Where Have You Gone, Lando Calrissian?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s another insightfully inciting essay from Jeffrey Wengrofsky, who is currently co-starring as Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York City in Speakeasy Dollhouse, a real life, vice-filled murder mystery set in a former speakeasy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Directed by Cynthia von Buhler, the production’s cast has also included Edgar Oliver, Kate Black, Edgar Stephen SNAFU, Katrina Galore, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Katelan Foisy, Dana McDonald, Ali Luminescent, Heather Bunch, Porcelain Dalya, Russell Farhang, Amber Baldet, (Silent) James Lake, Rachel Boyadjis, Justin and Travis Moore, Syrie Moskowitz, Maria Rusolo, and Josh Weinstein, to name a few. Everyone we know in NYC’s been going gaga for this production, so please check it out and report back!

New York as Cloud City. Photo by Heather Allen.

“Suddenly everything became clear!
This was the…Atlantis of Plato…There it was before my eyes,
with undeniable evidence of its catastrophic end!” – Jules Verne1

After DJing at the Coilhouse Black & White & Red All Over Ball last August, I came down hard and fast. As a resident of lower Manhattan, I winced at the oncoming anniversary of 9-11 and braced for the immediate impact of Hurricane Irene. Media experts speculated that my neighborhood, barely three feet above sea level, would soon be under the swelling East River, and I imagined New York City’s primordial industrial artery oozing green across my lobby like that scene in The Shining when the blood comes out of the elevator. After a trip to the local store for batteries, canned goods, and bottled water, I got on my elevator with a veteran of Burning Man who shared information about high tides, planetary formations, and the Mayan calendar, bringing together science, new age pontificating, and classic Lower East Side pessimism to pronounce absolute DOOM on the city, the United States, Western civilization, and the world as we know it.

In the least it seemed certain that my building, only a block from the river, would join New Orleans, Indonesia, and Bangladesh as places where people waited atop roofs for relocation by helicopter. My dear friend and fellow Coilhouse contributor Angel Polacheck, herself an evacuee from New Orleans, appealed to her personal experience of relocation and invited me to travel with her to Pittsburgh, but after weighing my fears and imminent responsibilities (my fall semester teaching responsibilities beckoned from the coming week), I resolved to go down with the city. Having been born only a few blocks from where I now live, I imagined myself reclaimed by this land, neck deep in slimy muck with the likes of Jimmy Hoffa and the wrecks of old sailing ships on the gooey bottom of the East River. Hatches were battened in defiance. My computer was fastened to the National Weather Service for constant updates. Rain fell hard against my windows. Waters swirled and rose. As I drew a bath for future use, I stared at the water – my nemesis. What could be more innocent than water and who was I to defy it? Conscienceless, unconscious nature seemed poised to dish out death with the blank remorselessness of the bear in Grizzly Man. I compiled plaintive dispatches from the new Atlantis and contemplated the worst.

Damn the clichés: will rising tides sink all ships?

As it turned out, Irene did not tuck New York into its riverbed with a long “goodnight.” Instead, she spat her guts out all over New England and upstate New York, flooding several towns and small cities. New York City incurred minimal damage, but the hours of anxiously awaiting my fate left an impression on me. Shortly thereafter, my building, like much of the Northeast, undulated during an earthquake possibly attributable to natural gas fracking in Virginia.  In the past ten years, a sense of looming cataclysm—whether from ecological disaster, nuclear conflagration, terrorism, martial law, biological contagion, or economic implosion—has settled on people I know, forming a sad, silent backdrop to our lives. We are resigned to our coming undoing, but we do not yet know what form it will take; so we grin and grind and grunt toward a collective future that none of us will have consciously chosen.

While one of the conversion points of the left and right of the political spectrum may come at the oft-professed fashionable desire to see New York City destroyed, such an event would drown the entire global economy, which would be more than a merely “inconvenient truth.” Besides, rising sea levels will inundate every coastal city and small town in the world and the millions of soggy, displaced persons washing up on every door will make a mess not easily absorbed by any society or economy. And if, somehow, you are still savoring some schadenfreude, then contemplating the water shortages, heatwaves, tornadoes, earthquakes, or forest fires soon to be visiting the hinterland should stir the embers of empathy in your Grinchly heart.

To paraphrase Joe Strummer: New York is sinking and we all live by the East River.

Where have you gone, Lando Calrissian?

  1. Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Trans. A. Bonner. (Bantam Books, 1962). p. 256.

The Praise of Motherfuckers

Another thoughtful article by guest contributor Jeffrey Wengrofsky, “The Praise of Motherfuckers” looks at intergenerational warfare and the use of the word “motherfucker” in counterculture. NYC readers, take note: Jeff’s latest film (with the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers), “The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen,” is an Official Selection of DOC NYC 2011, the documentary film festival of the Independent Film Channel. It is scheduled to make its premiere on November 6 at New York University’s Kimmel Center at 7:30 and on November 7th at the Independent Film Center at 3:45. The film depicts the romantic beauty and squalid dereliction of the bohemian life as embodied by Beat poet and Warhol Superstar Taylor Mead. It’s being shown with “Girl with the Black Balloons.” Grab your tickets here. Congrats, Jeff! – Ed

“WALL ST. is WAR ST.” Photo by Larry Fink. More photos here.

