Monthly Archives: June 2011

if i can make it there

I don’t think I’ve ever given Liza Minnelli enough credit.

Yes, maybe her money notes have an unmistakable edge to them, and yes, maybe she has grown up in the shadow of her mother’s talent and tragedy, but after watching Scorsese’s New York, New York at Anthology Film Archives for the first time last night, I really do appreciate Liza.  (I’ve always been on a first-name basis with her, mostly due to my having picked up somewhere in my youthful musical theatre career an impression of her that consist of drawing out her first name in what I thought to be a decent version of her voice, a rather unfair and entirely ungrounded in actual knowledge of Liza Minnelli performances.)

Martin Scorsese's 1977 tribute to my new home.

Sometimes I doubt myself as a CAMS major, but watching this movie reminded me how I always remind myself why I love movies.  You devote 155 minutes to Scorsese, and to Liza, and by the end you care so hard about Francine Evans that you are sitting in a dark, half-filled theatre with hipsters and academics and nostalgic aging New Yorkers and snappily-dressed queer dudes from the Village, and you are sobbing as you listen to that iconic number.  The words mean things to you that they would never have meant a week ago, but now you have moved to New York, if only for the summer, and all the time you have spent thinking “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?” is made into a needle by those words, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…”  It pierces the left side of your chest and you feel yourself swelling and deflating at once, tears streaming down your face, and it feels SO GOOD.  Films that make you realize how you know yourself remind you why you wanted to spend your life studying these strange little miracles called movies.

Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro as lovers and musicians in New York, New York.

New York, New York is built on a love story, but it is at its heart, a love story about this city.  Francine and Jimmy don’t last.  But each of them finds success (sort of), which we see through Scorsese’s brilliant contrasting of their respective final renditions of the theme song.  You end up alone, but you have this city, and your art, and your self — three things that speak, in concert, directly to my own fascination with psychogeographic practice.  But most of all, the film, which is beautiful in spite of (because of?) the rampant drug use and sexual intrigue that went on behind the scenes in its production, spoke to the way that I am rapidly falling in love with this place — madly, head-over-heels in love.  It inspires passion like no other location I have ever encounter; New Yorkers, a motley and lovely band among which I aspire to count myself, all seem to have incredibly strong feelings about the city.  About the bagels, the pizza, the water that makes the bagels and the pizza the best in the world, and in particular about themselves.  So many of the residents have pet theories about what makes New York ‘New York’ or what New Yorkers are or ought to be, and so many of them seem willing to discuss this with me, from the fervent recommendations from the lady ahead of me in line in the bagel shop a few mornings ago on Long Island, to the pleasant surprise of an animated conversation with a high school girl from Senegal on the 1 train heading to 86th Street.

Maybe this is all a sort of glorified narcissism, and this self-absorption is what underlies both the on- and 0ff-screen dynamics of New York, New York.  But it is perhaps our selves that we know best, and in creating art and thinking critically about what we know, these lived experiences as New Yorkers and human beings, perhaps we can find by induction some small bit of truth or clarity that sheds light on the human condition.  This, I think, is what Scorsese and Minnelli achieve in last night’s film, and what I ought to be trying to achieve in my time here.  So forgive me for doubting you, Liza, and keep on singing your anthem to this eternal metropolis of misguided dreams and minor miracles.

guerrilla girls on tour

Part of being in New York is facing an almost over-bowling (as in, it bowls one over) range of opportunities to see and experience THE ARTS.  Film, theatre, opera, music, ballet, museums and galleries, street performance, festivals, etc. etc. etc. — and much of it is free (or cheap) if you know where to look and when to go.  One of the great offerings at the Lincoln Center are Target Free Thursdays, where every Thursday (surprise surprise!) at 8:30, musical/theatrical/cultural performances take place in the Atrium, free and open to the public.

