Everything is Illuminated: On strolling through the first two nights of Light City Baltimore

Thank you, Paul Rucker and John Somers, for making my first two visits to Light City Baltimore worthwhile. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from the festival itself but after wandering around it for about two and a half hours on each of its first two nights, I think I greatly overestimated its size, scope, and vision. I mean, I feel like I have been hearing about it pretty steadily since the Sun first wrote about it in February 2015. The fest’s budget figures have tossed around $4 million estimates, raised through private donations. Last spring and summer the festival’s social media channels talked about its community planning meetings and calls for artists. When the lineups were announced last fall it sounded big: 29 original works of “light art” and some 50 concerts and 100 performances, along with its ticketed innovation conference. And over the past few months its media rollout has felt inescapable. The festival even has a freaking app (which I can’t use because my DumbPhone can’t upgrade to iOS 8). But while wandering up and down its 1.2-mile footprint around the Inner Harbor on Monday and Tuesday nights I kept wondering, Is this it?

In fact, while making my first pass through I was reminded of that episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer where the Scoobies spend the entire hour trying in vain to prevent the appearance of some demon. When the ugly creature from an evil dimension does appear, he’s about the size of a toy, causing one of the gang to quip something along the lines of, “Big fanfare . . . little finish,” right before Buffy stomps on him. So clowning on Light City—and, I have to confess, I left my apartment Monday night fully thinking I was going on a fact-finding mission to hate on this thing with extreme prejudice (I just can’t with the “light art”)—would feel a bit like making fun of Eeyore. Light City is less a Grand Prix of Baltimore-scale epic fail and more like those off-brand carnivals that used to set up in the old Eastern High School parking lot across from Memorial Stadium. You can even get cotton candy. Served atop sticks with lights, natch.


Photo credit: MEL GUAPO

If that home-school-simple scale was intentional, it was a smart move. Navigating the Inner Harbor during Light City is no more or less annoying than usual. But I have to admit I was expecting some aspect of it to be more interesting—or at least making some effort to be visually grand. In my brain “light art” of this variety operates like Olympic games opening ceremonies, and there’s not a single piece here that even aims for that level of artifice. For better and worse the work from the visual artists is by and large innocuous. Some are interesting, some are imaginatively conceived, and some are incredibly thoughtful, but nothing so far has totally grabbed my eyeballs. More distressingly, everything installed for Light City Baltimore looks more visually interesting as a hashtagged shared pic than it does in real life.

OK, full disclosure: I find the very idea of the “light art” peddled by light art festivals to be visually tepid, so understand that I’m coming at all this from a biased and pretentious place. I see images from Vivid Sydney, the festival Light City organizers cited as an inspiration, and all I think is that “light art” of this ilk is just a Cow Parade for the 21st century. Yes, there are a few light festivals around the globe with longstanding historical roots—see: Lyon’s Fête des Lumières, and we’re going to come back to this notion of “historical roots” in a bit—but most are of a more recent vintage. And they’re everywhere. It’s not that they can’t be interesting—Thomas Schielke writes about architectural lighting at ArchDaily, and in this 2013 post he examines four different light festivals with four different focuses—but the blatant tourism aspect of these events is pretty shameless. The International Light Festival Organization lists 11 light fests happening this year alone in Europe.

But, hey, I’m a snob. Thankfully many of the participating local artists aren’t. Scott Pennington’s structures installed in the plaza by the World Trade Center is what initially planted the carnival aspect of Light City in my brain. His works are midway-like gates and shapes festival attendees appear to enjoy walking among. That romper-room playfulness animates Mina Cheon and Gabriel Kroiz’s diamond lights, which dot the walkways heading from Pier 5 to Harbor East. People appear to enjoy getting their photo taken standing inside of these large, illuminated diamond shapes, but I’m not buying their ostensible referencing to CitiWatch‘s surveillance system and the blue lights associated with them. That’s a specious symbolism not earned by experiencing the works in person, as they fit all too comfortably among the rest of the bright and shiny nonsense at the Inner Harbor, void of tensions.

The Inner Harbor setting, in fact, can’t be ignored or even muted, much less transcended. Not only do all of its corporate entertainment, retail, and restaurant signage possess a similar illumination palette as the Light City artworks, they’re all an order of magnitude larger than every piece in the festival. The environment just devours everything in sight, and any piece with a touch of nuance about its articulation or concept feels nearly inert.

Take Lisa Dillin’s “Natural Lighting Emulator V.” For it Dillin has made a series of slowly rotating discs that have holes, shapes, slits cut into them; as they slowly turn overhead the light passing through them becomes diffuse, the way sunlight does passing through a tree canopy. This piece is exactly the kind of acutely observed, inspired use of a material to evoke the natural world that Dillin does so exceptionally well. But installed maybe 10 meters away from the entrance to Family Meal, it feels and looks like the outdoor smoking area, a place to burn one with just enough light to check Facebook while doing so.

The same could be said for Robby Rackleff’s “Pyrrha” or Greg St. Pierre and Andrew Bernstein’s “Water Wall,” which are both projection and sound installations. The former uses the visual language of glitchy computer graphics and is installed on a bridge by the former Public Works Museum. The latter sits in the harbor off the promenade behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East, and it projects images onto a spray of water shooting into the air. Both are the kinds of ideas and scales that would stun in any kind of gallery setting; at the Inner Harbor they feel like the sorts of mild divertissements that are there all the time. Here you go hip, young customers of Wit & Wisdom, the official bar of Light City. Partake of house-crafted infusions such as bacon-washed bourbon and seasonal cocktails such as an Asian pear mule while enjoying the pretty lights we had local artisans craft for your amusement.

*     *     *

Now, about those historical roots. Practically since its public debut the fest’s press materials have touted: “In 1816, Baltimore was the first American city to illuminate its streets with gas lanterns, revolutionizing the urban landscape forever by transforming the city with light.”

