On June 2, Candy Chang and I will be at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, to discuss our Light the Barricades installation and talk about ritual, doubt, and art with artist-theologian de’Angelo Dia.

This discussion will be part of the opening celebration for the WALLS: Defend, Divide, and the Divine exhibition at the Mint. Food trucks, cash bar, DJ Fannie Mae, and complimentary museum admission.

We Were Distracted: A Conversation about Ritual, Attention, and Public Space
WALLS Opening Celebration
June 2, 2021 | 5–9 PM
Mint Museum Uptown

From Florida to Ohio

America felt busy and extra-bright as we drove across Florida, wondering if we might be hit by the debris of a falling Chinese rocket. We shouldered through crowded sidewalks to reach the beach and look at the Atlantic. Then we scrolled through St Augustine, founded in 1565 by some conquistador, now a maze of trinkets and daiquiris, a first draft of New Orleans. Nightfall in Savannah: stone walls and trenches, gangways to restaurants, and a ceiling of Spanish moss.

And oh, the misery of Interstate 95. Two lanes of bumper-to-bumper at ninety miles per hour through Georgia and South Carolina without a single rest area. We sped along memorial freeways named after dead sheriffs. A cryptic sign announced that we were entering the Polymer Alliance Zone. In Columbia, we ate sandwiches and listened to Black Hebrew Israelites in purple gowns lecture the families heading a graduation ceremony. Evangelicals appeared with their sandwich boards and pamphlets. American religion is so loud. Billboards tell us to repent. They tell us hell is real, and because we probably live there already, they tell us to learn more at helltruth.com and follow them on Twitter.

Light the Barricades at the Mint Museum of Art | Charlotte, North Carolina

In Charlotte, we stopped to visit our Light the Barricades project, a series of illuminated walls built from billboard materials that we installed in Los Angeles in 2019. Now they’re here at the Mint Museum of Art, reckoning with the humidity and rain of the southeast. A nearby wedding reception boomed through the night. The deejay made a deft segue between “Atomic Dog” and “it’s time for the percolator” while we photographed our installation on doubt, and it was a beautiful collision of energies, possibly the highlight of my art career. Then came swoopy hills, high winds, and excellent travel plazas on the West Virginia turnpike. Along the way, a woman told me that Americans have a “bullying style of driving” that reflects the national character. I think this is partly true. We’re not all tailgaters and road-ragers. Some of us drift from lane to lane while composing emails, watching videos, or under the influence of sleep aids—which reflects the 21st-century character.

The remains of the Chinese rocket fell to earth somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Now there were reports that hackers seized control of a major pipeline along the eastern seaboard. I put on my mask as I entered a gas station for sugar and caffeine. How do you prepare to live in science fictional times? Things are speeding up; living today feels like the constant sensation of ninety miles per hour, bumper to bumper, all glare and chrome. Or maybe this is what getting older feels like. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Pye Corner Audio – Northern Safety Route

Where Things Are Hollow | Lapsus Records, 2017 | Bandcamp

Mahjong is my favorite game. Everything is aestheticized: the clack of the tiles, the building of walls, and the language of seasons, flowers, and pork fat. The ritual of washing the tiles and talking junk. “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they play mahjong,” said my mother-in-law in the middle of our thirtieth game. Two games later, she said something to me that roughly translates as “you are still breathing but you have no strength.”

Black Swan – Night Games

The Sentimental Drift | Ethereal Symphony, 2019 | Bandcamp

First proper road trip in nearly two years. One thousand miles from Ohio to Florida for a three-day game of mahjong with the in-laws. I’d almost forgotten how it feels, the rattle and throb of the long drive. The road-ragers and elderly drifters. The truck shudder, rumble strips, and windshield splatter. The landscape of mattresses, exploded tires, and orphaned vehicles along the shoulder. The overwhelm of America all at once.

