Wednesday, 21 January 2009

one nation under a groove

Yesterday was the first tomorrow we've had in almost a decade.

Can you feel that thing, that crackle? It's not hope -- it's fruition. It's excitement, it's crackle, it's let's get this damn party started, somebody plug those decks into a lightpost already!

Yesterday, language made a comeback, communication dragged itself out of Mercury's retrograde womb and declared it was time. After 8 years of abasement, words have been taken back and allowed to stand for themselves. This is some of what Elizabeth Alexander was getting at in her poem, with lines like:

" A teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider."

She is attempting to reflect the horrible awkwardness of renewing our ability to communicate, of reclaiming the power of truth, meaning, and speech. She is attempting to mitigate the humiliating feeling of the baby steps we may have to take just to get back to where we once were.

Unfortunately, the stilted nature of the lines she has produced have undercut her meaning, I fear, where she meant for them to serve it. That poetry might have failed her, on this occasion, is not a large surprise. For poetry is naturally suspect of man-made power structures and timetables. It is only generally willing to tell the truth by reflection or refraction, and neither one suited this occasion, which was one for absolute clarity and transparency, as President Obama understood so viscerally.

After 8 years of forcing words to twist themselves so achingly around situations without justification, we needed, the world needed, the simple power of direct declarative sentences.

She went for simple, universal, for montage, but what I think the audience received was easy, common, and misunderstood. The weight of the occasion forced her hand, as did the breadth of the audience. Sometimes, you really need to listen to what the words want to tell you. Sometimes the act of trying will simply undo the thing you are trying to do.

And sometimes poetry is not what is called for. I like her poem; I think there is power in it. I appreciate that poetry was included in the celebration yesterday. Yet, I don't think it was what was necessary for the day. Poetry is for the unexpressed, for the undercurrent, for the social subtext and the eternal truths we are so often tempted to overlook.

Yesterday was the triumph of those voices that build those words into action. After 8 years lost in translation, yesterday was no imagery required, no metaphors needed, no light shined in dark attics.

Yesterday was straight up text.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Top of (My Ol) 55

When not going short distances, I like to be on top. The 55 is a double-decker, not a bendy-bus or a regular bus.

On top of the 55, you can get a spicy survey of East London street art. From Hackney Central to Shoreditch, the view provides the best of London graf, street art, and even “installation” art. Someone asked me why I like it so much -- why I don't look it at as vandalism. I just never did. In a grey city like New York, to see colour rising to the sky in fabulous streams, to get on a train three stories underground and see an explosion of colour and personality -- that always sang to me. To get on another car of another nameless subway train, but know by the graf that you'd been there before? That made the city....possessible.

Whoever “Elmo” is, he/she has tagged the sh** out of the East End. Big bubble letters reminiscent of the early 80’s on sides of buildings, tanks, you name it. The other taggers are cold, too. The water tanks (are they water tanks? gas tanks?) are tag heaven. You can see how they get to them when they’re low and then they fill up and rise and stand out in the sky.

As for Banksy and his followers, there are quite a few. There’s the little children and mum raising the flag of Tesco – a super-supermarket chain here. And the sort of Men in Black carrying Tesco bags one. They seem like Banksy, but so does everything.

There’s the angel wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a skull in it’s hand like a grade school Hamlet on Hackney Road just as you approach Old Street.

And then, there is my favorite collection. One specially made for double-deck riders. The Mr. Potatohead meets spirograph dayglo collection. The psychedelic spuds collection. The…what?

Yup. Okay, imagine…a potato. Now, imagine painting that potato, say, dayglo green. Now imagine painting some kebab skewers dayglo orange and sticking them in that dayglo green potatao…yeah, now you’re getting it…imagine making a little potato…creature. In 80’s colours, with only household items and a little paint. Q-tips, toothpicks. The latest ones are monochromatic and in pairs – silver, hot pink. Hopefully the rain won’t damage their colours too much! Now imagine coming out in the night with a ladder and placing those potato creatures on the top of the bus shelter, just where double-decker riders, and only double decker riders might see them. You got it. Art. Installation street art.

This is by far my favorite collection. There's a building right near where I'm staying in Bethnal Green that is covered on two sides with fantastic illustrations and tags. Walking by is like going to an art opening on a Saturday night, minus the cheap wine.

But that's in plain sight. There's something about the tags and pix that are tucked away -- a bit too high, too far from the pedestrian view. The ones you discover and rediscover.

I like taking the 55. Or the 48 will do, too. Or the 254, but it doesn’t go the whole way. But if you take the 55, you can put the Tom Waits song on mental replay the whole way:

“Time went so quickly
I went lickety-splickly
out to my Ol 55

Pulled away slowly
feeling so holy
God knows—
I was feeling alive…

Now the sun’s coming up
I’m riding with lady luck
Freeway, cars, and trucks

Stars beginning to fade…”

If you’re gonna see a city, don’t forget to view all the angles.