A pair of snapshots from installing a new project in the chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery: last month we started painting the first of 2,880 holes, and last night Candy Chang applied the final touches as she balanced on top of a precarious platform of light. Of all our projects together, I’m most proud of this one. It’s certainly the most personal.

After losing my parents, I did not have religion or tradition to ground me. Whenever I visit a church, temple, or cemetery, I find myself craving a gesture or ceremony that might provide a sense of connection, even coherence. Perhaps these things can be invented. Maybe they’ll lead me to some sort of patchwork 21st-century faith.

After the End is now on view through November 10. More photos and a proper project description coming soon…

M83 – In Church

From Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts | Gooom, 2003 | More
After the End opens at the Historic Green-Wood Chapel on September 15.

My next project with Candy Chang is happening in this magnificent chapel.

After the End
A ritual about loss
September 15 – November 10, 2021
Green-Wood Cemetery
Brooklyn, New York

The only way I can understand these uneasy days is to write about them. But finding my own thoughts has felt difficult lately. It seems to require more effort to keep my brains out of the muck of today’s opinion-mongers and two-minute hates, these digital screamers and bad faith dealers. No matter what I do, their poison bleeds through the walls.

Maybe there’s no coming to terms with these days of lurching from calamity to calamity while being told it’s time to get back to normal. As I write this, a hurricane is approaching the eastern seaboard, which captures the spirit of the past eighteen months: the waiting-and-seeing, wondering how bad the damage might be.

New York City’s big reopening concert was canceled midway through Barry Manilow’s set due to lightning strikes. Last week it rained at the top of Greenland for the first time in recorded history. We’re back to wearing masks indoors.

What is the best strategy for surviving the 21st-century? Does it require some sort of cool detachment? Bertrand Russell notes that Stoicism naturally took root during “a tired age” when Rome began to decay, a time when “the future, they felt, would be at best a weariness, at worst a horror. In a hopeful age, great present evils can be endured, because it is thought they will pass; but in a tired age even real goods lose their savour.”

Philosophies such as Stoicism suit a tired age because “its gospel is one of endurance rather than hope.” Maybe we’ve entered an absolutely exhausted age. But here’s why I often turn to Russell for comfort: “There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and, in a bad world, useful; but it is neither quite true nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere.”

So I’ve been thinking about what it means to be sincere on and off the screen in 2021. This feels more productive than contemplating how to endure.

Today I learned that in 1983, Visage covered one of the most frightening songs I know: Zager & Evans’s improbable 1969 hit “In the Year 2525“, which races through ten thousand years of technological horror fueled by numbed-out consumerism. For example: “In the year 5555, your arms are hanging limp at your sides and your legs got nothing to do because some machine is doing that for you.” Both versions are catchy as hell.

The fall of Rome. 1969. Wherever we stand today. The year 2525. Real goods keep their savor.

Visage – In The Year 2525

Fade to Grey: The Singles Collection | Polydor, 1983 | More

Six years later, I have 88,000 words about an elderly truck driver, a frightened voice on the radio, and a very loud god. It’s the nineteenth draft of this story, and it still has problems, but it’s as good as I know how to make it right now. I’m ready for C’s advice before I start the twentieth draft. She’s my ideal reader, the reason I write stories. I must remember this whenever I start worrying about things like symbolism, style, and relevance. Keep it simple. Return to the image of sitting around a fire thousands of years ago: we make up stories to entertain the people we care about. That’s all.

Along the way, I began to think of this book as a monster. A bizarre, embarrassing, and occasionally fascinating creature showed up in my life, and like it or not, it must be dealt with, or else it will leave me exhausted and haunted. As long as I pay some attention to it each day, it is happy. Sometimes it even performs neat little tricks. But if I ignore it for a day, it begins to get sullen. Let three or four days go by, and it turns downright mean when I try to approach, snapping at my hands. Weeks will pass before I can summon the nerve to go near it again.

After years spent fooling around with countless rituals and productivity routines, I learned the hard way that it’s all a mirage. The time of day does not matter. The perfect notebook will not solve my problems. Everydayness is the most important thing for me. If I’m lucky, this might mean a few hours of steady work in the afternoon. But it’s often just twenty minutes of scrolling through the document at midnight, rearranging commas and pruning a sentence, just to keep the monster tame. Even a quick pat on the head will do.

Legowelt – A Monster So Beautiful!

Loch Ness | Pacific Micro International Software, 2013 | Bandcamp
Last night’s view from my window.

Fireworks showered the nation last night, in part to commemorate the end of masking and distancing. This is cause for celebration, no question. But it seems like a sane society would pause to mourn their dead, maybe even have rethink before launching explosives and boasting about its economy. Last year I thought everything might change as I walked through an empty city, feeling anxious and ghosted but also hopeful. If a rupture must come, I thought, maybe we’ll find something better on the other side. Healthcare, at least, maybe even a sense of common cause. But if a plague couldn’t accomplish this, I shudder to think what it might take.

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Black City Skyline

From Sunset Mission | Wonder, 2000 | Boomkat

An ode to cities. A cigarette on a rain-slicked street while neon blinks mindlessly through the night.

Vince Lombardi Service Plaza, New Jersey

One of my favorite American moments: the gleaming pumps of the Vince Lombardi Service Area in New Jersey, the last service plaza before entering the tangled ramps and tunnels into New York. I returned to the city a few weeks ago, and I’m still recovering from the shock of so many people in the streets talking about money and brunch. The helicopter traffic is relentless, all these choppers shuttling the wealthy to their beachfront homes.

Crypto, personal brands, and a life spent unwittingly training algorithms. Cyberhacked utilities, the mercenary jargon of self-care, and billionaires in outer space. My sense of slippage grows each day, but I know a cognitive leap is necessary if I hope to survive this century and not be left pining for some romanticized past.

Love, Inc — Life’s a Gas

Force Inc, 1996 | More

I recently reread Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which harmonizes with our latest heatwave to an unsettling degree. Snowman is the last person on the planet after a cataclysmic intersection of a virus, climate change, and technological hubris. Sunburnt and crazed, he wanders the ruins, seeking refuge from the unbearable heat.

But suppose—just suppose, thinks Snowman—that he’s not the last of his kind. Suppose there are others. He wills them into being, these possible remnants who might have survived in isolated pockets, cut off by the shutdown of the communications networks, keeping themselves alive somehow. Monks in desert hideaways, far from contagion; mountain gatherers who’d never mixed with the valley people; lost tribes in the jungles. Survivalists who’d tuned in early, shot all comers, sealed themselves into their underground bunkers. Hillbillies, recluses; wandering lunatics, swathed in protective hallucinations. Bands of nomads, following their ancient ways.

How did this happen? their descendants will ask, stumbling upon the evidence, the ruins. The ruinous evidence. Who made these things? Who lived in them? Who destroyed them? The Taj Mahal, the Louvre, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building—stuff he’s seen on TV, in old books, on postcards . . . Imagine coming upon them 3-D, life-sized, with no preparation—you’d be freaked, you’d run away, and after that you’d need an explanation. At first they’ll say giants or gods, but sooner or later they’ll want to know the truth.

Written nearly twenty years ago, Oryx and Crake‘s premise feels absolutely plausible today. But Atwood is fantastic at transforming frightening material into something loopy, often comic, and it leaps over the glut of dystopian visions that fill 21st-century entertainment. You say the end of the world is coming? Fine, let’s crank it to eleven: here’s the last man standing—what happens now?

I’m on to the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood. Unfortunately, the American editions are nasty, glossy objects, so I recommend tracking down the UK edition.

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.