A daily road diary with text by Nato Thompson, video by Benjamin Brown, and images by various photographers.
April 17, 2009
Coachella to Joshua Tree
You can’t force an operatic ending. You can’t make people leave their homes in the high heat of spring to grab a flyer from your hand. We drove past Coachella in the morning hoping to get a conversation going with the music fans arriving for the shows. It was frustrating because we had tried in advance to convince the Coachella promoter Golden Voice to let us do a day here. They said no. Actually they said, “I don’t mean to sound poopie, but Coachella is a place for people to escape reality. We feel that this project doesn’t do that.” Welcome to American subculture. Escapist consumerists unite! Now we couldn’t get in and we were quite jealous. Instead we drove around the concert site enviously until Lonnie took a right turn on a tight road and hit a “do not enter” sign. A cop pulled us over, warned us, and let us go. As many strange looks as we received, there was nowhere to stop. We had to move on.
On our way to Joshua Tree, the check engine light went on. The weather was hot and the engine was overheating. We pulled over near a wind farm and decided to have Harvey and Esam talk about energy while Lonnie let the engine cool down. Giant white turbines whirled away in the sky, with a monster of a snowcapped mountain in the distance. Harvey asked if this was to be our Quixotian moment. Perhaps it was. Chasing after windmills, we tried to force them to have a conversation about oil in the Middle East. Harvey’s nose was running. He was getting cranky. “Is the conflict in Iraq about oil?” we asked them. “How do we know? We only know what we experienced,” they replied. I was perplexed by their refusal to engage in the conversation from an analytical perspective, for once. They talked about how regular people get electricity in their homes in Iraq. How Saddam had placed power lines underground, so during the war people have had to rewire their homes themselves. But we wanted them to get away from the specifics. What about the big reasons? What about oil and this war? What about nuclear power in Iran or pipelines in Harvey’s home state of Alaska or oil pipelines across Afghanistan?
Our desire to get at the big question mimicked the frustration this project has properly evoked across the United States. Conversations tend to start at the macro level, smoothing over the complexity and humanity of the personal. But it is in the personal details of daily life where abstractions like war become much more clear, more painful, more present.
Our trip over the mountains was hardly ideal. The RV slowed to a standstill and the “stop engine” light went on. We stopped on a 7 percent grade to let the engine cool down again. Deciding to offload some weight, we put some gear and Esam, Harvey, and Ben in Amy Mackie’s car. Fortunately our minimal plan worked and we arrived into desolate 29 Palms. A nowheresville Marine town, it was decorated with yellow ribbons and murals on every other building. The sidewalks were empty and cars zoomed along. Trying to do this project in small towns is nearly impossible. Jane Jacobs was absolutely correct on the corrosive impact that cars have on civic life. Like Summerville Tennessee, this impoverished military community was by and large just an intersection for car traffic. We pulled the RV alongside a mural in honor of the Marines serving in the current war in Iraq. A marine in full fatigues drove by and flipped Lonnie off. It was a nice beginning, but that turned out to be the ending of that stop as well. No one.
We then drove over to an art gallery named Art Queen, a gallery in Joshua Tree where Randy Polumbo and Shari Elf welcomed us. Inside garage in the backyard, the Lower East Side eighties performance artist Ann Magnusson gave us a tour of her current show. She had made a piece of art each day for thirty days. They were mostly silver knick knacks and sculptures, starting with a molding memorial service card for Andy Warhol. Ann got into a conversation with Esam and Harvey about the project. She thought we should have images of dead babies and victims of the war on the project. Well to be honest, she said she was prodding from a devil’s advocate position. Harvey reacted a tad aggressively and I thought, he really isn’t feeling well. He’s losing that casual charm that carried him through the project.
We finished the night at Randy Polumbo’s remarkable home. His place was spectacular: he had a wonderful hodgepodge of wine bottles in stone and a chandelier of flashlights with LEDs. Nearby he had a peculiar installation of massive, flower-like sculptures constructed of resin dildos that shown brightly as the sun went down. He had a wonderful meal for us and we met some great local artists. But our crew was tired. We snuck away to the hot tub that overlooked the valley and decompressed.
