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 Tour Guide of Future Signs – The work of John Phillip Abbott


words by Derrick Buisch

“Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.”- Franz Kafka

It is fair to assume that John Phillip Abbott’s paintings are made inside a room commonly referred to as a painting studio. The real question we may be left to wonder/ponder is simply – who chooses to do this and why? What motivates these works in particular? Are they random acts of inspiration? Is it just years of research, training and preparation, that result in these colored crafted chemical optical concoctions? What motivates Abbott to make these paintings of broken words and fragmented phrases in flashing colors with such powerful retinal intensity?

Are these paintings the result of some form of time travel? Do these works occupy the strange spaces in the gaps of some unknowable future timeline?

These new paintings by John Phillip Abbott are the visual equivalent of a brain freeze. Push play and turn it up loud; these paintings come in surround sound. Abbott’s paintings amplify the periphery. They spell out a condition of confusion in bold block letters – right/write below the surface of legibility. Speak to me in crystal clear color picture glyphs that are impossible to ignore and possibly even more difficult to understand. These works work to evoke, provoke, instigate those little brain tremors of synesthetic visual pleasure and poetic curiosity that great paintings can summon up on the best days of looking.

John Phillip Abbott’s words in his new paintings run out of space. They are broken, warped, and disjointed. These paintings celebrate their own inherent contradictions because they relish the mess we have come to expect from painting. They are loud when paintings are silent. They are fast when paintings are still. They unravel when paintings are finished. These paintings move, jump, pop, sing, shout…they move out into space and squirm about. Abbott’s paintings are ill behaved in the best way.

One thing these new works by Abbott represent – options, the ecstasy of possibilities, honest and joyous play, a powerful result of many hours of enthusiastic labor. As painters (from one painter to another) this is what we work for, this is where the hours of training, straining, all of the false starts, former loves, past disappointments, all the trials and errors – all the ingredients of a life lived so far under the umbrella of the vocation of painter, practitioner, studio rat – comes to this: A crystal clear body of works, all in harmony with each other, all buzzing in the same visual bandwidth frequency. POW. This is what we work for, this is what we strive for, this is what we live for – these moments of inspiration, of focused intensity, of visual levitation.

I have seen the future and it beckons bright with many colored signs. I remain an optimist. Thank you, John Phillip Abbott, for showing the way. I have a good feeling there will be many wonders there – I can’t wait.

Why are you painting? Someone must paint, it is said. Someone must be there.

An earlier version of this essay and some of these works appeared at PIER 1218 Madison, WI Summer 2012






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Perilous: Youth in Danger

words and photos by Eamonn Vitt

Northern Uganda is hurting.  Conflict has raged in this homeland of the Acholi people for almost twenty-five years. There exists an Acholi proverb “When two elephants struggle, it is the grass that suffers”.  In the bush lurks the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group led by a homicidal madman named Joseph Kony.  In the LRA’s battle against the Ugandan Government, the peasant population has been caught in the middle.  They have suffered greatly.

Most terrorized have been the children. They were abducted in tremendous numbers by the LRA and used as child soldiers.  These kids were forced to commit unspeakable atrocities. Frequently against their own brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents.

The conflict has recently diminished and people are trying to rebuild their lives.  Seemingly insurmountable obstacles remain.  HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria are major killers here.   Until recently, access to quality health care has been impossible.  Adequate nutrition is an issue.  Unexploded landmines litter the hillsides. The government is infested with corruption.

In 2009 I spent six months working in Acholiland with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.  I was in charge of our very remote hospital.  We provided expert medical care, essential medicines, mental health support, and training for local workers.

Our general clinic attended to two to three hundred patients a day.  People would walk a full day to seek medical attention.  The HIV/AIDS program served over 700 patients.  While maternal to child transmission of HIV is now essentially unheard of in the developed world, it’s unfortunately common here.  Which means lots of babies and children who must confront HIV/AIDS disease.  We treated hundreds for tuberculosis, spread because of overcrowding and housing problems in the refugee camps, and aggravated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Most lethal for the children is malaria.  The deadliest subspecies of all, Plasmodium Falciparum stalks Acholiland.  Our hospital was diagnosing over a hundred cases a day at peak malaria season.  It was hard to believe.  It was terrible.  So many children were lost.

These children, how do they survive?  They have suffered tremendously.  Many are still suffering.   But as the conflict subsides, their chances are improving.  They are eager for a better life.  They have no shoes and they walk miles to school.  They learn Acholi and English and math and science.  They see mobile phones and burst with curiosity about the world.  They help their parents work long days in the fields.  They take their medicines when they are supposed to.  They proudly sport t-shirts with positive messages encouraging safety and awareness. They will make you smile so hard your cheeks crack.  They run around and play and sing and dance like hell.  These kids have been to hell.  They are back. They are the smartest and toughest kids in the world. They are going to be OK.


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ICE-T on the Topic of Crime

interview by Alix Lambert

This interview is an outtake from Alix’s book entitled “Crime.”

About “Crime” – Through a series of exclusive interviews with artists, authors and actors such as Ben Affleck, David Cronenberg, Elmore Leonard, Viggo Mortensen, Ice-T, David Mamet and Takeshi Kitano, as well as real life bank robbers, gangsters and current prison inmates, editor Alix Lambert explores the gaps and overlaps between real crime and its representation in the arts, each commenting on and assessing the impact of the other.

What was is your earliest memory of crime?

I think my first memory of crime was me stealing bicycles. My father wouldn’t buy me a bike. Oh, wait, you know what happened? My first memory of crime was I got my bike stolen. I didn’t just go out and start doing wrong. I had gotten my bike stolen on Christmas day. I was living in NJ at the time. I had gotten this bike and I was really excited about it and I ran down to my friends house to show it off. I parked it in front of his house. When I went to knock on his door his mother came to the door so, I had my bike like parked, she ended up talking me into coming into the house because I think they had racing cars inside, and I wanted to see them. I got caught up racing the cars. When I went out my bike was gone. I had to be like around ten years old, maybe. I first thought it was a joke. I thought somebody had hid it. But it was gone. I never got it back. We went to the police station, filed a report, all kind of stuff. Then my father was like: You’re not going to get another one. I started to steal bikes. Other people had these old bikes and I would get up earlier than I had to to go to school, cause nobody would watch me. I couldn’t stay out late, but I could get up early. I would go creep into people’s backyards. I would take the bike. I had my own little chop shop. I would take the bikes back and I would take them apart and I would paint them, and change the colors. It sounds so crazy. I haven’t thought back to this since – ever. I kind of put a bike together. But then I had to hide it from my father. One time he came in the back and was like: What are you doing? And I lied, and said: Yo. My friend gave me this bike. That was my first introduction to criminal activity. I would paint them with model paint, like these little spray cans that you got for models. I knew how to take the Schwinn emblem off and paint them and them put them back on. Pretty crafty.  A one man operation so nobody could snitch. From there I didn’t do any crime, I went to elementary school, I guess mischief and stuff, but actually starting to break the law wasn’t truly introduced to me until high school.

