Los Angeles

Vive le Salon!

This piece was first published in 2008. Throwback Friday!

The Art Salon takes the art dialogue away from the exhibitionism of the public square, back to the privacy of personal circles, even the intimacy of the home. Salons first became popular among the nobility of 17th century Europe as a time when the comtesse and her girlfriends got together to hear about things that mattered – in the salon, their equivalent of our living room. Salons became a form of meeting integral to the shape of society – at least one gave rise to the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the trophy wife, the revolutionary, the avant-garde artist, salons have always been about standing up to the status quo.

Recently, I went to one such inspiring salon evening. Ryan Callis, an artist, and Chris Davidson, a poet, just hosted their fifth installment in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. With the blessing of their wives, these two co-workers and neighbors open up the Davidson home every other month to other rabble-rousers and creatives. As the sun was setting, a few dozen friends and strangers milled about the front lawn, porch, and kitchen, and finally settled into the living room. That night, we heard a pair of artists speak, viewed a slideshow of Nokia-sponsored photos of India, listened to a poet recite from her book, and were acoustically serenaded by a rock outfit. Weeks later, I catch up with Ryan Callis via email, and tell him how smart he and his compatriots are for luring the art crowd to their surf and turf.

So is your artist salon REALLY called, “The Society of Interested Persons” ?
Ha, ha, ha, yes sir, it is. I have an affinity for creating titles as a potential for fun word combinations. My MFA show at Claremont, with Evan Roberts, was called The Grand Order of the Salt Dippers. We both surf, so we were “The Grand Order”. I think “The Society of Interested Persons” has a fun ring about it. For a poet, Chris had called it the very un-fun “Second Saturday Salon”. Yawn. I spiced it up.

What kinds of people typically show up to the Salon?
As founders and key inviters, Chris and I look to our friends and families as repeat customers. Next come those that visiting artists and lecturers bring. A few neighbors and an occasional passerby join in. We run in different circles and have a ten-year age difference between us. So we already mix it up with our own crowds. But maybe our crowd can be summed up best as 18-70 years old, poor to rich, Christians and not Christians, G.E.D. to Ph.D.

Do they fight?
It’s awesome because all these folks get together in a somewhat neutral environment, compared to, say, a gallery. Because we have breaks between presenters, I think it is amazing to watch everyone mingle, network, and be able to have topics for conversation.

Are art salons on the endangered list of art world species?
I don’t know. I know that in this day and age, anything without money or drool-inducing entertainment is automatically a rare species. But I observe the art world as more community-based – more potential for interesting community than most other worlds.

What in your opinion makes for a good salon gathering?

One in which quality of presenters and the enthusiasm of the crowd come together! A good salon is just an awesome evening all around; you can just feel it.

I still wanna know what unexpected things have happened.

Drunk, chatty housewives have been the surprise! Lots of inappropriate commentary or questions during presentations, but always innocent enough and funny in hindsight. There was another time when a presenter’s dad came to hear her speak, but thought a college party a few houses down was our salon! He ended up hanging out at that rowdy “salon” for two hours until he wised up. All alcohol-related things I guess.

Tell me something that’s printable about your co-host Chris.

Chris is an awesome poet. He is a man of many ideas and little time to make them happen, which is where I come in handy. He is also a very generous guy and he’s let us invade his house.

Tell me something about what YOU do when not co-hosting the Salon? You’ve got that solo show at the gallery coming up.
Yes. When I am not salon-ing I am painting, surfing, family-ing, and praying. I make art; the salon is a part of that. A less-cool-than-painting part of that. Oh, and I teach university sometimes. The salon is my way of acting out Dada urges.

What’s in store for next time? I missed the drunk housewives last time, I guess.
Next for the salon will be Chris as poet, me as the artist, and a local singer/songwriter named Barrett Johnson. Barrett is awesome, and I did the art for his album. It’s a question mark as to our lecturer, although on my mind is local and surfboard-shaping legend Rich Harbour, or Otis College of Art’s curator, and an interesting gal, Meg Linton. People keep asking for our work to be featured, but we had felt it was too soon, until now. Los Angeles artists Lynne Berman and Steve Roden, as well as LA critic James Scarborough have tentatively committed to the next, next salon. That would blow my mind.

photo by:

Midway through a
Mike Rose Semester

Photo by Alexandre Laurin

Rita, a student of mine, came to my office last week to discuss an upcoming paper. “How’s your research going?” I asked.

“I am a bad writer,” she said.