There is a … sort of madness… which the furies bring from hell; those that are herewith possessed are hurried on to wars and contentions… inflamed to some infamous and unlawful lust, enraged to act the parricide, seduced to become guilty of incest, sacrilege, or some other of those crimson-dyed crimes…  ~  Erasmus

Not long ago I attended a lecture on youth rebellion in the 1960s.  The presenter noted with disdain that the word “motherfucker” was used by some of the speakers at the notorious demonstration against the 1968 Democratic National Convention.   Use of this term, so the argument went, was emblematic of a movement that was politically inept if not inherently self-destructive.  And the most immediate casualty of the unholy coupling of “mother” and “fucker,” it was alleged, was the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon.  For those outside the Convention, however, Humphrey’s nomination – pre-ordained by party insiders – offered a continuation of the Vietnam War and seemed to make a farce of our democracy.

The Motor City Five get it on (and duck stray bullets)

Well, it got me to thinking, and I soon made the personal discovery that Motherfuckery was all over America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  No, not literally, of course.  The phrase was, however, in conspicuous currency among New Leftists in a way it had not been before or has been since.

On that fated afternoon in 1968, Rob Tyner of the MC5 had, indeed, shouted his shibboleth – “It’s time to kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” – to ignite his band’s performance, as he did for nearly every show.  After hours of peaceable, if raucous, assembly and rock’n’roll (the MC5 were the only band with the gumption to perform), Chicago mayor Richard Daley dispatched 23,000 police and National Guardsmen to beat and gas the protestors.  And when Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff noted, on the floor of the Convention, that Daley was using “Gestapo tactics,” Daley himself fired the epithet of the era right back at the rostrum: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch! You lousy motherfucker!”

Just a year earlier, Everett LeRoi Jones decorated a poem celebrating the race riots that would permanently cripple Newark: “All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!” Magic words indeed, but the “joosh stores” did not “open,” they closed and remain shuttered to this day or marked only by empty spaces in their footprint.

The phrase “motherfucker” had already been in circulation in hip, African-American lingo long before Jones tapped it, referring to someone who may be evil, a passionate musician, or simply a force to be reckoned with.  It is important to note here that mainstream African-American society, ever-struggling for respect, was possibly even more hostile to the use of the term in polite company than America as a whole.

In New York City, Ben Morea, a ballsy street urchin whose totalizing, uncompromising politics was wedded to a phrase befitting his society of self-proclaimed “suicidal sidewalk psychopaths” known as “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker,” “The Motherfuckers,” or, most simply, as UAW/MF – though they referred to themselves collectively as “The Family.”  Perhaps significantly, Morea “did not know his father [and] did not want to tell his mother he was a Motherfucker because he did not want to disappoint her.”  Osha Neumann, another Motherfucker, also had a twist in his family romance: his father’s best friend, a man who had lived in his house like an uncle (Herbert Marcuse), married his widowed mother.

The Motherfuckers declared war on “the totality of reality as shaped by” the financial, military, and cultural elites by disrupting the suburban commute at Grand Central Station and high mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  In the middle of the garbage strike of 1968, Motherfuckers dumped bags of rotting garbage from the scummy streets of the Lower East Side onto the pristine promenade of the newly-minted Lincoln Center.  They “ran free stores and crash pads…organized community feasts…[and] propagandized against the merchandizing of hip culture…” And, in the middle of the attempted “exorcism of the Pentagon,” only the Motherfuckers actually got inside the five-sided hole of power.   Puritanical Roundheads on the frontline of America’s “cultural revolution,” they fought the police and sometimes against other radicals, criticized both the war and the naive embrace of the Vietcong by the left, shot blanks at poet Kenneth Koch (who may have fainted or told them to “grow up”), printed and distributed fliers in solidarity with fellow traveler Valerie Solanas after she shot Andy Warhol, and forced Bill Graham into letting them use the Fillmore East for free once a week.

When Detroit’s MC5 came to play New York’s Fillmore on one such night, free tickets had not been distributed to the Motherfuckers and their ilk, unbeknownst to the band.  The sight of the MC5 pulling up in a limo provided by Electra Records the Motherfuckers then took to be a sign of bourgeois bedfellowship, so they trashed the Fillmore and sent that otherwise courageous band into rapid retreat under threat of grievous body harm.   The Motherfuckers were so feared that they once closed the mighty Museum of Modern Art by simply revealing their plans for it.  Their slogan was put to music by David Peel and Harold C. Black, lo-fi renegades calling themselves “The Lower East Side,” in a feisty ditty on an album whose cover demurred from disclosing the word “motherfucker” although it was otherwise brash enough to be titled Have a Marijuana. More than a regional phenomenon, the Motherfuckers were the only non-student branch of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), were admitted to and then purged from the largely French Situationist International, and had their slogans scooped up by San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane for their song, “We Can be Together.” (Jefferson Airplane would actually voice a parricidal fantasy in a different song: “Hey Frederick.”)

On the Occasion of Walter Benjamin’s 119th Birthday

The treasure-dispensing giant in the green forest or the fairy who grants one wish
– they appear to each of us at least once in a lifetime. But only
Sunday’s children remember the wish they made, and so it is
only a few who recognize its fulfillment in their lives. – Walter Benjamin

Benjamin Birthday Cake! Photoshop by Nadya.