A slightly anti-climactic ending to our project, but then again, how could it have been any other way? I can’t attempt to summarize what has happened. I’m too close. We all are. Our days on this RV rolled by with the present tense always on top of us. The future dissolved while we focused on each event, each new local, each person who told us their story. The cacophony of conversations are still a mess in our ears; a jumble of disparate, contradictory, personal, and rhetorical narratives. We didn’t make a video for the final day. There is no final word. No ending.
We’ll go back and sort through this in our heads. Jeremy is going to have to figure out what the hell happened. I have no idea how he plans on doing it. For my part, I’ll miss these guys, and the trip in general. We all got very close and, amazingly, didn’t fight. It felt good to be out of an office, digging into the fabric of public life and being right in the middle of a strange art project. America is a sweet, confused place full of good food, amazing stories, and an uncharacteristic, bellicose history that’s hard to reconcile with its generous population. It’s quite possible that in towing this blown-up car and making Harvey and Esam talk the ear off the country, we did our part in making America all the more confusing.
April 16, 2009
From Tempe, Arizona to Indio, CA
Sometimes you just can’t find a conversation. The RV was quiet as we headed out of Tempe and into even vaster desert. Amy Mackie and Ben followed in the car behind and we listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd on the radio. Harvey wasn’t feeling well and Esam was busying translating something for a side job he has. I spent time talking with the Creative Time home office and the Hammer, discussing the wrap-up of this project. Jeremy was on the phone organizing a parade in Manchester. Our time on this trip is quickly coming to a close, and our minds are turning toward the future.
We stopped off in Quartzsite to see if we could find some snowbirds still around. The snowbirds are retirees that descend on this city in RVs to get out of the cold up north. Thousands come down in January and February, but, as we learned, by April Quartzsite is desolate. We went by a junk shop where a redheaded salesmen in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, tan shorts, and sandals told me Bin Laden and Hillary Clinton jokes. I bought some Operation Freedom cards that depicted Bush, Rummy, Powell, and Condie in various positions of patriotic power. I saw some stickers that read, “These colors don’t run.”
We were going to stay the night near Quartzsite in a town affectionately dubbed Blythe, but we felt the plan needed modifying. The massive music festival Coachella was starting up tomorrow morning about 80 miles west, so we decided to get a hotel room in the nearby town of Indio. Surely more people would be there. Turned out that everyone was either setting up for the event or in their disparate hotel rooms. We drove around Indio looking for a place to park and talk to folks, to no avail.
We had to call it a wash. We checked into the Quality Inn and played Buckhunter later that evening at a sports bar. LA hipsters came by and I believe Seth Rogen played pool next to us.
April 15, 2009
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
What exactly does speaking do? How do we produce what we consider to be the field of politics? What are strategies for getting past strange, oppositional language? I thought much about those questions on this windy day. The palm trees arched their backs against the sky and the desert dirt became a haze in the air. ASU is huge, but we were around the corner from an opera house that Frank Loyd Wright had planned for Baghdad. After a coup upturned the politics there, he went to next logical place: Tempe, Arizona.
The pedestrian traffic was extremely slow today. Maybe it was the wind. A Christian theater student named Ashley told us, in convoluted language, about her calling from God. “He told me to join the theater and it’s gone very well. Then He got me into the ROTC and that has been amazing. I wonder what He’ll do with me next?” She wanted to fight for the United States so that others could experience all the rights and freedoms that America has. She basically told us that she wanted to go to war with countries in order to liberate their people. She dreamily spun a narrative about helping heroes from “the past and present” that serve in our armed forces. She was a time-traveler drifting between the mythic, patriotic, idealist, and the here and then.
The Arizona State student body (which is in excess of 60,000) might have been deterred from our project by unusual weather ruining the 85-degree average of Arizona’s spring. But we heard about a demonstration of sorts that was happening in center of campus and rushed over to check it out. A student group in support of Palestinian rights was reenacting Palestinians crossing the Israeli border, with the help of a large prop wall. It was an impressive structure at about thirteen feet tall, and it was covered with images of wounded Palestinian children, maps of dwindling Palestinian land, and statistics on deaths in the region. Men yelled at women in headscarves holding fake babies who wanted to cross. “Let us pass! My baby needs to go to the hospital.” “You can not pass! You must go around! Israelis only!” We were in the midst of college political theater with a subject close to ours. They had this object. The wall. They were performing. Their goal was to make the conditions of Palestinians real for the students of ASU.
