Friday, April 20, 2012

Obscure Fantasy: Time Masters

R.I.P. Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. 1938-2012.

Other writers more eloquent than I have said better things about Moebius and his contribution to genre fiction. I can only attest to what he means to me.

Very few artists have had such an effect on me as Moebius. He's right up there with the Hildebrandts, Frazetta, Elmore, Amano, and Rackham. When I think of fantasy, his work is what I envision. Completely unreal worlds where everything, from the costumes to the flora to the fauna to the sky itself, is alien to the world we know. His artistic dreamscapes harkened back to comics pioneers like Windsor McCay, but he took it a step further. Arzach is whimsical, but its also beautiful, and evocative. In those comics, which typically had no dialogue, he lets the images do the talking. I can't look at his pictures without having my imagination go wild. The image above by itself could inspire a thousand stories without a shred of context. I'd been thinking about working on stories that incorporate Moebius-style imagery when I read the news of his passing on Black Gate.

I've never been really into science fiction, but I love some science fantasy/planetary adventure. That's why I have a soft spot for Robotech and old NES games like Bionic Commando, Captain Harlock, Dreadstar, etc. It's this idea of a magical, mythological future. Give me high adventure, alien creatures, space ships with lots of glowing buttons, and people flying on dinosaurs and I'm good to go. My interest in space opera ultimately led me to Heavy Metal, the magazine for which Moebius was founder, inspiration, and superstar. Whenever there was an Arzach story in those old 1980s issues, they emblazoned his name across the cover.

Like many, I first learned his visual aesthetic through those who were influenced by him. The "Taarna" sequence in the Heavy Metal motion picture. I saw the movie when I was 11 or 12, and of course I was amused and titillated by the nudity, profanity, drug use, and violence. Then it got to "Taarna" and I was captivated. A horde of green-skinned mutants massacre a city of scholar-scientists. The doomed town looks like this bizarre steampunk-rococo-Little Nemo hybrid populated by the androgynous descendants of French circus acrobats.

From there, the breathtaking scene of Taarna in her acolyte robe flying her pterodactyl-like steed over the plains and pipelines and villages of her desert planet. She dives underground into this vast series of metal catacombs, to the airplane hangar-sized temple that houses the statue of her ancestor. There's something futuristic about this world. There's something primitive about it. There's something desolate and lonely about it. What kind of race left these industrial ruins, now home to mutants and warrior-women? What would it be like to live in this alien version of the Wild West?

It's all Moebius. Once I got older the style became more obvious to me, to the point I spent years thinking he'd actually worked on the film. Some say he did. Either way, the animators were recreating the world of Arzach. Moebius pioneered that grungy "used future" look that would get popularized by Star Wars. Grandeur and decay. He had no problem mixing science fiction and fantasy elements in ways that felt organic, such as his superbly whimsical Magic Crystal series. His work is fantastical, detailed, improbable, and, above all, fun. With Moebius, you have it all.

One thing I have learned since his passing is how truly influential he was. Star Wars. Nausicaa. Blade Runner. Tron. The Fifth Element.  He either worked on them or influenced them. Those are not credentials to sneeze at. If you think about it, the only aesthetic in mainstream scifi he isn't responsible for are the Giger-inspired designs from Alien. Oh. Wait. He did concept art for the first movie.

I've been meaning on doing an Obscure Fantasy on Les Maitres du Temps for a while. I have loved this quality piece of '80s fantasy since I first saw the BBC dub on VHS. Like any good comic artist, Moebius was a master of collaboration, and the film is his superstar team-up with Rene Laloux. The video box said as much, more or less: "MOEBIUS and LALOUX...TOGETHER!" Seeing those names side by side made my geeky little heart flutter.

As with Moebius, I'm a longtime fan of Laloux. The same father who rented Heavy Metal for me took me at a young age to see Fantastic Planet at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Even though I already owned it on VHS, with subtitles and dubbed British voice actors. And no, the subs and dubs did not match up. I was beyond excited to see it on the big screen, along with a pre-movie screening of Laloux's short film Les Escargots. I think my dad fell asleep.

