I attended a documentary viewing of Faces and Phases at the Ed Gould Plaza one Saturday afternoon where a never-ending plug for institutionalized funding dominated the artistic and intellectual space. Blame it on modern day imperialism. Since its inception, US society has been cultivated from an idea of taking over stuff. It’s imbedded in our social coding and appears in a multitude of subtle ways during everyday interactions.
Zanele Muholi is a contemporary photojournalist from South Africa. Her documentary – included in Pitzer College’s Glyphs: Acts of Inscription exhibition – focused on South African lesbian women as beautiful, unique, talented, and let us not forget, human, like everyone else, juxtaposed stark realities of her homeland’s economy and their common homophobic culture.
As if the content wasn’t enough to field dozens of questions during the Q&A portion of the event, one of the audience members stated her affiliations and asked if the artist felt US organizations that focused on LGBTI issues gave enough funding. Unsurprisingly, she worked for one the orgs that “generously” provided “support” in favor for same-sex marriages and thought such orgs could be a viable source for Muholi.
A valid concern of an activist, right?
It would have been fine had not all other questions and concerns been halted for the next 15-20 minutes, and had not Muholi already made it clear two questions prior that she was not interested in having the conversation. Her standpoint was simple: no talk of funding!
She hadn’t received much for her projects, not that she hadn’t tried, yet was equipped with a revolutionary mindset to continue producing her art, which mattered most. She also prefers for the hands of institutions to stay out of her process if they require artistic control in turn for their money – something usually true.
As a few left the auditorium, I sat in my chair, thinking, “Yep, this is a prime example of typical US ideology.” It is just like those with a little bit of privilege and access to money to dominate a space, relentlessly impose their ideas upon others, expect an invitation for their sociopolitical commentary and then later, be given thanks for their input.
It wasn’t until a couple days later I exhibited similar behavior I shunned at the viewing; we do learn by example. I walked into the Last Book Store on 5th and Spring on a Monday night ready to share an excerpt from a recently finished manuscript. Trailing me was some serious artistic energy that ran high the entire weekend.
I had attended the post-documentary viewing party at the home of the photographer who took the shot of Michael Jackson doing his famous en Pointe-esque pose right after he moon-walked across a stage. I engaged in highfalutin academic speak, some serious dancing and conversations about tiny crackers and great tasting mystery spread.
The following day I had a quick retreat in a friend’s rooftop Jacuzzi and almost performed karaoke in an eclectic DTLA space with gray-haired men easily over the age of 60, surfing the internet, and making photocopies right next to the karaoke machine.
It was a weekend full of contradictions, changing scenes, different people, and spontaneity – environments writers thrive in, at least in small doses, when gathering material, which is always.
So that Monday night, I walked into the Last Bookstore feeling good and bravely sat on the couch right on stage, next to the host. I waited in anticipation for my name to be pulled from a clear plastic bucket just like everyone else and a little more than halfway through the three hour event, it happened. I got up, walked a few steps over to the microphone and took another seat on a fold out chair as to minimize the visibility of my stage fright, and then began reading my manuscript.
But it soon became clear. My selection was not prepared to ensure that it didn’t exceed my allotted 3-5 minutes of stage time, and I hadn’t thought about it at all. I can only attribute this to the ever-looming US imperialist mindset.
The one that firstly says, “So what if the majority of performers are mostly poets, musicians, and comedians, they’ll love my straight fiction reading and they’ll relish in my artistic ability until I decide to stop sharing”; and secondly says, “Besides, my chances of being shooed off stage are close to none because Show Time at the Apollo is in Harlem.”
Seriously though, the first warning should have been enough. But I continued for at least two minutes past the five minute mark until the host cut me off in mid sentence while waving her hand over the top of the infant strapped to her chest in one of those endearing carriers that could easily double as a trapeze harness.
“I’m sorry but you gotta stop there.” I had clearly overstepped my boundaries, and so, shuffled back to the couch, feeling as though one of the most poignant sections of my manuscript was still left to be shared with the audience.
Looking out over the crowd, I saw the few newly emptied seats, and recognized the disinterested stares from the rest. It was the same expression on my face when listening to the conversation at the documentary’s Q&A.
Prone to self-reflection, I immediately realized I had employed similar tactics to those of the the LGBTI activist: listen to me, agree with me (that I’m a good writer), and later, thank me for sharing, even if it results in a dominated space, the host is left frustrated and others in attendance begin trickling out the door.
My intentions that Monday night were definitely not to “conquer” a crowd just as I’m sure the woman at the Q&A didn’t intend to either. And neither of our charades was nearly as bad as we’ve seen imperialism play out between nations world wide for centuries. It just happened. The ingrained mind-set is what fueled the unconscious action.
People have said that others quickly forget the fools we make of ourselves. Supposedly, it is the internal self-critic who helps us remember even when we are trying hard to forget. Leaving that for debate, I will say it’s important to forge an ability to look inward and accept a little (public) constructive criticism, when necessary.
Mine came at the ending of an indie-rock/funk band’s impromptu jam session at the Last Book Store that night. The band, No-Name, ripped the drums, violin and guitar within 4 minutes of their allowed 5 minutes on stage.
The crowd was dancing, engaged, and wanting more. So when the host confirmed that they had 1 minute remaining, they played that 1 minute flawless and in sync like it was its own prepared piece. After, the host said to the crowd, “That was a perfect example of 1 minute of funk” and looked at me. Knowing I had it coming, I just smiled and nodded.
The woman at the Q&A didn’t receive an almost instantaneous figurative finger shaking of chastisement like I did, although we both provided an opportunity for others to better improve their conduct by our examples. The back and forth mirror game I play with others is not a part of everyone’s role in the universe. Yet, we can only be hopeful that most, eventually, recognize their faults and make corrections that, with any luck, stick.
Maybe the woman at the Q&A found quiet time later to do a little soul searching to cure her desire to be heard and seen above all others in the auditorium. And to realize the less than positive impact she made in those moments while rearing the ugly head of modern day imperialism.
Self-reflection, after all, is usually a solo act. We learn where to probe, what questions to ask, and how to resolve the issues at hand all in the comfort of our bedrooms or during monotonous morning commutes in a sea of strangers.
Conversely, public criticism can be a lot harder. However slight, it has the power to stay branded in our psyches forever. But it’s good for us like a heaping spoonful of Black Strap Molasses when our iron is low.
Still, it would be a lot more palatable and inviting, and less daunting and bitter if it was always accompanied with an introduction from some fantastic, funky band without a name, inching their way to the pros, like it was for me that night.
A California native, Jessica has lived in numerous southern California cities, chases nature with urgency, and travels to anywhere possible. She listens to folk, indie rock, blues, and anything with a spirit and lyrics she can support. Jessica writes fiction and creative non-fiction and is completing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.