At the start of the semester, Rita wrote an essay describing the shame she felt whenever she sat down at the computer. Sentences conspired to reinforce her feelings of inadequacy. When she asked people to help her, they labeled her a “bad writer.”

Rita spoke Spanish with nearly everyone she cared about, yet the page made her push her fluidly-dancing ideas into the boring English sentences she knew were the “right” structure. When she wrote informal assignments – letters to a friend in the class – she created scenes where life “got out of control like a car in the snow” and a drunken man’s expression changed like “flipping channels on the television.”

I don’t know what you’re thinking at this point, but this sounds like an excellent writer to me.

This is why Mike Rose matters so much to me. Rose, an award-winning author and professor at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, argues that people who have been shut out of education or labeled as remedial have vast knowledge that educational structures don’t tap. He urges educators to value thought processes that academia typically does not embrace, and to see that even error reveals learning.

Coming from a blue-collar background, Rose esteems the intelligence that he saw growing up. On his blog, Rose says:

I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work.

His mother, a lifelong waitress, saw restaurants as “laborator(ies) of human relations.” Anyone who has been a server can concur that waiting tables means reading social cues from other workers and customers while keeping your own emotions in check. This combination of perceptiveness and self-regulation is literally called emotional labor. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” Rose’s mother always said, “that you don’t learn something.”

Since Rose values the intelligence needed in work dubbed non-intellectual, he argues for the potential of students who struggle in higher education.

In his classic, Lives on the Boundary, he describes his own education in south Los Angeles, where the school switched his files with another kid named Rose, and sent him to the lowest-level classes for his first two years of high school. His biology teacher discovered the error, and from then on, teachers pushed him at every step of the way: a teacher who had “found a little school” in south L.A. and wanted to “teach his heart out,” a professor who invented classes just so Rose and his friends could “read and write a lot under the close supervision of a faculty member,” professors who gave him “a directory of key names and notions” in their disciplines. Teachers carried heavier loads just so one or two students could succeed.

Rose reflects:

We live, in America, with so many platitudes about motivation and self-reliance and individualism – and myths spun from them, like those of Horatio Alger – that we find it hard to accept the fact that they are serious nonsense.

Living in south L.A. or Chicago’s south side or “any one of hundreds of other depressed communities,” he says, will require “support and guidance at many, many points along the way.”

But Rose also mentions that many kids from depressed communities have learned to “daydream . . . to avoid inadequacy” or to “reject the confusion and frustration [of grasping complex ideas] by openly defining yourself as the Common Joe.”

This makes me think motivation has to be part of achievement, too. Sometimes a teacher catches students when they are still openly motivated. When I asked Rita if she’d like a tutor, she said, “Yes! I want to get better!” But sometimes the right chemistry of individual motivation and teacher prodding isn’t there yet; or, maybe when I’ve been at it longer, I’ll learn to recognize it better.

For Rose, the alchemy was there when it needed to be, and if this much was given to him, he knew he would need to teach his heart out, too. In Lives on the Boundary, a gripping blend of memoir and analysis, he explains how he began to cultivate a love of language in his students, and also began to teach students how to “pick the academic lock.” Teaching veterans who had just returned from the service, he realized that so-called good students have certain ways of thinking and articulating, while other students become marginalized because they haven’t learned basic tools of academic thought: summarizing, classifying, comparing and analyzing. He designed his course for the veterans around these tools of thought.

Later, tutoring at UCLA, he discovered that error reveals learning. He tutored a woman named Suzette who kept writing in fragments because she wanted to vary her sentences. She didn’t want to keep starting sentences with “‘She . . . she . . . she . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . ” she said, “It doesn’t sound very intelligent.” Suzette was not making grammatical blunders – at least, not just – she was trying to find a more intellectual voice.

Rose’s pedagogy urges what I’ve been hearing again and again as I’ve taught a sophomore ethics course this semester – valuing the other. For Rose, it means valuing a student’s individuality. It means holding the carefully-planned assignment a little more loosely when a student offers an idea that lets her build on her knowledge. It means seeing error as an opportunity for progress. It means understanding the gaps in a student’s academic repertoire and figuring out how his experience, or some extra teaching, can fill those gaps.

Mike Rose expresses an ethic of care, directly wanting the good of “the other,” and as a model of this ethic, Rose is an exemplar for more than just teachers. Anyone who seeks to understand another person’s needs could use Rose as a model, particularly in their day-to-day vocation.

Teaching one’s heart out is just one way of living life to the fullest, breaking through a self-centered outlook, and living a life that centers on other people’s needs.

