I wrote up my thoughts after attending Obama’s inauration, and would like to finally share them! I can hardly believe it’s February already.
I just returned from a trip to DC to witness Obama’s inauguration. It was an amazing weekend, especially because I was visiting with my dear friend Yacy, a former Kerry campaign worker and recently naturalized American citizen. The moment was huge because not only did this country get to say adios to Bush after eight torturous years, we also welcomed our first black president (in fact, our first non-white president at all).
The experience of standing on the mall itself had its highlights: screaming with joy after Obama took his oath, tearing up thinking about Martin Luther King, downing vodka shots from a water bottle to try to stay warm, feeling like we might never escape the crowds, and, of course, admiring Aretha Franklin’s hat. I wanted to be there to mark this moment because Obama’s election has altered something for me. I have witnessed a major change in our country, and while I do not think everything will now utopianize, I feel newly faithful that it is possible for people and society to change.
Everyone is wondering if Obama can fix our nation’s problems. I think I can save us the suspense: he will not. Certainly I am hopeful that his administration might move things in a direction I would favor, but a President is a politician and, moreover, a human being. Like everyone, I have been thinking a lot about Kennedy, the president who inspired my parents’ generation. As a president in action, I find him uninspiring. As a symbol for the potential of democracy, I find him absolutely essential to the American story. And can you imagine that Kennedy had to overcome a cultural biased against Catholics? Today we find that silly. Surely Vice President Biden did not have to defend his Catholic faith in this election. I hope someday our country will look back and think how absurd it was that the color of a person’s skin had grave bearings on his or her opportunities.
As an artist, I don’t see symbols as separate from reality. Symbols are how we make our reality. In the days of Manifest Destiny, when settlers began to conquer the frontier, America was often represented–in posters, political cartoons, and illustrations–as an angelic white woman, a symbol of purity and goodness. Threats to America were embodied by a native or black man, grotesque and with Simeon features, who pursued the woman licentiously. This woman was to be protected from this man; the imagery was used to call white male citizens to police and expand America’s borders, both actual and imagined, by striking at deeply seated fear of the other. To remember the depth of fear and hatred in this racist past and to be alive today when our country, both in fact and in symbol, is represented by a black man is nothing short of extraordinary. Things can change; they already have.
I wouldn’t have put it so boldly as one Republican congressman, who said on CNN that the inauguration had erased years of racism in one fell swoop. It is essential to remember America’s racist past and to recognize that it is not over. Instead, I see that by electing a president who could not have been elected 60 years ago, let alone allowed to drink from certain water fountains, this country took a monumental step forward and showed that things can truly change. Barriers that divide people, however real in daily life, are made. And they can be unmade. We can unmake them.
I hadn’t thought much about Martin Luther King recently until I stood on the mall for the concert and the inauguration. During the election, I thought hopefully that we might move on from Bush, that Obama was intelligent and someone with whom I somewhat agreed and definitely respected, that maybe he could win, though like everyone I worried a bit about the race factor, and that he certainly he is charming. During and after the inauguration ceremonies, I thought about how incredible it is that during Dr. King’s time, this simply could not have happened: a smart, capable and charismatic man would not have been considered for president because of racism.
But I also thought about the cries this week that Dr. King’s dream had been fulfilled, and I don’t think Dr. King would agree. Dr. King dreamed that EVERY man, woman and child would have equal opportunities. While I can imagine that we may be getting closer to electing a female president, I don’t think this country has overcome all prejudice just yet. Would we elect a practicing Muslim? An atheist? A homosexual? A deaf person?
I don’t think we will today, but we will tomorrow. And we will do it the same way that led us to elect Barack Obama: through civil rights movements and through love.
We all know the social, political and legal milestones that brought rights to black people in this country. At the risk of sounding completely cheesy and irrelevant, I submit that we also continue to overcome the deep seeded prejudices in our culture, those that persist long after the legal battles have been won, with love: romantic love, love of children, love between soldiers, friends, coworkers, neighbors. Love is the only way to get beyond tolerating each other and to actually embracing the human truth that we are all infinitely different.
And that is why I also celebrate President Obama as an interracial person. In a country that in the not-so-distant past had laws against miscegenation, and where racial homogeny continues to exist in our imagination, if not in our practiced lives, we elected a product of interracial love to our highest office. Yes we did.
And someday we will have true equality in this country. In 60 years I would be 87. I hope to live long enough to see the next great stride and to stand on the mall and remember this one.
–Sarah Nelson Wright
A project by my friends and fellow IMAers Laura Chipley, Francisca Caporali, and Pilar Ortiz got me thinking about the changing meanings of public and private spaces in an urban setting. These psychogeographically inspired artists are planning to take up residence in a temporary dwelling in public space, constructed entirely from the wealth of the street economy, as part of their Urban Homesteading Project. The project will transgress traditional boundaries of private and public life.
These boundaries are, of course, crossed on a daily basis by the homeless, who are forced to live out their private lives in public spaces. Privacy can be a privilege afforded by wealth — or sometimes forfeited.
Living in Williamsburg during the rapid construction of large condo buildings, I’ve noticed that the unifying design element of all the new construction is floor to ceiling windows.
I like to walk on the McCarren Park track at night after sitting at my desk all day, to clear my mind and loosen up my body. Every time I wind around the track, I look up at the bank of tall condo buildings along the track. People inside are going about their business: walking around, fixing dinner, drinking, watching TV.
This is strange reversal. People are paying to have no privacy, choosing to allow others to watch their private lives from public space. I think there may be more behind this new architectural trend then simply the desires of the so-called noveau riche to display their means.
