Russian Barber

This morning my barber Ray, who’s from Russia, explained why he wasn’t so concerned about the protested parliamentary elections in Moscow. “Putin’s been doing this for 8 years. He knows how it works and since he’s been Prime Minister, things have been good for Russians. How many people did they say were protesting? 50,000? Out of how many people that live in Russia? You’re always going to have unhappy people.”

I pressed him a little bit: “People were upset because they thought the elections were rigged.” He answered that “all elections are rigged. I feel like every country, they know who they want to win. They just have elections to make the people feel like they have some voice. Even in America maybe. Putin’s a KGB guy. He knows how to fight the terrorists and keep the country safe.”

Ray is convincing in that friendly way of barbers, where every utterance, no matter the topic, carries the same non-chalant, self-assured tone. Where any position, as long as it sounds good or funny, is just agreed upon. And so I shook my head in agreement at his reasoning about Russia. After all, he’s been my barber for 5 years now and it wasn’t worth arguing – if there even was an argument to made. Because maybe all elections are rigged. Politicians like Putin may not be any more or less corrupt and power-hungry than those trying to challenge him. Of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire industrialist and owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets basketball team and who this week announced he would run against Putin for president, Ray dismissively said, “he just wants to be in the history books.”

Ray holding court at his chair could probably cut my hair blindfolded. He is a virtuoso of his work and an expert of everything uttered while he performs it. At the end of every session Ray takes out his mirror to show me the back of my head and with exaggerated pride exclaims, “see, nice and clean. Now you can put yourself in your museum. Just stand there and everybody will look at you.”


In Defense of Hipsters through Keren Cytter’s Berlin

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.

Painting in 2030

The future of painting is its past. Maybe that’s what all those white guys, starting with Yves Klein and continuing with Douglas Crimp, meant when they told everyone else that painting was dead. Nevertheless, nothing looks newer right now than a roomful of Matisse paintings because his work has been so thoroughly consumed – in the market and in the academy – that painters today are subconsciously making work in his ‘school.’ The bravura economy of his gestures, the folksy quasi-abstract compositions, his unpredictable color palette, the sketchy flat-footed depictions of banal contemporary life have influenced contemporary European painters like Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Raoul de Keyser and Americans, among them Alison Katz, Josephine Halvorson, Merlin James, Ariel Dill, Mira Dancy, and Richard Aldrich.

See Matisse’s impact on Chinese contemporary art now in a small show at the China Institute in New York about art groups that formed immediately after the Cutlural Revolution in China in the late 70s. One of these groups, called the No Names, turned away from Communist-sanctioned social realism by going out into nature to paint the rustic modesty of village life. This was their rebellion. In a place like China back then, where power and cultural production were collapsed under one Communist program, this simple act of painting en plein air and literally outside the service of the party must have felt like pissing on Mao’s grave. Forget the crisis of painting; this was painting in crisis. The Matisse style called forth for provocation.

Painting won’t die. It’s a form as durable is prisons.


9/11/01 felt like one long moment. A moment that seemed to last for days, then weeks, then months, then years. I don’t know when the 9/11 moment ended for me, but eventually the vision from my Brooklyn rooftop of the first tower slipping towards the center of the earth amidst a cloud of dust became a memory.

I was brushing my teeth that morning, getting ready to go to work. “It’s a perfectly clear day, except for that strange lone cloud above the World Trade Center,” I thought to myself then. I had a distant view of Lower Manhattan from my apartment on 25th Street and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Still groggy from sleep and on auto-pilot, I turned on my TV which poured out loud static on all stations. I stopped on one that I could at least hear. “A small passenger plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” I remember the anchorwoman reporting. She didn’t sound panicked.

I headed over to the window and that’s when I realized why that cloud above the towers looked so surreal. By that time my roommate, Bryant Wang, had woken up and I was explaining the news to him in shocked tones. We winced at the TV, trying to make out an image, trying to follow along on the screen to what would’ve been plainly obvious if we had looked out the window. Moments later, the TV told us that a second plane had struck the other tower.

