Categories
Dispatches

Radio Activity

by Jack Rockwell | Dispatches | Fall 2017

Drawings by Martina Hildreth

Historical memory in Columbia.


I’m standing on a roof in Tolima, Colombia, talking to a man in a red shirt named Juan Bermudez. We have both just attended a meeting with members of the Zona de Reserva Campesina Planadas, an organization that helps farmers secure titles to land that they’ve already been working for years. Their work is important, but the meeting room was hot, and the roof we are on has a cool breeze and a view that overlooks the city. Juan, who had mostly been observing in the meeting, has quick eyes and hands that move ever so slightly to the rhythm of his words.

Radio, he says to me, is the key. So many Colombians—especially out in the campo—get their news exclusively from the radio. Juan works for Marcha Patriotica, an organization dedicated to uniting pro-labor and human rights groups all over Colombia. He’s been developing a national framework to help collect and spread the stories of victims of state and military violence. Right now, he’s trying to convince me of the importance of the radio, and the power that it has to influence how millions of Colombians understand their nation’s history.

***

This past July, I spent ten days in Colombia travelling with an organization called the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), which—among other things—organizes delegations that facilitate networking between humanitarian and social justice groups throughout the Americas. From June 30 to July 10, we met with dozens of representatives from all sorts of groups. I learned about their work, which included advocating for the peace process, assisting labor organizations, supporting victims of political violence, advocating for political prisoners, providing legal support for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), and more.

Juan, like so many left-leaning political and human rights activists in Colombia, operates at a delicate intersection of personal secrecy and political broadcasting. He wants his ideas to reach as many people as possible, but would fear for his life if the wrong people were to learn his name. Political violence has been the modus operandi for powerful Colombian operatives since long before the formation of the nation as it exists today. During the Cold War, the U.S. provided funding, training, and weapons to the current Colombian government to exterminate communists. In response to a particularly brutal set of killings of unarmed left-wing populists from 1948 to 1958, the FARC-EP formed as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist party. For more than 50 years they waged guerrilla warfare from the mountains, in a conflict estimated by Al Jazeera and the Washington Post to have left more than 200,000 dead and seven million displaced.

***

On November 30, 2016, the Congress of the Colombian government unanimously ratified a peace treaty with the FARC-EP, officially ending the conflict. Surprisingly, the treaty that would end the war was rejected by the Colombian people in a popular plebiscite on October 2, with 50.2 percent voting against its ratification to 49.8 percent voting in favor. Though this rejection was overruled and the modified treaty passed a month later, it raises certain questions to those unfamiliar with the conflict: Why would so many Colombians vote against ending such a destructive war?

The answer lies within the deep divisions between how various Colombian actors and groups understand the history of their country, divisions that Juan is trying to cross with his radio campaign. Luis Fernando Lugo explained this discord to me. Luis, who is the Secretary of International Relations for the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEU) at the National University of Colombia’s Bógota campus, spoke to us clearly, with a confident smile, and he seemed optimistic, even if the content of his speech is grimly pragmatic. He told us, During the war, guerrilleros were not widely considered real people with dreams and aspirations. The only thing on people’s minds was killing them and winning the war.

Luis and others believe a significant number of Colombians hold this opinion, including members of the agrarian working class for whom the FARC-EP was specifically fighting for. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, I was exposed to only one side of the conversation—I was so busy meeting with left-leaning groups that I barely had time to talk to anyone else. However, on the very last day of my visit, members of the AfGJ and I staged a protest outside of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. We were demanding that Simón Trinidad be allowed to return to Colombia. Trinidad, a once-commander in the FARC- EP, was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 and has been serving a 60-year sentence in solitary confinement in Colorado ever since. A friend and I left the protest directly in a taxi to the airport, and our driver, a middle-aged man, asked us what we had been doing outside of the embassy. Almost before we could finish telling him, he told us that our protest was unjust, and that Trinidad was a dangerous criminal who deserved to be killed. This peace is no peace, he said to us. Peace will be when those guerrilleros pay for their crimes.