Two things strike me. Many people feel isolated in the city when they are not integrated into a community. Being seen validates our existence. This is why so many people (including myself) blog: if I didn’t care if anyone knew my thoughts, I wouldn’t bother to write them down and publish them. A fishbowl apartment could be a subconsciously comforting way to be seen.
The other thing is the contrast with the old model of wealthy living. The wealthy have traditionally had the option to shut the public out of their lives; to retreat to their homes and close the gate, literally or metaphorically.
Perhaps these new condo buyers are rejecting this old model. Instead, they will include the world, at least visually, into their home. I don’t see this as necessarily radical; just different and maybe more transparent. We don’t have to wonder what a wealthy home looks like. We can just take a look.
The income gap has never been so visible as when someone without the option for a private life picks through the trash in front of the living room of someone who paid for their private life to be public.
We had a guest artist today in Communication & The City with Prof. Mary Flanagan. Chris Vines is the head of Creative Arts Team, a group out of CUNY that practices theater for empowerment using techniques from Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. I found his work interesting, given my theater background, and I like the way he was able to use performance without it being about acting, in a way that could be useful for empowerment and interpersonal growth.
The most exciting thing to me was a project he brought with him from Mouths Wide Open (www.mouthswideopen.org, website seems to be down right now), an NY-based activist group. Apparently since 2005 this group has been planting toy soldiers across the country. When you pick up the soldier, a sticker on the bottom reads, “Bring Me Home.”
I thought this was a great example of new activism. Inserting these army men into everyday life is a poignant way to keep the war present for everyone. I think a huge problem for American activists is that activism is somehow separated from everything else (and many socially-conscious people feel alienated from even the term “activist,” much in the way some women distance themselves form the word “feminist”).
I did wish that the group’s website was written even smaller compared with the “Bring Me Home” text, as it somehow seemed to take on a different agenda with the website. In some way, it would be better to leave the website off entirely, as if the soldier speaks for himself (though apparently the site has a photo gallery and tells people how they can get involved with distributing the army men).
The project very closely relates to the documentary I am making on the Crosses of Lafayette, a memorial in Lafayette, CA, that includes a cross to represent every American soldier who dies in Iraq. Behind the heart of both projects is a question of representation. Who can memorialize soldiers? Who should advocate on their behalf? Who gets to, literally, speak for them?
Both projects are important because they remind us that there are soldiers who are in harm’s ways and keep the war in the public eye. These projects are effective at these tasks, but there is another question for us young activists/ “folk who want to effect change without all the baggage of the Activist label.”
Most people do not want the war to continue and yet the war goes on. As media activists (or whatever we are) our primary tools have been educating, presenting criticism, stimulating awareness and debate, essentially changing people’s minds.
The question we were tossing around after class is how to affect real change when public opinion does not seem to have a big influence.
This is seriously yesterday’s news (April 2007′s news to be exact). I just read in Ode Magazine (a magazine geared towards new age retirees that I happen to like) about a public installation in London last spring. I found it delightful and thought-provoking, and thought I’d share in case anyone else missed it, too. Channel 4, to kick of it’s “Human Footprint” program, laid out exactly 74,802 cups of tea on Trafalgar Square, the average lifetime tea consumption for a British citizen. [photo by from the hip]
Human Footprint is clearly about environmental impact, a favorite topic for me (and you and everyone we know). I don’t think the installation is highly effective at bringing home our personal environmental footprints, unless there’s some campaign against tea drinking that I don’t know about (hey, I did miss this installation entirely). They might have achieved a stronger environmental message if the cups were disposable, though then the installation itself would have been an environmental burden.
I don’t think it needs that message. To me, there is something so beautiful, even in the documentation, of seeing the sea of teacups that will make up a single person’s life. It’s striking, and bittersweet: that all the cups you will drink for your whole life fit in one public square; the shortness of life; and yet the multitude of moments.
Imagine the same installation for the number of cups of coffee an average American drinks in their lifetime… somehow, not the same effect. It conjures up stress and trying to stay awake through a day at the office (though maybe tea is like that for the Brits?). Something about tea is relaxing, ritualistic, nurturing, reflective and an opportunity to connect with yourself or another person.
There is something so simultaneously devastating and gorgeous in measuring a human life in these terms, and I think it’s why the one dead English poet’s work that ever stuck in my mind is TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
For I have know them all already, know them all:–
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
[pigeon photo by Phil Hawker]
I was reading the Situationists International Anthology for a class. Guy Debord talks about how most films are only worthy of detournment, or basically being rearranged to create new meaning. I was just thinking about all the footage out there these days, how so much is recorded and put on the web. I was also thinking about how temporary these things are. Many things are not archived and sometimes the ease with making moving image nowadays means the results are not cared for as preciously.
I’m not intending any judgment. It only occurred to me that this change in formatting and distribution may make moving image more like theater. A video may have a run on youtube the same way a play runs in a theater, and for good reason. It is timely, political, resonant, and then fades away. If our formats are crappy enough, media historians of the future may be studying our current movement from written descriptions of videos on blogs, just as dramaturgs study old plays from descriptions of the performances by the audience.
…unless blogs themselves somehow are not archived in the long term. I wonder what happens to a blog when the writer dies? Blogs are clearly a great window into micro-culture and will no doubt have an academic following in the future. But I wonder if we will have a blog library? It their own way, blogs are already a library, with a specified focus or author(s). And what about the trillions of baby pictures on the web? Just thinking…