as ‘normal’ within it.
A few years ago, as part of her residency at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, artist Xaviera Simmons set up a make-shift photo studio on Jamaica Avenue, shooting free portraits of passersby in front of patterned fabric backgrounds. Etched on the faces of most of the people she photographed was the duality of New York: hard-headed resilience and open-hearted vulnerability. Many of her photographs are just straight-up beautiful in their frankness and it’s heartening to know that they’ll only look better as they get farther and farther away from their moment.
In the 1950s Fluxus artists in New York, Situationists in Paris, and the Gutai group in Japan proposed an integration of art into life in their work. A radical proposition at the time, we now find ourselves at a more distressing juncture as war mixes into life. Yesterday Anders Behring Breivik was arrested in Norway, believed responsible for the bombing of a government building in Oslo and the gunning down of scores of youth at an island summer camp. War’s theater is now moving into the streets, into the reality of everyday encounters.
Tupac rapped in 1995 that the Streetz R Deathrow. He was talking about America in the aftermath of the crack epidemic. But today streets in Tunis, Taiz, Cairo, Athens and Beijing are pulsating with ideological conflict and power mongering at the scale of religious parable. In the 50s, the Situationist International group voiced a desire to wander the streets in willful playfulness, a subversion of the programmed order of modern life under capitalism. They wanted freedom from a society that war won them. And these artists, who would later ban art as a means of production in their revolutionary work, knew that revolutions spread on the street.
A city’s identity, the sum total of its various anthropologies, from the highest corner office to its underground, will always reveal itself on the pavement, on its sidewalks. L.A.’s emptiness, for instance, is reflected on its desolate streets. New York’s competition-driven neuroticism finds a stage on congested avenues and boulevards. But the streets of New York aren’t a revolutionary space anymore. They have become what developers and local politicians have wanted since probably after World War II: smooth corridors of various consumer experiences whose roughness is only inferred through decoration. New York is nostalgia’s boutique.
Those whose countries are now at war will hopefully see peace in their lifetimes. Like Paris, Tokyo and New York before them, their darkened streets may be the ground for new artistic and cultural action rising from the ashes of chaos and hopelessness.
Streams of consciousness dry up by mid morning when it’s this hot in New York City. 100 degree weather is forecast for Thursday, up from the mid 90s on Wednesday. Old people on Chinatown’s streets struggle to the curb and glance alarmingly up then down the road, waiting to cross. They squint through the waves of heat for oncoming traffic, only to conclude that it’s a guessing game. It’s possible to imagine them melting and then sparking on fire, like in the recent Tsui Hark movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
New York could go up like this. In weather like this, it’s possible to sit on the street with your back against a brick wall, look up towards the atomic sky, and imagine New York’s end. The city isn’t just glancing nostalgically backwards; only its ass is pointing towards the future. We hide from tomorrow in quaint, air conditioned speakeasy bars, museum shows about the revolutionary 60s, and in burnt rotten pages from modernist texts. Right now, in some other place, a non-city maybe, or one much bigger than New York, some people are brewing a new culture for a future without weather.
Films exist as cascades of images and sounds. Few people have actually seen war. And that’s why it’s a nearly perfect cinematic subject. What is the real sound of bullets whizzing past? How do the severed parts of limbs really look? How do you reconcile the vision of enemy troops stalking you and your crew, wanting to make all of you a stinking pile of corpses?
Hollywood finds itself in the war business, aestheticizing its rationales and turning it into moral entertainment. Audiences shake their heads at the anonymous brutality in that Saving Private Ryan scene where American troops land on the beaches of Normandy only to be bombarded by German gunfire as soon as the hatches open. War is America’s own genre, like kung-fu flicks are a Chinese thing. (Jeff Richardson and I agreed to this during an afternoon beer with basketball running mates Mike Owh, Jerry Tanaka, James Tai and his son Roebling, and Mark Cho). Film is war’s vessel.
