Vincent, Crisp, and Me
My only purpose as an “artist” is to allow nature to act through the materials. In other words, as John Cage told me, “you have to get out of your own way.”
One of my recent “works” involves me going into restaurants and asking for a tall glass of water. Crisp waits outside, camera on, and records my shrugs and thumbs up/down gestures as I emerge.
I saw Vincent yesterday on West End, bare feet, doing Tibetan meditation, taking a few steps, bowing all the way to ground, and feeling the sidewalk with his body. Watching was both comforting and heartbreaking.
Sometimes West End can feel like a canyon that can only be traversed with eyes closed, tapping to discover the path. At any corner, if you wait a few seconds, someone will come by and offer to help you cross the street.
I told Vincent not to mix oil and electricity. Now he is stimulating his body in the street, the friction of flesh and concrete, the smell of dog piss and shit.
You can give advice, but don’t expect that it will be followed.
Like, I told my grandmother not to play so many computer games. She became an ace surfer on the first wave of cyberspace until getting wiped out in Second Life. We remain possessed by our ancestors. Pictures and video are archived on her site, as if she were disinter-mediated. Her Avatar is waiting to be reawakened.
Sometimes I hear her voice in Hebrew, “Henai ni, here I am. Divine revelation is the sound of wind,” she might whisper.
Her roller coaster life was proof of Rebbe Nachman’s saying “Our world consists of nothing except the day and hour that we stand in now. Tomorrow is a completely different world.” How did she survive? By staying in touch with her instincts- physical flexibility; emotional strength; a crafty mind; an awareness of what lurked beyond; a hope rooted in belief.
Why write? Everything’s been said. How many more survival stories do we need? Silence heals the tongue. The end is always the same. Otto Rank said that the artistic impulse comes from guilt and sexual anxiety. He never said that talking about art is like discussing sex. Let’s just do it.
Through the sexual trance we drop into deep space of embrace when tactility gives way to nothingness.
Tonight Vincent is pacing in the back of the synagogue during a Shabbat service, thinking he’s Isaac, muttering, “I am a walking ember of the burning bush.”
Meanwhile, in the bunker, Crisp is trying to achieve a new kind of speed called ecovelocity, a suspended state of animation that can last 30 minutes of natural wave upon wave of microscopic details of color, light and electricity alternating between moments of calm and exploding landscapes while traveling, as if to other places, without leaving your seat. Drugs are not mandatory since this involves neurotransmissions, eyes closed.
Vincent, son of southern Baptists, has a thing for Bible thumpers who don’t know the Bible. “I’d be long dead if my Dad had read the Good Old Book.” He was tired of political leaders stating the obvious. “It’s easy to criticize, hard to come up with real solutions.” He didn’t talk much, recognizing that silence is the essence of wisdom, and that’s why we listened when he said something.
His conversion began when he dated a Jewish woman and went to an Orthodox synagogue with her, where they were seated separately. He couldn’t see her behind the curtain, which made him desire her even more. He converted and followed her to Jerusalem. Later he told me, “But at the Kotel Katan we prayed side by side and I have to admit I was distracted by her presence, like a Jewish Mary.” I told him it’s called the Emergent Shechinah. “When she turned her back to the wall and walked away from it, I felt very proud of her. But, in a way she was also walking away from me. I just didn’t see it then.”
When the world seems to be exploding around us in large and small ways, where do we find peace? We walk together and get lost in a crowd, go inside a church, find a lonely place where we can sit outside and have a coffee. In our silence there is a place of freedom, without restriction, since our relationship exists only in personal thoughts. Our misunderstandings are deeper than most, since we literally speak different languages. But our personae have mingled in bad movies on screens and television sets throughout the world; we met at a crowded reception in a place where we were both strangers. Perhaps our families crossed paths sometime in the past and we are part of their memory. Without words, there are no easy preconceptions, no tones, or vocal hints. Nevertheless, being an artist with a reputation, I try to seduce her finally, by singing early Beatles songs (a universal language), and when she demurs singing back a mournful, heavily accented Norwegian Wood, I return to my room laughing.
Following Chang Tzu’s policy of making fun of problems until they go away by themselves I left a note under her door before checking out. A short quotation from Robert Graves, “Love is a universal migraine, A bright stain on the vision, Blotting out reason.” Maybe she’ll get it translated.
Like Yang Chu I am committed to the appreciation of life at this moment, refusing to compromise joy now. I might not be a known artist, or have any influence on the culture of this time, but I also realize that other people largely determine rank, reputation, and wealth. (Or at least that’s what my therapist tells me.)
