Media Arts in War, Part Uno: A reflection for the Fourth of July
What has happened to artistic expression since Sept. 11 as it’s transmitted through any kind of media (or anyone claiming to be a medium), from the political satire of "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" to the mega-bombastic sequel to the classic post-apocalyptic thriller in any theater near you. To the episodes of “Survivor.” To every creative impulse that every tried to be a light in the darkness; to all those media images that are flowing through us now: How do we respond? How do we deal creatively with our own struggle to find the appropriate voice? How do we know the right thing to say, when we see death, so much death? He do we contend with what David Byrne of the Talking Heads once anticipated in “Life During Wartime”:
“Ain’t got no speakers
Ain’t got no headphones,
Ain’t got no music to play.”
After many knee-jerk reactions to Sept. 11, including a slew of benefit performances
by rock stars and actors, there was a shaky sense of assurance. After an alleged victory over the Taliban, followed by their resurgence, Americans crawled out of the foxholes and flooded back into the malls, then the floods and economic crisis of late 2008 flooded right back out. Nevertheless, Sunday’s gladiatorial epic, otherwise known as the NFL, stormed right on through from Super Bowl to Super Bowl. Like a country immune to war, then, not so immune. A country dotted like a push pin map of the Stars and Stripes remains as a menacing reminder of who we have become ... and then the election of 2008 ... as if every now and then the electorate feels guilty for its leadership and responds.
For several years, anything that strays from a patriotic vision was likely to be, with the force of a fully diligent flight crew, wrestled to the ground and whisked away: A terrible beauty was born. But where does it stand now?
Seth Butler, out of a concern for air pollution on North Shore of Massachusetts and a need to burn film for a photo essay for a class at Montserrat College, loaded a roll of film and fired.
He pointed his weapon, a truth-telling device, at the churned and weathered brown spires of the Salem Power Plant. Since photos never lie, or, at least, a picture beats a thousand words, he figured in some small way the images might flesh out of the mystery and wonder of the place. He thought the suspected poisons made possible on a daily basis by the plant might be explicated by his pictorial essay, and through this kind of truth we might all be saved from this inconvenience, or, at least, that we might all enjoy some breathtaking pictures of the alleged poisoning taking place.
In fact, such satanic mills have been fodder for artists since William Blake. In fact, power plants and factories will always be great targets for interesting photos. Especially now. Technological wonders perched on American shores will always make great targets. For artists. And for terrorists.
Which, for Seth Butler, age 22, of Vermont, became part of the problem.
After Sept. 11, as a he snapped on the lens and took in the fall New England air, he looked at the monumental smokestacks, trying to see what the relationship was between himself, the lens and the world at war----not so much the brother-against-brother battle, but man-against-nature war.
“I was just struggling with how to deal with it,” he says.
If the medium is the message, then the date, Sept. 11, is the portal where we pour all of our pain, and then, put it on display. The message is our mantra, our artistic Alamo. Lest we forget, every shark-eyed cub reporter tooling around the town halls of Salem, Beverly, Gloucester and Marblehead has felt a nearly subconscious duty to post that date, Sept. 11, at least once or twice, like staples into the newsprint, glossy or cheap, of whatever passes for local media.
One reporter, well after the attacks, typed “Sept. 11” in four times within the text of an article that had absolutely nothing to do with the war or terror, real or imaginary.
(Well, actually, even in some tangential way, it was hard to fail to find some way the war against terror might apply to each and every thing we did in a daily lives, from trips to the mall to articles written under intense deadline.)
Plagued by nightmares before a pilgrimage to Ground Zero in New York City, the writer provided repeated semi-accidental advertising for our national numeral of
mourning, anger and fear, for all of the shell-shocked sensibilities, destructive or creative, which launched our nation into a heightened state of awareness (whatever that means) on Sept. 11. To write Sept. 11 in copy, in short, became our patriotic duty as muckrackers and documentarians for our times.
For example, so far this chapter has used the date five times. The date, Sept. 11 (OK, that’s six) flows like water, like shorthand, or better yet, a link to the streaming media of shock, horror, and yes, nationalistic fervor, our personal bond to (what it believes to be) justice and (unbelievable) vengeance. By expressing oneself in this way, in times of mass hypnotic states of hysteria, war, famine and scary bad TV, we discover the most constructive choice in terms of reacting to the world around us.