I’m not entirely convinced that’s accurate. Yes, on June 11, 1816, Baltimore businessman-slash-artist Rembrandt Peale used gaslights to illuminate galleries—or a gallery, I haven’t been able to determine if it was one or more rooms—in his for-profit museum located at 225 North Holliday Street downtown, the site where artist Abigail DeVille is installing Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars, her new body of work as a project of the Contemporary. Peale was part of a five-man business team that formed the Gas Light Company of Baltimore—the company that would become Baltimore Gas and Electric—in June 1816, and it set to work laying pipe that would run gas through the city. As noted in an October 10, 1998, Baltimore Sun article by Frederick Rasmussen, “[i]n 1817, the new company was contracted by the city to erect its first gas light at the corner of Market and Lemon streets, today Baltimore and Holliday streets.”

Rasmussen continued:

“At the end of World War II, there were some 16,000 gas lamps still in operation in Baltimore. By the early 1950s, when Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro began conversion of the city’s lighting to mercury vapor lamps, there were still more than 10,000 gas lamps casting their wonderful soft, yellow-greenish light across the city.

It was on Aug. 14, 1957, that D’Alesandro extinguished the city’s last gas lamp in Little Italy, thus ending the city’s 140-year affair with gas illumination.”

Elsewhere in the Sun‘s archives, a letter appeared in the November 10, 1957, edition that brought up conflicting sources as to who had the first gas lights in the U.S., Baltimore or Richmond, Va. Depending on what sources you check today, that question hasn’t been entirely settled.

I’m not mentioning these factoids here merely to be a prick—marketing claims probably don’t get fact checked—but to mention how events such as Light City Baltimore participate in history rewriting whether they are intentionally trying to or not. I don’t know if the fest’s organizers tried pitching the festival to local civic and business leaders without the bicentennial hook, but I do wonder if this historical truthiness makes it a juicer sell. Because the festival wasn’t marketed as, We want to have a light festival because we think it’s cool. Instead, part of what’s being sold with this festival is the idea that Baltimore was an innovator of something at some point in time and, ergo, it can be again. We should remember this great moment in the past and use it as a springboard into the future. Light City is one of many ways a city’s past gets retold to remake a possible future for itself.

Of course, the complications come in when we starting getting down into the particulars of whose past we’re talking about, whose future, and who gets to decide, participate, and profit from the making of that future. Right now Light City is but a small plot point in the ongoing postmodern novel that is Baltimore’s central business district in the postwar era. (See David Harvey’s “A View from Federal Hill” for a different chapter.) And it’s following in the footsteps of many chapters that use “art,” vaguely defined, as a black box to generate tourism revenue.

That’s a predatory strategy that I’ve suggested elsewhere doesn’t work. What I didn’t mention then is that the strategy more consistently than not makes utterly underwhelming art, an argument that this light festival does little to dispel.

Light City, however, is taking place in a post-uprising Baltimore where its citizens are refreshingly wrestling with and reckoning the city’s past. And wandering around the fest and then doing some cursory reading about city’s gaslight history, briefly excerpted above, didn’t have me thinking about the Baltimore of 1816. The Baltimore that the festival sifted to the surface was that of the Mayor D’Alesandro that extinguished that last gaslight, and the ways power players in Baltimore, and the vision they produce for the city, remain concentrated in such a tiny pool of people.

Consider: Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was the father to both Minority Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro III, the city’s mayor from 1967 to 1971. That D’Alesandro returned to the newscycle over the past year because he occupied City Hall during the uprising that ran April 6-14, 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was succeeded by William Donald Schaeffer, the four-term mayor who oversaw the habor’s transformation into a tourist mecca. Thomas L. J. D’Alesandro was also mayor when the Morris A. Mechnic Theatre opened in 1966.

I’m wicked cheap, so when I went to Light City I parked a good stroll away from the Harbor and not at one of the garages charging roughly $20 for the night. And while heading back I walked by the site of the old Mechanic. I usually pass through downtown by bus, cab, or bike, and I’m rarely around this area at night, so I hadn’t seen the destruction up close and personal, when it is slightly illuminated by the ambient glow of nearby streetlights and buildings. I’m no champion of Brutalism, but walking by the hole in the ground stopped me in my tracks—simply because for a few years I would sit behind the theater waiting for a phone to ring.

When I worked as a bike messenger in the pre-cell phone and hand-radio days of the early-to-mid 1990s, a pair of pay phones behind the Mechanic was where you were sent if you ended up clear of deliveries downtown. You and whoever else was clear would sit around, lean your bikes up against a concrete slab, and shoot the shit, grab a quick bite, smoke, whatever, until the phone rang and you got a pickup. I spent many days chilling there in good weather and bad. If it was wintry wet you were looking to get moving as quickly as possible. On slow, sunny days you didn’t mind the downtime. Maybe you’d get lucky and the law firm of Venable, Baetjer, and Howard, now known as Venable LLP, would have a stack of filings that needed to get run up to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation at 301 West Preston. Multiple stops at the same address were easy money. I remember one slow spring day a number of us pooled up a nice chunk of change that would be awarded to the first of us able to ride our bike down the up-moving escalator that climbed up from the underground parking lot. Nobody dared try, though a few of us stood at the top looking down, trying to determine just how wrong it could go.

I hadn’t thought about of such things since the ’90s. I didn’t live down there. I didn’t even work at a nearby office building. I merely spent some time there off and on during the years I worked as a bike messenger in college because the money was better than waiting tables. And the sight of its annihilation triggered a small but potent wave of nostalgia.

What if this destruction took place in my neighborhood? What if where I grew up looked like this? That’s what EBDI and the Johns Hopkins University (note: I’m a Hopkins alumnus who now works for the university, and it is a Light City sponsor) did to the Middle East neighborhood when in 2001 they identified 750 households for removal to redevelop 88 acres of East Baltimore. That’s what the city did to Harlem Park in 1969 when it wanted to build a highway connecting the central business district, where renewal investment was taking place, to Interstate Highway 70 in Howard County, destroying more than 950 homes, more than 50 businesses, and displacing roughly 1,500 people. Both are/were economic development projects designed in full cooperation with civic and business leadership.