Rene Laloux epitomizes the fact that quality means everything. He made three movies. He only needed to make one to secure his place in animation history and that was Fantastic Planet. The trippy scifi midnight double feature cult classic has been popular for decades, and I guess it's only appropriate I mention it on 4/20. Stoners of all generations have zoned out to its array of bizarre imagery. Beyond that, it's a very intelligent movie; philosophical, dark, beautiful, and has something to say about man's place in the universe. Time Masters, Laloux's second of three films, is a rare collaboration between two geniuses of French art. In the animator, Moebius found a fantasist as imaginative as himself.

Les Maitres Du Temps

"A boy. A hero. A universe of danger."

Gotta love blurbs. One thing I adore about pulp is they put the "sense of wonder" up front. Slap some astronauts and rocketships and weird aliens on the cover, promise a universe of danger, and away we go.

Time Masters is Laloux's most accessible film. Fantastic Planet has its very dark humor while Gandahar is beginning to end grim. Time Masters has songs, cheesecake swimming scenes, zany sidekicks, oafish-looking bureaucrats straight out of a Tintin comic, and cartoon physics everywhere. It is, to put it bluntly, a kids' adventure movie.

Or is it? The film begins with the death of parents. From there, danger is ever-present, and death is just around the corner for all of these characters. The theme of mortality runs throughout this movie; the inevitability, yes, but also the idea of what constitutes a good life. It's about the importance of humanity, whether you're human or an extraterrestrial. It's about the worth of the individual, especially in regards to the ending. Nowadays we associate this blend of pathos and dark subject matter in animation with Pixar movies, but it is par for the course when considering the French cinema.

The philosophy is what I love about French science fiction. They internalized the concept-based approach of 1960s scifi and carried it to their best works. Look at La Planete des singes, or as we know it Planet of the Apes. What is ostensibly a dystopian adventure is also a multidimensional look at the notion of humanity, while retaining its sense of fun (the apes of the book had all sorts of crazy gadgets their film counterparts did not). Fantastic Planet and Gandahar (a whole movie based on an Isaac Asimov quote) are both loaded with subtext. In doing a family film, Laloux and Moebius approach it with the same thoughtfulness.


The film starts off in Fantastic Planet territory. A daddy longlegs-looking mooncraft is driving around what appears to be a desert planet into a forest of bizarre trees that absolutely dwarf the small vehicle. We know right off the bat that humans are not top dog in this universe. The driver is making an urgent SOS to someone named Jaffar. Some unknown force attacked the family, killing the mother, injuring the father. Only the little boy Piel is unscathed. Their vehicle crashes in the titanic briar patch.

Mortally wounded, the father lies to Piel about his mother, and about his own condition. He gives the boy his communicator, a ying-yang styled radio that he calls Mike. This design is interesting: the archetypal symbol for the balance of elements, in a movie that balances light and dark. The father anthropomorphizes Mike, tells Piel to keep Mike as his companion while waiting for help. The boy, of course, thinks Mike can actually talk. When Piel wants to stay with his dad, the dying man shoots at the ground to make him run away. There's a theme here of trying to shield children from the realities of the world. Doesn't that never work? Inevitably. As parents will say that Santa Claus brings presents, the father tells Piel he will survive his wounds. So Piel runs off into the wilderness, ying-yang radio at his side.

Cut to outer space. A Millenium Falcon-style junker spaceship captained by the chiseled Jaffar and his tight black t-shirt. You can tell he's the hero because he has the patented Harrison Ford Two Facial Expressions of Doom: smirk and scowl. Jaffar is escorting the exiled Prince Matton, who has stolen half the intergalactic government's treasury, and his beautiful sister Belle. A friend of mine in high school told me how the prince bears a resemblance to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, and the princess resembles his pre-Iman wife, Angie Bowie. I'm going to just assume this is intentional. Jaffar, communicating with Piel through his own Mike, is intent on rescuing his friend's son from the Dolong Forest, on the planet Perdide. Matton is not keen on this detour, as he's just too glam rock and fabulous to rescue little boys. He just wants to hang out and smoke his cigarettes in those little holder things. His sister, however, has a heart of gold, and is all for joining the quest.

There are some very charming scenes of Jaffar and Belle taking turns talking to the boy (they say that Mike has two voices), helping to keep him calm in this dangerous situation. Piel has his own complications to deal with, such as a giant penguin/platypus who decides to sit on Mike until it hatches. Poor kid. At least here half of the creatures he contends with are whimsical. In Fantastic Planet they'd kill him within five minutes. These scenes of Jaffar and Belle communicating with the boy are at the core of Time Masters. What is important to Laloux and Moebius is how we help and care for each other. With this in mind, Jaffar travels to a nearby planet to recruit his friend, Silbad.