Now Vincent is on a quest to say a prayer to every homeless and struggling person in New York City. Even though the prayer is short, Crisp calculated that it would take Vincent several reincarnations to fulfill this mission. “Don’t worry, the Messianic Age is one of resurrection, the overcoming of death. Rambam said that ‘you can’t call yourself a Jew if you don’t believe in resurrection.’” Vincent loved showing off new knowledge.
Never one to surrender to logic, Vincent has started google mapping his blessing path. This is the prayer he will say: “May the life force flow through you and uplift you so that God’s bounty will be with you.” Vincent might be going for lamed- vavnic (Jewish Sainthood) status in his devotion to anonymous giving. He is a lightning bolt to his friends, turning us transparent with ominous premonitions. He worries about us, like a mother trying to protect us from things that haven’t happened. “Don’t assume that you can know what it’s like to be another person,” he’d say, “I’ve become a slave to the impossible.” He is certainly obsessed, and most would call him crazy, but “love” isn’t something that one thinks about.
What will remain, after history is over, besides the mute shout?
Art for the sake of art, words for the sake of words, God for the sake of God. But Moses, perhaps the greatest collaborator and performance artist ever, says, “I am not a man of words,” so he can say, “these are the things you need to know.”
Vincent wants to walk the blessing path vowing to use defeats and victories toward complete freedom. I remind him about Jewish prohibitions about making Vows. He scoffs, “when the object is not physical, politics disappear into the invisible terrain of the ineffable.”
In the bunker, Crisp is blasting our favorite new album by The Malicious Dogs of War. Their lyrics pose philosophical contradictions about ego and empathy. At once alternative and mainstream, the band somehow could appear hot and cool at the same time. I had collaborated on a number of their early music videos and enthusiastically promoted them. I like the sensitive songs that managed to convey soft-spoken anguish in a loud way. I didn’t mind Crisp filling the bunker with the wall breaking sounds. We got known in the building as the chill dogs.
Walking in the forest, one must keep eyes on meandering path while simultaneously observing animal movement, roots and branches, rocks, light and shadow. The same was true for getting to the bunker, only now one was meandering through dark halls, lurking rodents, a foul mixture of smells in the stairwells, and sounds coming from the other studios. If there was ever an Eden for artists this was it. People who have cheap space often forget about the future. The low cost led to lack of overt anxiety making it a generally supportive little community. The purpose of the bunker was self-mastery of complex systems in order to increase the capacity for imaginal dreaming. Mostly alone, cut off, one establishes a rhythm and a moral rational that is a shield from insecurities. We can choose our own paths for living; make our own history.
Crisp switches to a CD by the legendary Detroit band Zero Defect and we compare family histories. His ancestors were early settlers, probably seeking better life away from England. They settled in Cape Code and continued to do what they did in the old country. Generations later, people like Crisp seemed to have an inner knack for figuring things out and fixing them. My grandmother Esther and her brother Ephraim were born in and escaped from Stavisk, Poland, a Jewish community that was wiped out in the Shoah. My grandfather died young and probably came from Vilna. My father grew up in Brooklyn, repressed and rebellious.
After Crisp leaves, I dive into my private language, the one I remember playing when I was very young. The dialogue is mostly internal but sometimes thoughts manifest in physical ways depending on medium. Text is fragmentary and fleeting. Communication is primarily non-verbal, accented, or in other languages. To paraphrase something that Jean Luc Godard might have said, to destroy hegemony is to destroy language. Language is an organizing device. Anarchy and war destroy language and logic. The narrative is always the same, a pathetic inner life of an underground filmmaker caught in Road Stories and Fictional Truths.
I wonder if she went back to Poland.
In the bunker, I think of her for a few moments, remember the remedy for melancholy, and ponder the 2nd law of thermodynamics- world without entropy is perpetual all movement, no loss. There is loss, that can’t be brought back to system, circular flow, in absence of entropy, land, labor, capital, entrepreneurs; network- we can’t step out of nature as if nature is something external. Everything is possible; collage is the language of uniculturalism- white kids in baggy pants and black kids in designer suits. I sigh; these are the things I would have said to her.
“What did you think I meant when I said I was going to burn my old films?”
The bunkers, what a painter might call a studio, but filmmakers don’t need light or windows, were squats at the edges of the city.