What happened in high school?

When I got into high school you start to see people have things that are beyond their means. You see guys in the 12th grade that got cars and you’re looking at everybody going: what’s really going on around here? Drug dealing and all that kind of stuff really hadn’t come into play. But my boys started to sell weed. They would buy like pounds of what would be called today, homegrown weed. Just the cheapest weed. You could get a lot of it cheap, back in the day. They would take it and roll joints and sell dollar joints. That was like an operation, but I never got into that. I was like: Yo, I’m not running around high school with drugs. But they were hustling like that. Then my other friend, his sister, used to steal the lunch tickets from the school. The big lunch ticket roll, she would steal the tickets from the inside of the roll, like tickets that weren’t going to get used til way later in the year and then she would sell them. She was making a lot of money. Then she put us to work. She was like: You guys sell them, and I’ll give you half the money. I was like this little broad’s running an organized crime ring. So all this stuff started to happen at our school. Then I learned how to steal textbooks. Every year people would turn up at the end of the year and have to pay for the textbooks. But we had access to the book room. The print class, we turned that into a counterfeiting ring. We learned how to make special cards, which you could use to get into every event. They cost like 50 dollars. We forged them and we were selling them for like ten dollars. As a kid hustling and making 5 or 6 hundred dollars, that’s a lot of money. So then what we did, we figured out like the science book cost 25 dollars so if you would meet us at nutrition and tell us what the book number was that you lost we would get one from the book room – they were stamped in the front and they were stamped on like page 25, we would rip out page 25 and then we would re-stamp the book with the number of the book you lost. But what happened was, some of the lost books started to show up. So in other words, two books with the same number showed up. That’s how we got caught. What they did was they busted us, they ran a sting. They figured it out, they figured the books had to be coming out of the book room, and they caught us on this like elevator thing with the books one day. It was ugly. We told them we just started to do it and fortunately only a few books showed up even though we had probably ran through like 500 books. I was learning that you could outsmart the game at an early age. But it really didn’t escalate to any serious money. It was very petty. Then what happens is you start to hang around with people who really take pride in beating the system. That’s the scary part. Like if you ain’t a hustler then you’re not cool. That’s where you really start getting sucked in. You start to believe that the only money that’s good is stolen money, working money is not cool.

I was out on my own at 17 years old. I was living with my Aunt. My mother and father had passed. I was living with my Aunt in Los Angeles and I wasn’t getting along with her and I was getting social security checks so one day I just told her: give me that money, which was $250 a month, and I’m gone. And she gave me the money and I bought a hundred dollar a month apartment, I put another hundred dollars into food and I had fifty dollars left. I was living on my own when I was in the 12th grade. So that made me the coolest kid in the whole school. I had my own place, are you kidding me? It was like the size of a closet but it was still my own place. At that point they were doing little corny things like selling fake jewelry. We’d go down town to the jewelry mart and get the fake shit, you know, you’ve seen people do it, the fake chains and they put the 14 kt. gold thing on it, we’d hustle that. Then we ran scams, we learned how to run cons with like fake diamond rings at the bus station down town you walk up on a guy and you tell them that you just bought this for your mother and now you’re stuck out of town and you can’t get home, and they’d give you some money to get a bus ticket or whatever and a little extra money. They always thought they were beating us for the ring, we would tell them the ring was worth 800 dollars and the guy would end up giving you a hundred dollars and the ring only really was worth like ten dollars. That’s the key to the con. The only people that get conned are greedy people, you know. You never get conned if you’re honest. Once your brain kicks in to thinking you’re beating somebody, that’s when you get took. Honest people be like: Oh my God, you only have that ring, that’s your mothers, you’re going to give it to me? No. Here’s fifteen dollars, get the bus ticket. They’d help you. And they’d be out fifteen dollars whereas this other guy: Oh, well you know I’m gonna have to take that from you. I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. They’re the ones that’re greedy trying to beat a poor kid. So, fuck ‘em. Rule one: if it sounds too good to be true, it’s not true. So that basically was my life.

What happened that started to change things?

What happened was I got my girlfriend pregnant at the end of 12th grade and I was living alone and I started to feel a little bit of responsibility and that’s when I went in to the military. Now when I came out of the military my small time friends had elevated the game and they had decided that jewelry stores were the target and they had all kinds of ways to beat the jewelry store. Eventually it just escalated from going in and what we would call playing the jewelry store to…well there’s about ten ways you could rob a jewelry store. The favorite one is what we call playing. Playing a jewelry store is really confusing them and lifting jewelry out of the store without them knowing. That requires a team, and there’s a lot of ways, but what it was was there’s a lock that used to be on jewelry cases that we called a pop lock. It was a lock that if you inserted a piece of metal into it, basically a nail file called a trim, you could file it down in a way that it became like a lock pick and you could reach over; and these locks you’d push em in, turn em and they would pop out. When they popped out, that disengaged the case and now the jewelry case was open. With teams of people and confusion we were able to throw the jewelry store off long enough for somebody to reach over, what we used to call: reach over and bust, reach over, pop the lock, reach in, take the jewelry, close the lock back, lock it back and get out. Usually you’d use a girl and a guy and usually they would be wearing jewelry, they’d come in looking very non-criminal. Back in the days we used to wear Fila and carry tennis rackets and portray yuppie kids. Like: Oh, my father, he’s a developer, he’s building the building down the street. There’s always a building down the street. Or I used to come in and say: my father, he’s a white guy, he’s a state trooper based in Fresno. Cause I’m light. So, we would come in and con them and distract them. It’s not like a one minute lick. It’s really planned. At the end of this game they’re not even supposed to know their shit is gone until later. And that was a victory to us. That was finesse. That finesse later elevated to a lot of different things from what they call bashing which is really just walking in with sledge hammers during the day and taking the whole jewelry store down. And that jewelry store only needed to be cased out to the point that there were no guns. Burglary, which is where you’re trying to find certain jewelry stores, like if you really look they don’t put the jewelry up. It’s like, they’ve put sheets over the cases instead of taking the time to put them in a safe. Usually you’ll find those out of town. Like not in NY, but if you go two hours out, they don’t have crime. That would be a 459. There’s a lot of ways to get into the stores, there’s all kinds of techniques you can use. Then they got the basic one which you still hear about which is called the snatch and grab. Which is more or less, you have to almost have them put the jewelry in your hands. They bring it out, and you say: Can I see this watch? Can I compare this one against that one. What they do now, is as they give you one, they put that one back in. But some fools will bring all that shit out.