Quotations are from:

Rose, Mike. “The Intelligence of a Waitress in Motion.” Weblog post. Mike Rose’s Blog. 22 Aug 2008. <http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/search/label/work%20and%20intelligence>

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. 1989. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.

Notes From a Budget Truck

My wife and I are moving from Los Angeles to New York, it’s the middle of January, and I never thought I’d find myself so obsessed with the contents of a 16-foot Budget truck.

Our route is long, tough, and snowy. My father has likened it to the Joad family tour except without nearly as much dust, death, or squatting down and squinting our eyes and picking up a handful of dirt and letting it run through our fingers while giving some inspiring speech. “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” . . . mmmm, maybe? I’d like to say that I’d be there but apparently I’m more concerned with all the crap that’s in the back of this truck.

I’ve been worried that our things, locked away in this 16 foot gas guzzler, will somehow be stolen. I’m worried that a group of vandals will materially violate me – that they will take bolt cutters to our padlock, steal our things, and top it off by painting something phallic on the side of the truck because they somehow found out that I didn’t spend extra for the zero deductible insurance, and adding insult to injury is what these thieves are all about. These guys are smart. Too smart.

I’ve been so paranoid at times that I’ve found myself checking on the truck every hour or so, discreetly peeking out the window of our Motel 6 room, like some gossipy grandma in a Southern Gothic novel. This obsession is ridiculous.

My paranoia with the things we own began shortly after we loaded the truck in a real-life game of Tetris with three people who would have rather been sleeping. I never knew how much I cared about our second-hand printer, our blender, and our cake stand that has never been used. It’s a cake stand. Who on earth uses a round cake stand more than once or twice a decade? Am I really going to bake a cake – specifically, a round cake – then frost it, display it on a porcelain stand, and later take it off the stand to eat, just so that people can see this round cake, in all its prominence and glory? “Oh my God, look at that round cake! It’s on a stand! Who would have thought to put that round cake on a stand! Look at how useful that is! I wouldn’t have thought much of that ugly little round cake unless it was propped up, as it is, on a pedestal, as if it had something to say! As if it was about to come alive and open its little chocolate lips to compliment me on my haircut! I declare: look at that cake! Standing there! I don’t even want to eat that sexy little cake it’s so beautiful!” No. I didn’t think I cared a lick about that cake stand until I obsessively wrapped it in newspaper and bubble wrap and carefully stacked it among the other boxes of things I tell people I don’t care about. But apparently I do. Care, that is.

My paranoia peaked in Denver. And I think it’s because of Radiohead. The band. You see, when I was in sixth grade Radiohead came through Denver (my home town) on tour and all of their equipment was stolen. They made statements on the radio pleading with the burglars to return their things. They never did. Radiohead left Denver bitter and angry and a little more afraid of the Mile High city.

Our truck, this automotive behemoth, was too big to fit into a parking spot close to where we were staying, and we were forced to park it about a quarter mile away. Out in the open. Where the Mile High bandits could get it. They didn’t, of course, and my suspicion, which likened our fake ficus plants to Johnny Greenwood’s guitar, was unjustified. We left Denver and our “truck o’ stuff” was okay.

I’ve been told that New York City has a way of forcing you to get rid of things. The city’s confined living spaces force you to purge your nonessentials. This is a good thing, if you ask me. Upon arrival in New York, I imagine we’ll come through the Holland Tunnel and be pulled over by a teamster whose job is to inspect all the objects we plan on cramming into our junior one-bedroom apartment. “Okay, California boy, why don’t you open up the back there and we’ll see what ya got.” He’d rifle through our things and carelessly toss a number of items into a muslin sack. “Don’t need dat, don’t need dat, you can get rid of dat, I never even seen one of these before, don’t need dat, and you definitely don’t need this cake stand – although it is very nice – what is that, porcelain? Alright, that’s all. Welcome to New York, sunshine. Get ready to freeze your nips off. Vote Tammany and have a nice day.”

I’ve never been a packrat. In fact, if you were to research the amount of material items owned by the average American, I’d say that I’d be in the lower 30% (and that’s based on absolutely zero empirical data, in case you were wondering). It’s not the “things” that I care about. It’s that somehow this nomadic expedition across the country has intensified my territorial instincts, like I’m some sort of rabid possum. And my “territory” is everything that is tightly packed into this rental truck. In fact, one might even say that these “things” are my only “territory” for seven days on the road. I’m not asking for a pity party or anything, I’m merely trying to express this bizarre feeling of in-between-ness, of not belonging and only having “things” that belong to me. This seems analogous, or at least somehow connected, to the sort of alienation and autonomy to which our culture is falling victim, and it has led me into a type of neuroticism so self-involved that I compare my situation to the band Radiohead (see above).