Billboards asked us where we would spend eternity. They advertised steaks, skin-care routines, and swap meets. They told us hell was real. Along the Big Sandy River where West Virginia faces Kentucky, we ate fast food at an exhausted picnic table while petroleum freighters drifted through the dusk. A crowd of recreational vehicles gathered behind us, stringing up lanterns and preparing a bonfire. We listened to syrup-voiced singers from a half-century ago, the lullabies of fictional Americana. Tight lanes and heavy truck traffic through Tennessee. We paused to admire an empty swimming pool in front of an aluminum shed that said Dreamland. A small car appeared out of nowhere, and the driver’s door swung open. “Did you order a pizza?”

So many billboards for Jesus: he saves, he heals, he delivers. But maybe Jesus is having a hard time these days. None of us looked particularly saved or healed. We were wandering in the shadow of a pandemic, half of us masked, half with naked mouths, all of us wondering how to behave. The parking lot of the adult video store was packed; the Presbyterian church next door was empty. A man vomited behind his car at the travel plaza. Another wept in the courtyard of our motel next to a Waffle House.

Somewhere between Knoxville and Chattanooga, we ate bún xào in a parking lot. Then we hacked our way through Atlanta traffic, its tailgaters and stunt drivers declaring their political opinions on their bumpers. On a sleepy Sunday street in Macon, I ate an artisanal shade-grown burger the size of a toddler. In Florida, we got stuck behind a van with decals that advertised the latest conspiracy theory. Good to know the person in front of you is profoundly insane, the one who’s operating six tons of steel at eighty miles per hour. An oncoming car flashed its headlights to warn us there was a cop ahead. This gives me faith in the human experiment. The highway logic, the conversations between cars: all of us speeding through the night, each with our own theories and points of view. I’ve missed this.

Bobby Vinton – Sealed with a Kiss

Epic, 1972 | More
Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963)

Federico Fellini’s is a head-scraping and memory-swirled portrait of the judgment and shame that comes with creative effort. Tonight it speaks heavy to my desire for clarity, how I worry time is running out for me to find some niche or a single point of focus:

Could you leave everything behind and start from zero again? Pick one thing, and one only, and be absolutely devoted to it? Make it the reason for your existence, the thing that contains everything, that becomes everything, because your dedication to it makes it last forever? Could you? No, this guy here, he couldn’t. He wants to grab everything, can’t give up a single thing. He changes his mind every day because he’s afraid he might miss the right path. And he’s slowly bleeding to death.

But hyperspecialization might be an illusion in these days of everything-at-once, a romanticized relic that belongs to the medieval artisan. Lately I’ve been wrestling with my anxiety about contributing to our crowded screens, and this this line hit me particularly hard:

We’re smothered by words, images, and sounds that have no right to exist, that come from the void and return to the void. Of any artist truly deserving of the name we should ask nothing but this act of faith: to learn silence.

Most of all, I love this detail: when shooting began in 1962, Fellini taped a piece of brown paper next to the viewfinder of his camera. It said, “Ricordati che è un film comico.” Remember, this is a comedy.

In Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn, the Twin Towers reappear in South Dakota, wholly intact and without explanation.

“As the crowds arrive over the following days, the families and loners, the footloose and motor-bound, the drivers and passengers and hitchhikers, the cards and RVs and trailers, the shuttles and buses and private jets, the news vans and military jeeps and airborne surveillance, the constituents and pols and advance teams, the graphic designers and Hollywood scouts and novelists who can’t make up anything anymore, the systems and cynics and juries-still-out, the Towers loom from the end of what becomes a long national boulevard.”

Meanwhile, Elvis’s stillborn twin brother roams the mid-twentieth century, rewiring history. Shadowbahn is a widescreen novel with a sense of lightness and invention I hadn’t encountered before. Each chapter is a page, and each page leaps and loops through a garbled American landscape dotted with the Velvet Underground, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, John Lennon, new states and territories, and endless music trivia. And there’s the sense of being held captive—in the best and worst ways—to the author’s obsession with the perfect playlist.