There is a Yiddish expression offered on someone’s birthday which is affectionate and contains a subtle blessing: “Bis hundert und zwanzig.” In other words, people are wished a life that extends to their 120th year. So what should we do if someone dear (if not near) somehow turns 120? What are they wished then and each year thereafter? I offer these questions as a point of entry for considering Walter Benjamin, a writer whose life ended in suicide as he contemplated his chances of eluding the Nazi Gestapo some seventy-three years before this question may have become material for those around him.  Today marks the 119th anniversary of Benjamin’s birth – the last time someone could have addressed him with the wish of living to 120.

Walter Benjamin was a literary critic, philosopher, memoirist, and collector during Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic. Among his adventures were sojourns from Berlin to Moscow to witness the building of history and to Marseilles to smoke hashish and to Riga to have his love rejected. His last seven years were spent in exile while his works were banned and burned in his native land. Under other conditions, Benjamin’s Francophile desires would have found their easy appeasement in Paris, but the Third Reich cast an increasingly tall shadow and he became, tragically, a prisoner in the country of his dreams. In his forty-eight year life, Benjamin ran with Bertolt Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, Asja Lacis, Theodor and Gretel Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, Hannah Arendt, Georges Bataille, Leo Strauss, Max Brod and Gershom Scholem. And in many ways, Benjamin’s thought is a playful and poetic montage of the ideas of his associates – a “constellation” of Romanticism, Idealism, Marxism, Surrealism, and Jewish mysticism that is more than its unlikely parts: “Satan is a dialectician, and a kind of spurious success…betrays him, just as does the spirit of gravity.”

Einbahnstrasse by Sasha Stone (1928)

Benjamin brought to this heady mix his fascination, at once childish and insightful, for art and artifacts as relics containing clues to history. The scion of an antiquities dealer, Benjamin discerned an impending revolutionary–cum-spiritual cataclysm by contemplating and indexing paintings, books, and the most banal debris of economic life he could find, regarding them as might wily Detective Columbo if he was prodigiously stoned. As Bloch wrote of Benjamin’s book One Way Street, “when the current cabaret passes through a surrealist philosophy, what emerges into the light of day from the debris of meanings…is a kaleidoscope of a different sort.” The spooky thing is that Benjamin’s apocalyptic vision of lawmaking described in 1921 as “bloody power for its own sake” came to pass in many ways a little more than a decade later.

Walter Benjamin lived in a milieu of such vastly assimilated German-Jewish life that he had little formal understanding of Jewish culture, Yiddish, Hebrew, or even the Jewish religion.  He did, however, harbor an abiding interest in Jewish mysticism and mused furtively over those bits of religion and culture he encountered.  And he certainly seemed to have found spiritual sanction for his already-existing fetishization of objects in the Kabbalist’s meditations on words, names, and numbers.  According to this mystical orientation, influenced by neo-Platonism, reality has multiple dimensions – like a faceted diamond – only a few of which are directly accessible to us. We may approach them only indirectly, as they appear to us as abstract notions like numbers, letters, names, and sentiments. In such times as Benjamin playfully, and perhaps also earnestly, speculated on the mystical significance of language and numbers, he may have come to consider 119 alongside its constitutive outside, the number 120, the last year we can legitimately hope for someone else.  If so, it is entirely likely that Benjamin, a thinker who invited the mystical, would have been intrigued by the delimiting function of 120 and may have further speculated on 121 as a possible portal to other dimensions.  Operating, then, as a detective, Benjamin may have investigated the year 120 as a future crime scene – a time-place where this phrase will be eternally transcended. Looking outward, 119 years of life may have been considered the furthermost edge of his generation, a remote vantage from which to contemplate the eternity of space, like a balcony atop “Saturn’s ring.” Upon returning from such reveries, Benjamin would hopefully have finally mentioned that the actual root of this folk expression comes from the biblical datum that Moses lived to be 120. This, then, could have been followed by an analogy that is possibly both specious and interesting, like noting that Moses and Benjamin never completed their exodus from brutality.

The wish that one live beyond the culturally sanctioned, and quite generous, lifespan of 120 is redolent of the posthumous reception of Benjamin’s work throughout the humanities. The fervent interest in his work throughout the humanities since the 1980s is so unlikely as to seem almost a form of Messianic fulfillment on an individual scale. After all, his life was unfulfilled in most respects. He was a failed academic, a divorcee whose affair was an awkward mess, a minor radio personality whose voice was never recorded, and a writer whose masterworks were unfinished or forever lost in history. Years later, his work even achieved “fame” on its own terms when, in 1969, his most significant essay was mistranslated as “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Harry Zohn. For Benjamin, a work has achieved “fame” when it its translation transmits information not contained in the original. Two generations of scholars and art critics referenced his most significant essay through a misleading title, when now, as if language shifted its tectonic plates under our feet, the essay is emphatically translated as “Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”  In the digital age, articles like this one are re-posted with attention to errata, such as mistaking today for his 121st anniversary, whereas it is only his 119th.  If only Zohn had used WordPress his translation would have been unfinished and arguably better for it.  Perhaps as the author of that essay – however titled – Benjamin would have come to consider fame in the age of American Idol in terms of having a finger puppet refrigerator magnet in one’s visgage. “All that is holy is profaned,” sayeth Marx. What does familiarity breed? So much for the “aura” of the author, eh?