In both instances the populations affected were overwhelmingly African-American. Previous commitments prevented me from getting down to Light City on Wednesday night, where Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” installation at McKeldin Square—which involves projecting the faces of victims of police violence onto the fountain’s concrete walls—coincided with the 140th West Wednesday, the weekly event held by the activists who have fought for justice in the murder of Tyrone West by police on July 18, 2013. On Monday night at this site I caught a bit of a forum on police violence and on Tuesday some of the music performances—Son of Nun and Dev Rock, I think. The installation is, thus far, the rare work and public space at Light City that addresses the uprising, the urban policies and practices that created and sustain the violence of economic disinvestment, and the citizens affected by it in any meaningful way.

Light City hasn’t been coy about the fact that it’s hoping to boost tourism in and around the Inner Harbor during its week-long run, hoping to draw 350,000 visitors to the area. In the 1970s and ’80s the Mechanic was part of the city’s tourism industry, too, managed by a quasi-public corporation that also ran the Pier 6 concert pavilion. At one time the Mechanic was considered such a part of the city’s entertainment package that Omni International Hotel began targeting entertainment tourists in the late 1980s, and planned to make a “Skywalk to the Stars” attraction on the walkway that once passed over Baltimore Street. “We feel that Baltimore is increasingly becoming an entertainment attraction,” Henry J. Knott, president of the development company that owned the Omni, told The Sun in 1988.

While I was standing by the Mechanic—I mean, the massive hole in the ground where this entertainment attraction once stood, the bikes modified by Thick Air Studios, a Light City participant, rode by. It was a group of cyclists whose bikes had flags attached to them that each bore a red neon letter. Together they spelled out DEAR BALTIMORE. Well, I found out the next night they were supposed to spell DEAR BALTIMORE when I saw them again. That night the first few riders got a little jumbled, and what rode up Charles Street and eventually turned left onto Fayette read DARE BALTIMORE. If only.

Had I any electrical know how, creative chutzpah, cash that wasn’t going toward debt, and didn’t fear authorities, I’d look into finding a way to illegally illuminate the Mechanic hole in the ground as a kind of guerilla Light City installation. Just obnoxiously flood it with klieg lights and get a bunch of those glowstick rave necklaces and use them to spell out TOURIST ATTRACTION in the chain-link fence that surrounds the site. Because that’s all our tourism-dependent economic development strategy is doing for us: creating large-scale event holes in the ground into which we hope people and businesses pour money, funds that never actually reach or sustain the citizenry at large, until these things become of no use to the city’s civic and business elite.

*     *     *

Luminous Intervention’s “Pipelines” isn’t the only politically modulated Light City installation that works. Paul Rucker’s “In Light of History” does a fair job of tapping into the city’s checkered past. For “In Light” Rucker has installed a small street light at 11 places along Pratt Street that were sites of businesses involved in the slave trade. The light posts are modest, maybe six feet tall, and their lights are glowing areas that slowly change colors. Each lamppost supposedly had a pamphlet Rucker designed about this slave trade history, but even by 8:30 p.m. on Monday night I didn’t come across a single post that still had this publication in stock.

“In Light of History” is the lone Light City installation that I’ve come across thus far where the Inner Harbor’s overbearing presence amplifies the work’s thematic intent. Rucker’s lampposts are easy to walk right by and not even notice. Or you might see one and think it’s just a different kind of sandwich-board placard for one of Pratt Street’s many chain stores. Is this lamp telling me where the Starbuck’s is or where human beings profited from the selling of other human beings? Both.

Rucker’s performance on Monday night, however, was just a breath of fresh air. He set up with his solo cello right there at the Inner Harbor amphitheater where Light Street bends into Pratt, a pond of blinking star lights surrounding him. He announced that he wrote a piece of music for each of the sites in his installation and was going to play three of them, and the first went off without a hitch. The next two were plagued by technical difficulties—a looping pedal wasn’t working appropriately—and he eventually ended his set playing the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 (I think, my classical music knowledge isn’t what it should be).

But despite the technical difficulties, Rucker was everything the festival needs more of: genuine joy, sincere interactions with attendees, and above all a respect for the intelligence of the general public. He talked about liking the family friendly festival because kids were up late and out of the house with their parents, and toward the end of his set he invited all of the age seven-and-under tykes up to grab one of the blinking stars that surrounded him, causing the kind of adorable chaos that ensues anytime a group of starter humans trundle about. He asked the crowd history questions—What year and amendment gave women the right to vote? (1920, the 19th Amendment) What year was the Emancipation Proclamation issued? (1863) What year did Maryland outlaw slavery? (1864)—and people yelled out answers. The entire set never once felt like an eager-to-entertain tourist sideshow, and was a brief moment of good-natured fun in the presence of a grown-up human who happens to be an artist.

John Somers’ performance on Tuesday night was something else entirely. The guitarist/electronic artist was joined by Liz Meredith, with whom he put out the five-LP drone monolith The Disposition of Vibrant Forms in 2013, and three other musicians: two flutists and somebody who switched from xylophone to musical saw. Somers and Meredith set up their gear on the street in front of the Concert Stage at Harbor East, located at the intersection of Lancaster Street and Central Avenue. Somers’ laptop played a gurgling a wash of shifting sounds and textures, which he augmented with barely perceptible electric guitar hums and buzzes, sustained notes he sang through a megaphone while walking through the crowd, and melodica. Meredith alternated between two different violins and also wandered through the crowd bowing long notes. Ditto the two flutes and the xylophone/musical saw player. They all held single notes with no perceptible shape or structure to the composition, and for long stretches they were standing or walking among the twenty to thirty attendees milling about taking in this gentle ooze and staring at a bunch of gear sitting on the pavement.

And they kept this up for nearly an entire hour. It felt like part endurance test, part radically sheepish disdain for the festival’s middlebrow commercialism. When I turned around to see what one of the musicians was doing behind me, my eyes inevitably tilted up to see the Legg Mason Tower. Following one of the flutists as she distractedly walked east down Lancaster and my eyes came to alight on the under-construction Harbor Point monstrosity that the city awarded $107 million in TIF funding in 2013—the largest TIF request to the city prior to Under Armor asking for $535 million earlier this month.

