This 5 year nightmare is over. Although I spent much of it out of the country it was painful, particularly the past 12 months. Yet, here we are, we survived this. The worst chapter in American history of my lifetime.
It had become increasingly important to me, to make a piece about 2020. Why? That’s a tricky question. Maybe as proof, simply that I was here or perhaps, as some self imposed obligation I feel. An arcane idea that because I chose to be an artist it is my responsibility to add my perspective to things of cultural and historical significance. To chime in, as it were. That’s reportage though; witness and record, and it was of little interest to me. It seemed pointless, gratuitous even. After all, what could I add to the analysis of political pundits, scientists, activists, and a cacophony of opinionated social media users? “Nothing.” I thought.
My defeatist, uninspired answer actually angered me. It became a mirror of what the past 10 months had done to me. An unflattering mirror, far removed from who I thought I was. Like the aging man who steps out of the shower one morning and sees himself, not his idea of himself, nor a memory of himself, his current self. Unadorned. As if 15 years of aging had slowly crept up on him unnoticed and then all at once presented themselves in a chorus of diminishing returns. Just as age will steal your youth, this year had stolen my faith, perhaps even my voice. I had nothing to add to the conversation.
Sometime in November I began searching through my hard drive for an image I had misplaced. I don’t remember what image, and it isn’t important. What is significant is what happened as I searched. Image after image I began to see things I had made, in some cases over a decade ago, that reflected what I was reading and seeing in the news everyday. Two thousand and twenty was a year that disoriented even the most even keeled of us. Many of our assumptions about the world were called into question, and yet, for anyone paying attention it was all quite predictable. Inevitable even. There, on my hard drive, were images that I had made between 2009 and 2018 that felt like they were about exactly what was happening.
Images are not static things, they change, as we change. Chances are if you haven’t looked at something for a few years or a decade, when you see it again it will be with fresh eyes. The world will have changed, you will have changed and thus your perception will have changed. This, I found interesting.
Upon recollecting how these images started for me, I remember researching possible causes of apocalyptic events. It was 2011 and Hugh Leeman, D Young V, and I, had agreed to do an exhibit in Los Angeles scheduled for 2012. 2012 was predicted by the Mayans to be the end of the world. Hugh, D, and I, thought that would be an interesting theme; the world after. We created an installation titled: “Epilogue”. What’s significant here is the research. The most common theory I came across regarding apocalyptic events wasn’t a comet smashing into earth or a multi-national nuclear war. It was something quieter, invisible almost, it was an airborne respiratory virus with a high level of transmission. When the initial reports from Wuhan started making there way to the New York Times, after New years Day 2020, I distinctly remember my reaction. Fuck.
In May, when George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, I would be lying to tell you I was shocked. Angry? Yes. Despondent? Absolutely. Surprised? How could I be. We live in a country where it is necessary to have a group called Black Lives Matter. Was that not among the truths we hold to be self-evident? Racism in the united states is a disease that has been left untreated for 400 years to fester. We keep treating it like the flu, in that, we think a few minor remedies will lessen the symptoms in the short term and it will eventually self resolve. It won’t. Racism is the actual plague of this nation and presents an existential threat. Until we as a nation, reconcile that, deal with it and address it, our full potential will never be realized.
In my adult life, from Rodney King to George Floyd I have witnessed a steady increase in both frequency and severity of police violence against African Americans. The civil unrest that follows are not simply predictable, they are necessary. Demonstrations of outrage are necessary. They represent the frayed cords that are the remaining ties to our best aspirations as a nation. Their absence would be the final breath of the great experiment, and it’s concluding failure. From 2015 til today the nation has had a race-baiting candidate and then president at the helm of the Republican party. Race baiting politicians only win votes in a racist nation. Donald Trump is the empirical proof that we live in a racist nation, (for anyone who actually had doubts). His racism is no more real than his tan, or his hair, or his marriage. It is mostly for appearances, and the appearance of racism only appeals to a racist constituency. To a man like Trump, racism is American currency and currency is power.