In his essay on “The Metaphysics of Youth” Benjamin contemplates one’s diary as a temporal domain, an inner life expressed in writing which begins in medias res, with life already in motion, and which can never be concluded by an author whose death occludes continued authorship. The project is never finished and the life, as written in the diary, exists in its own sort of time, like the life the mind, an eternal moment delimited by birth and death, and unable to experience either. Benjamin’s life is thus suspended within the pages of his books, essays, memoirs, and personal effects – as in his Paris address book shown below. Something of his life may sometimes seem to flash in our minds as we read him, just as Benjamin once suggested that art and artifacts can communicate something of their creation in flashes. In this sense, Benjamin’s work has escaped the bounds of the moment in which it was written, although it has yet to allow its readers to tear the fabric of time and usher in the Messianic moment of utter destructiveness in which history is fulfilled and completed.

Of course, I cannot literally wish Walter Benjamin 120 years of existence because I have no known way of communicating it to him. I can, however, wish it for him in spirit, and I do. Whether this wish, now communicated in language, effectively gives him happiness, is beyond the scope of this essay to determine, but my wish that it do so has some affinity with Benjamin’s own work. In his essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” Benjamin posits language as constitutive of thought and life as we know it – not merely a conduit for them – as, in his example, a divine speech act once set the universe in motion with illumination: “Let there be light.” Likewise, Benjamin may have noted that the wish that someone live to 120 implies a blessing, as in the Yiddish expression: “From your mouth to God’s ear.” As this is the last time I may properly wish Walter a 120th year,  I am ever-more concerned that it take the form of a blessing where numbers and sentiments are tangible – on the other side of language.

This essay is dedicated to Lionel Ziprin, z”l.

The Unyielding Mystery of Catalog No. 439

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yet another wonderful post from our longtime contributor, Jeffrey Wengrofsky! This past year, he’s been keeping busy with all manner of projects, and this Sunday, April 3, his Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers will be screening “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” as part of the Prison is an Angry Father fundraiser at Goodbye Blue Monday (1087 Broadway, Bushwick, New York). It’s a benefit for a prisoner’s rights project created by the Sanctuary of Hope. The event will include live performances of an almost musical variety, as well as the screening of several more short films in addition the Syndicate’s. Doors open at 8pm. Showtime for “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” is 10pm. This event is free of charge.

Last year I spent my summer vacation working on a feature film in Detroit.  While creeping around the city, I could not help but notice its mountainous Masonic Temple – the largest in the world – whose muscular shoulders rise above its environs as if Charlton Heston’s urban fortress in Omega Man were carved into Yosemite’s El Capitan.  I was even able to arrange a private tour of the windowless monolith by its hospitable and wily Grand Master, including many meeting rooms and a majestic 4,004 seat auditorium (numerologists take note), all of it a visual feast for anyone with a taste for dramatic architecture, grotesque beauty, or even cryptography for that matter.  While in the lobby, our guide offhandedly revealed three levels of meaning behind a seemingly random painting, and the stately oddities awaiting us in floors above and below nearly exploded with symbolic resonance.  Unfortunately, the photographer I brought with me was so spooked by the whole experience that he ran screaming into the long night, ever since unreachable by phone or email.

And who can blame him? The uninitiated public can never comfortably claim to understand the true raison d’etre and inner machinations of secret societies because any scholar or spokesperson or self-declared defector may actually be a shill for the organization, planting seeds of misinformation and spreading misleading rumors.  Even joining such a society does not entitle one to understanding the ways of its upper circles.  Circles within circles, dear reader.  Are you getting sleepy?  The cinematic accoutrements – vaulted iron doors, masks, handshakes and cloaks – provide the perfect canvas for our fears of the unknown and desires for hidden order beneath evident chaos, conjuring a veil behind which we may never knowingly trespass.   Consequently, it can never be definitely settled as to whether any or all such societies are actually: cults of mystical inquiry; wholesome gatherings of those serving laudable Enlightenment values of science and public service; the core of a dastardly “power elite”; congresses of people who enjoy rituals involving aprons (not that there’s anything wrong with that); or some combination thereof.

Last year, Fantagraphics reproduced Catalog No. 439 of the DeMoulin Brothers– the most extensive depiction of initiation contraptions and ritual outfits used by Freemasons and other fraternal orders, like the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and E. Clampus Vitus. Bearing the title Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes, this wacky book may shed a shred of light into the outer sanctum of these associations – unless, of course, it is actually a hoax disseminated to lead us astray.  Bracketing but never disregarding this notion, the readership of Coilhouse may discover certain Truths regarding these quasi-mystical clubs from perusing its glossy pages.  Even if Enlightenment should, as always, prove ever elusive, the illustrated designs of Edmund DeMoulin and the handiwork of his brothers Ulysses and Erastus, as reproduced in Burlesque Paraphernalia, will still deliver amusing, if sadistic, anthropology.

Getting Out of Bed with Richard Foreman

Film courtesy of Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers

Storytelling is, among other things, the art of regulating the flow of information shared with an audience. Playwright Richard Foreman is a foremost master of this art, withholding much that makes our world familiar and meaningful.  In his plays, we are thrust into a room – perhaps suggestive of the human psyche – where information circulates without context, and language often appears to lose its capacity to bear information or even conjure words.  Characters inhabit situations and events transpire, but usually without the problem resolution endemic to most fiction.  Ultimately, we never know whether what we have witnessed is satirical, psychological, resolutely absurdist, or somehow all three concurrently.  Enduring such a bewildering circumstance, the audience is challenged to find or impose order and meaning – never knowing which they are doing.  As you may well imagine, this is not easy art.  It may leave the theatergoer uneasy – even queasy – amid buzzers, flashing lights, warped music, and the voice of un-reason.  One may even wonder whether it’s akin to what Jeremy Bentham said of natural rights: “nonsense upon stilts.”  If, however, the official tastemakers are to be believed, this is theatre operating at a high degree of abstraction, offering sly humor and curious insight into our social and inner worlds.

Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater made its debut in 1968 – a year redolent with meaning for alternative culture – and his plays have been a mainstay of the weird and wonderful (and wise?) ever since.  He has written, directed, and designed more than fifty plays, received five “OBIE” (Off-Broadway) Awards for Best Play of the Year, the Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN Club Master American Dramatist Award, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, was elected officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of France, and his direction of the 50th anniversary production of The Threepenny Opera was nominated for both T.O.N.Y. and Grammy Awards.

Foreman directs at Tanglewood, 1968.

For nearly 20 years Foreman has launched his plays from a little theater on the grounds of the historic St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City’s East Village.  For those of us for whom an annual trek to Foreman’s demented dimension provides regular respite from worlds we are otherwise doomed to inhabit, I bear bad news: this year’s play is slated to be his last.  And for those new to Foreman, or without the ability to see one of his plays in New York or when they tour Paris or Los Angeles or Berlin, there is good news: he will now be turning his prodigious talents exclusively to film making.

A blinkered guest in Foreman’s book, art, and technology engorged SOHO loft – one of the original lofts designed by George Maciunas – I feebly tossed feeble questions before the “Genius” himself.  Despite his telling me that he “didn’t like people,” Foreman was a good sport, ruminating on whether alternative- and counter-cultures have futures, the keys to a vital art scene and to becoming an artist, the meta-politics of theatre, and his mystical yearnings.  Alas, I still don’t understand why existentialists get out of bed in the morning.  The Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers maintained surveillance (see above) and the remainder was captured by my electro-ear (see below).

COILHOUSE: What first brought you to lower Manhattan?
RICHARD FOREMAN: I moved to lower Manhattan because, in the middle 1960s, I got friendly with Jonas Mekas, who was head of the underground film movement, and a close friend of his was George Maciunas, who was the head of Fluxus.  At a certain point, George made his art setting up artists’ coops.  It was totally illegal.  I was coming down all the time to look at underground films.  At one point, I told George that I was ready to take the risk and move downtown, and he got ten people to buy a building together.  Starving artists did all the work of converting the manufacturing lofts into living lofts.  I was going to films Jonas was showing all the time and, at one point, I dared to tell him that I was writing plays. I showed him a play. He allowed me to show it at his theater when the fire department closed it after they said that he didn’t have a proper license to show films, since it was a play.

Photo via Real Time Arts.

Jo Boobs Teaches the Va-Va Voom!

Film courtesy of Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

All but her belly buried in the floor;
And the lewd trounce of a final muted beat!
We flee her spasm through a fleshless door…
Then you, the burlesque of our lust — and faith,
Lug us back lifeward — bone by infant bone.
— Hart Crane, “National Winter Garden,” (1930)

“Jo Boobs” Weldon is Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, whose home at The Slipper Room is just a few blocks from where Lydia Thompson’s “London Blondes” brought burlesque to America and a stone’s throw from where Minsky’s original National Winter Garden made burlesque part of the American vernacular. Minsky’s notoriously established Gypsy Rose Lee as an icon synonymous with striptease, and launched the careers of Abbott and Costello, Phil Silvers and Robert Alda before being closed in the name of public morality.

Houston Street Burlesque by Mabel Dwight (1928)

Is burlesque – a word which refers to turning things upside down – still able to subvert morals and mores? In a popular culture where the use of sexuality to sell consumer goods is banal, pornography of nearly every stripe is freely and instantly available, and sympathetic gay and lesbian characters are commonplace, is the self-conscious performance of gender merely campy fun or does it still have a liberating capacity? Can sex work, titillation, gender play and masturbation undermine heterosexual monogamy? Whose moralities and identities might they challenge?

Catherine MacKinnon argues that sexualized depictions of women in patriarchal societies reinforce misogyny to the point of constituting a form of violence. Do sexualized performances by women lead to their individual and collective debasement? Is stripping a phenomenon where women who appeal most to men are degraded whereas burlesque liberates women who stand outside the norms of beauty as prescribed by male desire? Considering stripping and prostitution, I ask whether everyone sells their bodies at every job? Further, when men pay a high premium to be with a woman or just to look at one, whose body is exploited? More specifically, does it make sense to import 20th century standards of judgment to a 21st century United States whose educational system produces more female post-graduates than male and whose career women earn 94.2% of the income of their male counterparts? Despite shifts in income and status, why do so few straight males study burlesque or work as strippers?

Jo Boobs and I met at the basement headquarters of her school on the coldest evening in recent years to explore questions of gender, activism, and whether she and her ilk are gender traitors or gender busters. She even stripped down to fighting gear for an intimate performance caught by our unblinking digital eyeball. (See above!) In June 2010, Jo will publish The Pocket Book of Burlesque (with a forward by Margaret Cho), a volume whose slender design can slip under the inspector’s prying gaze. The New York School of Burlesque is in sympathetic affiliation with Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle and Michelle L’Amour’s Burlesque Finishing School in Chicago as well as programs in Washington, D.C and elsewhere. When will someone open a campus in Tehran?