A lone Israeli student yelled at them about their unbalanced perspective. His presence riled up the group and the older students tried desperately to prevent him from derailing their performance. I don’t feel like criticizing the students because, well, I like political theater. I also think it’s important for people to exercise political speech, even if it is a bit clumsy. When it comes to politics in public space, it is often too easy to be a hater. Nonetheless, their project could have benefited from a bit of openness. It was so loud. So bananas. I know there is a need for raising awareness, but I watched how little people interacted with their project. It was more spectacle, almost alienating. I wondered if it would have benefited from a bit more ambiguity as a strategy for producing dialogue.
We tried to get the student group to come see our project later in the day. They were enthusiastic, but as it turned out none of them showed up. Tricia Van Eck, curator from the MCA, made a surprise visit; and Amy Mackie, who helped curate this project for the New Museum, joined us after struggling with her rental GPS system.
They showed up in time to see a woman named Angie talk to us about her civilian work with Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR), a former subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR provides services to the troops, and she personally contributed moral support. Ben and Jeremy recorded a lot of her thoughts, as she was well informed and her feelings were quite intense. She talked about third-world workers who were hired as janitors in the Green Zone. They lived in groups of fourteen to a trailer and some were used as informal concubines on the base. There was a little debate with Esam and Harvey on the accuracy of her stories, but we agreed that all wars have had some sort of tacitly condoned prostitution.
Prostitution, mercenaries, trailers, insurgents, and jobs. These words repeat themselves over and over; the material residue of war, life, sex, and capital littering the language and green zones of the high desert regions of Baghdad and Tempe, Arizona.
April 14, 2009
Santa Fe to Tempe, Arizona
It was a driving day filled with jewelry, overpriced boots, and poker on the RV. After having a breakfast burrito at Atlas Café and eyeballing the most gorgeous cowboy boots a guy could hope for, we hopped into the RV for the long haul to Arizona. An amazing landscape rolled out before us, and the beleaguered Route 66 passed by to the right.
Esam and Harvey got into the term “mercenary” again. Are the US troops actually mercenaries? It’s an interesting question: the word implies personal gain while serving in times of war. Not just for the employees of Blackwater and Triple Canopy, but with a larger perspective the entirety of infrastructure developed around war. Harvey felt the term was being misused and delved into the definition. “If you serve in a national army, by definition, you are not a mercenary,” he said. It was a reasonable point. Esam countered that if you get into the military for monetary gain as opposed to an investment in justice or nationalism, then you’re a mercenary. If Esam’s definition holds true then a lot of the soldiers we’ve met would fall into that category. But it seemed that most of them just wanted a job and some direction. That doesn’t seem as calculating or avaricious as a military contractor.
We stopped off at a roadside bazaar called “Indian Palace.” Two giant billboards battled each other outside: one read, “We sell authentic goods made by real Native Americans. All goods guaranteed,” and the other, “Largest store of authentic goods. Delicious tacos too.” Jeremy bought a bolo tie and I got a black onyx ring. Heading further into Arizona as the sun went down, we played Texas Hold ’Em with marshmallows, pretzels, and cookies as the chips. Harvey and Ben won a round each. The RV barely made a mountain pass at 12 miles an hour, with the engine light flashing. No breakdowns so far. Please not tonight.
April 13, 2009
Santa Fe Plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico
A high desert breeze greeted us as we parked the RV along the central plaza in Santa Fe. We were surrounded by adobe boutiques selling turquoise knick-knacks, moccasins, ceramic bowls, and Issey Miyake eveningwear. All of it was out of my price range except the $12 black straw cowboy hat I bought later in the day, once my face had turned bright red. The mountains in the distance were covered in fresh snow, the air was thin, and the local Native Americans were laying out their wares on blankets for the upcoming tourist traffic that is the engine of Santa Fe.