And down there on the streets of Harbor East, where you typically hear some kind of radio-friendly pop flotsam floating out from a bar or car, five musicians performed an uncompromising, hour-long drone that wrapped itself around the head like a bucket of gelatin. Joggers passed through. People wearing workout lycra stopped by to stare for a few minutes at a time. Three people, shit you not, tossed a Frisbee around. One couple made out. Occasionally loud sounds from some place down the street or around the corner cut through the drone. Real-ass yuppies sat on the patio of Ouzo Bay next to some fake-ass fire while drinking red wine. At one point a street cleaner came through, grabbed a cup with one of those metal claw thingies, and then accidentally dropped the cup, which bounced around the street and became the only rhythmic element my ears had heard in what felt like a lifetime. Somers and company didn’t jibe with any aspect of Light City I had experienced thus far, and not only am I glad they were a part of this festival, I kinda hope Somers recorded the performance and Bandcamp releases it with the Eno-ish title Music for Branding Campaigns just to complete the apathetic middle finger of the performance’s entire steez.

That said, I’m still looking forward to a hitting a few things, such as Friday’s Open Beats hosted by the Llamadon Collective over by Mondawmin Mall and the LabBodies performance in Station North, the Saturday event at the Clifton Park bandshell and Dan Deacon that night—chiefly because the performances have been the most satisfying events thus far. (Note: I’m not attending any of the conferences for lack of interest and, frankly, it takes a certain amount of temerity to hold a conference that claims to “focus on promise in overlooked neighborhoods” and charge $200 to get in, so I couldn’t afford to go even if I were curious.)

I just wish the light art was more interesting, or more interestingly installed, but that would mean moving it away from the Inner Harbor’s gaping maw of mediocrity. Even something that should be compelling, like the “Lightwave: Baltimore’s Beacon” combination of oral histories and dancing light, ends up feeling like a highway traffic sign. Light City isn’t bad; merely inconsequential. And I shudder to think what artists and communities could actually do with a fraction of the capital that went into this tourism gamble—what would a Transmodern or Abdu Ali’s talk about making Kahlon a festival look like with a $100,000 cash infusion? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that neither would aspire to bring some 350,000 people to the city. But I’m also not convinced that bringing 350,000 people to the city is a good enough reason to sink any amount of capital into the creation of middling spectacle.


Micro’s Macro:On Andrew Bernstein’s The Great Outdoors (Ehse)

What feels like nearly a minute and a half of silence lingers between the first two tracks on Andrew Bernstein’s new cassette/digital EP, The Great Outdoors. Six-minute opener “Black Noise,” a wash of propeller-blade textures and oscillating electronic tones, begins its glacial fades to silence at around the five-and-a-half-minute mark, and the following title track spends about 50 seconds before what sounds like a tenor saxophone’s low murmur haunts the headphones. Only on the fifth or sixth spin did the ears detect a subtle something lurking in silence’s shadows at the tail end of “Noise” and the beginning of “Outdoors,” and those faint notes—and the patience necessary to go looking for something in that presumable negative space—feel to be part of Bernstein’s close-listening request here. This quiet isn’t the digital blank tape hiding a hidden track at the end of a CD; it’s an attempt to draw the ear into what first reads as sound’s absence, to pay attention to the musical details that aren’t up front demanding attention.

Thus far on his solo recordings Bernstein, a percussionist/saxophonist in Baltimore quartet Horse Lords—whose upcoming new album, Interventions (Northern Spy), is a dizzying jolt—and former Teeth Mountain member (a band whose Outside the Dream Syndicate tumults and hang-up-in-the-time-machine drones have aged quite well), explores texture combinations in subtle variations and layerings. The three pieces on Outdoors fall someplace between Unnatural Music for Cassette‘s long-form electronic odysseys and Cult Appeal‘s sax and electronics experiments, as witnessed in the “Thought Forms” I to III variations, which felt like an abstract painter exploring a new idea. Outdoors‘ “Black Noise” and the closing track “Exhaust” hew closer to Bernstein’s deliberate electronic works. The latter, particularly, is affecting, stretching past the 14-minute mark and achieving a mesmerizing, meditative tension through a series of layered, sustained tones that slowly build to an old-cathedral menace before the track slowly slips away. “Exhaust’s” fade to silence is an uncomfortable two minutes of barely perceptible volume diminishing, and it leaves you feeling like you’ve been blindfolded and left alone in an unfamiliar abandoned building.

If it sounds like there’s more purpose behind the sounds on Outdoors than Cult, credit the suite of four generative sound art pieces that accompany it. Each takes a relatively simple design element, varies it, and repeats it over and over and over—such as a screen-filling series of horizontal lines, the distance between each line slightly changing to make whole groups of lines appear to buzz—establishing the album’s leitmotif headspace: minor adjustments in small parts can yield profound variety in the overall work. This idea finds it most potent realization in “The Great Outdoors,” 13 minutes and 45 seconds of what sounds like tenor saxophone played via circular breathing and extended techniques. In my ears it brings to mind those disarmingly dense solo outings by Evan Parker, such as Whitstable Solo and Conic Sections, where repeated patterns sound the same the first time through but repeated listening rewards the ears with a strange lushness, where minimal subtly piled upon minimal subtly becomes a baroque tapestry. Bernstein’s playing here produces that kind of opaque beauty, where the smallest of shifts in tone and timbre again and again and again snowball into a voluptuous curtain wrapping itself around the ears.

Andrew Bernstein plays an album release show for The Great Outdoors March 11 at the 5th Dimension with Tigue, Alpenglow, and Anna and Elizabeth. See: Facebook event page.

From the Archives: On two novel by Boris Vian

Note: This review originally appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.

Rays of sunlight stream through windows and congeal into honey-golden droplets on a tile floor, which are gathered like jewels by a friendly house mouse. A “pianocktail” concocts wild libations inspired by the jazz songs played on it. Rifle barrels are grown like flowers in coffin-shaped planters, which have to be warmed by naked human flesh. Metal-frog-powered Rube Goldberg machines crank out a pharmacy’s medications. Cops tool around in skin-tight, bulletproof black leather and heavy metal boots. A weapon kills by attaching to the torso and ripping out the heart. Welcome to the wonderfully alive and terrifyingly human world of Boris Vian.