I mean, why send a missile when maybe a simple e-mail note or a Hallmark card would do? “Hey,” we write, “Remember Sept. 11, and get well soon.”
As they say, the medium (Or, the media) is the message. So is writing the date, Sept. 11 (seven). On posters, stamps, newspaper supplements, whatever we can get our hands on.
But what is the most appropriate way to express oneself on the big blank page of life during a time of national trauma, and yes, tight security? The Urizen archons of control, the warlords and the convergent media paradigms, are all in sync with the Union at War.
What if you are a dissenter? A pacifist? With dark skin? Maybe even a Canadian. Or worse, an Islamic art dealer who needs to take a plane to Paris?
A Hub taxi driver?
A Quaker who just woke up one day, and, feeling his or her oats, decided they had
something to say?
A photographer on the North Shore of Massachusetts who pointing and firing near
some power plant smokestacks?
Better think twice. First figure out if it’s naughty, or, nice. Think twice before you click.
But then the reversal came true, especially after the release of "Fahrenheit 911" before the election of 2004. Slowly and surely, as the war became less popular, a whole new sense of media emerged.
Seth Butler, age 22, photography student at Montserrat, isn’t an idiot. As a cub photojournalist he knew that when firing off snapshots of satanic mills in Salem during wartime, it’s best to let the most immediately available authority in on what you are up to.
“I went up to the police officer out front of the plant, gave them three IDs, and warned them that I was shooting photos for a project,” he says.
Butler thought he’d received permission, at that point, since he was on public property, to start firing away with his telephoto lens. The guard at the gate said sure, whatever.
“But then this guy pulls up,” a security guard, he says. “I just wanted to do my work. They told me I had to leave.”
The bombardment of the global media, crashing all day, all night upon the New England shores, lighting up the giant video screens of Times-Square (still standing) and the pubs of London (last time checked), and yes, your living room, became overwhelming. Our sense of freedom and free expression, in every aspect of our daily lives, from Paris to Portsmouth, became critically impacted. Especially so for those of us in the curious position of being at the seacoast front of a new kind of war when the media buzzword, as in “terror,” is the message, and the enemy could be just about anyone.
“Since Sept. 11, as a photographer,” says Ron DiRito, a teacher at Montserrat whose specialty is art and media and its context and meaning in society, “I don’t think they understand what it’s like for us. I think the rest of the country doesn’t have the same kind of …,” he pauses, looking for ways to explain how it feels to be at the front of this new war, then, completing the thought: “ Everybody in New York understands it better than other people in the country. The physical distance changes our perception of something. There is this overwhelming sensibility.
“We have learned to tolerate each other better, but on the other hand, there is that thing going on, you don’t know who to suspect. This is still relatively trying to be
understood. I don’t think we have processed it culturally and socially.”
But, once it did, America's appetite for violence in the media soared ...
“They watched me leave and get back into my car,” says Seth Butler, spurned photojournalist after being unable to capture very much of any possible dangers,
through photographic realism, of the alleged poisoning of the sky at the Salem power plant.
As he moved on into an intersection, at a speed of 15 miles per hour, the legal limit, a white pickup truck sped in front of Butler’s vehicle and slammed on the brakes. “He must of have going thirty five when he went by me and stopped,” he says.
“This cop says, ‘Some people want to talk to you.’ ”
Another police car pulled up, and then another. The local arm of the security state was coming down on Seth Butler, age 22, of Vermont, like something out of a
Raymond Chandler novel.
“A large black SUV with tinted windows pulled up next. I kept my hands in clear view,” he said. “I had the film …,” he laughed nervously, visibly shaken, as he spread photos of American flag imagery upon a table in the media lab basement at Montserrat.
“I was in possession,” he admits, “of concealed film.”
For all practical intents, seemingly, the latest CD by Madonna was for several years rendered not so much obscene but most certainly oblique. On the surface level (which really the only level you can really make money in the entertainment business) it’s a commercial question. What were audiences looking for?
Perhaps everyone had seen enough. Time, though, has proven just the opposite, as the apocalyptic thriller jumps out of the horror box into its own category virtually demanding Oscar consideration. The sentiment immediatel after the attacks exploded so cinematically onto the real world’s stage. But things have changed. While it was hard to know what to feel, at first, the natural inclination toward unity, even for writers, artists and performers, who are often malcontents and social renegades, even they seemed to join up and salute to the brave new paradigm: grieve now, kick ass later. Trhen kick ass, on screen, bigger and bigger.