***

As a journalist, I’d like to be impartial, but it’s impossible to talk about Colombian politics without taking a side. And yet, who am I, an outsider, to say that this man’s opinion is invalid? I’ve grappled with this question constantly since I began thinking about this article. The United Nations estimates that the FARC-EP are responsible for twelve percent of violent deaths during the conflict. Many of those who died were innocent victims, with families and friends whose anger is valid. My role as an outsider is to bring the stories of victims of violence to the U.S. I hope that by influencing people here I’ll make an impact, however indirect, on the lives of the victims in Colombia.

But how do I know that I’m representing the right victims? I’ve found that the best answer I have comes from scale. By the same UN estimates as above, rightwing paramilitary groups were responsible for 80 percent of the killings. Violence experienced at the hands of the FARC-EP is not less valid, but perhaps less significant.

***

The history of political violence in Colombia is as long as the history of Colombia itself. My understanding of it was greatly informed by two people that I spoke to: Alirio García, the Human Rights Director for la Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO) and Imelda Daza Cotes, who is a Vocera in the Colombian House of Representatives. In Spanish, vocera literally means “speaker.” In the Colombian congress, Voceras are spokespeople from outside organizations, and do not have a vote. Both Alirio and Imelda trace the political violence back to the issue of land rights, which Alirio says began when Spaniards arrived in 1498.

We sat down with Alirio on a rainy Sunday morning to learn about his organization, FENSUAGRO, in our hotel’s meeting room. Alirio is much older than Luis or Juan, and the perspective conferred by his years encouraged him to deliver a lengthy oral history of Colombia, placing the country’s current struggles in the context of those past. He explained that the establishment of the Spanish colonies, and the corresponding massacres and displacement of indigenous peoples, were the beginnings of a long tradition of violence employed as a tool to control land and the wealth that arose from it. Though the names of the governments, people, and corporations that controlled Colombia’s land have changed with time, the regular pattern is the few wealthy and powefrful own, at least in title, vast tracts of land worked by campesinos, who control almost none of the wealth that the land produces.

Revolutionary movements in Colombia across centuries have frequently promised a redistribution of land ownership. Alirio told us that Simón Bolívar, the leader of the armies that liberated what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama, wanted to give back land to the campesinos and indigenous peoplesbut upon his death in 1830, all laws protecting el pueblo were destroyed. One hundred years later, after the proliferation of Marxism and a smattering of communist revolutions around the world, political actors began to rise within Colombia, who promised a redistribution of land along the lines of these new ideologies. The violence employed to silence these actors led to their militarization and the creation of the FARC-EP.

Decades after the rise of the FARC-EP, popular leftist movements continued to appear in Colombia, attempting to address systemic inequality legally and from within. One of these movements was the Unión Patriótica (UP), of which Imelda Daza Cotes was a founding member in the early eighties. It too was suppressed with violence. Imelda told us that when the assassinations began, members of the UP met and considered their options. Some fled the country; others joined the FARC-EP in the mountains. According to Imelda, every single member who remained as a civilian was killed.

We’re sitting around a plastic table under a tarp at a Zona Veredal, one of the transition zones built for demilitarized FARC-EP to live in before making the full return to civilian life. The camp is in full motion around us: Men and women are washing, building, cooking, digging, and performing various labors side by side. Imelda is a gifted speaker, with a rich voice and bright eyes. She manages to sound brave while telling us that she was not. I left because I was afraid. I’m not afraid to say that I’m afraid—I suffer from none of that masculine crap. When my kid was five months old, the paramilitaries started to threaten me. I knew they didn’t threaten idly, but followed up on their threats with death.

Imelda fled Colombia in 1988 and was granted political asylum in Switzerland, where she lived for twenty-six years before it was deemed safe for her to return. Switzerland is a marvelous country, and they treated me wonderfully. Nonetheless, it was dark, cold and very different over there. I’m from Valledupar, a city on the Caribbean—we are a people of warmth, of laughter and of dance! I hated that I was so far away, and it was very, very difficult. For twenty-six years, I dreamed every day of coming home.