COILHOUSE: How does burlesque differ from stripping?
JO BOOBS: To understand the difference, look at it from the audience’s point of view. If someone goes to a strip joint, they usually go in whenever they want, they pick the performer they want, they negotiate how they interact with them, they interact one-on-one, and they leave. When they go to a burlesque show, the show starts at a [predetermined] time, they pay a cover (not the performers), they watch the show, there isn’t usually any one-on-one interaction, and they leave when the performance is over.

Jack Terricloth is Alive and at Large in Gotham

Film courtesy of Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

Many of us across the Coilhouse nation dream of becoming full-time artists, and some of us actually become so, but few follow our vision as fearlessly as Jack Terricloth.  Jack never learned any marketable skill like speed typing or graphic design or computer programming.  He’s never had a “Plan B” of any kind whatsoever.  He just jumped out his window and – wooosh! – he started flying.  While most of us were in college, Jack was a full-time punk rocker. In fact, he never even bothered to graduate from high school. What would cause an abundantly gifted, middle class kid from a stable family to behave so recklessly? Why wasn’t he disciplined by a fear of falling through the social safety net?

While our current global economic bust forecloses conventional career options for many of us, it’s also an opportunity to change consumption patterns and general complicity with an economic order that is clearly unsustainable in the long run. Will the economic downturn lead more people to unconventional lives or will it make us ever more desperate to fit into the economic system? Will global recession be good news for the planet and for making art? Is this the best time to follow Timothy Leary’s advice: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”?  Likewise, as file sharing rings the death knell of the music industry, will we see less mass-orchestrated pop sensations? Will musicians be more inclined to self-expression and artistic exploration once they no longer have the temptation to sell out?

jack terricloth on the beach in spain
Jack on the beach in Spain. Photo courtesy of the World/Inferno.

I first met our man o’ cloth way back in 1991, while I was working at Reconstruction Records, an all-volunteer punk record store in New York’s East Village. Back then, Jack was a snot-nosed teenager living under an assumed name with more than assumed parents in suburban New Jersey and fronted the band, Sticks and Stones. With Jack at the helm, Sticks and Stones restlessly explored new musical terrain – hardcore, punk, goth, techno, pop – until 1995, when his bandmates told him that they would go no further.  Undeterred, Jack started the current cabaret revival by assembling the World/Inferno Friendship Society.  The World/Inferno has since also explored a smattering of Northern Soul, pop, klezmer, and African-American spirituals. Now, several albums and scores of tours later, the World/Inferno has embarked in a more ambitious direction. They have integrated theater into their live performance in a production titled: Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century. Doubtless, their tour will inspire some imitators, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

The Gospel According to Reverend Billy

Coilhouse is pleased to introduce a new project by Jeff Wengrofsky (Agent Double Oh No). Jeff explains: “The Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers (SHIT) is an independent film production nexus whose mission is to provide exposure to art, cialis artists, movements, events, and organizations that we believe are unusual, timely, and provoking. Our current project is a series of short (10 minute) documentary films that examine the politics and aporias of creativity. “The Gospel According to Reverend Billy” is the first in this series. It is being published on the Coilhouse blog and is very much an extension of my work for you folks. We hope to web publish a little film once a month until the close of 2010.”

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” – Rousseau

Film courtesy of the Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

The prime, often countervailing logics of 21st century America – capitalism and democracy – seem dangerously out of balance today. Meanwhile, vestigial factors, like Puritanism, sometimes affect public life in surprising ways. Since the Giuliani years, America’s largest city – New York – has seen lower crime, infrastructural investments, an infusion of capital, a proliferation of chain stores, a vast profusion of surveillance devices and, perhaps, the general evisceration of democracy. Just recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored widespread opposition to the construction of two billion dollar stadiums and the much-maligned Atlantic Yards construction project. More egregiously, he bullied our City Council into overturning a term limits law that had been passed fifteen years earlier by public referendum. Now running for his third term, Bloomberg’s campaign war chest has intimidated all prominent Democratic challengers.

As politics appears as (yet another) massively-financed spectacle of buzzwords, scandals, outsized personas and deep psychology, is it possible to enter the political fray without selling your soul? Can you get the attention of the public eye by taking on an identity at once striking and also familiar to our public culture? Fifteen years ago, William Talen began the process of becoming a New Yorker and re-inventing himself as “Reverend Billy.” Today, armed with this identity, he enters churches of consumption – like the Disney store in Times Square – to project a powerful message opposing corporate retail, a culture of consumerism, and the encroachment of our public spaces.

Reverend Billy’s charisma, energy, and smarts have gathered him a gospel choir, the attention of CNN, a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock, and now the nomination of New York’s Green Party for the 2009 mayoral race. Reverend Billy combines a Nixonian charm with the overly stylized tropes of a preacher, and, perhaps as prime mover, a rich Calvinist heritage. America has a long history of Calvinist preachers – you may know them as “Puritans” – who rail against impure desires, “the moneychangers,” and fret mightily for the souls of their congregants.

All photos by Tina Zimmer.