Have you ever spent time in prison?

I never been to prison. I never been caught. It’s like the getaway is more important than the actual crime. You have to figure out what you’re going to do with it before you do it. If you’re going to get something that’s very expensive, pre-sell it. Talk to the people that want it and have it sold before you do it.
Who buys it?

You’ve got drug dealers. You’ve got drug dealer’s girls. Drug dealer’s girls are really the best…they want every fucking thing. They want minks, they want this, they want that, and the guys that’re selling the drugs, they’ve got illegal money that they can’t really spend in stores. They want things, you know what I’m saying. In this game a lot of casing goes on. Casing is pre-looking at places. I could be like in Salt Lake City Utah and I could go and check out faces and I could find what we call in the game “a lick.”  A lick is not a store with armed guards and dogs and bullet proof glass, that’s not a lick. A lick is a little store with an old lady that just happens to have a lot of shit and there’s no one around. It’s a situation that lends itself to being taken. And that’s why I tell people today, I’m like – criminals are very opportunistic. They’re looking for something that lends itself to whatever they do. Like in a Mall, a jewelry store that might just happen to be right by that exit door, that’s a great lick. Because if I hit em, I don’t have to run through that mall. I duck out and I’m through those emergency doors and then it’s me and whoever’s after me.

I saw a lick recently in Vegas. I basically went through withdrawal trying to not tell any of my friends because I don’t want anybody to go to jail. But I looked right at it. I told my wife, I’m like: Yo, this could get got, really, really easily. I was like: well, somebody else will probably do it but if I tell my friends, I’ll bring somebody out of retirement. I don’t care what you’ve done in your life, if it ever was a part of your life that part never leaves. If you were a guy that used to knock guys out for talking shit, and somebody’s talking shit and maybe you don’t do it no more, your brain still says: I would knock this fucking fool out. If you were a girl who used to hustle guys and knew how to get up on guys and get money and you see a guy throwing his money around, you go: I could take this idiot off. That element will never leave your brain if you’ve ever done it. You just don’t do it no more because you know there’s probably ramifications.

In crime there’s a million ways to do things. In bank robbery you have what they call playing a note, you have: take over, you got people that want you to go in the vault, you got people that just want to play the door, you know, you got people that want to catch the night deposits, you got people that want to try to take one of the trucks which is really risky, there’s a lot of different levels of it. You gotta know the elements of banks too. They’re told to give you the money. You just don’t want to get too greedy. But what happened with me was, everybody that I was rolling with started to go to jail. One of my friends was in the middle of a bank robbery and his friend got killed by the police so they ended up giving him the murder. You know, in L.A. California, if you’re with somebody and me and you go out and commit a crime, you get killed by the cops, I get the murder. You know I say in one of my records: You raise the risk, you raise the profit. What happens in the game is that eventually those small crimes aren’t going to sustain the lifestyle you live. When you’re young and you want to hustle and you sell a little weed here and there, you try to get some rims, okay, it’s a great hustle. Now, if you move up to Benzs and Ferraris, you can’t sell joints, you gotta sell pounds. The more the crime escalates the more violence escalates. Whether you’re fighting against your own crew, getting double crossed, or being set up, because, in the game you have hustlers and then you have predators. You got the one guy who says: Hey, I’ll sell the dope. And you got the other guy who says: I’ll rob the dope dealer. Let him sell it, fuck it. You’re dealing with professionals. This is what they do, they lie, they deceive, they cheat. Like a lot of times in a game, there’s two games going. One game is for me and you to hit the lick, the next game if for me to beat you. I was in as deep as I could get and my friends started to go under. Cats I really admired were catching really long sentences. My boys were going to jail and I’ll never forget, I went on this one lick in the Pacific Palisades with all these cats that I normally wouldn’t fuck with. It was like the most slapstick disastrous shit I ever been on. We got away, but I was like: Yo, no. No. This is why I never fuck with these guys.

It gets crazy. All my friends went to prison. I’m looking at all these cats that I admired, I started to ask myself: Do I think I’m smarter than them?

Thank God this music called Hip Hop came along, and then Rap came along, I was doing a lot of things, you know what I’m saying. We was pimping. We was in the game. We had girls doing stuff, making money. When people say “Pimping” they think about a guy standing on a corner with girls. That’s one form, but another form is just basically having females around that are hustling and they doing all types of things to get you money. In other words if a guy is in a room with a girl, and that girl has another guy that she’s more dedicated to than him; he’s in a bad situation. As long as they know that I’m the top dog, then that’s pimping. They’re following my instructions to the T. So, we doing all that and rap came along and I was like really idolizing Iceberg Slim, I really was into him. I took my name from him. The whole symbolism and the style and the flair of his conversation, the way he talked, but at some point I realized: Yo, as much as I want to be a pimp, dude is a writer. So, if I’m really idolizing this dude I not only gotta live the game, I have to document the game. So that’s when I started to rap. Cause I didn’t really feel I could be a writer, so I felt like here’s a music where I can talk about the life.

What about gangs?

Gangs are a whole nother fucking structure. Gangs are basically war. I mean gangs aren’t really criminal organizations until they actually start to move drugs. A gang is just male units that are at war. So in Los Angeles, you got Crips, you got Bloods, but then you have sets and the sets are, like there’s hundreds and hundreds of sets, which are divisions of the gang. In L.A. Crips are fighting Crips, Bloods are fighting, Bloods. Your real age for gangbanging is between the ages of 15 and 25. Once murder has come into the game you carry that murder code with you and that’s what gangbanging is based on. If you were going to join my gang immediately I would indoctrinate you with what the other sets did, or who’s our enemies. You’d be out to retaliate, that’s how you get stripes.

I was affiliated with rolling 60 Crips. And what I mean by “affiliated” is I knew all the shot callers, I grew up in the hood, but I never jumped into a gang, but I wear the colors. I got it in my record, you know, but an affiliate would be somebody who would have juice with the gang, know the gang but wouldn’t necessarily go out and put in work or do any of the drive-bys, or whatever is required to be more of a hardcore member. I always been kind of intelligent, so I always knew how to get with the shot callers and they liked me.