The day started slow, but by noon we’d reached a quick pace that didn’t end till about 5pm. As idyllic and sleepy as Santa Fe is, we got a few cranky folks at the start. A potentially insane guy in an electric wheelchair zoomed over and told us that if he were president he would bomb Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan with nuclear weapons. “Blow them up. It’s the only way to save lives. It also helps the economy. The price of metal will go up with more war.” It’s probably unfair to quote this man, but sometimes I think even the lunatics have their fingers on the pulse of certain fears and concerns that plague the American subconscious.
A grey-bearded man came at Esam with some aggression. “Religious extremists are the cause of this problem. They make the messes that we have to clean up,” he yelled. “This is untrue,” Esam replied. “In fact, if you added up all the casualties and destruction caused by the extremists and compared it to how much is caused by armies doing it for money, you’ll find that most messes are caused by the desire for money.” “The US army is defending their country,” the man shot back, his face quite red. “I think they are doing it for money actually,” Esam said. “I think they are actually mercenaries.” The man lost it. He tossed the flyer on the ground and stomped off. Esam’s opinions are coming to the surface more frequently as the days wear on. I am sure that he knew that calling the US troops mercenaries would upset that man, and I think he enjoyed that idea. There’s no point in trying to stop him. His temperament, whichever way it goes, is part of the project.
A Hispanic woman on a smoke break from the bank nearby told us about her paralyzed brother, back from Afghanistan. He had become addicted to painkillers and the doctors were trying to get him to quit. She was quite depressed about the war, and told us that much of her family had served or were about to. “They come back very changed,” she said. “It’s very sad.”
A Sioux named David Red Fox talked to Harvey about his experience as a Vietnam vet. He was pretty much for the war in the sense that he had a blanket support-the-troops ethos. His patriotism went against what we might have expected. He was aware that his people’s culture had been near-annihilated by this country, but he also felt that now it was his country as well. “You have a responsibility to defend your land,” he said. A massive blonde cop known locally as “Thor” gave us a hard time about our permit. He was really aggressive until he found out we had a veteran with us, after which he took Harvey and Esam aside to talk about the war for quite a while. He warmed up. A slight smile on his huge head emerged briefly.
A woman named Linda Durham who has a gallery in Santa Fe and was once a Playboy Bunny talked about her trip to Iraq in 2004, and her recent trip to Gaza with Code Pink. It’s pretty impressive that she went to Iraq at that time. She talked about how her convoy of women was pulled over by a Mercedes with guns who robbed the car in front. She was clearly very against the war, but she also added that what she saw in Gaza far exceeded the damage she saw in Baghdad.
There were many more conversations than this diary can allow. Overall the people in Santa Fe were very warm and supportive. You can feel the liberal energy in the town, but simultaneously we found a lot of army families and complicated relationships to country, patriotism, capitalism, and ideas of home. That night we ate a delicious dinner at Site Santa Fe in a gallery of Marylin Minter photographs. We finished the night doing karaoke at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame: Def Lepperd, Depeche Mode, and Elvis.
April 12, 2009
Amarillo to Santa Fe, New Mexico
We drove today, from a BBQ gas station named Rudy’s to a knick-knack superstore just outside Albuquerque. We didn’t have a stop planned, so woke up late. We were getting tired. While we settled into the RV once again, the landscape shifted from the wide plains of Texas to the mesas and red dirt of New Mexico. We stopped at one of those anything-goes Native American/cowboy/homemade candy tchochtke shops. Cowboy hats, bolo ties, Native American postcards with planets and blue coyotes, Santa Fe t-shirts, and cap guns surrounded us. I thought about how bizarre this must feel for a Native American. We parked behind Site Santa Fe on a gravel lot. It was Easter and we were having dinner at the house of my former colleague from MASS MoCA—and now director at Site Santa Fe—Laura Heon.
Laura married a Portuguese scientist from Los Alamos named Luis, who cooked us a fine meal of lamb. Over dinner Harvey and Esam got into a bit of an argument over Esam’s use of a specific metaphor in conversation. Often when people ask him if the Iraq invasion was good for Iraq, he’ll reply that you probably wouldn’t like it if someone entered your house and tried to clean up your life by shooting members of your family. Harvey has heard this many times (we all have) and maybe, at this point, he was tired of its simplicity. “But Iraq isn’t really a house,” he said. “There are neighbors of that house. There are relationships to those that enter that house.” Harvey pushed the discussion toward genocide in places like Rwanda. Surely, the US should step in? Esam wasn’t so sure. If the country is sovereign, it should be left to decide its fate on its own.