Oh sure, there was that initial sense that pyrotechnic violence on theater and television screens was a thing of the past. But that was naive, it has been proven.
“A lot of people had the same impression, that it seemed like Hollywood, not the real thing,” said David Goss, director of fine arts at Gordon College, of the terrorizing video of the Sept. 11 attacks. Prior to the terrible events of that day, and the subsequent season of terror that followed and continues to this day, the main concern for the planners of fall concerts, for example, might be quality, recognition, publicity, recognition, ticket sales, recognition, who might get top billing, and oh yeah, recognition. But now, everything has changed.
“People are feeling uneasy about what they once considered to be so exciting,”
But that's all different now. You can rate films in terms of tonnage of TNT now.
My first night in Ipswich was Sept. 18, 2001, and it revealed something … at least in terms of the ripple effects (tidal wave, actually, in hardy Ipswich sea-shanty talk) of the post-Sept. 11 realization. I was feeling world weary. So much moving from town to town. I just wanted to be an old tree, not a burned out leaf in the crosswind of global or civil war. All the same, on that day, Sept. 18, I was feeling thankful for having found some shelter in the storm.
More out of accident than a sense of patriotism, I wore my blue Ralph Lauren, “Polo Jeans Company, RL,” baseball cap, which features stripes, but no stars, because Mr. Lauren is the only star to be allowed on this particular head-based insignia. I was a human billboard for Ralph Lauren, patriot … even if most people only recognized my tribal signifier: red, white and blue.
I had a beat up used copy of Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” in my back pocket, as well as a childlike curiosity about this strange town called Ipswich. Down the street I went, toward the town center, a babe in the woods beneath a dusky sky of implied imaginary terror.
Was the media really ready to fess up, since Osama-style violence is only the copycat caricature of three, hmmm, maybe four late ’80s get-the-terrorist films, two of those starring Bruce Willis, who can walk on the White House lawn, most likely, any day of the week without an invitation. Are post-Sept. 11 tastes no longer able to stomach the video violence?
You only need to consider the many years conditioning, that is, what’s required to stomach a totalitarian storm of Christmas-season escapes into Star Wars, hobbits and pre-teenage detective wizards, Monsters, Inc., The Sopranos and on into the phantasm we go ... The Christmas of 2008 it became another of a long line of films with furies frames of evermore destruction. In the global mythic village, the plastic monsters and war toys are as real, within the own scale, as anything you can find in the jumbled up world. Just another mask for our national fascination with violence, which is still, quite surely, anything but satiated.
While the purpose of art has not changed, the art of re-purposing myth towards the designs of the machine are more than ever apparent. But money machines, still, easy to come by, for some, are less easy for others. Starving artists included. So then, the big money still wins. The purpose of mass entertainment (as opposed to art), taking its Dec. 7 queue from the way the film industry rallied to the cause in the 1940s, now becomes a mouthpiece for that very same machine.
And it’s only beginning: Coming to a theater near you – a lock-step, achy breaky heart sort of thing, with a plastic Bill Murray doll for the marketing tie-in. It’s a pull-upyour-bootstraps at the boot-camp sorta flick. With real napalm, and, real renegades to storm the unsafe gates of the Republic.
Just then, it happened: a spontaneous moment of humanity. A grizzled old man walked toward me. Small towns such as Ipswich, especially those that have made peace with nature, require us to say hello. It’s the decent thing to do. But a week after Sept. 11 everyone was being decent to one another. A crying of our lot in each and every eye.
But this time my fellow pedestrian and I appeared to be on a collision course. The man just came right up to me, took my hand and shook it, saying, “God bless you,
I was taken aback. Maybe giggled out of a sense of surprise. I figured he saw my cap and was thanking me for my heroism. Yes, Ipswich is a friendly little place, but connections like these, random acts of humanity, were taking place all over the country.
For the first time in a long time we noticed each other, realizing we all had something – loss – to share.
As Boston political satirist Jimmy Tingle put it, in a post-Sept. 11 performance at the Wingate Street Micro Theatre in Haverhill, Massachusetss, “everything has
As part of the performance, serious even for a satirist in less apocalyptic climes, he read from a poem he had written in reaction to Sept. 11, “911: Prayer for America.”
