My Uncle, the unlikely role model

I have been thinking a lot about my Uncle Neil lately. When he died, a little over 15 years ago, everyone was a little confused about how to feel. It wasn’t that we didn’t feel sad about it, not that we wouldn’t miss him but… there sat before us that anticipated awkward moment when we would arrive to a memorial service and be expected to go on and on and about what a neat guy he was when really, he was kind of an asshole.

Uncle Neil was a gambler and not a very good one which in effect made him a borrower much of the time. He didn’t show up on time for anything and didn’t really care. He was loud. He bragged a lot. He hogged up all the space on the couch. He smoked cigars indoors even when he knew people didn’t like the smell. He always carried the who’s got your nose game on for far longer than ever is appropriate. He made my sisters and I cry. Sometimes he would babysit us, which basically just meant he ignored us for a couple of hours while my parents were away and eventually fell asleep in front of the TV. We used to pile objects onto his big belly while he snored, to see how many things we could balance before it woke him up. He always had a new get rich quick scheme he would try to rope our various family members in to. He told wildly, apparently fabricated stories that always elicited clandestine eyerolls from his audience. He was that guy.

So, when we got news from our dad that he died, we made plans to attend a service. We all dressed in our best; preparing to say an awkward goodbye to a guy we didn’t really know that well and truthfully, never really wanted to. I remember thinking to myself, how sad it was going to be because first, the guy died. That’s always sad. And second, that there probably wouldn’t be that many people there, seeing as he wasn’t exactly a likable person.

We arrived to the empty reception hall after a long drive over the hill to Simi Valley and we sat there together at a big round table, picking at these flat, cold roast beef sandwiches, cut up into quarters. I remember it being very quiet. All of us apprehensive and still. Each of us wondering how this was all going to go. After a little while people started showing up, taking seats at the other round tables, hovering around the deli trays. I couldn’t hear them but from far away, you could tell they were talking to each other about my uncle, these strangers, putting a hand on a shoulder, nodding with their eyes closed. Yes, yes, such a loss. It was so strange to me. So many people here that I didn’t know. Some of them even cried. And all I could think was really?

After a little while, this guy with a thick black mustache stood up, arranging a stack of notes, adjusting the mic on the podium and began to speak. What followed was a half hour long speech about my Uncle, how selfless he was, how he devoted nearly all of his resources to his community, how he was always there to solve problems. And everyone in the audience smiled and tipped their heads forward in approval. Everyone looked at each other in agreement. Everyone made these affectionate faces. Everyone, except us. We just looked at each other, across that big round table, hoping our eye contact would tell some other truth about what was going on. Were they talking about our Uncle Neil? After the mustache guy was finished, he invited others to step up to the podium, if they would like to share any stories or thoughts about the deceased. And sure enough, folks stood in line to get up there. One right after another they testified to all he great things he had done: raising money for the special olympics, organizing a golf tournament to benefit the local little league, setting up resources for low income elderly. Over and over, stories about how he contributed.

Of course, my family and I, we were all shocked. Could this be the same guy that burped loudly, unexcused, at the Passover table? The same guy that took the last drumstick from a little kid? The same guy that asked you to pull his finger? The same guy that smelled like cigars and whiskey? The same guy that couldn’t win a bet with other peoples money? And yes. Yes it was.

This was the same guy that in his own strange way, managed to participate in his community, to give to people without his giving having to be attached to his likability. And so, I have been thinking about my Uncle Neil a lot right now as the language of charity and giving, of community and engagement seem to be more and more prevalent in our culture. That these ideas or the ways the ideas are discussed publicly appear to represent a seemingly progressive conscience. And further, how these activities seem to be directly connected to the personas we put forward in social media spaces, the way our giving is broadcast via facebook, our support for certain causes added to the many lists of interests on our profiles, the way these alignments with the so called right thing to do help others to construct an idea about what a swell human being we are. And then… I cant help but wonder what this means for the contemporary ego.

Clearly, my Uncle Neil never cared if anyone thought he was a nice person. So much so that his whole family didn’t even know he was contributing to anything except dysfunctional family holidays. And most of the people he gave time and money to were meeting each other for the first time at his funeral. He didn’t do all of that so people would like him. He didn’t need to be seen doing it. He just did it.

And maybe, in his own fucked up, unpleasant way, Uncle Neil offers a pretty radical model for selflessness, the anti ego that sits a bit rough around the edges. And perhaps just being a flawed, contradictory son of a bitch that does really good things is a most admirable thing to aspire to.

Notes from the Studio (Write about what you know)

video stillWhile my broad curiosities finger the connective tissue that forms a persons perception of their relationship to the world, how they simultaneously shape it and are shaped by it, I consider heavily those experiences we each have moved through that contain the potential to shift our consciousness, fundamentally, to redefine our concepts of power and identity. And I zero in on those moments we act upon and are acted upon by an immersive constellation of happenings. The moments when (even if briefly) the veil is lifted between the Self and The Other, the disintegration of that protective layer designed to obscure the inner workings of the mechanisms between you as a self contained being and the exterior world you are a part of. That moment that you see.

And I speculate that Deleuze described something like this when he talked about singularities, that is “turning points and points of inflection; bottlenecks, knots, foyers, and centers; points of fusion and condensation, and boiling; points of tears and joy, sickness and health, hope and anxiety, ‘sensitive’ points.” (Logic of Sense, Deleuze, p. 63) And of course, we can bear witness to these kinds of moments clearly when we see them in films: the inciting incident, the moment when the protagonist is confronted with a decision that will change the course of the story, the instant that the conflict seems as though it will boil over and we are held there, suspended in our empathy, changing with the hero. This center of intersubjectivity, with the projected character on the screen allows us to be submerged in that decisive instant, both as an objective witness and as the subjective agent. Through this arrangement of image, sound, and time, we can become present, embodied in the blurring of the distance between inside and outside.