If you really go deep in, I mean them kids are at war. They’re not at all like thinking about making rap records or nothing, they just want to move on the enemy. Because somebody close to them probably got killed. These babies are slowly being indoctrinated into the belief that this other gang is somebody to hate. Because they killed his uncle. So, it’s deep.

The thing about Ice – T music that’s different is I always try to show both sides of the game. That’s what makes my music different from pretty much any body else’s rap. If you listen to my records, even though I might say, hey I’m this guy, I usually die at the end of the record. I tell you about the fun in the beginning but there’s pain in the end. So, anybody who tells you about crime and doesn’t tell you that there’s pain and you know, they’re full of shit and they never been there. If you’re talking about it but you’re not telling me that there’s any down side to it – you’re lying. Because if you’re a real criminal, you know a lot of people in prison, you getting them phone calls, you’ve been in situations where you could have been dead, you know what it’s like to have people after you, I mean, you have to be pretty crazy to really like it. I mean, I’m not that guy. I’m not. I think when I was younger, you know, you’re a little bit more fearless. But as you get older you look at it like: This shit is crazy. Usually when you go to prison, finally you figure this out. Half of my crew is locked up. So, they telling me what’s going on, and I listen. I live by the code that: dumb people learn by experience, smart people learn by others experience. I’ve always been like a sponge and I listened to it and I had to kick it real and the thing of it is is that you know, when you deal with the press, I could go and say: Yo, and homelessness and this that and the third and AIDS and education, but then the same cat after that will go: so what’s it like to rob a bank? Then at the end of the article they say I’m promoting it. I didn’t even bring it up. I think the more you talk about it and the more you express it, you know, it’s kind of like, to me, I felt that was my retribution. I tell people in my life I feel like I was running down this road, this hustling road, where I think it’s going to be roses and money and everything at the end; all that good shit. And I got to the end of the road and I seen there’s a cliff, and off the edge of the cliff there’s fires burning. Now I’m like running back up the road yelling at people: don’t go down that road. It looks good, but honestly, I cannot tell you a crime story with a good ending.

From an artists perspective, those rappers and artists that do get out of it they got great stories and experiences to share. It’s extremely entertaining. See I think the thing of it is, is that, people can be entertained with other people’s pain. I think that’s really what it is. This is exciting and it’s fun to listen to but to actually live it is something totally different. A great story about being stranded in the desert is a great story to read or watch, but to be the actual people that do it; that’s not a good place. To watch the Mafia is a great exciting thing, but to be in it and to live every day with potentially somebody blowing your brains out is not so sexy. There’s also another side to it, you know, it’s fun to tell war stories. And a lot of these cats, these aren’t even their war stories. This is something that they fabricated in their brain. I mean, come on, Tarantino writes some of the most crazy movies but he’s a nerd. I mean look at Quentin, I mean he’s never done nothing, I mean he’d probably be the first one to tell you that. But in his brain with his characters he can create these very cool images and theories of how things would go. Like Pulp Fiction probably was one of the greatest movies ever and this is Quentin’s imagination. Because he has a great imagination he’s considered cool. So you can actually become cool by living through other people. I mean you can only ask a kid to speak at his intelligence level. So you take an eighteen year old kid; he don’t know about world politics, you can’t teach him that this may be negative, cause he’s selling dope, he doesn’t even see that as a problem. So as you get older, sure, you get to see the world in a different way. But when you dealing with these young kids they on that shit. If you had interviewed me when I was seventeen years old I’d be like: fuck, square ass motherfucker, man. I’m hustling. This is what I do. I don’t have any conscience. I’m getting paid and fuck you. And I’m winning and I ain’t got caught I mean, what’s to tell me it’s wrong? Until you see the pain, or you get that other side of it, A lot of these kids, some of them don’t even know no better, they don’t know. And you gotta stay out of their way. Because when them kids is moving at that speed and they don’t know no better, they’re invincible, and they’ll murder you.

When did you get into acting?

I got into acting, really my first movie was in the movie Breakin’, my role, I was a rapper, they came into a club that had break dancers and stuff in L.A. and I was on the stage rapping and they said: Would you like to be the rapper? I wasn’t really a good rapper but I was kind of like one of the first rappers people ever seen because that movie came out really early in the genre. After that I did New Jack City. Where I was really an unseasoned actor who got a chance and I just tried at it. People enjoyed it and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m very fortunate. New Jack City, at that time I had already like, deprogrammed myself from the streets and I was learning that it’s all about opportunities and the real hustler is going to take advantage of an opportunity. So I had to re-format myself. Which, at the end of the day means, I’m not trying to break the law, I’m just trying to get money, if I can do it without breaking the law that’s even better. I elevated myself to that. I started to play cops, people were like: Well, that’s a paradox, you didn’t like the cops. I’m like: Well, I didn’t like the cops when I was breaking the law. They were the opponent. I didn’t have no hate against the police. Of course I got hate against certain people who have civil right infractions, and doing things wrong, but just a basic cop, it’s like the movie Heat, man, he’s out to get me; I’m out to get him. Touché, let’s go. So I always respected the cops to an extent. A real criminal can take a pinch. You know: You got me, motherfucker. You don’t turn around at the end of the day and say, oh the laws are wrong, when you robbing somebody. You know what you doing. Nowadays, I’m like, I don’t hate the police, I have no problems with the police. I don’t like cops that bring their personal issues to work, or whatever their doing, if they’re racist or all that, I mean, we can’t tolerate that but an average cop, I’m not mad at him. I don’t have any allegiance to crime.

I just sucked up every bit of game from the actors around me. I just worked with Ludacris and he’s the same way, I asked a lot of questions. They were just like: you can memorize shit, you’re a rapper, just try to put the voice on it that they want. You get better and better at it and after a while you start learning tricks. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot more after the response I got from it. I’ve been very, very fortunate doing it, I feel like I can say: I am an actor. Before I felt like I’m a rapper that’s acting. But I’ve been on Law and Order now 9 years acting every single day, I’ve been in over fifty movies so I think I know what I’m doing now, finally.

Law and Order, the show I’m on, I mean really? Are there that many homicides in New York City? I mean, if you really watch my show, you’ll think rapes and serial killers are running around here every day.  (my wife) Coco’s mother came and was scared to go in Central Park, from watching Law and Order. Movies and TV do give you a warped reality. A lot of people aren’t intelligent enough to read into that. They just believe it at face value. Me, myself, I know a movie is a movie, cause I watch the movies, I’m in movies, I know that the blood ain’t real. I know all that. The average person gets caught up in this stuff, so a lot of this stuff can enforce stereotypes, the angry black man, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know if you ever going to be able to change that.