If you want one scene that illustrates the beauty of the Laloux/Moebius vision, look at this one. Silbad lives on a planet of mountainous purple lilypads and herds of floating jellyfish crossing the nectar-colored sky. As ambient synthesizer plays, they fly their landing craft to Silbad's palace in the middle of a silver lake, surrounded by land that looks like no land I've ever seen.

Just going off what I know about the individual artists' styles, I'm guessing Laloux was more involved in the planet/set designs, with Moebius heading up mech/character/creature designs. If so, this is a brilliant choice, playing to each artists' strength. I want to go to this planet. I want to go there badly. Just look for yourself. In fact, watch the whole movie. It's up there.

The film slows down to take in the sailor Silbad's world. Laloux loves to explore the strange locales of his films and and here he indulges himself. Even better, the characters themselves marvel at their surroundings. It is at Silbad's that we meet our Comedy Sidekicks, two little newborn gnome-things birthed from one of those jellyfish, called shroos. Yura and Jad are telepathic, and often complain of how bad the human thoughts around them stink. Does it make automatic sense for fully intelligent and articulate creatures to be birthed from a jellyfish? No. This is planetary adventure, and thus retains that element of magic. The mechanics of this world are ever explained, nor should they be. We the viewer are dropped into fantasia and we just absorb it.

There is a fluidity to the animation that Laloux couldn't accomplish with Fantastic Planet. The choppiness worked for that movie. Here it is crisp. Long, dialogue-free scenes ensue of humans and animals interacting with their environment. I love that Belle and Jaffar aren't jaded; this sense of wonder is the reason why they space travel. This whole section is just lovely; a perfect melding of creature design, technological design, and environmental designs.

"Silbad has been hopelessly in love for twenty years," says Jaffar.

"With who?" Belle asks.

"This planet."

I can see why. As always, it's the human moments that make this movie. I don't mean the scene where Jaffar and Belle disrobe and do synchronized swimming to bubbly synth, though that's fine. I mean the part where they help Yura and Jad hatch from the shroo when they get stuck. There's a moment where Silbad sings a nonsense song to Piel that will have all sorts of poignancy later on. That's what I always remembered about Time Masters, even years later: the focus on human kindness. When faced with the indifference and cruelty of the universe, the most important thing is to treat each other well.

And for such a short movie, there's plenty of indifference and cruelty. If it's not the Time Masters, it's giant killer hornets. If not that, it's government stormtroopers. If not government stormtroopers, killer vegetation. There's a comet Jaffar has to circle in a certain amount of time. Mastery of space travel isn't mastery of anything, and the dangers come fast and furious.

So the film proceeds in a series of interlocked episodes. As in a proper fairy tale, at least one adult wants to kill the child. Fed up with this detour, and maybe a little jealous of his sister's immediate attachment to Jaffar, Matton gets on the microphone and tries to convince Piel to drown himself in a lake. This ends with him thrown in the brig. Yura and Jad, who are repelled by his stinking thoughts, decide to do him a favor, ease his troubled mind by dumping the cause of his worry into the vacuum of space. Gotta love a movie where they throw away a treasure horde.

Did I mention that the comedy sidekicks are actually funny? How often does that happen? The yellow and purple gnomes are in the tradition of Hamlet's gravedigger, philosophizing on the inscrutability of humans. They can morph their bodies and disengage parts and fly and generally make awesome use of cartoon physics. They are also heroes in their own right, helping Jaffar when he's in a pinch.

And they're unpredictable. It's funny to think how much of the film's second half is propelled by them taking independent initiative. Matton's thoughts stink so bad they release him. Since a dangerous guy like that can't just go free, Jaffar follows him to the desert planet Gamma Ten (what a great name for a scifi planet?). It is this point in the movie where Laloux and Moebius take both the fantasy and philosophy up a notch. As soon as they touch down, Matton and Jaffar are captured by angelic creatures. Completely white, featureless, androgynous. A vision of uniformity.

There is a joy to this storytelling, where a new and amazing place is literally around every corner. I know I'm not the only one who remembers how John Carter and Dorothy Gale and similar heroes would just stumble upon hidden cities based around wild science fiction concepts. Time Masters is no different. In the great pulp tradition, we are introduced to a major villain halfway through the movie. Moebius' angels wrap Jaffar in what I guess is webbing and fly him to a volcano that looks nothing like any volcano I've ever seen, carrying him like bats that have just caught a juicy mouse. These angels are all part of a central conscious that thrives on uniformity, and Matton and Jaffar are next in line to be absorbed into the collective. The Borg, but scarier.