Born in Ville-d’Avray, France, in 1920 and passing away a short 39 years later, the fearsomely talented Vian crammed nearly a dozen careers into his brief life. Educated as a engineer, Vian abandoned the steady life to pursue his other interests, turning himself into a novelist, playwright, journalist, poet, writer of pornography and sci-fi, translator, actor, musician, jazz critic, instrument inventor, and, because that wasn’t quite enough, opera librettist.

Most baffling, Vian miraculously squeezed out his original, imposing output during a life that sounds lifted from a bohemian fantasy. He was a member of the College of Pataphysicians, a parody of an intellectual society dedicated to imaginary solutions. A habitué of Paris’ post-war St. Germain-de-Pres, Vian befriended Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, writing a column in Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes under the name “the Liar.” A jazz fanatic, Vian introduced a young Miles Davis to his friend Louis Malle, and the American jazz giant eventually scored the French filmmaker’s debut, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Vian wrote “Le Deserteur,” the scathingly sardonic make love/not war song during France’s Algiers troubles. He famously drank for sport; women liked him, and he liked them right back. His “debut” novel—a pulp dashed off in a fortnight called J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves), published under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan— became the American Psycho controversy of late-’40s Paris. When his congenital heart condition took his life—since Vian couldn’t even die mundanely, he passed during a screening of the unauthorized film adaptation of his J’irai—Vian’s acclaim was on the rise, and by the spring of 1968 he was a revered French cult figure.

[Some copy missing here, but at this point the essay is referring to L’ecume des jours, which has been translated into English as Foam of the Daze, Froth on the Daydream, and Mood Indigo] . . . a mash note to pretty girls and the music of Duke Ellington, the book follows the fabulous misadventures of two young couples, Colin and Chloe and Chick and Alise, through an imaginatively bustling and otherworldly Paris. The independently affluent Colin lives with his manservant Nicolas and a mouse, and after marrying Chloe gives his friend Chick 25,000 doublezons (the novel’s monetary unit) so that he can marry Alise—which Chick blows on the publications and collectibles of his favorite writer/philosopher, “Jean-Sol Partre.”

Vian vibrantly paints this quartet’s good life in colorful gestures—ice-skating where valets come and broom-sweep the fallen from the ice, dancing the oglemee at bawdy parties, and Colin and Chloe’s magical wedding. Yet just as Colin and Chloe become gaga newlyweds, life turns bleak. Chloe becomes mortally afflicted with a water lily growing in her lung, and Colin spends his entire fortune, sells his belongings, and finally submits to the ultimate indignity—employment—to fill their bedroom with flowers, the only medication comforting her condition. Their radiant apartment begins to shrink, until the jovial mouse has to flee. From the crucifix above an altar, Jesus mocks Colin at Chloe’s funeral, wondering why Colin didn’t spend as much money as he did on the wedding. The cops come after Chick, and the cast-off Alise goes after the vendors of Partre paraphernalia with the heart-snatcher.

That weapon’s made-up French word—”l’arrache-coeur”—plays on the euphemism for “heartbreaker” (“crève-coeur”), and Vian’s final novel carries the heartbroken’s heavy weight. Heartsnatcher, though less playfully animated, is Vian’s most mature work, the shadow of his lifelong knowledge that his heart could stop at any moment cast over every page. Set in a phantasmagoric small town where the old are auctioned off and the congregation assaults the priest, Heartsnatcher follows the mounting obsessions of Clementine, a mother of three—twins Noel and Joel and a third, Alfa Romeo—who loathes her husband for putting her through the rigors of birth. Clementine grows more and more overly protective as her children age, and though town psychiatrist Timortis tries to assuage her neurosis, she ends up going to extremes to shield her offspring like animals eating their young—to put them back—eventually imprisoning them in cages.

Disarmingly funny and catastrophically tragic, Vian’s novels take place in parallel worlds much removed from this one, yet their emotional landscape couldn’t feel more familiar: love and art and sex and life and music and everything can be great, but things can always go horribly, monumentally wrong. Vian confronted his own unknown by injecting his ceaseless talents and infectious humor into everything he did, leaving behind a body of work that inspires by example: that it’s what people choose to do with their life, however troubled and brief, that makes it the intoxicating folly worth caring about.

Words are living things: a quick appreciation of the creative crew who gave NBC’s Hannibal its savage beauty


I probably won’t even get around to watching tonight’s series finale of NBC’s Hannibal until sometime tomorrow or later this week, but before this cancelled gem of a network drama, which was insultingly dumped to Saturday nights back in July, ends for good I did want to give a quick shout out to a program that never quite got the recognition it deserved. Yes, it had its TV critic champions, and for the usual reasons. The writing is top notch—it’s a deliciously quotable program. The performances are consistently impressive—Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter now seems excessively campy after Mads Mikkelsen’s unflappable, stay-thirsty-my-friends take on the intellectual, epicurean psychopath. And its unsettling view of human psychology makes it one of the conceptually darkest network TV programs since Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.

But if I’m honest about what I dug about this show, all of that was beside the point. This Hannibal was one of the most visually decadent TV programs that I can think of, and I hope that whatever networks take away from its modest ratings performance and subsequent cancellation, it isn’t that TV shows should refrain from aspiring to create utterly intoxicating imagery.

Think about it: this so-called second golden age of TV we’ve been witnessing is, in addition to being overbearingly male, a narrative era, driven by writer showrunners and writing teams who put a great deal of heavy lifting into their characters, universes, and mythologies. That’s peachy—I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of many of those programs (but not Mad Men, fuck Mad Men). Few of them went the extra mile to be as ambitious with their imagery as they are with their storytelling. Yes, yes, yes, most are quite thoughtfully art directed and had their moments of cool sequences, but so many of those programs adhered pretty safely to some sense of realistic narrative, from The Sopranos and The Wire through Breaking Bad and Homeland, even if they were in some ways sci-fi, speculative, horror, or fantasy (e.g., Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story). Again, not that no TV show has ever tried something visually dazzling—David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly had its moments—but few make their visual language as integral to the overall endeavor of the show’s universes.