Nightcrawler (2014) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

First up, Nightcrawler. Dan Gilroy’s 2014 neo-noir follows a man without conscience who prowls the Los Angeles night, hunting for footage of fresh accidents and violence to sell to the local news. He approaches his work with the gusto of an auteur: nosing his camera into dying faces, creeping through the homes of the murdered. The networks do not question his tactics. There’s too much money to be made in keeping people home, frightened in front of the television. A producer describes their approach to journalism as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” By nixing the logic of heroes and villains, Nightcrawler delivers one of the most chilling figures in recent cinematic memory: a man warped by the cult of the entrepreneur and the vacant language of self-improvement. He wields cliches about persistence and hard work like a weapon while he cheerfully exploits the dead and the living to achieve the American dream. “That’s my job,” he says. “I’d like to think if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.”

Nightcrawler inspired me to queue up a nocturnal film from the opposite side of the nation. Set in New York City circa 1990, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead works in reverse. Whereas Nightcrawler‘s loner thrived on capturing the pain of others, here an ambulance driver is decimated by the suffering he encounters as he loops through Hell’s Kitchen, trying—and failing—to undo its cardiac arrests, overdoses, and crack-ups. If you see him, you’re absolutely having the worst day of your life. But he’s come to save you rather than film you. And his compassion leaves him ghosted and half-insane.

Nightcrawler is sleek and solitary, almost arid; Bringing Out the Dead is loopy and crowded, its streets crammed with detours and anecdotes. Taken together, both films operate as seedy poems to fevered cities and night sweats, and they are portraits of bearing witness in the worst and best ways.

Van Morrison – T.B. Sheets

Blowin’ Your Mind! | Bang, 1967 | More

Scorsese’s use of this song while an ambulance drifts through the night has stuck with me for twenty years as one the best pairings between image and sound: both drift and meander uneasily despite the urgency of their subject. The lyrics of “T.B. Sheets” are a harrowing testament to a man’s inability to deal with his dying lover. He fumbles with the window and radio rather than face the fact of the hospital bed.

Shock G died yesterday. As the years pile up, maybe you become accustomed to your influences passing away. But this one hit me hard. I grew up with Digital Underground. I copied the cartoons from their albums into my middle-school notebooks and I memorized their lyrics; my brain still carries them around thirty years later. I was fourteen when a neighbor’s older brother scowled at my meager collection of pop-rock cassettes and gave me a mixtape with Boogie Down Productions, Stetsasonic, and Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike“—a sprawling nine-minute party that began with Shock G’s affable delivery: “Now as the record spins around, you recognize this sound. Well, it’s the Underground.” It was the sound of someone inviting you into a new world, and Digital Underground’s world was a mad sci-fi cartoon that swerved from cultural satire to psychedelic transport (“The DFLO Shuttle“) to speculative cyber-sex, from stern warnings about addiction (“The Danger Zone“) to rapping fish (“Underwater Rimes“) to paying respect to our heroes while they are with us (“Heartbeat Props“).

Digital Underground was a direct descendant of Parliament-Funkadelic‘s 1970s Afrofuturism. It’s a strange sensation, encountering the original material after the remix, sample, or homage. But Shock G went beyond borrowing or recontextualizing. While everyone else was looping “Flashlight” or “Atomic Dog,” Digital Underground’s second album, Sons of the P, featured George Clinton in one of his first appearances on a hip-hop record, and Shock G’s multi-tracked alter-egos carried the spirit of Starchild, Mr. Wiggles, and the other residents of the Mothership through the 1990s. I’m grateful to Shock G for introducing me to music that could be simultaneously bonkers, wise, and mythic—and for priming me to appreciate Funkadelic, Drexciya, and the programming of the Electrifying Mojo. I can think of no better introduction.