This is a cool science fiction concept that Laloux would, thankfully, expand on with the villain in Gandahar. Moebius' design of the assimilated as angels always seemed to me a subtle dig at the notion of Heaven: a place built on exclusivity for certain believers, overseen by a judgmental omnipotent force, where all the desires that make humans interesting are wiped out for eternal malaise. According to Yura and Jad, the only way for Jaffar to gain even a Pyrrhic victory is to throw himself into the conscious, fighting it with emotion. Turn his mind to pure hate, insanity, fury, in order to corrupt and destroy the power. He needs to embrace all the darkness that humans suppress; thus killing the conscious, and himself at the same time. In other words, there is no way to win.

Ultimately, it is Matton who makes the sacrifice, choosing annihilation over assimilation. Matton's sacrifice always left a bad taste in my mouth because it is so sudden and painful. Yet it's also beautiful in a way. The prince who through the whole movie indulges his greed, avarice, a murderous impulses, gets to finally use them as a weapon against a far greater evil. It is the very ugliness of his emotions that ends up saving the others. That's a pretty deep look at human nature.

It's also horrific. Matton dies. He dies a hero just like Belle would have wanted, but he still dies. In agony. This last act of heroism will not wipe away the final image of him on the platform, screaming as he is crushed by tentacles. In the end, there is only death. Young Piel learns this, as he meets up with a cute kangaroo/pony hybrid who becomes his companion. In no time flat the animal is lured into a cave, where it is ensnared by killer vines and strangled to death in front of Piel's eyes. In his desperate flight, the boy is attacked by dozens of the aforementioned killer insects. There's the illusion of safety the adults provide him with Mike. Then there is the reality of the world, right in his face, and there's nothing he can do about it.

Such despair. All the more reason for us to treat each other well. Jaffar escapes the destruction of the volcano with as many survivors as he can, changed back from their angel forms into whoever they were before. The 32 survivors are a hodgepodge of cartoony aliens, Popeye-looking sailor types, 19th century whalers, and whatever else popped into Moebius' head for these group shots. I'd say one of the reasons to watch Time Masters is to see the full breadth of his character design capabilities. I can't think of a piece outside of Arzach where he is allowed to create so many distinct characters. I won't spoil the trick Jaffar & co. use  to get them a ship, but it's quite clever and strange.

By the climax, we've got Piel unconscious and bleeding from a skull fracture, about to be bug food. We've got Jaffar, Silbad, Belle, Yura, and Jad knocked out by a ray from the Time Masters, who finally decided to show up in the movie bearing their name. Turns out, they run a colonization process where they terraform planets by, first, transporting them into the past. They send Perdide back about sixty years. The Federation let's them get away with this because...what else are you gonna do? They're giant blue aliens who can relocate planets. An astronaut in Piel's storyline is shocked to find a whole world appearing out of nowhere, but rescues the injured boy, bandages his wounds, and takes him on as an apprentice.

Later in Jaffar's story, the crew are in the hospital of a planet-sized space station, recovered from their ordeal. All except one, the eldest, who is on his deathbed. You can see where this is going.

So, Piel was with them the whole time. While it is implied he suffered amnesia from his head injuries, I have to wonder if Silbad knew, at least in some subconscious way, that he was going back to the beginning to die. Jaffar failed to rescue Piel, but it was never about that in the first place. It is about living a full life, which the boy went on to do. We learn more about the man named Silbad as he lies dying, the accomplishments of his life related by Yura and Jad with great solemnity. There is a great dignity and poignancy that the Comedy Sidekicks are all of a sudden the sages, conducting Silbad's eulogy. And maybe, the fact that Jaffar helped Silbad reach his end is just as noble as his attempt to save him when he was young.

Time Masters is literally a mobius strip of a movie. The reveal of Silbad = Piel makes the part where Silbad's singing a silly song to the boy all kinds of profound. Literally communicating with a young version of himself, and what does he do? Same thing he would do for any frightened little boy. Look back at the movie poster. See Silbad holding Piel's hand. You know a movie's got it's thinking cap on when they work that kind of symbolism into the promotional materials. The ambiguously unsatisfying ending is not the kind expected for a children's movie, but it goes down better and better every time I watch it. What is important is that Piel/Silbad lived.