What if I began to watch my life like a movie?

When I was little, I wrote a lot of stories. And like any good writer, I was always deeply concerned with making better stories. My mother, also a writer, would read my drafts and I would ask her for advice. And she always said: write about what you know. As a kid, this was very helpful, practical wisdom. When searching for subjects to write bout, I could use this cue to mine my own life for anecdotes: school, friends, my backyard, my dog. And I would weave these kinds of subjects in with fantasy, stolen from the pages of my favorite novels. Many years later, as an adult, a fully-fledged grown writer (and artist) I still return to this advice. When I began this project, charging myself with the task of integrating writing with sculpture and film, taking a speculative reach toward the ways that power and agency function in our personal and political lives, I struggled momentarily with where to begin. And thankfully, the simple phrase grounded me in a starting place: Write about what you know.

I first needed to begin with why. Why this subject? Why this concern with the ways that power and agency function? Why right now? I am always watching, in a nearly obsessive way, listening for patterns, looking for the ruptures in sequence that collectively, ironically become a pattern too when they accumulate. And what has become increasingly clear over the last several years are the effects of living in a post 9/11 world, our lives fully immersed in information delivery systems and the rupturing of a perceived cultural stability. That prior to our ability to know what’s going on, anywhere in the world, at any given moment, many of us were able to exist in a relatively copasetic state, kept safe from an awareness of social conflict and inequity (unless of course you were victim of such). And I began to think that perhaps this naiveté was fertile ground to cultivate the misguided belief that we had some time ago arrived to a post racial, post sexist, postcolonial world in which our collective consciousness not only realized but mended the catastrophic wounds of systemic oppression. What we have seen most recently, through our relationships with social media and open source information platforms is that many of the social ills previously believed to be resolved still maintain an incredible hold over our lives together. And further, that when this information is shared, it has had the power to incite serious renegotiations of power and space, personhood and identity. The result of this has birthed a number of domestic and international instances of social unrest, constructing moments of solidarity between groups of people who at one time did not perceive of themselves as allies, and driving apart even further those whom historically have always been divided. The simulacra we gaze upon and interact with, that digital theater we build, writes in real time the representation of our world via seemingly innocuous facebook or blog post, through the look upon the television, phone, computer, movie screen. This context sets the parameters for new inquiries into the nature of intersubjectivity, the scope of social narrative, and invites exciting questions about how social structures can change from the inside out. This moment pushes on the need to understand how consciousness shifts, right now.

I positioned that loving piece of advice from my mother on writing within this frame and thought that to better understand how change happens, how people realize themselves to be active agents in their world, I would need to begin with myself and write about what I know. So, I began to watch my life like a movie. I recounted the moments that for me, as the protagonist of my film, presented themselves as those singularities, those distinct experiences that redirected my sense of agency, that revealed the behavior of power, ultimately restructuring my subjective identity, changing my relationship with the world.

What emerged after a thorough reconstruction, a remembering of my most formative experiences were four distinct scenarios: (1) surviving rape, (2) a suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization, (3) dropping out of high school, and (4) my participation in a peaceful political demonstration that was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department. And like any good film, there were sub plots set in place to shape and form the story and places that provided context for the logic of this filmic universe. Some of these places existed in real space like the Hollywood Wax Museum and my studio and some in the frames of other films like The Wizard of Oz and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and some presented themselves as these obscure sites, barely discernable except through mediated memory and aging VHS home video recordings.

As I watched this film, I felt like these experiences rendered me acutely aware of the ways that violence, both physical and psychological, impacted ones belief in their own empowered existence. That the proximity I maintained to the memories of these experiences was food for a deep sensitivity to the suffering of others. This sensitivity translated into a comprehension of how trauma changes our relationships, to ourselves, to each other, to the world that we live in. And then, when this logic is magnified, applied to the political, it was very easy to draw the lineages between systemic, generational trauma and the current condition of our social lives. The constellatory mindscape that began to form revealed a complex of experience, complete with a fractal logic that can served to provide openings into how and why I have come to understand myself as a participant in the world, as a cultural worker, and perhaps in a humble way, speculates on how the personal and political become informants to one another.

“And now she was able to shower. She had tried once before, the first night, to wash off the hours she spent being ferried from office to office, building to building, answering questions from strangers that carved away at her most precious secrets. Her elbow cradled by the hand of a nurse while they walked, the deceiving kindness of his touch always prepared to revert to force, should she make a run for it. The shower she used had no curtain or door. Just a smooth white tub, surrounded by white tile walls, framed by the concrete floor. A white plastic chair, the guard tower in the corner, where the nurse kept watch. The girl undressed, her movements slow like a sick cat. Her eyes silent. The resonance of the water hitting the porcelain floor of the tub filled the room, temporarily drowning her. The song of the water louder than the noise of being stared at. After seventy-two hours, her body again, belonged a little to herself, the fingertips of gazing eyes suspended, at least while she was naked, either without clothes or dreaming.”

(Excerpt from the text, Enough, part two of a collection of short fiction by Kristy Lovich titled So You’re the Leader, to be published in the Fall of 2013, alongside the exhibition of the same title.)