With Colombia under close watch from the United Nations after the peace treaty’s signing, Imelda and other members of the UP are appearing from the shadows. One of the stipulations rewarded to the FARC-EP was the right to form a political party, around which many of their old allies who had been forced into hiding will most likely appear. This is a new era in Colombian politics: Agrarian reform and left-leaning populism are being given another chance, this time with an involved international community watching.

Will this be enough to make peace last? The greatest problems Colombia faces must be decided by the Colombian people alone. As Fernando said, Reintegrating the FARC is not only done by the state. We must make space for them culturally, and change the minds of so many people who grew up believing the FARC are monsters.

***

To that end, many of the activists we spoke to—especially students—are starting up alternative media corporations. These are mostly created on social media and the internet, and have been generally successful in communicating with the younger generation. However, there are millions of Colombians, especially in the campo, who do not have computers. They get their news from the radio and along with it, their political opinions about the entire outside world. Who and what they vote for will be decided by a form of media that has existed for decades. What makes things tricky for Juan is that radio has been controlled by many of the same people and groups for so long—people and groups who don’t necessarily share Juan’s passion for peace and justice based in agrarian reform.

With such stark divisions, it’s no wonder that many question whether the FARC-EP can be successfully reintegrated into mainstream Colombian society at all. Outsiders like myself can afford to ask this question from a distance, but Juan, Fernando, Imelda, Alirio, and many other Colombians cannot. For them, it’s a matter of life and death, of economic justice for their people, of honoring the memory of lost loved ones.

***

I put my hands on the railings, looking alternately back at Juan and out at the avenue below. There are mountains just behind the low skyline of the city, and the sky is beginning to grow gray around the corners. Space becomes a daunting obstacle in this moment: space soaked with history and the blood of generations imprinted on every mountain and street corner. There’s great space between Juan and the people he’s trying to reach. That’s why it’s so important for Juan to get his hands on the radio, so he can work toward reshaping the collective memory of his nation’s history, and pave the way for a more just and less violent future.

Categories
Graphic Arts

Issue Artwork, Fall 2017

by Wilder Voice Artists | Graphic Arts | Fall 2017

The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Fall 2017 issue.


Categories
Fiction

Critter and the Dragonfly

by Christopher Kennedy | Fiction | Fall 2017

Drawings by Martina Hildreth

Saga of song, witches, and sweet potato.


That thick fat summer sweet smell of the ball field, tan clouds rising up off the dirt like smoky hippos. The thwack and smack and back-to-back delicious screams as the pea soars into the raw freely-bleeding palm of a leaping boy. The crows screaming “Yah!” and the spit. The mean, sweat-drippin’ snakey eyes of the pitcher from the hill before he throws you a yakker, then the symphonic crack like a broken bone as you hit that wilson right on the screws. No Lord, there is nothing like it.

I’m Catfish. I’m the best goddamn batter in the goddamn Ash Lands. I’m the second oldest and the third tallest of all of us. They call me Catfish because once down by Dog River after a pale shadow caught my eye I plunged my left paw into the spicy black chemical water and yanked out a dead catfish, the king of catfish—my hand searing and crimson from the evil river. Stomach tight and numb from weeks of protein squares and canned corn, I bit its head right off and spit out the spongy bones. I gave everyone else a bite, too. Most delicious meal we’d had in months, even though our bellies and chests stung for hours afterward from the chemicals in the fish and we couldn’t play baseball that day on account of our thunderous headaches. But it was worth it. Before that I was just Lefty.

Critter was crouching behind my legs—he’s permanent catcher. He’s a shaggy little kid from Tennessee who doesn’t talk much—just murmurs and growls like a pup most the time. He’s the only one who’ll ever play catcher.

Over on second, I can see Smokey Pete. He’s bald as a fruit bat. “Heybattabatta, heybattabattaaa… ” He’s already starting.

Way behind him, I spot Gizmo, our goggled outfielder, who we’ve always gotta holler at during games because she’s fiddling with radio parts and floppy disks and old eye-phones instead of catching fly balls. Jelly’s also outfielder, poised probably too close to Gizmo. We call him Jelly because he wears a dirty old jellyfish hat he got from who- knows-where. Windmill Wendy can read and told us the label says “Sea World.” When you try to take off his jellyfish hat, he screams.