"The orphan of Perdide is dead, humans," says Yura.

"He has left our time to enter into eternity," says Jad.

After all this chaos and adventure, the final image is of Jaffar and Belle standing with the crew of the space station to give Silbad his funeral. That Laloux ends on an old man's funeral shows this is no typical pulp. The doctor gives him a Mike for his journey, and Jaffar and Belle hold hands as Silbad is shot forth on his final journey. The last shot is a pull-out on the gargantuan, monolithic space station. In the midst of all this technology, the crew gathers to honor a single human life. A Time Master even shows up to send him off.

And isn't that a good message? In this violent and indiscriminate universe, the individual matters. We all must die. Some of us die violently like Matton, some of us die quietly like Silbad; the end result is the same. But if you put out goodness into the world, someone will care and mourn you. All this genuine emotion wrapped in a thrilling, race-against-the-clock plot that takes me to lands undreamed of. Les Maitres du Temps stayed with me. All the best movies do.

Moebius has left our time to enter eternity. He has joined Rene Laloux among the ancestors. I lift my glass to the both of them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chapter 77: In Which I Discuss My Next Project

How do you distill something so enormous to five minutes?

How do you distill it to ten minutes? Half an hour?

I am proud to say that I have been selected to participate in Low Lives 4, an international on-line exhibit of performance art. Since 2009, Low Lives has been a forum for artists across the world to exhibit their work livestreamed on the internet. For them to select an un-tech savvy guy like myself as one of the 60+ artists is pretty amazing. Here's the press release, all copy and pastey.

Low Lives 4
Networked Performance Festival
International Exhibition of Live Performances Streamed Worldwide

April 4, 2012 – Low Lives is pleased to present Low Lives 4, the fourth installment in a series of annual international art events. Low Lives 4 will feature more than 50 live performance-based works over two days, each transmitted over the web and projected in real time at venues across the globe. The exhibition will begin on Friday, April 27 from 8:30-11:30p.m. (EST) and continue on Saturday, April 28 from 3:00–6:00 p.m. (EST).

Founded in 2009 by artist and independent curator Jorge Rojas, Low Lives highlights works that critically investigate, challenge, and extend the potential of performative practices. The project celebrates the transmission of ideas beyond geographical and cultural borders, offering global audiences the opportunity to consider live performance in both physical and virtual space.

By featuring performances at numerous venues and broadcasting those works via online networks, Low Lives provides a new model for efficiently presenting, viewing, and archiving live performance-based art. The annual exhibition embraces low-tech aesthetics, such as low pixel images and muddled sound quality, to emphasize the raw quality of the broadcast and reception of the works.

Low Lives has found new momentum after presenting Low Lives Occupy! in New York City on March 3, 2012. Low Lives partnered with Occupy with Art and The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU to present a one-night-only festival of simulcast performances by 36 artists and collectives committed to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The well-received Low Lives Occupy! program offered new perspectives on the Occupy protests and expanded the reach of the movement by broadcasting to an international community.

Over the past four years Low Lives has developed a platform that invites and enables artists, audiences, and presenting venues to "plug in and participate” from anywhere an internet connection exists,” Rojas explains. “Low Lives is not simply about the presentation of performative gestures at a particular place and time, it is also about exploring the potential of live streaming networks as a creative medium connecting performance artists with audiences around the world.”

Low Lives 4 is co-produced by the Brooklyn-based arts organizations Chez Bushwick ( and SPREAD ART (, as well as Colombian artist, Juan Obando ( The international 2012 festival will be conducted by Jorge Rojas from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, Utah (