Meanwhile Jeremy and I got embroiled in a discussion with a local art critic about the question of art. It started when he said that he wasn’t sure if the project was art or not. That old question. I find it so tedious, and I wasn’t sure if he was truly invested in the answer. I often find that that question is raised more rhetorically than analytically. But if it’s really dug into, it can be productive. I asked him what was to be gained by answering this question. That is to say: What do we want to know? What does the frame of art lend to the phenomenon of this project happening in public space? I could have gone into how there is a history of socially-based practice and that interactions between people have a long history in art, from Joseph Beuys, Happenings, Fluxus, and Hélio Oticica to Group Material, Wolkenklauser, and aesthetics such as the dialogic, conversational, relational, and on and on. There is a history of art that can be referenced to ground this project in a lineage. And if that’s helpful for folks then maybe I should start. But ultimately, that response elides a much more troubling and interesting conversation, for art history starts to become a tautology: because other artists have done this, it is art. The more important and complicated issues to raise simultaneously are: What is gained and lost by calling something art. How does the field of art deal with the overwhelming growth of cultural production in every other field? It’s silly to think that Enlightenment categories like geography, art, sociology, anthropology, literature, natural history, etc, somehow remain static—or in fact relevant—in the face of the increasingly interrelated field of culture in daily life.
Many artists aren’t specifically invested in calling their work art, so much as they utilize the tools of artistic production to produce interesting moments and provocations. Many other fields do this as well, from teachers to activists to advertisers to geographers to experimental theater groups. This isn’t a strategy unique to just what is described as “art.” As Jeremy is versed in the form of social aesthetics (how to produce a specific environment and tweak it with ambiguity), he is producing a peculiar and thought-provoking moment in public space. Trying to figure out what that moment is should be the job of the art critic (or maybe we should just say critic) because that’s where the real meat of the project is. Trying to pin down whether it’s art or not is a necessary journey but one that will probably lose site of the truly interesting moments that drive the work.
April 11, 2009
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
Setting up this project on a religious campus on Easter weekend didn’t seem like the wisest idea. But SMU is about to become home to the George Bush Library, so we couldn’t help but want to do something there. “Welcome home GW Bush” banners were hung around the campus, and apparently his favorite burger joint was just down the road. The night before this lovely day in Dallas, we had gone over to Kenny Goss’ incredible home, which is full of work by Young British Artists (who aren’t so young anymore). Art by Tracy Emin, Gary Hume, Sam Taylor Wood, Chris Ofili, Damian Hirst, and Tim Noble and Sue Webster was everywhere. He has a foundation with his boyfriend George Michael, yes: the singer, that collects and presents these artists. So it seemed reasonable that Jeremy pay a visit. Someone at the party said that Dick Cheney lived just two blocks away.
The campus was predictably slow. Some local residents jogging by, and skaters, Frisbee players, and cheerleaders made brief appearances as the leisurely Saturday wore on. We passed out flyers to the random people that tried to make their way around us. Jeremy, ever the watchful flyerer, began to actually jog with the joggers so as to get our information into their hands. Today the fish weren’t biting.
A kid named Drew stopped by. He worked just a mile or so away, at a refugee education program that served many Iraqis. He told us about how difficult it can be for his students to fit in, in America, and how he sympathizes with all they have been through. We were approached by someone who could only be described as a golf dad, with his wife. He had a polo shirt tucked into tan shorts, black sunglasses on, and thinning black hair that was perfectly combed. “It’s amazing what people will do. Are they brainwashed or just uneducated?” he asked Esam. The question was oblique, and his wife grimaced as he finished his question. Esam, never at a loss for a calm response, said, “Well, it’s like soldiers killing themselves by joining the front lines of the army. In the end, death happens in war.”
