Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nebraska, Midwest: The Flyover Zone

So here I am, on another bus, caught between the chemical smell of the bathroom and the jerks who got on in Des Moines at 5:00 am and talked all the way to Omaha – for 3 hours—and played their too-loud-for-that-hour-in-that-small-space music. And I realize that the problem with my accursed novel that I have been writing one year out of every ten for the last 30 years is that it isn’t what I had assumed it was about. It is about buses. All of the best, most interesting parts of it, are about buses.

And as I travel through Nebraska, another new state for me, as will be North and South Dakota, I realize why the coasters East and West think of this as the flyover zone. Because it all looks alike. Indiana bleeds into Illinois bleeds into Iowa into Nebraska and Kansas, as well it should, because the geography, the land, doesn’t recognize borders as they are drawn. It has its own natural borders and so part of Iowa bleeds into part of Minnesota. Pat of Missouri bleeds into part of Illinois. All the towns look virtually the same, from the red and brown brick buildings, the run down and dilapidated buildings, once manufacturing now left for dead in the “new economy” and in that way, even the man-made part of the landscapes seem to be linked, connected, even natural. This is how it is in this part of the country. Settlers, immigrants, whatever you think of them, built these towns and now that they have outworn their usefulness, the ones that can, leave. The bus depot in Lincoln is both garage and warehouse, put up with a large square multi-use aluminum building, one built not for any specific purpose. Generic. The area around the bus station looks just like Tomah, Wisconsin, with it’s one- and two-story generic motor lodges.

The bus depot in Omaha looks like the “new” bus station in Chicago, only smaller and slightly more dilapidated, but with the same metal seats and the same lockers. The Chicago station was built 20 years ago, and so is not really new anymore. But it replaced a much larger and more distinctive one, one that had Burger King and other restaurants inside and was actually pleasant to sit in. And so this bus station will always be the “new one” to me. The one that looks out of place amid all of the new condos built out of the old warehouses, and that will probably be driven out yet again within the next 10 years. People who can afford condos don’t want bus riff-raff wandering around their neighborhoods.

I remember when my parents sold their business and bought a half-acre of land in Florida, on which they put a double-wide mobile home. My mom used to say sarcastically, jokingly, and not without pride, “we’re trailer trash now.” People who can afford condos just off of downtown Chicago do not wait trailer trash or bus trash going through their trash.

I take a swig of soda as we get back onto interstate 80 westbound for Grand Island, Nebraska toward my ultimate destination, Albuquerque.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Postmodernism inside Modernism: Dada and the Postmodern

If one of the great projects of political modernism was nation-building, including building empires, one of the great projects of postmodernism, in which the literary, artistic, and political are conterminous, is fragmentation. The sun has set on the British Empire, and the French and the Belgian and the Dutch Empires. The nations of Africa and Asia are politically independent of the West. Their artists and writers no longer reflect on the glory of those empires, but write about their own experiences, about their experiences as subjects – of an empire, of a newly-formed country, as a woman in a male-dominated culture, as an artist trying to find their way in the world, etc. Their audience is not exclusively those of us in the West anymore. They write and make art for themselves, for their own country, for their own historical moment. This is partly why the postmodern is considered fragmentary—because we recognize our subjectivity as different depending on which group we are a part of at the moment. The opposite of fragmentary is unitary—and modern: assuming a unitary self that assumes its place in a unitary empire under a united flag.

Many of the early avant-gardes were accused of co-opting African and Asian styles of art, but many of those movements were also anti-colonialist. While the most “modern” avant-garde was Futurism, which did glorify war and fascism, which did glorify the Italian state, others, such as Surrealism, were actively involved in the politics of the day. The Surrealists supported the Rift War for Moroccan independence and Andre Breton was present in Haiti as revolution broke out in the 1960s, a revolution some say was in part spurred by surrealism and his presence in Haiti at that time. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who were considered Surrealists were involved with revolutionary politics in Mexico, an anti-colonial, if still nation-building project, straddling the line between modern and post-modern politics.

The first postmodern art movement was Dada, with its international cadre of artists, with its rejection of specific nationalities, and most of all, with its fragmentary styles of art, literature, and performances that at first confounded and incensed their audiences. Cabaret Voltaire itself was a mishmash of politics and art, most of it unintelligible to the art-sophisticated audiences of its day. Dada was already post-modern while aspects that we associate with literary modernism was still in its infancy, learning how to stand on wobbly legs and take a step. Dada, with its assault on all styles of writing, on very meaning itself, took on such quintessentially modern behemoths as Soviet style communism, with its empire, uniting the countries of northern Eurasia in the teens and twenties. Dadaist writers were distinguishable from modernists such as Joyce and Pound because there was not a search for new meaning but for no meaning, for circumventing meaning and therefore finding something outside of meaning, to communicate through bypassing conscious understanding altogether. Not that this was a feeling-based art form full of sentimentalism, either. So without feeling or language, what is left? DADA is left. That is why it is so misunderstood, why it is so easy to write about and so hard to practice and why its trajectory led straight into post-modern literature while other avant-gardes of the day were still experimenting and struggling with the modern. The Dadaist revolution was incomplete and there is still a project there that we can engage with as artists and writers moving through this postmodern world.