Participating Artists
Austin Adkins | Regina Agu | Lindsey Allgood + Amy Luznicky | Emma Alonze | Mauricio Ancalmo | Angela Bartram + Mary O'Neill | Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte | Ruth Vigueras Bravo | Caryana Castillo | Khalil Charif  | Matthew Thomas Cianfrani | Gina Cuntstruct | Elwin Cotman | Dance Troupe Practice + Luciana D'Anunciação | Ian Deleon + Kara Stokowski | Stephanie Diamond | Bados Earthling + The Wild Audio Society | Michelle Ellsworth | Ursula Endlicher | Tim Eriksen | Francesca Fini | Les Filles Föllen | Marcel William Foster + Dunstan Matungwa | Future Death Toll | Lawrence Graham-Brown | Alejandro Guzmán | Matt Hawthorn | Joseph Herring | Kanene Holder | James Holland + Alycia Bright Holland | Linda Hutchins | Rima Najdi | Samantha Jones | Igor Josifov | Nathaniel Katz + Valentina Curandi | Elizabeth Leister | Jonathan Lemieux | Gideonsson/Londré | Jonatan Lopez | Tina Mariane Krogh Madsen | Soukei Matsuo | MoTA - Museum of Transitory Art | Nataliya Petkova | Blatta Orientalis | Alexandre Pombo-Mendes | prOphecy sun | Stefan Riebel | Tara Raye Russo | Nuria Guiu Sagarra | Maximiliano Siñani | Jonathan Sutton | Étienne Tremblay-Tardif | Elinor Thompson | Robert Tyree + Andra Rotaru | Marcus Vinícius | A.G. Viva | Alyssa Taylor Wendt | Amelia Winger-Bearskin | Martin Zet |

Presenting Partners
Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art (Newark, New Jersey); Center for Performance Research (CPR) (Brooklyn, New York); Chez Bushwick (Brooklyn, New York); Co-Lab (Austin, Texas); Diaspora Vibe Gallery (Miami, Florida); Fusebox Festival (Austin, Texas); Grace Exhibition Space (Brooklyn, New York); Legion Arts (Cedar Rapids, Iowa); Little Berlin (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania); Living Arts (Tulsa, Oklahoma); Mascher Space Co-op (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania); Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) (Portland, Oregon); Real Art Ways (Harford, Connecticut); SOMArts (San Francisco, California); Space One Eleven (Birmingham, Alabama): Spread Art (Brooklyn, New York); Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) (Salt Lake City, Utah); Alice Yard (Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago); the temporary space (USA/Japan); Yamaguchi Institute of Contemporary Arts (YICA) (Yamaguchi, Japan); Dimanche Rouge (Paris, France); La Maison des Artistes (Paris, France); Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Bogotá (MAC) (Colombia); At The Vanishing Point (Sydney, Australia); Small Projects (Tromsø, Norway); Ateliers '89, Contemporary Art Institute (Aruba)

A live simulcast of the event will be streamed on April 27 and 28 at

About Jorge Rojas
Jorge Rojas is a multidisciplinary artist and curator. He uses traditional and new media, as well as performative elements to investigate communication systems and the effect of technology on artistic production, social structures and communities. Rojas’ work and curatorial projects have been exhibited internationally. In 2009, Rojas founded Low Lives, where he currently serves as director, producer, and curator.

About Chez Bushwick
Chez Bushwick, an artist-run organization based in Brooklyn, is dedicated to the advancement of interdisciplinary art and performance, with a strong focus on new choreography. Since its inception in 2002, the organization has been acknowledged as a new model for economic sustainability in the performing arts, offering $8/hour subsidized rehearsal space, and thereby fostering the creation, development, and performance of new work. Chez Bushwick is also responsible for a number of performance programs that encourage artistic freedom, collaboration, and creative risk-taking.

About Juan Obando
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Juan Obando received a BA in Industrial Design with a minor in Architecture and Urbanism from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. In 2005 he started the ongoing BZC Media Corporation Project (an international art unit based in Bogotá, with cells in Venezuela, USA, and The Netherlands,) and has subsequently been exhibiting throughout The USA, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, Colombia and Venezuela. His work has been selected twice for Colombia’s “Salon Nacional de Artistas” (2008, 2010) and reviewed by different international publications. After receiving an MFA in Electronic and Time-Based Art from Purdue University, Juan currently works between Colombia and The USA and holds a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Elon University in North Carolina.

SPREAD ART is an artist-run creative incubator designed to foster new works through collaborations with artists and curators from around the world. SPREAD ART supports emerging artists through group and solo exhibitions, music events, and performance showcases. SPREAD ART provides opportunities for all kids and adults to explore their creativity and increase self-awareness through art. SPREAD ART assists artists and arts organizations to begin new art events or evolve existing events in their community. SPREAD ART looks forward to hearing how we can support your creative endeavors.