There’s a hole in the tip of Manhattan
A hole in the soul of America
A hole in the center of our psyche
A hole in the foundation of our confidence
There’s a hole in the faith of our country
That fills churches in search of our God
There’s a crack in the national mirror
empty chairs around the family table
dark houses of our missing neighbors
Vacant desks of our absent workers
On our streets,
There's a wail from the widows with candles
sobs from the orphaned with pictures
the face breaks on the lawyer of the dead women’s husband
flags and flowers for the public servants
There’s a hole in the soul of America
Afraid with the televised pictures
Numb with the morning papers
Grieving for the land they loved
Grieving for the land they lost
Grieving for the innocent victims
Grieving for the broken families
Grieving for the friends still weeping
Grieving for the ones who fight fire
Grieving for the ones who fight crime
Grieving for the volunteers by the thousands
Grieving for the City that never Sleeps
Grieving for the City on a Hill
There’s a hole in the soul of Humanity
And I pray for all of our leaders
Good people and well intentioned
Condemned to retaliation,
Doomed to retribution
Sentenced to seek revenge
It happened again in the local café. Strangers meeting eye to eye, recognizing the shock and the grief and pain. We all had good radar for it, at least until Thanksgiving.
We were awakened out of our complacency, if for just a few weeks, months or years, 10 depending on your sensitivity to such things as alcohol, Duncan Donuts coffee or intensive psychotherapy.
Times such as these bring out the best, and also the worst. It has always been that way. In 1916, a small contingent of Irish patriots (today we might call them terrorists), took over a post office and ended up dying in a martyrdom of British bullets and fire.
The poet, W.B. Yeats, reflecting on the shock waves the event created in Irish society, wrote the following: “All is changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.”
America became terrible beauty, then the bloom came off the thorny rose bush ...
After his 45-minute roust, Seth Butler, spurned photojournalist, put his Greenpeace passions aside over the Salem power plant, and started taking photographs of American flags. But rather than puffing up his frames with a patriotic fervor, his eye seemed to be finding something else. An irony. A horror. A beauty. A terror. And more than anything else, a sense of alienation.
“For the first time in my life, I was feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said. “They basically insulted me. They asked me why I wasn’t in Vermont (which is where his family lives). I was being very open about the whole thing. I was being very civil about the whole thing.
“I’m trying to deal with an event, a problem, over air quality, carcinogens, a serious matter. I ended up being shut down. I tried to work from farther away, and ended up trying to look at it in different contexts.
“But never did I think that I was going to run into the FBI as a college student.
“This was history. I didn’t want to give up. Somebody needs to be working, recording. It doesn’t stop, and I’m not going to either.”
Of the flag photo project, a follow up to his season of hope, terror, frustration, whatever, Butler has decided to call the series “Tattered.”
A terrible beauty was born.
During those fall nights and days in Ipswich, I worked the late-night copy desk at The Salem Evening News. More than anything else, I remember the horrible anxiety I felt each time the 10 p.m. news came on in the newsroom. It got to the point where I was afraid to look over my shoulder and at the television. But still, I got all of the sound. Each night, the local anchorpersons would gleefully report the day’s horrors, the new death count for the September 11 attacks, and, of course, handy health tips for the best way to deal with the anthrax threat.
One night I decided to ask another copy editor, who also lived in Ipswich, about the “God bless you” guy. He told me a story that I did not expect.
He said the man was a kind of local loony. Somewhere along the line the man, who had been a boxer but decent civil servant, lost his marbles. Something to do with a divorce. Figures.
In fact, he had been coming up to people in Ipswich and blessing them for years.
This stunned me. My impression, as first impressions often are, was incorrect. The “God bless you” guy’s greeting to me was just another day in the life of Ipswich. It had nothing to do at all with the sudden wash of compassion and kindness in American life.
He was always like that.
It was then that I realized this: While everything has indeed since Sept. 11 has changed, the biggest change of all, the one that I couldn’t detect, was within me. So, let me just say this: God bless you all, brothers. A terrible beauty, reborn, faded and then became, what?
An excerpt from 'Forty Days of Fire, Forty Days of Rain,' a living novel by Douglas McDaniel