I rarely meet someone without wanting to fight them. Others prefer the interior monologue. Not me. I like fighting better.
A couple of weekends ago, I went to the Annual Gowanus Artists Studios Tour, where I saw the artist Ernest Concepcion. We were followed into his studio by a curious bystander who asked what Ernest’s work was all about. Ernest pointed to a large piece and explained he’s a “landscape painter.” And indeed, there was a peaceful scene of rivers and mountains underneath the drawings of pterodactyls, aliens, pirates, and robots fighting to the death.
Ernest, who collaborates with poet Paolo Javier, gives new meaning to “dividing the plane.” I first met Ernest at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, where he was interested in turning the uneven textures of its stripped concrete floor into an air-and-sea war. In his workspace, he would direct two or more “things” to battle on the canvas. They could be antonyms, synonyms, or symbiotic (apples vs. trees, ham vs. eggs, bread vs. toasters). The opposing items spilled toward each other from either end of the “plane,” activating the center via gore, guts and visual mayhem.
So does Ernest’s work engage or question or subvert binaries? War, and its problematic cousin argument, uses binaries to get where it’s going (even if it never gets there). Several years ago, Lawrence Weiner painted “Us” and “Them” on the bathrooms at DIA. I used “Them” out of orneriness, and then felt predictable. How to walk a mile in the other’s shoes when, say, the other is pressing a button that sends bombs streaming out of a robotic flying drone’s anus? There’s a show up right now of Japanese Samurai armor that I haven’t seen yet. But a friend told me she couldn’t look at the swords, because they were so evidently engineered for cutting people to bits. We argued over what was worse: people in flight suits pressing buttons in Virginia to kill people in Afghanistan? Or lopping someone’s head off up close and personal?
How to be peaceful and fight war? Stacy suggested that I write about pirates and mutiny. Or maybe she meant write like a pirate or mutineer? I feel mutinous about 97% of every day, but perhaps I just have oppositional defiance disorder. What is the difference between subversion and rebellion anyway? Eileen Myles rebelled when she took on the commenters on her Poetry Foundation blog. Women are typically advised to stay silent when harassed. By becoming a blank, empty, unresponsive space, attacks are supposed to pass harmlessly through and fizzle on the other side. This may keep you safe physically, but what damage to the psyche—to not fight back?
There’s another question, too, found in the basements of culture, film noir to comics to Battlestar Galactica—where does the hero turn into the villain? Cliché question that keeps being asked. Traditionally, evil travels in straight lines. But obsfucation, distance, circuitousness seem to be the swords of the day. So if I “randomize the flow of paths,” to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis via Flash of the Spirit, am I mimicking, amplifying or just confusing?
Be peaceful, except with the unpeaceful.