For more information, please visit

Needless to say, I'm ecstatic to be a part of this international event. Between this and my Mills sisters going to the Memory & Performance Conference in Toronto next week (which I could not attend for financial reasons), I feel like I'm having the kind of discourse I desire. It's a big planet out there.

The piece I am performing for Low Lives 4 is part of the same piece that was accepted for the conference. It is based on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, one of the great atrocities in American history. The story goes: in 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was home to one of the nation's most prosperous black neighborhoods. Greenville, nicknamed "Black Wall Street," was a mecca of black-owned businesses. Many prominent black citizens lived there, and scholars such as W.E.B. Dubois were known to come give talks.

Around May Day of 1921, a young black shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator.  Whether he did or not is a moot point because within a day the mob was there to lynch him. Much of the blame goes to the Tulsa Tribune, which printed an article inciting the flames. This was during the golden age of lynching, and black Tulsans did not want mob justice to rule like it did in the south. A crew of black men, many of them World War I vets, went downtown to stop the lynching.

Shots were fired. The white residents of Tulsa invaded. They slaughtered 300 blacks, imprisoned the rest, and burned Greenville to the ground. There are still living survivors of this "ancient history," although they are very old and have not received a dime in reparation for the torment they went through.

You cannot discount that it was WWI vets who "started" the massacre by trying to defend Dick Rowland. One of the principal characters in The Jack Daniels Sessions EP is a World War I vet, a soldier in the 369th. This particular war always seemed to me an interesting milestone in black America. The ancestors were stolen from Africa. From that point on, blacks were born and died on American soil. Aside from, say, being a part of a traveling circus act, black men in the 19th century could never dream of traveling the world. These young black men, grandchildren of the freedmen, did. They went to Europe and defeated oppression, only to come home to what can only be called a fascist system. The only way Jim Crow differs from Nazism is the scale; southerners at the time could not afford to build giant gas chambers.

Sometimes I have to step back from myself. It seems so easy that I can sit down and, with little soul-searching, start writing a performance piece about 300 innocents being massacred during my grandfather's time. Sometimes I wonder if there's something wrong with me. Where is the anger? Have I just read about so many obscene atrocities that happened in the 20th century that I've become desensitized?

I don't have an answer to that. I do know I keep looking at these histories because they continue to be relevant. The idea of young black men being murdered by racist vigilantes is still very much relevant.

Making sure that oppression will not be repeated is part of, but not all of, the Justice For Trayvon movement. The fascism of the 20th century cannot be allowed to return. Europeans know this in a way we don't, which is why no Neo-Nazi group could ever march safely through the streets of Berlin like those clowns are marching around in Florida right now.

For me, there are two categories of trauma: wounds and scars. Tulsa is a scar, something I still bear nearly 100 years later. Trayvon's death is a wound. A clear and present demonstration of the black man's vulnerability in society. We live in a day and age where justice for the racial persecution of blacks is only considered in extreme circumstances. Sure, if some klansmen drag a black man to death they'll get the chair, because the mainstream uses the Klan and its image as a strawman. But think about Oscar Grant. The police officer who murdered him went on trial because the execution was clearly caught on film. Public executions are extreme. Even then, people had to riot to get him arrested. Zimmerman at least has a possibility of going to trial (if he hasn't fled the country) because he was a civilian stalking and killing the kid. If he was an actual cop, the kill would have been cleared immediately. We have armed vigilantes killing black children. This is extreme. The very definition of a wound.

And the wounds are the most pressing issue. I could personally care less about reparations for slavery. Let's talk reparations for unequal housing. Let's talk reparations for gentrification, then, if you want, we can crack open an American history textbook and start going backwards.

So I am doing this piece on the scar called Tulsa. I foresee it being a performance/chapbook down the line, and Low Lives offers an opportunity to get in gear on it. I developed the performance last fall for Dr. Rebekah Edwards' Memory & Performance class. The theory-heavy course was based on a fundamental question: is it possible to bear witness to trauma without reinscribing it. We read texts on queer theory, disability theory, gender theory, African-American theory, etc. All around the central themes of trauma (personal and historical) and how the body transcribes memory. We also read and analyzed poetry around these themes. Keeping in mind we were reading this at a time when the streets of Oakland were a battleground, and you could say I was in a very intense headspace.