Digital Underground – Tales of the Funky

Sons of the P | Tommy Boy, 1991 | Bandcamp
Late April snow in Ohio

A late April snowstorm blew through Ohio last night, quick and heavy, and the sudden shock of snow was a fine addition to my hallucinations while I lay on the couch, gratefully suffering from fever, aches, and chills: the side-effects of the second dose of vaccine. A few hours later, the snow and the fever disappeared as quickly as they came.

Isnaj Dui – Chill Turns to Cold

Unstable Equilibrium | Home Normal, 2009 | Bandcamp
Somewhere in Ohio

I answered a few questions about writing and the allure of lonely gas stations as part of Michael Donaldson’s 3+1 interview series. I’m flattered to appear on his eight-sided channel, which has the passion and sprawl of a vintage zine, and it’s one of the first places I visit when I’m looking for new great music.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a woman disappears on a rocky island. Her wealthy friends search for her until it begins to rain. They pace empty rooms and gaze into the middle-distance of the emotionally detached. They speak in non-sequiturs and nod off mid-conversation. They stare at the ceiling and count. They are bored out of their skulls, trying to pass the time. And I played along at home, fidgeting and waiting for the film’s 144 minutes to end. This is the double-bind of an Antonioni film: the characters are adrift, searching for heat and drama; so is the viewer. The effect is physical.

Antonioni developed a cinematic grammar of modern isolation: people alienated by their comfort, their architecture, and one another. It was a revelation sixty years ago; now it’s as familiar as air. “Our myths and conventions are old,” said Antonioni. “And everyone knows that they are indeed old and outmoded. Yet we respect them.” And when they no longer provide solace, where do we turn? “It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained,” wrote Roger Ebert. “L’Avventura becomes a place in our imagination—a melancholy moral desert. Why don’t we have movies like L’Avventura anymore? Because we don’t ask the same kinds of questions anymore. We have replaced the ‘purpose of life’ with the ‘choice of lifestyle.'”

“They became frightful with lofty plumes, eyes like balls, fingers terminated by claws, the jaws of sharks.”

One thing I hate about my writing is that it often feels bunchy and tight. I want to recover a sense of play, so I’ve decided to find a hobby. Something unrelated to frowning at my sentences. Something I can do for the hell of it. And most important: something that doesn’t require a staring contest with a screen. So I bought a sketchbook and some watercolor paints because I have no illusions about being a painter. I haven’t drawn anything in years; the last time I painted was twenty-five years ago when I was very high.

But what to paint? I opened a random page from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and painted the first phrase that caught my attention. This has become my new hobby, a weekend ritual. Here are my first attempts:

“Our ancestors of painted wax” / “And lichen formed upon my jaws”
“My 74 antlers are hollow like flutes. When I turn toward the south, they draw ravaged animals around me.”

Looking at these paintings, it’s hard to believe I’ve been sober for eight years. But it feels good to do something for its own sake, results be damned. And I have a newfound respect for Caravaggio.

It’s a little sad that my first impulse when considering a fun activity is to get away from the screen. But the screen feels increasingly heavy nowadays, magnetized with nervy energy. In the class I teach, we discuss the mental effects of attention hijacking and outrage mechanics. My students have a lot to say, and their vocabulary is vivid, often violent: onslaught, bombarded, drowning, shredded, etc. More and more, these conversations leave me wondering if it’s possible to experience a “digital sublime,” a renewed quality of delight or awe. Or if I will ever recover a sense of lightness or play when I’m online.

Despite my best attempts at information hygiene, I’m still buffeted by the digital winds. The other day I caught myself reading an article called “What Yogurt Does to You.” Then I lingered over the ambient horror of a New York Times article about mushrooms that casually referred to “our ruined global moment.” This morning I received a marketing email for a meditation app from someone whose job title is “Editor of Wisdom Content.” Now I can meditate upon living in hell.

So back to weird painting. Tonight’s sentence: “They pelt each other with shells, devour grapes, strangle a goat, and tear Bacchus asunder.”