As William Burroughs might have said, “The pen is mightier than the word since you can use it to stab someone.” Can you write and record images of what you are writing at the same time? Remember Wittgenstein! Red is not red, it is a word. We can’t assume we perceive a common color that is called red. It’s not just the differences of illumination; it is the problem of meaning and knowing. This is what I might have been thinking about, in search of the end of mystery by studying time so that time itself becomes a fervent gesture, like a book whose pages are constantly turning. Crisp says it’s intellectual mysticism. “If you don’t trust words, put your faith in tremulous gleams of light.” “Sorrow is part of who I am.” I respond. “It’s an internal soul twin whose eyes are constantly bearing witness to the minor key wailing voices playing in my head.”
Vincent’s activities happen completely outside of the Art world. His performance pieces are public rituals that show how spirituality requires serious, self-sacrificing devotion. His conversion to Judaism was astonishing, as if the process released a deep inner knowledge and a freedom to explore his sexuality. He is learning to become an architect of hidden worlds blurring the known and unknown, the revealed and hidden. I admired his attempt to understand the spaces between meaning and the knowledge of experience, that is, how language is connected to physical change. How do we know what we see? Both Vincent and Crisp were willing to forgo clarity for the sake of depth. Even though “output” differed, in each there is a restless, animated inner spirit pondering allusive meanings with explosive enthusiasm, some might say obsession. Whether it’s Vincent’s attempt to say a prayer to every homeless person in NYC or Crisp’s dangerous technomadic perambulations through cyberspace or my goal to make a story that never ends, breaking forever the narrative form, we are all probing and in persistent struggle with material.
We stopped in bookstores. I was desperate to find Paul Valery poetry in English or Polish. As we browsed the rows of books in a language neither of us spoke, there were frequent outbursts of surprise. We looked at photo and painting books by local artists and were impressed by some of the original devices and materials they invented as they struggled to not reproduce nature, but rather to transcend its literal meanings. The work was elliptical, epigrammatic, and sharp. Only by looking quickly, then turning away could one “get it.” I was once again reminded of the luxury of art making.
In one store, the books on the poetry shelves were crying as if they knew that tomorrow is the day the world ends.
I look at her, a sullen beauty and watch her tears fall, evaporating slowly as they slide down her face. Water salves prayer. Words drowned by waves, then becoming air, rising, and spreading to the six corners.
I returned home to be present for Easter, another annual reminder that the martyrs are still with and among us. West End filled with ghosts sharing silent anguish, thousands, millions chanting, “why have you forsaken me?”
Vincent bursts into the bunker. “When does it become art?” He wails. I try to answer, “When substance becomes form, object becomes essence. I don’t think you have to worry that you’re making art.” “Then what am I doing?” as he sits down and holds his head with both hands. “Ritual is often confused for art,” I say. “Most of what’s in the Met were made for religious purposes.” He looks up. I continue, “What you’re doing has no form. It’s objective, tactile, but essentially ephemeral and nonphysical. Unless you video or take pictures, you have nothing to sell or gain from this economically.” He seemed relieved.
On his second visit to Israel, after several months of study and prayer in Safed, Vincent decided to embrace as many Moslem men as possible. He had accepted teachings of many wise people, Buddha, Mahavira, Chang Tzu, and Jesus, among others, why not Mohammed? Isn’t it said, “the God of spirits of all flesh?” Vincent decided that he would hug his enemies based on their common humanity while honoring their unique nature and characteristics. It doesn’t matter what your religion, when you touch a thorn, your finger will bleed. Vincent had decided that in order to fully understand psalm 73.28 “I have made God my refuge,” he would have to absorb Islam in a positive way. This he thought was the best way for a Jewish person to change self and others. He has learned enough Arabic, to say, close up, during the embrace, “let justice flow from the mountain like a mighty stream.” His gesture, usually refused, but surprisingly, sometimes accepted in a culture where affection among men in common, was a poignant blend of ritual, performance, and direct action. He decided that if someone refused to be hugged, he would say, “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it.”
Vincent reminded me that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are in Israel to revel in the miracle of return after exile. This is a root dream that we share with those who lived here before, during, and since. Our gestures are ancient, realities modern. All people have the same problems, regardless of race, nationality, and planetary origin. Jerusalem should represent commonalities and a communal sense of reunion, nonverbal, in the pride both Israelis and Palestinians feel for the Land. Like Jacob worrying over every detail of his return to his father’s home, Vincent fretted over maps, history books, prayers, and tourist guides for weeks before beginning his quest.
Vincent and Crisp are like swans seeming to be wandering aimlessly, but are actually alert, in control, and fiercely protective. Swans carry the souls of poets, singing warnings of death in a horrible and beautiful song. They can be signaling the end and beginning of the old and new.