This past Thursday evening, I was lucky enough to get a front row seat for a performance by the Guerrilla Girls on Tour, a NYC-based theatrical-comic-feminist-activist troupe.  (Go ahead, shudder at the F-word — this is a topic that they address in their performances, actually.)  The Guerrilla Girls (the umbrella group, which split from the Touring group about a decade ago) began in 1985 in response to what they saw as a blatantly sexist “retrospective” at The Met of painting and art from across the world, which included only 13 women among its 169 (white) featured artists.  They saw this proof of the inequality of the art world as symptomatic of greater discrimination that could be addressed by the very means of this field in which they were being, as a collective, shunted aside — the arts.  They began with mostly print and visual media, such as this poster, which is probably one of their most well-known early works (at least it’s the one that seems to make it into every text book on visuality and culture jamming that I’ve ever read):

Like the word 'feminism', the classically male-viewer-oriented symbol of the odalisque is here re-appropriated by Guerrilla Girls.

Anyway, I’ve read a number of authors’ eloquent waxings on this specimen of visual culture, and even seen some of their graphic and sculptural work in person at MACBA this past spring, and fancy myself, yes, a feminist, so I was totally stoked at the chance to see the live theatrical faction for myself.

The performance was fairly in-your-face, a touch sloppy, but powerfully sincere and well-received by the crowd that packed the Lincoln Center Atrium.  Yes, the occasional missteps and dropped lines, the sort of forced frivolity, the we’re-laughing-because-we’re-actually-uncomfortable-because-everything-we’re-saying-is-unfortunately-true might have fallen short, but for a moment about two-thirds of the way through the program.  After jokingly declaring Michelle Obama’s biceps as the greatest symbol today of America’s strength, and then genuinely congratulating Obama on her active role as First Lady, the Guerrilla Girls added their ‘yes, but’ to that statement: taking issue with Obama’s use of the phrase ‘anti-obesity’ in her campaign with Beyonce.

A shift in the performance: the four actresses came forward before individual microphones, and read in counter-point four stories that collectively created a plea for acceptance of all women’s bodies, no matter their size or the state of their skin or anything else that is really so far off from the essence of their personhood, a thing to which we all have an immense right.  In a style that echoed strongly that of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the stories built on one another, becoming an incessant vocal recreation of this, their latest poster, which was projected behind them on a giant screen:

"Diminish and fade."

It ended, in unison: “I think someone wants me to disappear.”

How suddenly sobering.  Among a deluge of less-than-subtle comedy and theatrical gags (it was sandwiched between respective parodies of Beyonce and Lady Gaga), this moment was all the more striking.  Not that issues of body sovereignty are solely feminist domain, or that among the topics that feminism seeks to address, such issues are the “MOST IMPORTANT” — but they exist, and the presentation of them, in its visuality in particular, affected me, and was simply effective.  The poster design reveals an increasing sophistication in their graphic approach (which is echoed across other recent graphic work), and the invocation of the Vagina Monologues‘ visual and verbal format worked incredibly well to break through the funny and become, in an instant, serious.

And as a girl growing up in this society, I know that these aspects of visual culture require this kind of address — I spend so much of my time thinking abstractly or intellectually about the visual aspects of our society, but more and more I wonder where theory becomes too much and lived experience must speak.  Visual culture is not just art, not just beautiful films or the depth of a Rothko color field.  Visual culture is not just Justin Bieber and what he chooses to wear, or the interesting but obvious proliferation of Facebook and its affect of how we operate the increasingly ubiquitous camera.  At some point, visual culture must also encompass the crushing pressure of self-presentation, particularly on women, but really on all people in this increasingly mediated and visual society.  I’m beginning to realize that ‘practices of looking’ includes ‘practices of appearing’.  And maybe art itself can interrogate and rip apart these inconsistencies, deconstruct these aporia — at least, the Guerrilla Girls can.

post-transitory thoughts

I have now officially been a New Yorker for three days.  After a week spent getting over a surprisingly tough round of post-Denmark jet lag and the overwhelming joys of seeing everyone I love on the Carleton Campus, I have again moved on, this time to THE BIG APPLE, where I am interning at Anthology Film Archives and hopefully helping (and documenting) fellow Carls Gabe and Henry as they make a feature film.