In the summer of 1997, I was on a bus with the Backstreet Boys driving around Oklahoma City. I was on a magazine assignment to photograph them. Nick Carter and A.J. McLean wanted to go to the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building. This was the building Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed on April 19, 1995, killing 168 fellow American citizens. The victims ranged in age from 3 months to 73 years old. 19 were children and 3 were pregnant women. The bombing was the first I had heard of militia groups, or the phrase domestic terrorism. The building had been demolished 2 years earlier. Now there was simply a chain linked fence around the area. On that fence people had posted photos, memorials, teddy bears… Back on the bus everyone was quiet. I’ve thought back to that moment over the years. I don’t know what the backstreet boys were thinking, I, however felt like the concept of war was forever changed. We were the enemy. Ourselves. Some alienated, damaged part of our collective, lacking the vocabulary to express their disaffection. Like some of the least persuasive people I’ve ever met, they had found the language of force. Force completely strips a gesture of it’s meaning. There is only meaning in choice and free will. There is only respect, love, and compassion in choices. Because choices are the things we want to be, not the things we need to be.
This was a new era. This was the national equivalent of an auto immune disorder. The body of our nation had begun to attack itself. So in May of 2020, when armed militia stormed the state building in Lansing Michigan, or in October when the Wolverine watchmen, a group that had met with McVeigh prior to the Oklahoma city bombing, had been charge with a plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan one could hardly be surprised.
Only weeks earlier President Trump had intentionally encouraged and emboldened these groups when he tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” To me the word liberate sets off an alarm when I hear it leave a leader’s lips. More often than not what it calls for, in actionable terms, is the antithesis of liberation. It is sometimes simply a call to quell dissent. Painting oneself as the defender of freedom and the opposition as an existential threat to freedom itself. Other times it is the self righteous and indignant facade that attempts to hide a nefarious plan. In this case it was the left hand of the magician pointing and waving a handkerchief while the right hand went unnoticed.
The specter of autocratic rule resides in the collective unconscious of all free people. This is what makes it potentially, such a dangerous tool. It enlists everyone. On the one side are those convinced that those in power are defending against our demise. On the other side are those convinced this nationalist movement is in fact the very thing it purports to be defending against; over-reaching autocratic rule. These scenarios present this curious contradiction. They divide people by allegiance and at the same time they engage the entire population, mostly in panic. That’s when the shit show begins. Dr. King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that rings true. Let’s also consider how “riot” is simply a fear inducing word choice for freedom of assembly. It is not dissimilar to the way the word “socialism”, in this country, has become synonymous with communism. So while this president had decided that social distancing and mask wearing were an erosion of your constitutional rights, rather then a temporary public health measure. Fast forward to June 1st at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., where the same man, decided to clear peaceful protestors, exercising their 1st amendment rights, by use of force and chemical weapons. What ensued was called a riot. If it weren’t so devastating and dangerous it would almost be comical how often American police physically attack peaceful demonstrators, and when those demonstrators act in self defense they call it a riot. All the more heinous was the reason for clearing the square. The most profane president in our history wanted a picture of himself in front of a building he’d never been to (a church) holding a book he’d never read (the bible).
There are people who believe that a president who has ruled primarily through executive order, sidestepping the process of political discourse, is the defender of your civil liberties. Mostly because he has said so. There are also many people who believe the United States is the greatest nation in the world, mostly because it has claimed to be. There are also the rest of us, which on most days, account for a majority. Some believe you can simply fire rubber bullets and tear gas dissent into submission, without retribution. That seems unlikely. When I see a person, who has been beaten by police, in the absence of recourse, toss a molotov cocktail at the same police, I understand that. That is not a difficult dynamic to comprehend. I don’t necessarily condone it, but I am not surprised by it either. When I see people who are refused their rights and refused representation and they turn up day after day and demand those rights and demand representation, I can only applaud them. Freedom is a funny wheel. Once it has rolled forward It requires 10 times the force to roll backwards. Anyone who aspires to that sort of reversal had better come prepared to reconsider. I suspect we will come out of this year with our democracy dented and scraped but mostly in tact. I would attribute that, not to it’s durability entirely, but more to the sheer incompetence on the part of this administration. A better prepared, more experienced group of autocrats may have made more headway.
Much of my work is about alienation and disconnection. Specifically the type that happens when people feel threatened by their immediate surroundings. 14 years ago I was talked into going to see a movie starring Al Gore. Not exactly known for his charisma, Al Gore was a tough sell. If my memory serves me, I was trying to appease a girlfriend and agreed to go see “an inconvenient truth”. I walked out of that theatre with the knowledge of a new (to me) concept; Climate change. Climate change and the existential crisis it represents would become a big part of the global conversation over the following decade. That film would be a source that inspired me to begin using surgical masks in my images, a barrier between our own physiology and the outside world. The need to protect ourselves from the natural world around us brought me back to that day on the bus with the Backstreet boys, again, we had become our own worst enemy. Like those men from Michigan, the environment had become hostile towards us, and threatened our physical well being. The chickens were coming home to roost in both scenarios and again my reaction was the same as it was to the news coming out of Wuhan in January 2020. “Fuck”.