Hannibal creator/producer Bryan Fuller has attempted to do such with his precious series—Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daises, none of which, I should point out, I ever pursued after the first one or two episodes—but Hannibal is something else entirely. (Fuller is also partner in a designer furniture studio in Los Angeles, so the guy has an eye for how he wants things to look.) Yes, it helps that Fuller’s been able to attract some top-notch directors to the series: Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica, his slept-on and crushing 1995 feature debut Angel Baby), cinematographer-turned-director Guillermo Navarro (he’s lit most of Guillermo del Toro’s films), Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube), David Slade (30 Days of Night), John Dahl, Peter Medak, James Foley, and Neil Marshall. More importantly, the show’s production crew has been together for almost the entire run: cinematographer James Hawkinson, production designer Matthew Davies, art director Rory Cheyne, set decorator Jaro Dick, and their teams/assistants.

They’ve made this show gorgeous, and allowed its visual world, outlined since the beginning by the opening credits—flowing blood against a stark white background, those rivulets eventually pooling into a face that could be Lecter’s—to be echoed again and again and again during its three season run. How many times have images of people and creatures disappearing into or emerging from some kind of liquid recurred over the course of its three seasons?


Admittedly, a few other programs are certainly trying to operate on this level, where its visual universe is working in intentional concert with its narrative themes. Dennis Kelly’s Utopia is one. This short-lived Channel 4 series—only two six-episode seasons—is a paranoid conspiracy drama worthy of a short Thomas Pynchon novel or Alan Moore comic, complete with shadowy quasi-governmental agencies and their hit men, science being used for evil instead of good, and group of ordinary people thrust together to stop a global calamity from happening. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to look like The X-Files or Fringe; instead, it looks like a David LaChapelle photo come to life, all bright colors and brightly lit ordinary spaces. This hot palette made the narrative’s murkiness all the more unsettling, be it the red-orange glow of car explosion against a blue sky being offset by the circling black birds on the opposite side of the frame, the fresh-cut-grass green of a child’s sweater and his classroom’s walls undercutting a moment of incomprehensible horror, or the bizarre site of neon red lights in a warehouse visually echoing the lines of a self-inflicted wound. Utopia‘s pop palette boldly distinguished itself on the small screen, but it was mostly setting, defining the show’s universe.


The Netflix series Sense8 took a more interesting, if flawed route. Trying to untangle the universe created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski is a little pointless—eight people around the globe begin to realize they’re somehow mentally/emotionally tethered, stuff happens, some nefarious people chase them—but how it all plays out is where it gets interesting. Built into the series’ film language is the fact that it’s going to switch subjective perspectives on the fly; that’s just a given. How it ends up doing that is often quite deft—the global “group sex” is episode six was probably the show’s most inspired moment—but also inconsistent. The show never quite gained any narrative momentum though it kept playing fast and loose with point of view. It was often thrilling to watch—it certainly helps that virtually every person in the cast is attractive (I perhaps unfairly quipped to a friend that it could’ve been subtitled “The United Colors of Donna Haraway)—but rarely satifying in its overall storytelling, and by the end this ambitious concept for a TV show started resprting to standard genre conventions. And it took forever—like, seven or eight episodes—just to get all its character pieces into place.

That said, Sense8 reached an operatic high point that few movies, much less TV shows, ever hit, and did it without uttering a word. At the end of episode 10 one of the characters goes to see her father perform at a symphony hall. What happens is that she, and by virtue of the whateverthehell psychic/mental/neural The Matrix connection, all seven people she’s connected to, experience the emotional roller coaster of their parents at the time of their own birth as if they’re watching a movie in their minds. Yes, it sounds incredibly corny, but with this sequence the show attempts a feat of emotional daring and absolutely sticks the landing.


This sequence was the kind of visual storytelling that TV shows think they’re doing with those musical montages that often wrap up story arcs but which never put the work into making character arcs and visual language intertwine so effortlessly as it does here. By this point Sense8 had established a template for its fluid subjectivity shifts, so when this sequence transpires it compoliments both its plot and visual universe. Some of the shots in this sequence last but a few seconds, but they’re done with such exquisite attention. The remebrance of Mexican actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) of his family crowded around his mother and TV set has the dramatic complexity of a Gregory Crewdson photograph, and the sequence actually pulls off allowing a character crying a single tear not be a visual cliché.

Neither Utopia or Sense8, however, aim as high as Hannibal, which has created more stunning single frames than any program in recent memory, from flames engulfing a human face at the top of this post to a slow fade from passing countryside to snails that becomes a surreal transition, a reverse tracking shot impersonally watching a man bleed in which the drops of blood seem to be falling up into the sky, or using a woman’s profile reflected in a cleaver’s blade as a reaction shot. Bravo, Hannibal creative team. You made watching TV about an extremely cultured and well-educated cannibal the most sumptuous meal of the week.


Please Note: All photos screengrabs I did on my computer, hence their inherit shittiness. I’m a word guy who appreciates the images, but me working with the images is inevitably an epic fail.

Ad hoc rock: On Dope Body’s Kunk and Holy Ghost Party’s Bayou Music


DOPE BODY‘s ZACHARY UTZ IS one of the odder lead guitarist in rock right now. Take any snippet of his work on Kunk, the band’s piercing new Drag City album, and it recalls typical guitar-god acrobatics: the distortion growls in “Dad,” the fuzzy notes bent into squeals the pepper the entire thing, the metallic chugs rippling around “Obey,” the feedbacking purrs reverberating through “Void.” They’re familiar sounds to anybody who has listened to the rock of the past 40-plus years. But like some fellow contemporary nonmetal guitarists—see also: Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster—Utz is too irreverent to use guitar pyrotechnics simply as a display of ostensible virtuosity. On Kunk he sounds far more interested in taking a lead guitarist’s full Malmsteem bag of tricks and instead using them to serve the song—or what the song could be.