So anyhow I’ve named Critter, Gizmo, and Jelly. Then there’s Goliath, Baby, Windmill, Cyclone, Wild Joe, Dynamite, Worm-o, and Drone. (None of us even remembers why we call him Drone, but every time a drone flies over up in the clouds we whistle at him and he does The Monkey.) I won’t say much more about any of them now except that Worm-o is my brother.

Then of course there’s the King. The King calls the shots. Her eyes are angry and black like a Great White Shark’s, and she’s got a long scar running down her chin and throat. Says a specter did it to her when she was a kid—tells the story sometimes and we all listen to it with wide white eyes and are silent for once. We ain’t afraid of specters or nothing but the ways she tells it you gotta shut up and listen. Once Jelly hollered out “BullSHIT!” while she was telling us about killing the witch with a stick. The King went quiet, jaw twitching, then clocked Jelly on the mouth, knocking him down. She leaped on top of him and clamped her hand hard on Jelly’s tiny Adam’s apple and whispered in his ear for a while things we couldn’t hear. You don’t cross the King. She hammers on her chest and when she does that we hammer our chests too. When you look in her eyes she threatens to eat you. You don’t cross the King. She’s taller and older than all of us, with ropy muscles and long chin hairs. Don’t. Cross. The King.

We stick together. We stay up late in the hot nights, racing around the scorched ground of the Ash Lands, galloping around in the warm, dead breeze, and then stand at Heaven Cliff and howl up at the big yellow moon. We hurl ancient bottles and plastic pieces into the Void. We howl and whistle and moan, together with all the starved hounds in Ohio.

We fight off night-ghasts when our games go past dusk and the foul stringy things come loping around our field with their veils and long fingers. We share protein squares and gamble with spider parts and sometimes even find squirrels to cook. We fight and knock each other down and bite and scratch; we sing, we talk dirt, we spit, we mash tongues. I’m telling you it for hell sure gets real hard in the unholy breathless industrial landscape of the Ash Lands, this godforsaken depopulated city ridden with witches and parasites and vultures and ghasts. There’s even a Cyclops that lives in the I-K-E-A. We poke around warehouses sometimes looking for food cans and wilsons and such and one time Windmill Wendy went to I-K-E-A wanting some wood and saw it through the shelves by the toilets. She said it was eleven foot tall at least, head was all wrapped up in soggy bandages but she caught a bit of its bleary red eye glaring through. You can bet she ran faster than a jet plane away from that thing.

But anyhow, we got baseball. Jesus God we got baseball. And when we’re playing rough and wild under the angel-pink pollution sky, wilsons snapped and cracked and caught searing hot in our calloused hands, kids whooping and screaming and hurling their bodies in a gleeful dance, we’re made electric by the Cuyahoga Holy Ghost, the sore and lovely spirit of the crying Today, the heat, the hunger. The Floods. The craziness everywhere in the streets and skies and shadows, the craziness in our bones. When we play baseball, mighty and burnt on the cracked-dry diamond, we’re gods, baby. Even though we’re skinny, even though we’re kids, even though Smokey Pete has worms.

The King just sent me two mean curve balls. One strike CRUD. Two strikes DOUBLE CRUD. Third pitch, I smack that wilson right where it hurts and it goes hollering for its mama as it zooms toward outer space—it goes past Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Sun! That was what’s called a homer, good folks. A tape measure blast. I go jogging to first base backwards, a wide smile on my face.

“That’s a tater!” murmurs Baby.

“A real moon shot!” says Windmill. She leans back and whistles long and slow.

Finally I arrive still trotting backwards onto home plate and do a little dance, singing “Yippee who-oo! Yippee yoo!”