2020 saw a record breaking season of destruction both in the form of wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the east. Unsurprisingly, it was a consequence Al Gore had describe 14 years ago. Who, I wondered, was surprised? In March of 2020 I had a dream. In the dream the pandemic had paralyzed the world and Hurricanes battered the east coast as wildfires tore through California. I woke up with my heart pounding. I thought “Shit. What if it all starts to unravel simultaneously?’ The dream wasn’t a fear dream, like when I am trapped on a scaffold outside the 38th floor of a building and my fear of heights is in full swing. Rather it is what I call a “consequence” dream. To me these dreams are the result of some ignored or postponed anxiety. Maybe one morning you notice a suspicious mole on your shoulder. You think, “hmm, maybe I should get that checked out” but you don’t, you forget about it. 2 years later you have a dream that you’re in a doctor’s office being diagnosed with skin cancer and the doctor is asking why you didn’t have this checked out sooner. These dreams are an acknowledgement of negligence. For me, 2020 has been a consequence dream, the predictable outcome of negligence, without the respite of waking.
The piece I created is called: “The Twilight’s last Gleaming”. It is a series of 5 images I made between 2009 and 2018. That they were made prior to 2020 was necessary to demonstrate that this past year was not an apparition but a predictable consequence of negligence. It was important to me that the number of images be an odd number. There needed to be room for, not only a left and a right, but also a center. Each print contains a single word from the second line of the star spangled banner (our national anthem). What, so, proudly, we, hailed. Words that were written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in the battle of Baltimore. Key was speculating on the outcome of a battle, as was I with the piece. What would remain, and what would fall. Surely there was a point during this year where most of us questioned whether we would return to normalcy, or whether we would perish. Whether we thought, “was this the twilight’s last gleaming?’
The images I chose are arranged sequentially with the word “Proudly” in the center. The center image is the most neutral, acting more as a document than an ideology. To the viewers left the ideology becomes more politically left. To the viewers right, the image becomes more politically right. While I am an atheist, I consider myself culturally catholic. Any claim that this doesn’t inform my work would be inauthentic and any to attempt to erase it would be futile. While, above I describe a political arrangement of images there is a concurrent religious arrangement in which, the woman in the center acts as a proxy for God and conversely, the images at her right hand represent the favor of God. The left hand represents the judgement of God, as in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” fresco from the Sistine Chapel. I view this language as mythology or allegory and while I do not suspect a second coming of Christ, certainly, 2020 was a reckoning.
Stars and bars festering scars there’s plenty to prove who we are for independence to a referendum on our descendants monkeys waving flags and the rest of us wanna end this shit. Old glory, same story, don’t worry flag unfurled and held so high just look at the height of it so high we’ve lost sight of it ain’t really the fabric of the nation we see just a 2 dollar sticker or 2 for three Stick it on your truck and fuck unity Or take to the street and topple fake heroes Risking infection for a new direction but fuck if we’ll do it for your re-election laws that invade a woman’s right to choose but not a cops right to bruise or abuse or murder without motive suspended with pay light a votive everyday say your prayers and put them on shelves The lord helps those who help themselves tear gassing masses and forsaking the dead to pose with a book you never read at a church you’ve never been to a code of decency you’ll never bend to propaganda at its’ worst C’mon now stand and quote a verse silence….
Wisdom is harder than violence and promises are easy when you try less and the less you do the less is expected and the more people die the more we accept it leaders make promises for statues being erected and everyday another 50,000 are infected Let’s just cover our faces try to erase this make dedications to all the nameless and faceless The red white and blue black and blue black and white too Like none of us knew… we have the nation we settled for not less, not more they never built the wall but they stopped immigration turning the enviable into an plague ridden nation a leper colony lead by a wanna be a bloated messiah an abomination A nation of Pariahs and liars now here we are trapped inside our consequences these invisible fences bluster is cheap but ignorance is expensive
Reflecting on the past 3 1/2 years I proposed a montage that I felt told the story and the history quite well. Some found it too opinionated. It’s hard to convey the depth of a historically catastrophic administration in 3 minutes.