I love video games. The best one is Grand Theft Auto, which is just fucking mayhem. It’s just mayhem. I’m in the Scarface game which actually teaches you how to sell drugs. It’s crazy, it teaches you how to sell grams. It’s pretty interesting how you move the drugs from the Islands to Miami and drop them off at dope houses. I was in San Andreas (Grand Theft Auto). I played a cracked out rap star and somebody had stole all my lyrics and he became a star. So, I went on crack and then the end is me getting my reputation back and getting my mansion back. You start off in San Andreas as a kid in South Central L.A. Then you build up your rep and then you get a gang, I mean, it’s definitely like some crazy shit. I will say honestly the Vice City Games are like the worst shit ever – in a good way. It’s so intentionally wrong that you’ve got to just get into it. Rick Ruben one time told me there’s an art in saying the worst shit. Some people in entertainment know how to do that. Comedians know how to do it. Eminem is a great example. And I’ve always done it. I’ve done the interviews where I’ll say kids are top priority and AIDS and this that and the third but I got to run right now because I got to get to a Pit bull fight. Just say the most wrong shit. Because it’s funny. Because it’s wrong. In a way these games are just so over the top that you got to laugh. It’s like: Oh my God if I’m out of money I rob a liquor store? Inside this world, all the things that you think about, you can do. But, does that make you really want to do it in real life? No. To me it kind of diffuses it. I think they work opposite. People say: Oh, they make kids violent. I don’t think so. I think honestly, it’s like an outlet for that aggression. You get to do it on the video game. I think all of us have this aggression, and you’ve got to have an outlet. Video games do it for me. I think it’s a very masculine thing.

I think human beings have some weird blood lust. I mean I watched this show called 48 hours where it’s about murder. It’s about the wife that killed the husband and I’m like what the fuck am I watching this shit for? But I want to see, and then they show the crime scene, I mean I don’t know, maybe you got to get with a psychologist but I think there is something in humans that is triggered by death and violence like they say: why when we’re watching the car races, everybody wants to see the wreck? We watch boxing, what is all this? What is it? I do Metal, I do hard rock, and the kids mosh in the front. There’s a pit. What in the fuck is going on? You’re banging into each other. That’s not dancing. What are you doing? And then guys get bloody and it’s kind of like if you go in a rap studio and one guy gets up and says: Yo, peace …and the guys kind of go: ok, that’s great …and the next guy goes: I’ll blow your mic hand off, and the motherfuckers like: yeah! It’s like what is that? I think since the beginning of time people have been intrigued with this warrior spirit.

I was at the movies the other day and I watched this big commercial for the Army. And they were showing people jumping out of planes. I was in the military. Every single picture the motherfuckers had a gun. And I told Coco, they’re recruiting killers. They’re telling you that there’s honor in killing for your country. The guys who are our best killers are our most honorable people. It conflicts itself so many different ways. I think it just roots back to us being animals. It’s ill though, it’s ill.

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MACRO/micro: A focused response to large-scale problems


by Eve Fineman

In the past several years, the proliferation of information about planetary disgrace has yielded a multitude of movements, small, large, splintered and focused, all directed at finding new ways to exist without trashing the earth. Despite the fact that we have been headed down this ruinous path for decades, and regardless of the ever-present social and political problems involving humans, this seems to be the issue, time, place, and vehicle for which people feel empowered and are demanding and enacting change. What was once an alternative, unorthodox way of thinking and living is now the dominant strain of thought weaving itself throughout most subcultures and demographics in our society.

Along with this newfound reverence for the earth comes a generation at once empathetic and curious, seeing itself within a larger context, connected and group-minded. And so, despite the central focus being environmental devastation, young people are also seeing the correlation between this and other social issues, large and small, global and personal.  As a design educator, I have noticed a trend in my students’ thinking toward more social and political awareness, as well as a desire to enact change through how they live and the work that they do. This is an incredibly refreshing and challenging time for classroom culture. Students can make more out of what they study. They can do things, rather than just rely on being self-referential within highly specialized disciplines. They can externalize their skills and apply them in ways that are meaningful and whose impacts are readily apparent. They are thirsty for this.

And yet, it seems that as they desire to learn more and take action, the knowledge they are gaining is at times debilitating, creating a sense of paralysis and doom.  My students are repeatedly wondering, with so many bad things happening and so much irreversible damage having occurred, how they could possibly have an impact.  It is here where I suggest that, rather than hoping to solve problems or create massive waves, that they, we, everybody take micro steps in an expert way. If we recognize what we are good at and use our area of expertise to engage in a larger discourse, we will indeed have an impact.  No gesture is too small to have an effect on the larger whole.  So, rather than overwhelming us, I propose that we allow the overabundance of available information to enable us to approach an issue from any given discipline. Let us divvy up our tasks and actions based on our individual strengths, believing that the smaller and more focused our response to a problem, the more potential it has to transform things.

So how, specifically, do we go about being activists on a micro level? In his book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken shows us how hundreds and thousands of micro movements can be seen as one giant tidal wave of change, arguing it is the largest social movement the world has ever seen. Yet, instead of forming groups with mission statements and boards and non-profit status, we might also take an approach even more microscopic, which may be separated into two very basic categories: life and work.

The first infuses our daily lives with the political; we can think about everything we do as a choice and address it in an educated way. All that we say, buy, eat, watch, read and discuss is within our personal power. The latest film about corporate irresponsibility, Food, Inc., shows us ways that we can make change as individuals, literally one bite at a time. Bring a mug to work, ride a bike, eat an organic apple and discuss healthcare, and suddenly the ambient din of our everyday existence is activated, becoming exponentially influential. (If any of the above looks cool or sounds intelligent, people will ask.)

The latter, our work or studies, can be a more challenging arena in which to enact change, but can often be more influential than the personal.  To myself, I have posed the following question: “how can the act of designing furniture subvert the business model of ‘growth as good’, challenge the notion of planned obsolescence, and change manufacturing processes from linear to closed-loop systems?” My solution is to invent a system of ownership that is fluid, such that people can “subscribe” to a design where parts can be returned or exchanged, melted down, re-used and repurposed, and where, when peoples’ needs change, the pieces and parts of their furniture system can be reconfigured to meet them.

Although I realize that I will not change the current way we own and use objects, I would like to think that if all designers questioned and reinvented their approach, such change would be inevitable.  The point is not to solve problems, but rather to begin to chip away, attack and continually approach them from different angles, provide new perspectives, spread the information, build on the discourse, and then hopefully, eventually, the shape of that huge, daunting, overwhelming problem is altered beyond recognition. Perhaps such a small gesture as making our own beauty product or planting a tomato seed can be the final bite that causes the eventual collapse of an issue that once seemed insurmountable.