A young minister came over and spoke with Harvey and Esam for a long time. They debated religion and its role in the conflict. He was convinced the first Gulf War was morally right, but at the same time he was clearly willing to wrestle with his convictions. He wasn’t particularly nuanced so much as knowledgeable. Sort of. He considered himself something he called “a Christian extremist” but he felt there was a real distinction between the Christian version of extremism, showing love to as many people as possible, and Islamic extremism, which encouraged violence toward other people. Harvey told him about Al Qaeda in Iraq and its increasingly tenuous—if not completely dissolving—connection to the Sunni Awakening movement. He tried to make it clear that many different political interests were operating on the ground there, and how that pushes itself against the supposed tenets of Islam. The minister said he was sympathetic but I couldn’t tell if he actually was. I guess that’s how a lot of these conversations go. Most of the people we talked with on campus were fairly Republican, which made things more interesting. They were also Southern, so the conversations were pretty polite. No yelling. Many smiles and thanks. Frictionless.
This polite behavior is part of the texture of America. As argumentative and polemical as popular media makes America seem, for the most part people are congenial. People enjoy the American tradition of dialogue and are generally curious about the war itself. I think they are also curious about space and presence. The car is a thing. It isn’t a representation. To be simple, it is what it is. It’s haunting presence on that trailer forces respect. As this is so, an aura of tenderness surrounds our weird, public interactions. Tempers ease.
Later we drove into Amarillo, Texas. It was a long haul, but we needed to get to Santa Fe in time for Easter dinner. A lightening storm broke out over the weathervanes in nowhere towns like Claude and Newlin. We went out that night to a few bars and played Buckhunter Pro—a pastime that has gained increasing significance in our band of six dudes. A scuffle broke out at a spot called The Spotted Pony and we narrowly escaped a humungous, angry ex-boyfriend in a hockey shirt. We got to sleep rather late.
April 10, 2009
Emancipation Park, Third Ward, Houston, TX
We set up today in Emancipation Park, in Houston’s Third Ward. It was Good Friday. No one was around. The Third Ward is a predominately African American, low-income district, and Emancipation Park is located just three blocks from Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses.
Rick had told folks to stop by, so as the day wore on we met some local residents. One, an older African American veteran named Sergeant First Class Blake, in full fatigues (who turned out to be Republican and for the war), talked to Esam for what must have been two hours. He started out pretty aggressively, saying that the United States had every right to strike back at Iraq due to 9/11. Esam asked if he knew that Saddam offered aid to the 9/11 recovery effort. He hadn’t. Blake also needed some clarification in regard to the basic fact that Iraq hadn’t actually attacked the World Trade Center. It’s strange, but this simple misunderstanding still permeates our discussions.
A college girl in rhinestone Bulgari glasses surprised us with her extraordinarily complicated background. She was once a cheerleader and looked like a classic example of the perfect American, but she also embodied numerous complications and contradictions endemic to Houston and greater Texas. Her family was in oil and she had Islamic in-laws from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran. She told us about growing up in a normal Houston suburb with only one minority: Middle Eastern families. “Houston is no stranger to the Middle East, she said. “Oil connects us not just financially but personally as well.” She talked about how she found it sad that Iranian girls would try to pass as Latinas. “I like it more when they embrace their culture, but I do understand where they are coming from.”
As we hung about, the artist Dario Robleto stopped by. He had just moved to Houston from San Antonio. His work often deals with historic objects pertaining to war and death, and I couldn’t help but think he might have an art-y appreciation of the mess of a car languishing on our trailer. We also made a short trip to see Project Row Houses, and visit a guy who calls himself Flowerman. His home was adorned with stunning array of toys glued to every surface. He took us to his yard, where a six-foot plastic cow had fallen off his roof during to Hurricane Ike. He had been an alcoholic and found god twenty years ago, when his life’s mission had become decorating, painting, and augmenting his increasingly glittery home.
As we packed up and headed to Dallas, I thought about the point of this project. Not simply because we’ve been asked about it at every talk we give, but also because we’re coming to a part of the journey where we can see the end looming in the distance. What can be gained by ephemeral interactions in public space that briefly exist in YouTube videos and on a blog? With such an ambivalent, open-ended tone, what prevents people from leaving these conversations without a single view challenged or sense of self altered? At the same time, I’ve watched first-hand at how receptive people are to this type of civic interaction. In general people are against the war, but a few still hold on to some battered beliefs that it was a good idea. Most people are confused about what it means to pull out of Iraq, and Esam and Harvey are both knowledgeable on this particular point. Veterans gain a lot from talking to our guys, and I think providing a public space for them to discuss what they have gone through is a profoundly political act. But people’s beliefs don’t really gets at the magic of this project.