If we don’t fulfill the inherent need to belong, it would make sense, in all our errant ways, that we fill that need by purchasing things that we can say belong to us. In other words, does a lack of belonging breed materialism which leads to neuroticism which leads to paranoia which leads to believing that this downward spiral of material obsession will continue and Steve Jobs will eventually create a troop of iPod robots so sleek and desirable that they will seduce us into being their slaves?

If “things” turn us inward towards ourselves, then surely there is something that can turn us outward towards others, and from my experience it’s nothing you can get at Best Buy. Even if we don’t truly believe this to be true, we must act like it is true, if we want to be a culture free from the slavery of materialism and iPod robots.

We tend to overlook exactly why we so strongly desire material things. It is easy to complain about our addiction to consumerism, or dismiss it as a cliché not worth examining, but it’s difficult to assess the reasons behind our material obsession. I think that maybe we’re not really obsessed with these “things”. Maybe we’re obsessed with something else. Maybe we’re obsessed with ourselves and being in control of things, and perhaps that is why we sometimes struggle to belong – we’re too concerned with ourselves to be concerned with others. Or maybe I’m completely wrong.

Instead of trying to find the answers to all these difficult questions, I’ll tell you a story from the last leg of our trip that illustrates a point far better than I could write.

Something happened on the final day of our journey that seemed to wrap things up quite nicely, like an ironically violent ending to a David Cronenberg film – the kind that makes your jaw drop.This one came out of left field, and seemed so cruel and surreal that I felt myself levitate a little bit, as if at any moment I would wake up from this nightmare.

We had traveled 3,000 miles over seven days to our destination, and everything had gone just fine. The truck had not broken down. Vandals had not stolen our things. My wife and I were still married. Everything had gone fine. Everything was out of our truck, in our apartment, and I was on my way to return the most expensive and valuable “thing” in my possession: a 16 foot Budget truck. I was traversing the narrow streets of Brooklyn and on the final quarter mile of our 3,028 mile journey, Murphy and his law staged a coup d’état. I was driving down a small one-way road with double-parked cars, which made it even smaller. I was almost to the end of the block when I heard a loud crunch. The back of my truck had crashed into a double-parked car behind me. I was two blocks away from the drop-off station. My soul wilted a little bit, then got up, left my body, and went to vomit on the street corner. I had hit the car’s side mirror and possibly the passenger door. The mirror was dangling there like a lemming that decided to change its mind. But it was too late.

What am I going to do? What on earth am I going to do? A large man of at least 250 pounds got out of the car. He came around to the mirror. I apologized profusely. He said nothing. I stood there cowering, conjuring up any possible way I could get myself out of this mess. And then a miracle happened. I saw that the mirror had been duct taped to the car. He somewhat ineffectively re-taped it back on and stood there for a few seconds in silence, looking at the damage. The large man looked at the “thing” he owned, surely one of his most valued possessions. He looked at his car. He looked at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. Don’t worry about it? He got back in his car and I drove off and returned the truck. And it was over. Don’t worry about it. Indeed.

Performance and The Odd Lamb

Costumes, wacky songs, a restless crowd. No, this is not about Halloween; on a Thursday evening this past September, I acted as performer-assistant at a show by The Odd Lamb, a name among many under which artist Jonathan Atchley records. For me, having been a visual artist, now a curator and sometime gallerist who maybe harbors rock star fantasies, the realm of performance art is still completely fair game. As a child, I got to be the go-to entertainment guy at family get-togethers. In college, there was my crucified-man bit, captured on video. And a mere five or so years ago, I took the stage at Fuller Theological Seminary and “interacted” with a banner-object labeled with semi-nonsense poetry.

Which leads me to why I decided to take on the role as The Odd Lamb’s assistant. This time, it wouldn’t be me carrying the show; I could merely share the spotlight by coat-tailing under someone else’s vision. But I found out how much fun the role could be. I became co-pilot in Jonathan Atchley’s Odd trip, and I found out there was no such thing as cruise-control in that universe. Veering off to new places is actually mandatory.

Rewind. I already had bought Jonathan’s CD, Multi-Mouth Runner, months before. Our first meeting in New York was funny, but ominous. I went over to shake his hand, and the next thing I know, Jonathan was on the floor with his legs wrapped around my ankles, trying to wrestle me down. Congratulations, I had just been “scissor-kicked”, Jonathan Atchley-style.