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Costuming the Super Anti-hero: Sun Ra & Moondog


by Jamie Hayes (article originally appeared in Stop Smiling magazine). 

“Reality is too harsh. Imagination makes everything nice. Use your imagination and get out of the most drab places by simply holding on to the imagination and making it real.” – Sun Ra

Implicit in the act of making art is the attempt to create a microcosm that transports the viewer to an alternate world and serves as an escape, antidote, or comment on Reality: the worldview of the artist. Clearly Sun Ra and Moondog created beautiful, innovative musical microcosms. But to fully appreciate their work also requires an appreciation of the manner in which they lived their lives, as macrocosmic art. With a persistence rivaling Don Quixote, both Sun Ra and Moondog lived their lives as in a storybook (or better yet, comic book, in Sun Ra’s case). A key element to this living verisimilitude was costume.

Moondog devoted himself to Norse mythology and a wholesale rejection of the Judeo-Christian society he believed hijacked the old and noble Norse ways, going so far as to wear a helmet of horns, chain mail, a bearskin cape (based on the warrior uniform of the Beserkers, who believed that wearing the cape empowered them with the spirit and strength of the animal), and shoes which he fashioned himself out of scraps of leather. Though he was blind, he made most of his clothing himself. This is a minor accomplishment compared to the other activities he carried out without the benefit of sight: hunting with a bow and arrow, building a log cabin by himself, living on the streets of New York for over twenty years.

Sun Ra also looked to the past, to ancient Egypt, in order to find his identity. He rejected Eurocentric philosophies-the best of which he believed were stolen from Egyptian and African sources, then repackaged as Roman ideals. He even went so far as to reject the entire planet, doing away with the concepts of Time and Space as we know them while he was at it. He expressed this visually with his Egyptian and Outerspace inspired costumes, incorporating metallic capes, tunics embroidered with esoteric symbols, elaborate headdresses decorated with coins and metal chains, and always color, abundant color. Ra explains: “Costumes are music. Colors throw out musical sounds”.

As with Don Quixote, if you stop suspending your disbelief, the monstrous giants are simply windmills and the man playing the music is not an ancient Egyptian Sun God or noble Viking warrior, but instead a grown man covered in blue face paint, wearing a smock decorated with a patchwork spaceship, or a blind man in a homemade Thor get-up. But as with Quixote, much of what makes Ra’s and Moondog’s work so effective is exactly this ability to take low budget spectacle and turn it into a lavish alternate universe.

In Ra’s case, this low budget aesthetic is quite intentional and also quite often misunderstood, not just on the level of costume and spectacle, but also musically. His bizarre costumes and sideshow performance (complete with fire eaters, dancers, singers, elaborate light show, and the like) displeased traditional jazz fans, especially in the Fifties and early Sixties when a suit and tie and a straight demeanor was de rigueur. But his more outlandish behavior also found criticism with the avant garde set, as evidenced by this Karlheinz Stockhausen quote from Melody Maker in 1971 regarding a Sun Ra performance he had attended: “I tell you, this first 20 minutes was first-class avant-garde experimental music that you can’t put in any box. It was incredibly asymmetric! … But after this piece came some saloon wishy-washy music. I didn’t like it at all. Sort of cheap, movie music.”

I would argue, however, that as out-there as Sun Ra’s music can be, he also saw his music as an extension of a continuous jazz tradition, regularly including ragtime and big band tunes in the Arkestra’s set. Nor was he one to take himself too seriously – in the Seventies he became enamored of Disney movies and worked numbers from the scores into his set. He was as likely to incorporate influences from his serious studies of religion, ancient Egypt, and the struggle for black empowerment into his aesthetic as those from comic books, sci-fi films, and new-age esoterica. Likewise, his clothing reflects that aesthetic. Sun Ra would not be Sun Ra in asymmetric avant-garde clothing. His brand of out-there required a more inventive, humorous visual expression to underscore his unique viewpoint: it required making something out of nothing, taking cheap, populist, festive fabrics and symbols, and using the power of imagination to infuse them with meaning. At the same time, these foolish costumes also cut the other way as a criticism of those who would take themselves seriously: the suits, the guardians of Reality. The costumes of the Arkestra, then, signify solidarity with the mad – they are the trappings of the wise fool, serving as a comment on and rejection of a reality in which the black man is a second-class citizen.  As scripted by Ra in the film Space is the Place as an answer to a young black woman at a youth center who asks “How do we know you not some old hippie or something?”, Ra says:

“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. I come to you as a myth, because that’s what black people are. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.”

While Ra rejected the authority of the canon, Moondog strove for acceptance into the classical tradition. While he did have his supporters, among them Stravinsky and Artur Rodzinski, conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the Forties, his costume was too outlandish, his itinerant lifestyle too unorthodox. On one hand his music was too traditional tonally, and on the other hand too complex rhythmically for him to be accepted by his contemporaries. Additionally many saw his costume as a cry for attention: it pigeonholed him as novelty act, leading him to share the stage with the likes of Tiny Tim in the Sixties. Or, as Moondog biographer Robert Scotto notes, he was misunderstood and mythologized by the press and different counter-culture movements due to his costume, hailed variously as a Christ-like figure, a Blind Tiresias, or as Father Time. None of these imposed and already defined myths were really true to his highly individualistic and deeply committed beliefs in arcane, Nordic tradition. He described his dress as “my way of saying no. I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides.”

At times the world seems so insane, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy. In those moments it seems downright logical to embrace the life and work of artists like Ra and Moondog, who chose to break completely with all normalcy, making an special point to reject war, and its champions, organized religion and the state. As David Toop asserts in his book Ocean of Sound : “Periodic rediscovery of Sun Ra’s [and I would argue, Moondog’s] music seems to coincide with each new phase of environmental awareness or spiritual hunger”. Beyond the microcosm of the music, the macrocosmic myth “has an appeal to anybody who yearns for a life more dignified and magical than the one they are living.”


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La Lupe: Life in the Margins


by Jamie Hayes (originally appeared online for Stop Smiling magazine)

The price of celebrity is always dear, as the price is often the sacrifice of one’s true, complex and ever-changing identity. In place of that, the celebrity often becomes the embodiment of certain ideals and desires that are either unattainable or forbidden the average citizen — or often both. What is so compelling about Lupe Yoli (aka La Lupe, aka La Yiyiyi) is the way in which she used her body, consciously or not, to call attention to the art and artifice of the construction of Identity, the foundation (consciously or not) of all performative art.