It’s not easy to remove the poison from things
we found them their leg was broken shivering
in the humid dusk The air around them stung
and all around them we could see their spirit
stinging sprawled out on the forest floor we
carried them to camp and our medics set their
leg the poor kid shook and growled and yelled
their leg bound we washed them with rosewater
and rosemary amaranth and thyme We burned
rosemary as well prayed and Dan played her guitar
We massaged the kid’s arms and neck and gave
them teas and stew their eyes were salmon colored
one time they woke up and said are you witches


So here’s what’s going on: Nobody’s seen Critter in three days.

We’ve never gone so long without seeing one of the boys. And so we’ve been without a catcher. Wild Joe’s been substitute, but he never catches the wilsons, just lays on his side and eats dirt most of the time. After our game at noon we went over to sit down in the Taco Pete parking lot and mull things over.

“Maybe it’s the witches that got him,” said Baby.

We shuddered, all having heard some pretty awful stories about the witches and what they do—capturing kids and melting them, turning them to trees, takin’ out their eyes, even turning the suckers to witches themselves. Maybe they were all just tales but that’s what we’ve heard.

“What if he’s lying in a ditch somewhere? What if he’s dead and he’s got mice in his arms and crickets laying eggs in his noggin?” Drone piped up. “What if—”

“Quiet, Drone!”

“Shut up, Drone.”

Wild Joe was praying. Worm-o, my kid brother, was real still, looking at his hands. He was scared and pale. I decided to speak up.

“Y’all quit talking like that. Critter’s fine. Probably just constipated and hiding by the river ‘til he feels better,” I said.

“You’re constipated, Catfish!” called Cyclone. I leaned over and yanked on his hair. He cried out then shut up.

“Critter’s fine,” I said.

“No, he’s not,” the King murmured, and we all looked at her. “The Government took him, and now they’re using him in experiments.” She looked stern and serious, laying on her back with her hands under her head, cobalt blue sunglasses. I wanted to tell her it was a lie, mostly for Worm-o’s sake, but the King would clock me.

Then a drone flew overhead. We whistled, and Drone hopped up and down like a flea, waving his hands around and kicking. He did The Monkey. We hollered and snapped, and when he landed, he turned his eyelids inside out with his fingers.


Today we gave them sweet potato they turned
it around in their mouth and said are you witches
or is this heaven We laughed and said what’s your
name they said CRITTER and my legs hurts we gave
them root to chew on How did you hurt your leg I
was climbing a tree We said you were trying to catch
a dragonfly they looked scared were you watching
me No but we can see the past sometimes they said
you’re witches all right get me out of here KING
CATFISH WINDMILL HELP we said are those your
friends they said they’ll come rescue me we said we’ll
let you go as soon as we can but your leg is healing and
you would not be able to run from the night ghasts


We went into town and knocked on Jaden and Louisa’s door to ask them about Critter because sometimes he sleeps on their living room floor. They have a big store with shelves and shelves of cans and water and firewood and hooch. Always have guns strapped about them but love us kids—one time even slipped us a packet of jerky I’m telling you that was the closest we ever came to having Christmas.

Louisa answered the door, “How can we help you, little roaches?”

Louisa always wore these blue dangly earrings and has a gold tooth. Today she had a cut her eye—we asked her about it, but she shook her head. Jaden came down too.

“We can’t find Critter. Have you seen him?”

“He hasn’t been by here for a while. Did you look by the creek?”

Yes.

“Did you check the Mall?”

Yes.

“Is he at his mom’s?”

No way.

“Have you asked Rod?”

We went over on Rugby Street to Rodney’s shop. Rodney does haircuts and exorcisms in his shop, styling and snipping during the day and in the after hours casting out demons and elves from people’s souls. A lot of them are on powder or glue. Sometimes we hang around outside his place to listen to the screams as he purifies. He’s a public figure and gets around, so we figured he might have heard some news about Critter.

We swung open the screen door of his shop and filed in. Rodney was cutting his nails in a wheely chair, his feet on the counter. The King got straight to the point.

“Rodney! You seen Critter?”

Rodney eyed us for a moment.

“That boy with the scab nose hardly ever says a word? Dog boy?”

We nodded.