People often talk in sound bites. That becomes clear when the 200th conversation about the war (one that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people) still revolves around basic questions. An opportunity to push this conversation toward more complicated discussions of democracy, nation states, capitalism, theology, the minutia of sectarian violence, the role of race, and on and on, is where real differences start to emerge. The moment where people have to deal with the reality (the car) and the people (an Iraqi and a soldier) in effect wakes them up to the responsibility of discourse. And in general, they recognize this and embrace it. In addition, the political act of talking across racial and ideological boundaries in public is particularly interesting and magical. Not only for us and the participants but also for the art organizations that host us. They like the opportunity to engage with an audience that is often not involved in their process. These are some simple thoughts, but I am going to build on them more over the course of the remaining days.
April 9, 2009
University of Houston, Houston, Texas
Extra credit really works. We found ourselves inundated today by students whose art history professors had assigned them an engagement with our project. Many brought objects, which ranged from the compelling to the, well, last-minute student stuff. It certainly got the day off to a quick start. Our wonderful hosts Karen Farber and Nancy Zastudil had gotten us set up at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, and although the school was having their annual Burgerfest (whatever that is) not so far away, driving some traffic away from us, we were busy right at 10am and it continued until 4pm.
A young Korean student told us that his father-in-law is currently working in Iraq as a nurse. He had brought a webcam for his assignment: it’s the tool he uses to communicate with his father-in-law every other day. A young African American girl told us that she had intended to bring a crushed watch. “I thought it would represent a gift that you get which doesn’t work. It’s a present that really isn’t a present.” I kind of enjoyed her conceptual maneuver. Another kid brought an oilcan with a dollar attached. Blah blah. His extra credit was more like the watch. A Pakistani kid in a purple sweatshirt showed us his cell phone, where he had the entire Koran stored. He had intended to bring the actual Koran but thought it was too heavy. An extraordinarily tattooed girl in a sundress showed us what she called a “desert spider,” and said, “When I think about Iraq, I think of this spider I heard about. It’s a foot long.” She pulled out a crumpled printout with a picture from a Google image search. The source website read something like www.wackyphotos.com, and it showed a foot-long ant being held up by a soldier. Esam told her that those spiders aren’t poisonous, and that he’s more afraid of rattlesnakes in Texas than that thing. For my part, I don’t even think the picture is real. More bad extra credit. But it must be said that when a woman thinks about Iraq and the first thing that comes to mind is a large ant, she possesses what can only be described as a novel perspective.
The conversations were lively, particularly with the surprising number of Middle Eastern women that stopped by. One young woman from Turkey (her father is the minister of health) with piercing eyes took on our Iraqi giant about his position that there are no democratic nations in the Middle East. “Turkey has a democracy,” she said. “Turkey does not have a democracy,” Esam replied. “What about the woman that was excluded from government for wearing a hajib?” “Well, yes, there are problems with our government. That woman is a friend of my family and now teaches at Georgetown. While it is true that the Turkish democracy isn’t perfect, it certainly a democracy.” I had to agree with her.
An Iranian woman spoke with Esam about life in Iraq. The subject of headscarves came up again, as she was very interested in their political implications. She had lived in Iran during the Iran/Iraq war, at the same time as Esam was in Iraq. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for them to talk to each other. They spoke about the Iranian revolution and the rise of Islam. She was interested in whether the young people in Iran were tired of the Iranian leadership. Meanwhile Harvey was discussing cluster bombs and landmines with a guy whose brother was serving. He knows a lot about the minutiae of weapons and some folks love talking guns.
We also had an opportunity to meet some of the Houston art community. Midday Franklin Sermons and Michelle White from the Menil paid a visit. Later that night, I ate dinner with Bill Arning, who had just arrived in town in his new position as director of the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, and Toby Kamps, a curator (he also surfs the wakes of big oil freighters). And finally, the lovely Andrea Grover from Aurora Picture Show talked to me about her work with a public art program called Buffalo Bayou. All in all it was, in Jeremy-speak, a brilliant day: my nose got burnt from Houston sun, we ate fajitas, and at the end, we drank beer at the Alabama Ice House.