We can all relate to the stress of being thrust into a role based on our age, nationality, gender, race or sexuality. Even when the role being played is given top billing — young, American, white, male, straight — the boundaries of the role are still too narrow to define anyone who has truly explored their interior self. How much more constricting were the roles La Lupe played throughout her life: Cuban; mulatta; female; controversial and vulgar performer; political exile; “Queen of Latin Soul”; practitioner of Santería; battered wife; drug addict; single mother; homeless woman; wheel-chair bound born-again Christian.

Born in Cuba in 1936 to a strict, conservative father and raised by a stepmother who despised her because of her darker skin, La Lupe was forced by her father to pursue a career as a school teacher rather than pursue her dream of becoming a singer because he believed that women from good families did not belong in night clubs. In her teens, La Lupe defied her father’s wishes. She skipped school and walked all the way from Santiago to Havana to enter a radio contest. She won the contest and a few years later relocated to Havana to begin her career.

From the start, La Lupe was extremely controversial. Here is a description of a typical La Lupe show in Havana, from writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante: “The woman would hit and scratch herself, and later bite herself, her hands, and her arms. Unhappy with this musical exorcism, she would throw herself against the background wall, hitting it with her fists and with one or two movements of her head, she would let loose, literally and metaphorically, her black hair. After hitting the props, she would attack the piano and the pianist with a new fury. All of this, miraculously, without stopping her singing and without losing the rhythms of that warm calypso that she transformed into a torrid, musical zone.”

Her act was extremely risqué, sexual and like nothing the Cuban public had ever seen. (Neither had the audiences in New York, where she performed after her exile by Castro in 1962.) Even now videos of her best performances still shock in their rawness, their excessive aggressive and transgressive sexuality. And while her performances are extremely sexual, full of orgasmic moans and groans while lifting her skirts and kneading her breasts, they are not exactly sexy — at least to my taste — perhaps because they are too raw, too violent and too honest to fully seduce. It’s painful and at times uncomfortable to watch her use and abuse her body — to prostitute herself, so to speak. And yet there is something extremely compelling and powerful in her raw, violent actions, her uncontrolled rage and sensuality. Her magic, then, is her ability to work both ends of the axis of attraction and repulsion. Perhaps that is why the word “magnetic” was so often used to describe her

She achieved this magnetism exactly by calling attention to the semiotics of sexuality and gender construction. A key element to her show was a type of strip act: She began by taking off her shoes, then her copious amounts of jewelry — Santeria amulets and necklaces, earrings, belts, brooches — then her headscarf. If she had continued in this vein, she would have just been referencing a conventional strip act. But there was nothing conventional about La Lupe. Instead, she would next take off her wig and her false eyelashes, hike up her pants, and enter a state of trance, or better yet, possession. She gave her body up to sensation, yelling, screaming, completely losing it. She would rub herself, hit herself, wipe her mouth convulsively, rub her hands together. It was indeed a strip act, but what she is stripping away is not her clothing really but rather the trappings of identity itself — the wigs, the makeup, the jewelry — the signifiers that we use in order to signify our status, our place in the world. She strips down not to reveal a coy, feminine sensuality but rather a raw, unbridled life force that is as disturbing as it is compelling.

In the early Sixties, she had ample audience for work. Upon her arrival to New York, she joined Mongo Santamaría’s band, then after two albums, defected to Tito Puente’s band. She is credited with updating his sound from démodé Big Band and traditional Cuban rhythms to the brasher street sound popular with of the barrio Latino, eventually known as Salsa. Again, La Lupe’s magic was her ability to embody a paradox, this time the paradox of the exiled and disenfranchised immigrant. She was able to stay true to the traditional rhythms of Cuba while adding a new, distinctive, irreverent and transgressive element of the barrio, creating a distinct Nuyorican identity — an identity that could really only exist in the margins, and was, in fact, an active reappropriation of the marginal.

She was both loved and hated for this brash, vulgar and streetwise persona. Those who loved her found her to be the embodiment the desire to bust out, let loose, scream, curse and shout. She gave voice in a distinctive Nuyorican way to the trials of being Latino in New York in the Sixties, making her part of the larger movement of bad boy salseros, notably Willie Colon and Hector LaVoe, who also played with and reappropriated their marginalized identities with album titles like El Malo (“the Bad Guy”) and Cosa Nuestra (“Our Thing”, literally, but with the noun and adjective switched in order to reference “Cosa Nostra,” a term for the Italian Mafia.)

The difference with La Lupe, however, is gender. Being a bad girl carries a much higher price than being a bad boy, and was a much more radical act. However, La Lupe did nothing to shy away from that label. In fact, she embraced it fully, creating a highly sexualized identity by employing heavy makeup, dramatic wigs and headdresses, orgasmic screams and moans, hot dance moves emphasizing her hips, sequined outfits, furs, jewelry, etc. While many of her performances were highly subversive and aggressive, she had a sense of humor, too. Check out her performance in the late Seventies on the Dick Cavett show. Past her prime, well into her forties, she shows up in gold dress, turban, cape and a basket of cookies she baked covered in matching gold fabric. At the end of her over-the-top performance, she strips down to a skin-tight white stretch jumpsuit, turns around to reveal a healthy dose of ass cleavage, bows and joins Dick Cavett back on the couch to munch on some homemade cookies. It’s this kind of behavior that led to her inclusion in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” as well as her immortalization in various drag performances throughout the years, most notably in the 1996 film version of The Birdcage and, most interestingly, in 1969 when she was replaced by one Hiram Velazquez (aka El Lupo, aka El Yiyiyo) in Tito Puente’s band, memorialized in the album Lupo El Fantástico on the Cotique label.

Not everyone was in on the joke, though. She was feared, hated and often censored, and was called a puta for her lack of respect for tradition, her sexual abandon and her outrageous costumes and comportment. Not only was she rejected in more traditional elements of society, but eventually she was blackballed by the world of Salsa as well.

After her champion and protector, Morris Levy, sold Tico records to Fania, La Lupe’s career was effectively over. Some say it was because her aggressive and unconventional behavior off stage became untenable to Fania’s owner, Jerry Masucci. Around this time she became more and more involved with the cult of Santería, canceling shows and recording dates if the caracoles (a method of divining the future in the religious tradition of Santería) deemed the commitments unwise. Many in the industry, among them her chief collaborator of the Sixties, Tito Puente, worried that her quite public embrace and expression of her Santería beliefs would jeopardize her career as well as anyone associated with her. Additionally her marriage fell apart as her husband became more and more addicted to drugs, became abusive towards her, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between paying her husband’s hospital bills and her excessive contributions to the Santeros, La Lupe went broke. Finally, the audience for Latin music stopped going to cabarets to see solo performers singing the types of boleros in which she excelled and instead frequented Salsa clubs in order to dance. And apparently there was room for only one female voice at Fania, and that spot was given to the venerable and equally talented, Celia Cruz.