Photo: Braedon Flynn

Shenanigans aside, I enjoyed his CD. The cover art contains one of his drawings: black-and-white Cubistic explosions, combined with a riot of collaged eyes, mouths, etc. His visuals reflect the songs inside, which range from discordant (abrupt rhythm changes), to beat-driven and nostalgic (with sample of “Thundercats, ho!”), to endearing (singing children, acoustic guitar).

What got me more excited was where the show was to happen – his friend’s place, a skate-surf store called Active Ride Shop in a major Orange County shopping center. Finally, this was my chance to raise hell in the land of Mischa Barton! It was a misfit’s revenge on the Popular Crowd, high art gambit within explicit commercialism! To make it even more tantalizing, the show was inserted as part of store promotions in the middle of Orange County Fashion Week!

Past the glittering runway at Macy’s, along tall palm trees, on the way to California Pizza Kitchen or the Lexus-filled parking lot, unsuspecting teenagers were greeted (or accosted) by bubbly employees of Active Ride Shop. One clerk, a Keanu Reeves look-alike, paced around outside, with a large video screen across his chest. Free juice drinks and skate-brand accoutrements lured curious passerby, holding them captive at the store, if only for a moment. By this time, Jonathan and I had already carried in four armfuls of equipment which plugged into the store’s own PA system. We even had a pleasant sound guy named Luke. There was the scrambling for an extra table (which never materialized) and the nervous wait for showtime. The larger-than-life LRG (fashion brand) logo displayed behind the ceiling-to-floor window was soon carted off and replaced, incredibly enough, by a wall of sheet after sheet of Jonathan’s wacky marker drawings.

Photo: Braedon Flynn

Much of the show can be relived by typing “The Odd Lamb” into YouTube. Jonathan is in a plain white V-neck shirt, playing guitar or at the keyboards, crooning into his mic. And what was my part, you ask? I am seated behind a small table, dressed in a tie; looking the part of a regular office worker, I was armed with a suitcase full (literally) of props. With our run-throughs earlier that day and my two-paged sheet of directions always in front of me, I felt quite ready to make a fool of myself. One of the first songs, Mr. Skir, is a magical paper puppet show. About a boy’s mysterious encounter with a ghost, it easily charms the crowd. But for action buffs, it’s got to be the song I am Beast Bait Boy. Hear Me Get Eaten. In it, I pop out from beneath my table after hearing my cue in that song’s growling noise effects. As the Beast, complete with yarn-covered shirt, nose painted black, black socks for gloves, I proceed to have a somewhat choreographed fight with The Odd Lamb. Very thrilling. And while you’re on YouTube, don’t forget to check one of my favorites, the nicely-paced song Oh Ordained Epistemology.

The more mundane moments of the show had me pulling out tableware from my suitcase, cutting up a paperback copy of Fight Club, eating a small lunch, cutting out girls from GQ Magazine, doing office-looking busy work, and collaging a tree form. Don’t even ask me to interpret how that comes together. All I know was I went home highly fulfilled and happy that night. Jonathan later paid me the big compliment about my “masterful assistantmanship.” Maybe it looked like I knew what I was doing, but much of it was improvised, definitely veering off prepared ideas.

Besides YouTube, visit The Odd Lamb website or his MySpace page. Get on the mailing list, download his songs to your heart’s content, and then drop him some generous change. Upcoming for the artist will be “free-styled” recordings under Neenu Naanu, one of his side projects. Some of that new material will be played live on November 1, part of a one-evening art exhibition I organized at a warehouse (see www.100stewards.com for details). In the spirit of veering from prepared ideas, here is some additional wisdom from the mouth of Jonathan Atchley.

Photo: Braedon Flynn

Question: What are the biggest influences that went into recording Multi-Mouth Runner?

I had quit making music and art out of anxious frustration, because I was trying too hard to make something “good.” I’d say at that point I started on the path of not MAKING something take place but ALLOWING something to take place.

It’s important to note, too, that I wanted to say some huge things and so I dealt with themes that were in my head– just as much as what came from experiences. It was more experimental and theoretical in that way. Thus the title Multi-Mouth Runner. A lot came out of those explorations.

To have your own music studio is mindblowing! I really feel like I could make any sound I can imagine digitally . . . I was listening to Pinback, Sufjan Stevens, Half-Handed Cloud, Daniel Johnston, Dan Deacon, Animal Collective, Danielson, etc. Books I was reading were mostly the Bible, Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol, among others.