We rushed over to the window and saw a new cloud billowing over Lower Manhattan. It looked so far away. It didn’t look like a film or a dream. It didn’t feel surreal. It was surreality itself. It was more real than what was inside of me.

I got a call from my boss at Creative Capital Foundation not to come in until further notice, so Bryant and I watched a little more TV to get information. We learned that flights were canceled, that America’s airspace was restricted, that this might be the work of terrorists, that fighter jets could shoot down an airplane if it was deemed an imminent threat, that evacuations were happening in the towers, that people were jumping out of them. We learned that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The scale of these events and their proximity suddenly became too much think about. We shook our heads at eachother.

Then we went up to our roof where the view of the city was clear, like a perfectly focused photograph. The towers stood there, burning. Fires used to overwhelm and consume major cities like this one and the one I grew up around, San Francisco. Looking at the scene, I was thinking about how to describe it to family and friends back in Bay Area who I knew would be getting in touch as soon as they woke up. “‘Surreal’ just doesn’t begin to describe it,” I thought.

Suddenly the first tower crumbled to the ground. It disappeared and I could faintly hear it go. My knees weakened and I remember thinking that we at least were left with one more tower. I couldn’t imagine the other also succumbing, though it was burning in the same way. And when it did a little later, I felt foolish for being so hopeful.

When the calls came in, I said the same things over and over. “It was surreal. I’m fine. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked. I don’t know.” A dark cloud brought by a wind coming from the West approached us and we could see the ominous shadow it cast as it made its way over. We waited for it like a fast forward night. The darkness brought a rain of paper and a mist of dust. We picked up office documents written in Japanese. The cloud moved on and we later moved back downstairs to watch the news. The reception was a little better.

We watched the news repeat itself for hours, and I was intoxicated by the constancy of it. The news was like a wall. It was there the whole time and I grew to hate it for simply being there.

Street Life

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.

War Movies

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 People as Spectacle

June 4th came and went this year. It was a Saturday and I had forgotten about that date in 1989 when the Chinese Communist government ordered a violent crackdown on protesters demanding political reform in Tiananmen Square. My parents took me and my sister to the Chinese embassy on Geary Street in San Francisco to protest. We had spent days riveted by TV coverage in giddy disbelief that these people could be so enboldened, and now it was time to get out on the streets in solidarity.

I felt like doing the same this year when the Arab Spring in North Africa was jumping off, when Tunisians shocked the world by streaming onto the streets to demand their country back from dictatorship, and when Egyptians surged into Tahrir Square overturning the will of the army and eventually burying the Mabarak regime. Revolutionary actions then spread to Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman.

In 1977, cultural theorist Paul Virilio wrote that “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street…” Literally The People become a mass and this moving mass, now in public can be seen and documented. The People become one image. And this is when The People go from being words on the page of a constitution to a political body that has spectacle on its side.

Thinking back to the 6-4 Incident, as the Tiananmen Square protests are alternately referred to, my clearest memory was watching on TV the zoomed in overhead image of a lone young man, The People within him, in a white dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up, holding a plastic bag, standing in front of a column of tanks trying to gain entrance into the square. The tank leading the column tries to go around him but he gets in front of it again. The tank stops, hesitates (will it simply run him over?), then turns the other way, where it’s thwarted again. It was a riveting spectacle that in the movie version of events would have turned the tide and brought the weight of humanity on those that ordered the crackdown.
Instead, thousands were likely killed (the numbers are still inconclusive) in the unmerciful crackdown, and the blood mopped clean from the ground of the gate of heavenly peace, as Tiananmen is translated. And now the Communist leadership nervously watches the news coming out of countries where revolutions are still brewing, afraid that it’s next, afraid that The People will assert its image again like they did 22 years ago. Paranoia as politics when you think history’s the enemy.