I see hands twitch jobless on the train, others clutching a coffee, a bubble tea, or a steamed bun. On the 7 train, some Korean girls have recently been rocking different colors on each nail. Green for the thumb, blue for the index, orange in the middle. They fiddle with their iPods. The touch screen has given the hand a new lexicon of moves, new patterns for its work. A flick of the fore finger and thumb offers up a new world on a new screen.
A dignified Indian man, always in a proper suit, always sitting, wraps his hands around an English language newspaper. His eyes track each word into sentences. He probably reads it in the same way everyday. The paper is part of his uniform. It turns out that many are clutching a paper, some handed to them for free at the base of the subway station on Roosevelt Ave in Flushing by a Chinese man whose posture is diminishing. His eyes look up in spite of the forces pulling the rest of his body down, through glasses, past the bill of his incongruent red baseball cap, and with his parched but eager hand, pushes a paper towards an onslaught of commuters: “Morning! AM New York.”
As a young couple drifts asleep on this rumbling, packed train, their fingers find eachother and lock together on her lap. She’s Chinese. Her fingers are long and bony like her, and today the nails are freshly painted fire-engine red. He’s Hispanic with an over abundant frame and naturally chunky hands. Across the way, a middle-aged white man in a raincoat looks straight ahead with his hands grasping his knees. His hands default to his knees when they’re at rest; they are its holsters. Sitting still like that for the whole train ride, he begins to look unnatural. His hands’ stillness holding on to violence.
Hands are the most difficult part of the human body to paint because of their delicate proportions – if the first knuckle of the thumb (the one closest to the wrist) isn’t just the right distance from the first knuckle of the other fingers, the whole hand can look grossly deformed. Its colors are a complex blend of flesh tones, reds, greens and purples. Hands are always gesturing. Painting them, therefore, is painting movement with psychological or emotional effect. Compare the hands in a John Singer Sargent painting to the cloud studies of John Constable and you will see that painting hands are like painting clouds.
They flicker on screen as representatives of the young and creative, the numb and self-obsessed, the philosophical and sensitive. If they were doing this in New York, the Berliners floating around in Keren Cytter’s videos would be cast as hipsters – the despised class of superficial ‘interesting’ people. In the real estate-centric logic of New York, hipsters move into ‘undesirable’ ethnic enclaves and neglected warehouse zones, opening the floodgates to generic Thai restaurants, luxury condos, Duane Reades and the destruction of a certain kind of urban purity.
Cytter’s characters look like this menace. They are fashionable in their extraordinary ordinariness, rampaging through Berlin’s streets and in their cafes, enacting the existential dramas of an artist’s idle pondering. They talk in eachothers direction, sometimes uttering the same perfectly composed lines another character spoke earlier but with different intonations and in a different context. Instead of being ironic, her hipsters inhabit the cynicism that drives irony, recycling that psychological position into a productive consideration of the conventions that lock us down. Through the hipster she is able to examine the logic upon which an alternative to what we have now can be imagined.
The protesters that have been occupying Wall Street for weeks now were first disparaged as hipsters looking for the cool new scene to contaminate, armed with homemade signs but lacking a clear, unified message. The cynical take on it all implied that the hipsters were so bored gentrifying neighborhoods they decided to de-gentrify Wall Street by occupying it. But after four weeks their action has proven to be an important platform from which to air all kinds of grievances against big banks and the government that bailed them out. The hipsters defiantly took to the streets seeking an alternative, trying to find the right poetry to voice their dissatisfaction of the righteous powers that should be protecting us. I’m down with these hipsters.
Note: Keren Cytter’s exhibition Video Art Manual is on view at Zach Feuer Gallery, New York until October 15, 2011.
In the mid 90s hip hop heads were as desperate to know who Cormega was as they were to peel off Ghostface Killah’s mask. Cormega’s name reverberated in the beautiful nightmare Nas described on One Love, his letter to a jailed friend: What up with Cormega, did you see ’em, are y’all together? When he finally released his first album The Realness in 2001 after disputes with his label and beefs with former associates, it felt like it dropped 5 years too late. On that album, he rapped with a straight-forward poeticism about the morally conflicted condition of the hustler, themes that Jay-Z had already monopolized by then.
Ten years later, he has released Raw Forever, an understated and intense work that feels like a small victory for the possibilities of rap to speak to the down-and-out in all of us. The two-disc set is made up of a best of compilation and a surprisingly effective collaborative effort with a live band called The Revelations, who played on Wu-Tang Chamber Music. Cormega titled the tracks with Roman numerals according to their order on the disc. Track 2 is titled “II” for instance. This small act of music biz mockery undercuts the expectation that there has to be a unique subject for each track; in reality Cormega has always rhymed about one thing: the uncompromising code of the streets.
Though his music hasn’t changed much over the last 10 years, the rap world around him has. New York boom bap fell out of favor in the mainstream and the South’s sound rose to dominate urban radio. It seemed like any rapper who wasn’t from New York had a shot at the big time, or at least their 15 minutes. Eminem from Detroit, Nelly from St. Louis, Kanye West from Chicago, Lil Wayne from New Orleans, T.I. from Atlanta, Rick Ross from Miami, and now Drake from Canada. As America’s economy boomed, rap softened; honesty, self-effacing humor and vulnerability became fashionable. In this new context, rappers like Cormega seemed cynical and reactionary.
But now in the midst of a global economic plunge, his directness when talking about his own uncertain place in the game feels right and exact as in when he fires off the following lines on “IX”: My cocaine flow solidified I spit crack now…Ever since I started rhymin the crime rates lower…I’m too young to die, too old to try the corners. Cormega’s outlook really hasn’t switched since he rhymed these words in “The Saga” in 2001:
uneffected by police intrusions
or street illusions we were consumed wit’
I’ve even grown away from people I grew wit’
I mean we cool, but I don’t need to bullshit
Perhaps the greatest victory on this album is “VIII” which re-introduces us to Red Alert, Parrish Smith of EPMD, Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, KRS One and Big Daddy Kane on an old school posse cut backed by a smooth funk melody. Red Alert introduces and closes it out in his helium tinged rasp and each rapper seems invigorated by the company. In the middle of it, KRS-One pulls out this line: they standing next to the flesh, I’m next to the soul. Cormega has stayed true to who he is, experimenting with the form of the music but not messing around with his narrative. This new album shows him as an important artist for this moment.