In many ways, being here is like beginning yet another study abroad program — although I have visited the city as a tourist about five times previously, actually living and working in New York is as foreign to my experience thus far as being in Japan or Denmark was.  And living in Bushwick, which is heavily populated with Puerto Rican families, the predominant language is even Spanish, so I may have to brush up on my language skills here as well.  So if you count New York, by the end of this summer, I will have spent 9 of the past 12 months ‘studying abroad’ — which is strange to think about, and perhaps underlies the sense of constant movement and exhilaration coupled with a lack of permanence that I have been feeling.  I am very transient, on the cusp between student and tourist, between theorist and traveler.  And this, in large part, is what is drawing me so strongly to psychogeography — an awareness of the necessary motional state of being that is my life for now, and my youthful and energetic and perhaps over-eager desire to discover and create and postulate and explore.  Because the essence of psychogeographic exploration is really to explore with curiosity — with an open mind and open eyes.

Admittedly, my approach to New York still feels very star-struck, in many respects, from my realization that the “Goings on About Town” section of The New Yorker is now actually applicable to my daily life to my giddy disbelief at simple things like jogging in Central Park or buying tofu and milk and Gushers with Theo at The Food Emporium (cue RENT reference…).  Incorporating “Bleecker St” and “The Bowery” into my vocabulary is kind of thrilling.  And while I was first struck by the so-called ‘sketch factor’ of my living arrangements (and have been struggling not soundtrack all aspects of my life with further RENT references), a little bit of unorganized psychogeography this afternoon revealed the charm and character of my Bushwick neighborhood (and at the risk of generalizing, gave me the feeling that I had been plunged into a Spike Lee film).  I went out in search of a library card and a set of sheets, and ended up walking Bushwick Avenue at least 15 blocks or so, and meandering back until I reached Knickerbocker Avenue, which the Bushwick BK had informed me would be the panacea for all my shopping needs (which it was, since I only need sheets, and I found those, but was disappointed to learn that the Spiderman pattern only comes in twin size…).

On my walk, I learned a few things about the visual culture of the area — or rather, what one can learn about the area itself from visual presentations therein.  There are quite a lot of flags flying in the area, and while a few of these are standard stars and stripes, the vast majority are Puetro Rican flags, which is an obvious but interesting feature of my walk today, given the shocking lack of racial diversity among which I have grown up living.  Next: I have a habit of pretty much always wearing a bandana or keffiyeh around my neck, and I tend to choose the color or pattern based on a combination of what is clean and what will go well with whatever shirt or other articles of clothing I have on.  Today I opted for green, and while strolling through the further reaches of Bushwick, I was engaged in conversation regarding the color of my bandana — “You like green?”  “Green in good, right?” “We like green, but green don’t like yellow.” etc.  Luckily I was wearing the ‘right’ color for my brothers in the hood this afternoon, but I could just as easily have pulled out my yellow bandana, which is a sobering thought.

I was reminded quite suddenly of the different meanings of something as simple as a single color (or less simple, perhaps, when it carries the gang-related baggage that has become attached to the bandana as an article of clothing within areas of major cities) — and, once out of sight of the kids commenting on my neckwear, promptly removed it in case I ran into any ‘yellows’.  The inner-city semiotics of self-presentation are a perfect case-study for the specificity of culture in the meaning of any visual that becomes proscribed as a ‘symbol’.  This is also a fascinating case of reader-response criticism (and the integral nature of cultural context): as the ‘author’ of my outfit, my intended meaning of “I am a hipster look at my thift store ironic fashion and film-related t-shirt with this cool green bandana” was not read that way.  I’ll probably reserve my neckwear for Manhattan, where I know my audience will be a much higher hipster-to-normal-person ratio, so as not to prove Roland Barthes right once and for all.  But really, Bushwick is quite safe — just an excellent spot to meditate on medium specificity and knowing one’s viewer.

transitory thoughts

So…what was that?