In many ways the entire album follows suit. Everything about Kunk sounds and feels like the Dope Body norm: shades of Touch & Go Records heaviness, abrasive dynamic shifts, pummeling subject matter, all delivered with shirtless-dude intensity. But something in every one of the ten tracks feels a little off somewhere, whether it be Utz’ ear-grabbing guitar workouts, bassist John Jones putting a sleepy acid-house throb in the background of “Obey,” the stuttering tone-holes that echo through the 64-second exhale of “Ash Toke,” or the R&Bish pulse drummer David Jacober puts into the smooth operating “Down.” Kunk isn’t just another noise-rock outing, it’s something looser, more ambitious and impressive.

It’s the sound of a band shedding its skin a bit, and it makes these ears exited to hear where it’s going. Dope Body isn’t just stretching new songwriting muscles but being quite cheeky about it. The album was teased with “Old Grey,” the most conventionally Dope Body track here:

It’s everything expected from the band: Utz’ crunching chords, Jacober and Jones locking into a neck-snapping groove, Andrew Laumann’s vocals buried in the buzzing mix, cough-screaming what sounds like reports from the world’s end: “I’ve been sleeping on the street and woke up in a trash can” and “how we going to fit all these knives up in heaven baby.” But then there’s that whirly-gig cartoony sound marking time at the song’s beginning. And there’s that part about two minutes in when it sounds like everything drops out but Jacober and Utz, leaving Laumann to seek some kind of solace by asking “tell me it’s real/ tell me how to deal.” The band sounds like its’ figuring out what it wants from its sound on the fly here.

The band gets even looser on the album’s closing two tracks, “Pincher” and Void.” The former is a roughly two-and-a-half minute instrumental of darting ideas, flirtations with operatic math rock, and spectacular moments that it immediately abandons. The latter, at just over six minutes, is Konk‘s longest song, and easily the most haunting. Over a slab of Nuebautenish industrial sprawl the band patiently builds to a hectic rush, like a treadmill that keeps increasing the pace until you’re at a dead sprint trying not to get thrown off. But eventually you do get tossed, lungs depleted, legs shaking.

The album standout is “Goon Line,” genuinely gorgeous car crash. Utz finds that horrifyingly grating guitar tone that Paul Leary used in the Butthole Surfers “Graveyard” and dares to make it funky. Jacober hammers away like he’s laying railroad spikes. Jones’ bass line is an adventure into to the prog dimension. And Laumann hijacks the shrill long-“a” rhyme scheme that Bowie used to timestamp verses in “Fame”. Any one of those elements by themselves feels perfunctory; together they add up to a disorienting morass of manic joy.

THERE’S AN IMPROVISATIONAL FEEL to Kunk, and it sounds like Utz and Jacober used the same approach in the new album by Holy Ghost Party, their more indie-pop outfit. On HGP’s 2011 self-titled album the duo sounded like a perfectly acceptable dream-pop combo, complete with winsome sing-song melodies, moments of shoegazing grandeur, and Flaming Lips-like quirkiness. With the new Bayou Music (Ehse), the duo sounds like they spent a month listening to Skip Spence’s Oar, maybe a little Third Ear Band and Comus, the entire Jackie-O Motherfucker discography, and then decided to make a party record.

Bayou is equal parts pastoral psych-folk, stoner-rock head trip, and meditative outer-body experience, often within the same song. Closer “Fade” begins in the warm embrace of Jacober’s juggling beat and Utz’s cartwheeling guitar lines, over which one of them chants a Nag Champa mood. Three minutes in the song shifts gears, becoming a driving blast of sunny good cheer, and as the song approaches it eight-and-a-half minute end it’s achieved a Magic Hour majesty. Elsewhere, a song like “Earth Jam Memory” starts in what seems like standard “Cortez the Killer” mode and unfurls into a restless, shifting starburst, the way Tim Buckley’s backing band just tries to follow wherever he’s going in that righteous live version of “Gypsy Woman.” It’s a fun album, from the kaleidoscope-eyes tapestry of “Pinche”—nice song title there, gueros—to the third-eye massaging “Concerning Peace Bayou Music,” the kind of outta-sight excursion that takes it’s own sweet time meandering through its six minutes, putting shaking percussions behind a buzzing guitar that segues into the kind of sandalwood sway that momentarily makes a middle-aged dude consider doing some Stevie Nicks shawl dancing. And nobody needs to see that.

Dope Body plays an album release show Aug. 28 with Wume and Box Truck that you can find out about yourself if you know where to look. Holy Ghost Party, joined by Lexie Mountain, plays release show Aug. 30 at the Crown with Peter Nolan and Zachary Cale, and Dave Heumann.

A Time in Space: On Move, Maneuver. Track And Traipse at School 33

Stephanie Imbeau "Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)" (Installation view)
Stephanie Imbeau “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” (Installation view)

It’s hard to miss Stephanie Imbeau’s “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” the moment you enter School 33’s main gallery. The sculpture looks like a rainbow-colored parasol parade, kinda like the one seen in the title sequence of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that caterpillar-crawled across the wall, slinky flipped toward the floor, and sprang up to the ceiling. And at first encounter it’s difficult to wrap the brain around, at first glance recalling the instant smile provoked by Franz West’s “The Ego and the Id” that was created for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s To Build a House You Start With the Roof retrospective in 2008.

This insouciant vibe is a nice calibration for taking in Move, Maneuver. Track And Traipse, the group show curated by Karyn Miller, the director of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center. The work here is sneaky plunge into the metaphysical. The four artists—Sonja Hinrichsen, Imbeau, Hiroshi Jacobs, and Alessandra Torres—take different approaches to navigating and inhabiting physical space. The work feels strangely novel, as if artists focusing on the IRL realm is some kind of throwback. Imbeau, Jacobs, Torres, and curator Miller talk about the work and exhibition at a panel discussion at School 33, May 30, at 2 p.m.