To film, war is exotic lands, young men in uniform, guns and roaring heavy metal killing machinery, moral conflict under the pressure cooker of animalistic survival, the threat of evil overrunning the world, and the tragedy of heroism. Could Hollywood have invented war? “Shock and awe” is cinematic effect as military strategy.
But war must also be boring. After dinner a soldier, a guy who just wants to come back to America alive without firing a gun, steps out into the middle of an empty street in a little town of rustic homes and a central square in front of a mosque. He’s full and for a fleeting moment, his thoughts are bright. He looks right down the middle of the street following it to its disappearance and was amazed by the symmetry of it all. The buildings on the left mirrored those on the right. Banged up cars were parked directly opposite of each other. The thought entered his mind that the world was as he imagined it. Somebody should make a film about that.
The very word “machine” nostalgically conjures a curious alchemy of metal, rubber, gears, grease and wiring that, when working, grinds and spins towards awaiting obsolescence. A machine isn’t a technology, it’s an artifact. The machine that I’m thinking of is already obsolete, driven there by its own inner workings. And this internal operating system, desperate to show that it actually does something, only spits out reams and reams of paper instead of doing what it’s been assigned. It wants to work, but it doesn’t want to go anywhere. And now, it has dug a ditch so deep with its ponderous, aimless activity that this pit is the only home it remembers. If this machine were a car with its own navigation system, it wouldn’t look for open road and wouldn’t crave its attendant rush of hot wind under a cooling sun. Instead it would constantly look for walls to crash into. This machine loves pain. Is addicted to it. Or maybe its just numb.
In a downtown museum, a massive steel machine full of blackened, dust-filled openings that nobody can identify sits in dank storage. Glazed onto its dark surfaces is a sweet, unknown history. It sits dumbly on a wooden floor looking for all the world like a bronze sculpture of a forgotten soldier crouching in a foreign ruin, trying to take a crap.
To get to this new dim sum restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, you go into the New World Mall, walking through the two sets of glass sliding doors onto its red carpeted entrance, past the Futurist-looking fake gold abstract sculpture. You go underneath 2 ceiling mounted flat screen TVs playing Chinese pop music videos and up the escalator to the third floor, passing shops called Miss V Fashion Boutique, U.Nive, WINK, 101 Fashion, and 96GHZ. Once up the escalator you’ll notice sunlight pouring in from the skylight ceiling which is modeled after the coffered architecture of ancient Greece. The classical references begin there and take a Baroque turn elsewhere in this great hall, crashing head on with an obsessive pursuit of newness. Monumental faux-crystal chandeliers hover over the central spaces while the melting soft neon blues, greens, magentas and pinks of LED tubes highlight square pillars that run in two rows down the middle. But its shimmering newness is already beginning to show ragged age on its hastily assembled, cheap surfaces just 3 months after opening. Glass, marble, granite, satin, gold, crystal – they’re all either present or referenced. A grand piano sits on the stage next to a party of 12 unceremoniously devouring their dim sum. A sultry hostess in a crimson ball gown glides by to seat a table for 4.
New World is the latest of the many malls that have sprung up in this Queens Chinatown in the last 5 years, offering the kind of shopping and eating experience that my parents and others say reminds them of contemporary China. Each new mall sucks the business from the older ones, turning them into desperately abject vessels for cell phone stalls, teenage fashion boutiques, bootleg DVD shops and so forth. New World occupies a space that sat empty and unused for years before it burst open in a blur of construction.
It has packed them in, fielding a diverse array of consumer options like a massive supermarket, an unending food court in the lower level with a dizzying selection of cuisines, snacks and desserts from all over China, specialty shops like the one that only sells iPad cases, clothing stores for all styles, and a shop that sells motorized scooter/bikes popular with food delivery guys. Packs of Chinese teenagers and families take to this space in a state of near euphoria; they know how to be in this kind of architecture, comfortable to cruise its gleaming halls, wandering casually in and out of shops, and adding to the cacophony of buzzing chatter that reminds me of the soundtrack of dim sum. The new Chinatowns are malls.