COILHOUSE: Words like “community” and “neighborhood” have a special resonance for your choir. Are you a New Yorker?
REVEREND BILLY: I grew up in Watertown, South Dakota and Rochester, Minnesota, and I always dreamed of being a New Yorker, the way you can dream of New York on the prairie. When the satellites would go up across the night sky, I used to think they were New York City flying through space. I first moved here in 1974, stayed a couple of years. Moved back again in the early 80s and, for a longer period of time, in the late 80s. I was like a hitchhiker, I would come and crash in the Lower East Side. In March of 1994, I don’t know why exactly, my commitment became permanent.

Do you feel like a New Yorker?
I do now because I perform in so many neighborhoods. I marry, baptize and bury New Yorkers in so many different boroughs. We – me and Savitri and the choir – some of us were born here and many of us are immigrants, we like the idea of a homemade spirituality that does not necessarily come from an organized religion. That idea became a New York idea after 9-11. Many of us gathered in rooms. The Reverend Billy idea of a different God or Goddess every day with another name, staying out of trouble with deities that cause us to kill each other, that kind of fellowship, I needed it, too.

[Interview continues after the jump.]

The Intimate Horror of Michael Gira

Photo by Eric Hurtado/Etante Donnes

On Monday, we received an email titled “Is that the Batlight I see?” from Agent Double Oh No (a.k.a. Jeff Wengrofsky), our intrepid correspondent in New York. “Hi. I noticed the rainbow puke signal on Coilhouse and thought, if there ever were a signal that could shine in the sky to invoke my powers, this would be it.” While we languish away in Issue 03 purgatory (it’s not really hell… yet), Jeff has kindly offered to let us run some interviews he did circa 2002 for a now-defunct site called in-nyc.com. For those just joining us, Jeff has conducted some of the most hard-hitting interviews that Coilhouse has yet featured, including conversations with Mark Mothersbaugh, Magenta Foundation and Sonny Vincent. We’re proud to present the first interview in a series by Agent Double Oh No that will run as we finish up the writing on Issue 03: Michael Gira. Enjoy! – Nadya

At first blush, his imposing frame, strong handshake, suspenders, and cowboy hat could well cast Michael Gira as a sharecropper cut from the pages of Steinbeck. Close up, his quick, blue eyes quietly mock fools, while his broad, rotting grin strives to put his prey at ease like a real-life Hannibal Lecter. As the principal behind Young God Records, Gira’s first two personas rub uneasy elbows, as he ambitiously peddles uncompromising music that demands attention. Taken together, Michael Gira is a living work of art, an exercise in American gothic, a true musical genius, a bit scary and quite unlike any other person that I will ever meet.

Over the past twenty years, Gira’s music has changed its face twice, but has maintained a taut focus on his lyrical thematic: the base and fragile elements at the core of the human condition. His is a dramaturgy of intimate horror and wakeful terror, exposed without a trace of moralism or even humanism. In his early years with Swans, Gira and his cohorts invented a musical idiom of striking immediacy, pairing his baritone’s sharp and nasty catalogue of human depravity with the heaviest dirges conceivable. Over their fifteen- year career, Swans’ music became more melodic, mysterious, and, at times, downright gothic. With Angels of Light, the name for Gira’s main musical output since the time of Swans, he methodically directs beautiful orchestrations over simple, repetitive motifs and his magnificent voice.

As the prime mover behind Young Gods Records, Gira has also brought Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family to the indie music world. In 1994, Gira further explored his aesthetic in The Consumer, a collection of short prose on Henry Rollins’s “1961” imprint. Michael Gira’s musical and written work can be yours after a visit to his site.

I nervously sat down to chew some words with Michael as the sun set over Brooklyn and I tried to not play the fool. This is how our conversation began.

As I understand it, you are originally from Los Angeles. In 1979, punk was dead. New York was suffering from fiscal woes, and, in many ways, was a city in deep decline. Why did you come here?
Maybe it was mean streets. I despised L.A. It’s such an alienating place. L.A. seems to embody the worst aspects of American culture. Even at that time, the primary ways of experiencing realty were watching television or driving in your enclosed car, or sitting at your cubicle, which are also sort of like television. It’s completely secondhand. I was involved, somewhat tangentially, in the L.A. punk scene. Most of it, with the exception of the Screamers, was just like rock music played faster, and held no attraction for me. I liked the extreme violence in the live shows. Musically, it was boring. New York was “No New York” at the time. I had heard some singles from the Theoretical Girls, Lydia Lunch, Suicide. I was a slavish, sweating, nervous, Suicide fan. I interviewed Alan Vega for my magazine, No Magazine. It was a proper magazine, made of newsprint, with art, pornography, and punk rock. Our second issue had autopsies on the cover. We had to get it printed in San Fransisco, because it was too obscene to have printed in Los Angeles. I was a fan of what was going on in New York and an art student at Otis Art Institute. I was friends then with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who moved here and I moved six months later. I came because I thought that it was a more interesting musical environment. When I came here, all that stuff was dead, and the advent of English disco was starting to infect everything. The time wasn’t ripe, in the end. I came here with a hundred bucks and figured how to live.

If you were really interested in “mean streets” per se, even then there were tougher neighborhoods than Alphabet City, which already had a substantial artist community. When I think “mean streets,” I think Piri Thomas and Spanish Harlem, which was really wild in 1980.

Maybe it was “Taxi Driver,” then. I remember reading an article in the L.A. Times about a trash strike in New York. There were rats everywhere. I heard about rats leaping into people’s mouths while they walked down the street! There was some wino that fell through the grates on the street and half his body was eaten by rats. I just thought that it was an interesting place to be.