Question: As our nation is caught between negative campaigning and economic woes, may I ask you to name some of your pet peeves?

Sitting too much, bad food I have to eat, dust, when dogs lick me when I don’t want them to, rip-tides when I’m surfing, when I see my shadow while surfing a wave, cuts on top of my hands – that every time I put my hands in my pockets they get re-hurt, getting a piece of popcorn stuck between my gums and teeth, eyelashes that won’t get unstuck from my eyeball . . . that stuff is crappy.

Rethinking What It Means To Be “Made In America”

Made In America is a documentary film that explores the history and current realities of gang life in Los Angeles, California. While we’ve become accustomed to some pretty challenging topics on screen – global warming, evil consumerism, and political conspiracies included – most of us don’t want a condemning finger pointed directly our way as we sit down to watch a movie. We’d prefer the message masked in metaphor, symbolism, or fiction – but Stacy Peralta’s latest documentary demands that Americans face their own bigoted perspective head on.

Peralta’s earlier works, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, were successful documentaries about sports and the charismatic individuals who excel as professional skateboarders and big wave surfers. Sticking to Peralta’s graphic filmmaking style, Made In America is a well-paced, comprehensive exploration of a world outsiders know little about.

From the initial disorienting shot of a city upside down, we are confronted with a dreadful sense of problems too big to solve, a landscape of despair followed by a montage of crime scene footage. The images are not beautiful or good, but they are true.

One of the film’s strengths is the attention paid to the genesis of the gang lifestyle among young men of color in L.A. during the 1950s. The picture painted is one of a disenfranchised community separated from the prosperity of their white neighbors, and emasculated youth turning to violence in order to claim the power denied them in society at large. According to Peralta, these young people in the 50s and 60s eventually channeled their energies into the Black Power movement, but the following generations were molded by crack, not political and social actions. The tragic irony is that even as they struggled against the injustice imposed on them from outside their communities, the greatest victims were themselves. Each successive generation has subscribed to this violent lifestyle, upping the ante from fists to knives to pistols to automatic weapons, and what used to end in a beating now brings dead bodies. The possibility of extinction looms large when murder and prison are a person’s likely future.

Peralta suggests that gang intervention organizations such as UNITY One, a program that teaches life management skills to communities and inmates across the country, can have an important impact. Interviews with former gang members exude regret and point towards a hope that lies in self-realization. They stress society’s responsibility to transform the way these young people are perceived, that we must seek out the humanity within these gang members. However, many people would be terrified of interacting with the men in this film. Even the filmmaker betrays a fear of gang members and makes clear the many precautions necessary in producing a film like this.

What penetrates the hearts of viewers are not the harrowing statistics or bleak urban landscapes; rather, it is the emotions of the many people in the film. One of the most moving sections features a series of one-shots. Continuous faces of parents flow by, and their tears well and fall as they recall their lost loved ones. What started out as bands of young men fighting over turf in lower-middle class, racially segregated neighborhoods has turned into a situation not unlike the fighting in Northern Ireland – citywide warfare where civilians and gang members alike are losing their lives each day.

“Here there is no choice. It’s like you are waiting for somebody to come save you, man, and you are never going to get saved.”

These grim words, spoken by a gang member, describe emotions to which all can relate. It is natural to feel confined at times, dreaming of relief and rescue from outside ourselves. But most of us have been spared the harrowing circumstances of drug-addicted mothers, missing or imprisoned fathers, and extreme poverty. When bearing the scars of a loveless childhood, it is hard to see a good side to humanity, and when no one positive will have you – not your parents, school, or the greater, richer world on TV – gang membership is the one source of love in sight. And when you’ve never received true love it is easy to be mislead by the picture of unity and protection within the gang, you are happy to accept this false love, even if it bares no good fruit; no joy, no gentleness, no goodness, no peace.

People of faith who have witnessed God’s love in our own lives might find it hard to believe that anyone could mistake gang camaraderie for love. How could anyone be so misled? Maybe we’d like to think that we wouldn’t succumb to such depraved behavior, but such thought only serve to separate us further from these individuals. One of the successes of this film is that it humanizes a group of people few have tried to relate to in decades.

In a New York Magazine interview, when Peralta was asked how he began this project, he answers with a question: “If white American teenagers were forming neighborhood gangs and arming themselves with assault rifles, and killing one another on a consistent basis, what would be the response of our society and our government?” While I am not sure what we would do, I know it wouldn’t look like this.

“Made in America” (unrated) played at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.