After this, the story gets more and more tragic and bizarre, something out of a telenovela: La Lupe has a nervous breakdown, ends up on the street with her young daughter, relocates to the projects, falls and breaks her back, becoming wheelchair bound, renounces Santería, finds God in the evangelical Christian church, miraculously regains the ability to walk after having hands laid on her, and spends the last few years of her life traveling the world preaching the gospel and recording spirituals.

While it’s true that La Lupe was clearly less reliable and more difficult to work with than the incredibly professional Celia Cruz, it’s hard not to wonder if La Lupe was shown less tolerance for these typical diva traits because they were coupled with a revolutionary and intimidating eroticized sexuality in what was entirely man’s world, Fania. Certainly songs like 1968’s Oriente, in which La Lupe screams, “Ay, ay, ay, Tito Puente me botó!” (“Tito Puente fired me!”), Como Acostumbro, a Spanglish reworking of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and La Dueña de La Salsa (“Owner of Salsa”) express her frustration against her treatment in both the music business as well as her opinion of repressive societal norms.

The songs are certainly read that way in the gay and feminist Latino/a communities, where the work of La Lupe has been revived in recent years, most notably in the Almodóvar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which ends with one of her best boleros, Puro Teatro. The song perfectly encapsulates the story of the film, which is the story of a woman who finally understands that her lover was just playing a role throughout their affair, and that in fact he doesn’t love her at all — he only loves himself and the role he plays. The final line is a brilliant coup de grace: “Y acuédate/ que ségun tu punto de vista/ yo soy la mala!” (“And remember / according to your point of view/ I’m the wicked one!”)

In the end, the true magic of La Lupe is that in a world that offered women one of two roles — Madonna or Whore — La Lupe gave her body and soul up to the role that gave her the most freedom, then dissected that role part by part, false eyelash by false eyelash, to reveal it for what it truly was: Puro Teatro.


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The Politics of Architecture


by Eve Fineman

The relationship between art and politics is both old and new, clear and complex. Numerous mediums lend themselves quite readily toward a political end, music being particularly apt through its blending of word and sound.  Yet music can do much more than simply inspire through its lyrics; it is a vehicle for giving large groups of people a political voice.

Being fortunate enough to come of age in Washington D.C. in the 1980’s, the multifaceted relationship between music and politics revealed itself to me in life-changing ways. Through participation in punk percussion protests across the street from the White House, and organizing benefit shows for local women’s shelters, I was able to see how many layers of political meaning can exist within the single medium of music.

During the same period that grassroots music scenes were addressing political issues head-on, the visual arts were also moving in a more outwardly political direction,  with such unforgettable works as Martha Rosler’s 1989 collaboration entitled “If you lived here.”  This Dia Foundation exhibition presented multiple positions on issues of housing and homelessness in disarmingly graphic and straightforward ways.  The interdisciplinary approach brought together fine artists, graphic artists, designers, architects and urban planners to address an ostensibly unsolvable problem. 

It was invigorating, as a newly minted architecture student, to learn that these issues for which I had sought an outlet through music, were clearly relevant to the field I was beginning to explore. And yet somehow this relationship, the one between architecture and politics, remained elusive to my peers outside of the discipline. To be political and creative meant writing, performing, painting and protesting, but not designing. 

Seeing this disconnect between the politics of architecture and the artistic activism of other genres, it became clear to me that the general public was not likely to perceive the political potential in buildings.  Yet now, as we approach an ever-more politically active and aware time in the collective consciousness, it is perplexing that there remains a general unawareness of how our most public of arts can have much to do with governments, wars and our relationship to the earth.  Although large groups of non-designers seem to have a greater interest and investment in aesthetics and “green design,” we continue to believe the myth of architecture as a vessel, either benignly apolitical or symbolically heroic. We must, if we are to move forward with a deep desire for sustainability, look at public architecture with a more critical eye, and hold it to higher standards than the current ones of structure, surface and systems.

For an example of the structures we mistakenly hail as symbols of our democracy, we can look at MiesGE001699van der Rohe and his iconic buildings in Chicago.  With a charming trip down the Chicago River on an architectural boat tour, a visitor can learn how Mies escaped Nazi Germany and was given amnesty here to produce his modernist visions, the steel and glass structures which are now emblematic of Chicago’s skyline. Chicagoans readily embrace the notion that, without our open Democracy, modernism as we know it may not have been given a chance to flourish. Yet rarely is it mentioned on these tours or in conversation that in 1934, roughly four years before moving to the U.S., Mies signed a motion in support of Hitler, in the hopes that he may be selected as the Architect of State, beginning with his being shortlisted for the design of the state’s new Reichsbank. Nor do Mies’ soaring structures get shown alongside his 1935 competition entry for the German pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, upon which a similarly visionary structure is adorned with an eagle and a swastika.

While we cannot hold Mies responsible for the outcomes of Hitler’s regime, neither can we continue to perpetuate the myth that he is a political hero whose buildings represent pure democracy.  This democratic ideal that we so strongly believed in during the middle of the 20th century is now morphing into our desire to respect the earth and live sustainably. And so, with the Mies story in hindsight, we must be careful when jumping on the sustainability bandwagon and not get too seduced by the latest renewable material or self-generating energy source. These things alone do not turn buildings into heroic emblems.

With the rigorous standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), corporations around the country are boasting of their greenness with regard to the ratings of their newly constructed or renovated buildings. Yet perhaps it is our responsibility to look into this a bit further before feeling placated that companies are treading more lightly on the land. Take, for example, Lockheed Martin’s new facility in Sunnyvale, California. This LEED certified headquarters houses a corporation which, according to its stated mission, is “pursuing projects that protect natural resources, conserve energy and reduce emissions,” all while producing, storing and developing a vast supply of bombs, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

I might suggest that LEED incorporate a client or occupant profile into its ratings checklist, requiring negative points for things such as providing the means for  destroying human life, or denying certification altogether for a company that paid a $110 million dollar fine for failing to properly clean up a nuclear waste site. We may want to ask ourselves what about these practices is sustainable, or how such a corporation came to be awarded the “Global Climate Change Champion” by National Geographic in 2007. As informed citizens, I ask that we look beyond the vessel and into the story behind the building to see how these beautiful structures we build are intrinsically tied to the politics of our time.



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