The Magenta Foundation Stares into the American Sun

What a historic day! Big, bonecrushing hugs from all of us here at CH headquarters to everyone else on planet earth who is rejoicing at the departure of the Bush administration. There will never be a better time to post the following human rights essay and interview that our staffer Jeff Wengrofsky (aka Agent Double Oh No) has been working on for months. At Coilhouse, we’re glad to supply subject matter ranging from the utterly frivolous to the deeply involved and intense. This piece goes in the latter category. We’re honored to provide a forum for Jeff’s in-depth, thought-provoking conversation with human rights activists Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens. We hope that their story and struggle will move some of you as much as it has moved us. ~Mer

“Human institutions appear to be the obvious and obtrusive causes of
much mischief to mankind; yet in reality, they are light and superficial
…in comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity
that…render turbid the whole stream of human life.“
– Thomas Malthus  (1798)

As membership is constitutive for a society, its conditions are routinely, if not essentially, contested.  More than any other society, America has wrestled with two competing notions of membership: one based on exclusion (class until 1824, race formally until 1870 and practically until 1965, and gender until 1920) and another based on inclusion and rooted in the Declaration of Independence’s influential clause: “all…are created equal.”  This quarrel over defining principles was apparent even in the drafting of the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson’s original document, later altered in a compromise, called for the abolition of slavery.  Jefferson himself was in love and sired children with Sally Hemings, an African-American who was the half-sister of his wife and his slave. And so, America was born in original sin under a star of some perversion with an ever-present element of redemption. Even today, America blinks like a giant, Masonic hologram, simultaneously symbolizing and embodying our greatest hope and, in the Bush years, our greatest disappointment.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois declared “the color line” to be the defining issue of the 20th Century. The election of Barack Hussein Obama Jr. opens up the question as to whether the United States has begun the new century by transcending racial exclusion. Surely the America of 1903 looks little like the America of today: African-Americans are no longer its largest ethnic minority, its citizenry includes significant numbers of people who do not fit into the black-white axis, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts rendered discrimination illegal 43 years ago, Affirmative Action dates back to J.F.K., intermarriage is not unusual, Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday, racial bigotry has long since fallen into disrepute in the sciences and is not tolerated in polite conversation, and even the Bush Administration had African-Americans in its cabinet. On the other hand, police departments are often charged with brutality and “stop and frisk” policies that target black youth, African-Americans continue to be overrepresented among our nation’s most impoverished and undereducated and imprisoned, and African-Americans are the victim of more hate crime than any other group in the United States.

Certainly it is very unusual for the people of any society to select a member of a minority (however understood) to its highest office and, perhaps, this event is even more profound in a country whose entire history can be understood as a long and troubled march toward the fulfillment of its inclusive promise. Can 300 years of racial difference be transcended by legislation or election? Will Americans whose biographies are not like Obama’s accept his leadership in a time of economic and ecological crisis? With the election of Obama, is the United States once again poised to provide moral leadership (as it surely did in 1776)? Is international moral leadership possible? It seems as though history itself has opened and the full range of human potential – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are all equally likely.

What is “racism”? Are all bigotries a form of racism? Is racism conceptually distinct from other forms of ethnic chauvinism? The major genocides of the past century were, aside from the Nazi extermination of the Jews, not understood in racial terms: the Turkish-Armenian genocide (1915-18), the Turkish-Greek genocide (1914-23), Stalin’s liquidation of the Kulaks (1932-33), the Japanese-Chinese genocide in Nanking (1937-38), the Nigerian-Biafran genocide (1966-1970), the Pakistani-Bangladeshi genocide (1971), the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Burundi (1972), Pol Pot’s Cambodian purges (1975-79), the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (1994), and the Serb-Bosnian genocide (1992-95).

Where do these cleavages, these notions of belonging and otherness, come from? They are found in various forms in every human society.  Sadly, our closest kin in the animal world also share this trait. Wars among chimpanzees and between apes have been noted by biologists since 1970. Are hatreds naturally rooted in “selfish genes”? If so, do we need unrealizable principles to inform our behavior and ground social criticism?

Is cosmopolitanism – the idea that one can be a “citizen of the world” – possible? Aren’t we always already embedded in cultural conversations, genetic inheritances, and political communities? Does anyone have arms long enough to embrace humanity as a whole? What do we do with those who return our embrace with bullets and bombs? Is cosmopolitanism an unrealistic retreat from the world as it actually is? Is cosmopolitanism a rhetorical strategy of the weak to keep the strong from winning?

Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens.

On Thanksgiving, an American holiday whose lore bespeaks inclusion and exclusion, I sat down to discuss hate, race, and the limits of freedom in Holland, often considered among the freest places in this world, and on the internet, a transnational network, with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens, the Directors of the Magenta Foundation.  In their own words, “Magenta is a foundation that aims to combat racism and other forms of discrimination primarily on and through the Internet.” They have organized many high profile events in the name of inclusion and understanding, and have presented reports on bigotry before the United Nations and the O.S.C.E. Undeterred in the face of many death threats, they are cosmopolitan heroes. Sadly, just one day after this interview, Suzette was diagnosed with cancer and has since gone into chemotherapy. On this day, full of hope, let’s wish her a fast and painless recovery.

(Jeff’s full interview with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens appears after the jump.)