After almost three months abroad, I am about to return to U.S. soil this afternoon.  Taking time to reflect is fairly unavoidable.

I began this blog in Spain; it has followed me from Barcelona to Switzerland, France, Germany, Denmark — and now both The Semioptician and I are returning home, as it were.  It seems a little strange to think of a blog as having a corporeal ability to return to a physical home, but so many of the ideas and curiosities that underlie this project were sparked on the Carleton campus, where I will be arriving roughly 12 hours from now, give or take some time difference.  So if this blog has any home, it may be Carleton.

But of course, part of the beauty of the internet is its lack of fixity — some may argue for it as a ‘non-place’, but there must be a point at which the growing proliferance of non-places in the world simply results in a newer sense of place, such as an online place that is hypertextual and expansive and yes, largely virtual.  But the thoughts in these virtual statements are no different than any thoughts that I might set to physical paper with a real-life pen.

‘Real life’.  An interesting concept.  I was recently discussing (via the ‘virtual’ means of Facebook chat, no less) this established dichotomy between the lives of college students and this nebulous outer world of adults and jobs which is somehow more ‘real’.  Obviously there are inherent contradictions in asserting that any aspect of life is more real than any other, but this invites all kinds of complications about how one perceives ‘reality’ and whether we can ever be certain about our perceptions of it, and other things that keep angsty pseudo-philosophers like myself lying awake late at night.  But in returning to the ‘real world’, as I will undoubtedly slip up and term it in the next few days, after these three months of such foreign and varied and exhilarating experiences in Europe, this is something I am thinking about, in spite of logical fallacies (which I have a habit of pushing past in many of my lines of reason).  My return to the ‘real world’, where that means America and the life I knew before I left in March, corresponds with a departure from ‘real life’, that is, back into the Carleton Bubble, as we term the insulated space in which we academiate, incubated.  Ironic?  Perhaps.  Totally thrilling and daunting?  Yes, very much so.

But am I going back to the same life?  The goal of study abroad, we are so often told, is to change us.  Through academics and language, through experience, through culture shock, through the opening of doors we didn’t know were there.  My study abroad has been more than dynamic, all told.  It has certainly changed my trajectory in the immediate and possibly long-term future.  I have new scars, literal and metaphorical.

"Soft Self-Portrait with Implied Scarring."

At the risk of sounding cliched, my way of looking at the world has changed — quite literally.  As a student of visual culture, I have come in contact with a dizzying array of art and artists (and a bit of academics and academia) over these months.  You know how so many authors tell young aspiring writers to simply read (and read and read some more)?  I think this applies more broadly to the arts (and life) in general, and so much exposure to a billion new ways of visualizing meaning and emotion and experience cannot help but sensitize me to what I as an artist and theorist can and ought and want to be doing.

And on a completely practical level, I have put in the long hours of work that are the foundation of being a photographer — shooting every day, over 10,000 pictures later, I have failed enough to begin to find a style that speaks to me.  There may even be a couple hundred photos among those thousands and thousands that are actually good, and of those couple hundred, several dozen GREAT photographs.  In practice, photography is chance married to concept, and an understanding of why you are shooting.

Conclusions: I really dig concept art.  I still dig modern and contemporary art (already knew that, but good to get some confirmation).  I will probably not ever been in the mainstream film industry in a productive capacity.  I will never be a commercial photographer, but I have learned to love photographs for themselves and, I think, understand a bit the many things they can do and mean.  I may be an experimental filmmaker.  I will live in New York City for at least 3 months of my life.  And I really need to sit down and read, completely, everything that Jacques Derrida has ever written.

I am not the same person who flew out of MSP almost three months ago; life has been happening, in various shades of reality.  And life is about to continue to happen, for all of the new incarnations of my Self encountering all of the visual worlds there are to see.