“Nah I haven’t seen him. Not in a while. He could use a haircut. Doesn’t look like he’s ever gotten one. You bring him in when you find him. I’m handing out coupons. Twenty-five percent off on shaves. Can’t beat that deal.” He held out the coupons.

Baby took one.

“You keep an eye out, Rod. We need our catcher.”

Rodney looked at each of us in turn and ran his hands over his hair. He leaned back in his chair then continued cutting his nails.

“Try the Bird,” he said.

The Bird Man always seems to be popping up everywhere, to be everywhere at once. He’s a wild old man all dressed up like a huge black bird with dark rags, feathers, trash bags, and oil drawn out in spooky designs on his skin. He doesn’t speak human words unless you give him potato bread. Thankfully, Baby still had a sack from the last distribution.

Anyhow we found old Bird Man way far up in a tree. He was rubbing his feet and was rather still, looking off. His knitting hung from the branches around him like Spanish moss, long scrolls of twine and straw.

Baby tossed up the sack of potato bread and yelled, “Cover up your ding-a-ling, pervo-birdo! We wanna talk!”

The sack went up, up, and fell back down. The Bird did not move to grab it. Just moved his head a little toward us then back at the sky. He looked like a gargoyle, half erasered, a smudge in the nest of tree capillaries.

“What’s eatin’ ya Bird Man?”

“Bird Man have you seen Critter?”

“Did the angels get him Bird Man?”

“Bird Man, speak!”

He seemed sorrowful today. We looked at each other.

“Anyway just tell us if you see him.”


5:40 PM Dear diary the witches gave you to me said
you’re a tape recorder and showed me how to speak
into you and tell my story so here’s my story I was
climbing a tree and saw a green wasp and then
my leg hurt my head hurt and I was saved by the
witches they let me listen to their CD player and I
heard the song johnny b goode the witches are not
like we thought they shine they sing they paint
themselves decorate their tents with drawings
and herbs One of them has a gun and another has
no legs so they carry him I don’t know how many
there are my favorite one is Isabela she says she is
from Down South too and calls me holy one


We slept all together tonight. Have not played ball for days, just been looking for our compatriot. Usually we spread out into our favorite nooks and crannies all over the Ash Lands, two of us maybe under the overpass, three or four up in the trees by the river maybe, one or two in somebody’s apartment here or there. But tonight we were all huddled together in the old Dairy Queen on Main, cheered up just a little, giggling and spooning on the grimy floor as the moonlight streamed in and the moths high-fived the windows. Gizmo brought an old battery lamp and put it in the center of us all, and we cheered up even more—sprinkling dirt in the ears of the little ones when they fell asleep, Jelly and Joe kept yanking up each other’s shirts and purple nurpling one another to kingdom come. The King was off to the side in her old hammock she’d tied up between the beams, smoking her clumsy cigarillos. Smokey Pete told the story about the time he kissed tongues with his cousin Angela. We hooted and yapped.

When Gizmo flipped off the light, though, we were all thinking about Critter. And about witches, and angels, creek goblins, ghasts, dogs, tuna people, mosquito clouds, and cannibals. Just to name a few of the night mares trotting around behind our eyes. We had barred the doors shut and hung garlic from the windows outside, but every once and awhile you’d still hear a night-ghast thumping up against a window in the darkness.

After an hour or so, Windmill and I caught one another’s eyes and knew neither of us could sleep. We crept out and headed for Heaven Cliff, not saying much. We raced to the old familiar spot and leaned against the Void and groaned, exhausted by all the being-afraid. We gazed up at the thick dark sky and I thought about how Louisa said once there used to be many more stars you could see. Tonight I counted seven. Then we screamed. Damn hell, we screamed until our throats burned and the tears flowed free down our cheeks like fresh hot blood from a wound. Where once we had howled and sung and beat our chests, we now screeched and wept like blind baby animals, scared for Critter. We leaned on each other as the darkness stared at us, unblinking and dense. Poison pulsed in the earth, and our stomachs seized up, and our hearts rang like hand bells, looking into the giant stunned face of the world.

“Damn you, Critter!” Windmill yelled. “Damn you!”