I developed a 10-minute presentation in which I read accounts relating the buildup to, aftermath, and events of the massacre. Not wishing to simply appropriate the voice of survivors, I wrote fictionalized vignettes based on their accounts and history I'd read. While I read these vignettes, I had a Powerpoint behind me of historical texts from the period that blamed blacks for the riot and showed the racist viewpoints of the time. This included the incendiary Tulsa Tribune article. Even these mainstream, anti-black accounts of the massacre were wiped from Oklahoma history books. Thus, I attempted to bear witness to the survivor accounts, demonstrate the culture that created this horrible event, and point out the fact that BOTH perspectives were suppressed in order to erase the event from memory. On the run-through for our class' final performance, my presentation went 20 minutes.

Like I said, how do you distill it? How much time do you need to convey what is beyond words? How do you cover what information people need to know? How do you convey the horror while taking the academic route that says people need context. I don't know. For our final reading I had to get rid of material. I also read pretty fast, as I do when I have a tight time limit. For my Low Lives 4 performance, I'm going to cut it in half. I'll probably only recite one account, and formulate the background visuals in such a way as to provide more context than in my previous reading.

That sounds vague, doesn't it? Well, I also don't want to spoil the surprise.

What I'm most excited for is to write the chapbook. It will involve creating vignettes based on research about life in Greenville before and after the massacre, and researching the dominant narratives of the time. It will involve both heavy-duty creative and scholarly work, but, if done right, will be one of my proudest achievements.

But first thing's first. Low Lives 4 is April 27th-28th, coming to you straight from the planet Earth. I'll give more details on the event as they come in.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chapter 76: In Which I Note That Rick Santorum Called the President A Nigger

So this is real. I thought it was an April Fools joke. I watched it and proceeded to laugh my butt off.

I'm from Pennsylvania. Here's the deal with Rick Santorum. Anything that ever had to get done, long-time Republican senator Arlen Spector did it. Then we had this ultra right-wing horror show emerge from the wings every few months to say something ignorant. That's what he does. He says ignorant Fox News soundbytes that get people mad, and not much beyond that. This idea of him as a viable presidential candidate was always laughable.

With his campaign winding down, he's not mincing words. Called the president a nigger. I don't keep up with mainstream news and I have no idea if they're reporting on this beyond the blogosphere. I would hope so. I still remember when the 4th Estate decided to ruin Howard Dean's presidential campaign by turning an enthusiastic campaign speech into a running joke. I guess because they were bored. Santorum's earned their ram-rodding far more, in this case.

I laughed, but I am not mad, and certainly not shocked by his moment of candor. A potential president is a racist? You mean like Dubya? You mean like Andrew Jackson? Been there, done that. It takes a certain amount of privilege to be shocked. That a Christian conservative hates black people is far from shocking. Nor is it when a Muslim hates Jews, or a Jew hates gentiles, or an Asian hates whites, or a black hates Latinos. The Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s did not cure racism and people still find strawmen to vent their anger on. The difference is, thanks to the current rhetoric, you can once more express those feelings and be condoned. Santorum felt perfectly safe calling people niggers. We are venturing ever closer to Birth of A Nation territory.

But we're not there yet, which is why he stopped himself. The guy slipped and go caught. Dumb bastard.


I recorded the audiobook yesterday. Here's some pics from the studio:

Yes, that's as big as I could make them. We recorded "Safe Space." Well, re-recorded. I was listening to the first session and there's way too much noise. I did a lot of takes this time so I'd have material to work with. My producer told me that, if this was a professional recording, we'd do dozens of takes for each page, and have a set time for each story, and he'd have a copy of the script to follow along, etc. In other words, I'm a wunderkind at recording. I know exactly what I'm doing.

Had a good session, and then...turns out it didn't record. We went over the playlist. Nothing. Only the last take recorded, maybe ten minutes of material. Possible it can be retrieved, but as of now it's looking like we're a day behind. Some confusion caused by Mills' 30-year-old recording equipment. Ah well. If we have to do it over, we do it over. Count it as practice. There was also a cute moment when the producer asked me if the headphones were on, and I'm like "Yeah, yeah," and he turns it up, and he's like, "Is it louder?" and I'm like "Yeah!" Turns out they weren't even plugged in. I don't know anything about headphones.

Anyway, a giant "D'oh!" for today.

About my influences: there is a part in "Safe Space" where Ingrid is singing with her mouth on the microphone. This is an homage to Aimee Argote, singer and soul of one of my favorite bands, Des Ark. Seriously, check this out. Mouth right on the mic. She's so cool.