Today we told Critter some about who we are we
said Critter we are a people trying to become whole
we are Insects doing quiet repair Critter we’re
learning to pray to the day and ask for things from
the ground and battle together The world has not been
killed yet we are growing and may even save ourselves
We see bits of the future going by like comets but are
not very good yet at reading it we told Critter about the
god Sun the god Now the god Ground we stay hidden here
because you people kill witches you kill angels that is
why we stay here with our gardens and fire and lipstick
our crosses our dances love and rage If you want you can stay
with us here there’s plenty of sweet potato and planning to do


Days had passed and we figured Critter was dead. We had a funeral for him and buried a dog leg we found in the gutter. Nobody said much—we just buried the dog leg and the King socked anyone who cried too much. We placed a glittery rock over Critter’s grave, and Windmill Wendy wrote “Critter” in the dirt. That was the end of it.

Today’s the first time we’ve played in what feels like a long long while now. The Sun is up in the sky frowning like a huge mean baby dumping down white light and heat. We’re playing slow motion and dumb, throats dry and noggins aching—there hasn’t been much water. A drone flies over us way high up in the sky. We stop to watch.

Everyone’s been striking out more often than not, but finally Cyclone hits one and the wilson shoots off like a furious bird. We watch, panting, from the ground as it streams away from the world.

“Look!”

I turn, tired and stupid, to where Gizmo is pointing. There, shimmering through the heat, is Critter.

“Holy moly…”

There are antlers twisting out from Critter’s shaggy head. His skin seems to shine and sparkle, and he’s wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. Critter walks toward us, then breaks into a run, smiling and weeping, stirring up clouds of dirt. The wilson lands somewhere behind him and we barely notice it.

He stops, bends back, and unleashes a howl. Slowly, we begin to whoop and race toward him, surround him, hug and grab him, sweep him up, clobber him, shake him.

Jesus, Critter!

Where’d you get those antlers?

We thought you were dead, Critter!

We had a funeral for you!

Well, spit it out, Critter! Where you been?

Categories
The Bawdy Politic

A Manifesto on Rigor and Play

by Judy Jackson | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2017

Drawing by Martina Hildreth

Any artist today has heard the claim: There are no rules in art anymore. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp premiered Bicycle Wheel, now known as his first “readymade” sculpture. The readymades were existing objects (often commonplace items, like bicycle wheels and urinals) that the artist signed, thereby making them “art.” The American composer John Cage followed in a similar vein with his piece 4’33” (1952), a solo piano piece where the pianist plays not a single note. Instead, the audience hears the sounds of the concert hall: people coughing, the creaks of the heating vents, nervous shuffling in the audience. These two events mark the artistic revolution that occurred in the twentieth century. If a completely “silent” piece (an appraisal that Cage refuted, as there was sound involved) is music, then anything can be music. If a signed urinal can be art, then anything can be art. Needless to say, Duchamp and Cage were not the only artists engaging in this type of practice: there were also the White Paintings of Rauschenberg, the text pieces of Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros, and the “noise” symphonies of Luigi Russolo, among others. However, these pieces often act as flash points when discussing the upending of the artistic establishment in the twentieth century. This shift abolished the relevance of any established “rules” in music and art—one need not be concerned with eighteenth-century counterpoint or figure drawing if they do not feel so obliged. However, this deconstruction has left us with a climate of uncertainty and passiveness: If anything can be art, how do we judge the quality of our work and the work of others?

One response to this problem has been to treat the arts, specifically music, as a type of science. The New Complexity movement in acoustic composition and the Acousmatic genre of electronic music both advocate for a sort of musical objectivity. In these genres, composers may manipulate series of notes representing the atomic density of various gasses, produce pieces structured by mathematical functions, and trigger sounds at the tempo of a certain country’s birth rate. Every musical decision must be supported by something factual and leave little room for any type of subjective critique: It doesn’t matter that the piece doesn’t sound interesting—here are all of my mathematical calculations that back up its validity, the composer would respond. In electronic music, the technology used to produce the musical object often supersedes the object itself. In fact, the piece tends to act almost solely as a “proof of concept,” or a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology; think of a trade show, where the salesperson shows you all the sounds you can make by pressing different buttons on a device. One can quickly see that this type of rigor does nothing to further the creation of quality work. Art is not a science: One cannot force objectivity onto something inherently subjective. Rather, art should be treated as its own distinct field with a unique system of rigor reflecting this subjective nature.

Another response to the problem of rigor in art is to act as if it is impossible to produce poor quality work. If everything is art, then there can be no bad art. This, again, is a weak solution. Under these constraints, artists find themselves becoming lazy and apathetic: If there is no way to do art badly, why put in the effort to make it good?

None of this is to say that the events of the twentieth century have doomed contemporary artists to obsolescence. Rather, they have freed us from various rules based in systemic oppression. Most “classical music” rules are based on the practices of white, European men, and are often used to invalidate the works of composers not fitting these specifications. Ridding the music world of these constraints benefits marginalized artists and forces diversification in the art world. Now, without institutional rules dictating what constitutes “good art,” we can create systems of quality that reflect us, our positionalities, and our metrics of quality.

What would a new system of rigor look like? It certainly must rely on self-determined metrics of quality—our art should reflect what we believe quality art to be—rather than universally defined ones. Here, Cage can provide us with a basic framework on which to build. He defines music as consisting of four components: structuremethodmaterial, and form. These components are defined as follows:

Structure: the division of music into parts, from phrases to long sections

Method: the movement from note to note

Material: sound or silence

Form: the continuity from start to finish

Cage’s definitions reside in the music sphere, but they can be abstracted easily and applied to other art forms. In writing, structure can be viewed as the division of text into sentences and paragraphs, method as the syntax of the sentence, material as the words and punctuation, and form as the narrative arc. Likewise, in visual art, structure can be the groupings of figures; method, the connection between these; material, pigment or negative space; and form, the overall layout of the piece.

Cage places these components on a spectrum between mind (head) and heart, and it is this spectrum that provides the foundation for a newly defined rigorous art.

Any creation of art consists of a series of decisions: What note should be played by which instrument and when? How loud should it be? Where should the artist place a line on a canvas? How long and bold should it be, and what color? Which words should a sentence contain? Which synonym should be used to best communicate the author’s intent? Each of these decisions tend to originate from either an analytical (head-based) place, or an intuitive (heart-based) one. Art requires both technical proficiency of some sort (can you program the computer to make the sound you want?) and creative proficiency (do you like how your music sounds?). Thus, each compositional decision must satisfy both these requirements—if a decision stems from the head, does it please the heart? If the decision is intuitive, does it make sense within the analytic structure of the piece? This is our system of rigor: Each decision must be considered and judged as to its quality from both an analytic and intuitive perspective.

While such a system of rigor may prove more viable than the existing ones, its execution can be exhausting. Constantly checking and double-checking your work can lead to a place of artistic paralysis: What if one small decision isn’t good enough? This is where play enters the process. Art is an inherently human act, a fact that the artist cannot forget. Cage captures this sentiment when he defines the purpose of music: “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love” (Cage, Forerunners of Modern Music).

This concept is exemplified best by the works of Yoko Ono. Her text pieces, such as the one found in Grapefruit (below), prompt performers to reorient their mindsets and play with the material presented by their surroundings.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit

It is critical to play with your material, to fuss with it and tease out delightful deviations and mutations. Remembering this aspect isn’t only for the artist’s health; joy has a strange way of manifesting in your work, and its absence is perceptible.

However, the mind cannot simultaneously exist in a state of rigor and a state of play. It is hard to both edit and write at the same time. As artists in an academic environment, we often feel pressure to perform our practices in line with institutional and class requirements. Yet in order to produce effective work, we must remember to keep our own definitions of quality in mind and resist the urge to academicize our output instead of playing with our material. We must exist in a constant state of flux, oscillating between reckless experimentation and elegant, level-headed analysis. It is only then that we can capture those intangible subconscious whispers and force them into exquisite earthly manifestations.