Jacobs’ “Inside/Out” embraces the conceptual divide packed into that “IRL” shorthand used to separate directly observed space from the virtual. The installation engulfs the smaller gallery off the main room, and it completely hijacks the space’s geometry. Imagine two king-sized platform bed frames, wrapped in lavender stretch fabric, that have been distorted from ordinary rectangles into irregular polygons, one shoved flush into the corner of the room on the floor, the other acting like a drop-ceiling from above. Resting on the lower one shape is another geometric hunk of something or other, like a dodecahedron after an extreme makeover. The room is kept at low light, and entering it feels like walking into the next generation Star Trek‘s holodeck as it’s in the process of rendering that cartoon-inspired house in the Joe Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a place where cotton-candy colors and skewed perspectives were visually menacing.

Jacobs describes the installation as what the “act of finger-pinch zooming on your phone would look like as a physical space” on his web site, which highlights why the piece feels so uncomfortably banal. It’s an attempt at translating the trivial action on a digital interface into three dimensions, where we don’t have too many visual referents for it outside, say, the aforementioned sci-fi and speculative fiction comparisons above. Torres’ “Continuous Movement: Instructional Dance Machine, Prototype #2” shares that sense of the familiar unfamiliarity. The piece is a pair of curved steel rods elevated to human torso height; two black silk fans are attached to the curved rods, around which they appear to be able to move. A nearby set of photographs shows Torres demonstrating how the machine functions on a different prototype, the fans moved along the rods by hand.

The motion draws arcs along which hands and arms might move while dancing, though the metal guides—the machine—defines the space in which the choreography takes place. During her three year residency at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson Theater, Torres experimented with a variety of performances and sculptures that examined how the body and/or objects occupy space. And the notion of a “dance machine” as an apparatus for occupying space is droll; Torres’ sculpture isn’t a game machine like Dance Dance Revolution; it’s a physical corral, a way of restricting movement. Dance is one of many ways exploring space corporeally, as temporally fugitive as music but tactile and visible. Torres’ three wall-mounted fans from her “Bomba Y Plena” installation make ephemeral dance architectural, disrupting movement around the walls where they’re installed. That they’re about waist-high and evoke the sight of a dancer’s twirling skirt cheekily freezes a visual memory that flits by in the briefest of moments.

Hinrichsen’s “Snow Drawings – Eychauda France” digital prints treat time’s slipperiness in a more calmly reflective way. For her snow drawings project Hinrichsen uses snowshoes to walk crop-circle like connected swirls into the landscape. Scale is provided in the photos by houses, ski lifts, and clusters of trees; Hinrichsen is covering large, what look like football-field sized parcels of land. The photos are gorgeously serene: bright white surfaces with delightful curlicues carved into them. The longer you look, though, the more you realize how fleeting the sight you’re drinking in is. The labor involved is considerable—she’s visualizing the path taken by one human—and nature itself probably deleted the scene shortly after the image was documented.

Hinrichsen’s photos become quietly profound memento mori, visual evidence of something that once was but now isn’t. These particular reminders of the physical world’s transience are achieved through a build up of the artist’s physical movement through time and space. With accumulation in mind, take another look at Imbeau’s irreverent “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore).” The Brooklyn-based artist has been using lost and found umbrellas to make her rain cloud sculpture/installations for a number of years now, and the bric-a-brac qualities of the materials gives the them an improvisational verve. But just look at all those umbrellas. How many are forgotten in a closet right now, or tossed underneath a car seat, or stashed behind an office door? How many are necessity purchases while on the go and then immediately forgotten? Where are they all made? Where do they all eventually end up?

Such questions causes the brain to rifle through consciousness’ card catalog looking for something to compare “Rain Cloud (Wall Cloud, Baltimore)” outside the pun suggested by the title; mine settled on the nests of birds and insects who construct homes on the sheer faces of cliffs and buildings with scrounged materials, the improvised housing of shantytowns, the dumpster-dived dwellings of transitional populations. One human’s hoarding could be another’s home. Patiently, Imbeau’s work quietly evolved in the brain, and this ridiculous eruption of color and shape that assault the eyes transform into something more familiar, more deliberate, and more human.

Photo credit: Kim Llerena

On wandering into memory’s weeds thanks to one of Graham Coreil-Allan’s New Public Sites walking tours

About 140 yards separates the intersection of West Franklin Street from West Mulberry Street along North Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore, basically a city block—roughly the same distance between the Lost City Diner and the Station North Chicken Box along Charles Street. Standing on the north side of the West Baltimore intersection, atop a Jersey wall, it certainly doesn’t look that far away. I, along with some 40 other people, line this side of the street on the afternoon of April 24, taking part in a walking tour led by Graham Coreil-Allen as part of his SiteLines exhibit, on view through may 15 at the Current Gallery. Coreil-Allen, dressed in the plain-front slacks, teal polo shirt, sports jacket, and baseball cap of a tour guide, has led us from the gallery to this spot as part of the afternoon’s pedestrian adventure. He carried a megaphone with him, the requisite prop of a tour guide, which he genuinely needed at the moment. Overhead, police and television news helicopters hovered not too far away from us, near the Gilmor Homes housing project where people were gathering for the afternoon’s march to City Hall to protest the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Many of us would join that march when we connected to it on Greene Street. But first, we had to get to cross the street, four lanes of divided high-speed traffic colloquially known as the “Highway to Nowhere.”

Coreil-Allen calls himself a “public artist,” and his New Public Sites project combines elements of urban planning, architecture, and radical geography, with the guided tour model of the service economy to examine the everyday aspects of the urban environment: streets, buildings, embankments, developments, etc. Though he’s been working on this project and leading his tours for a few years–read his 2010 thesis (PDF) for a good introduction–this was my first time to go on one of his strolls. And I’m doing it on the same day that, by mainstream news narratives, that peaceful protests first turned violent.

Now, it’s incidental that this Coreil-Allen-led tour and his gallery show happened at the same time as the April 24 Freddie Gray march; that said, what his project and tour offers is a reminder that the conditions that created the world into which Freddie Gray was born, and the root causes that primed the events gripped our city in the time since that march, were not independent. The present state of inequality was manufactured and developed by people and policies of the city, state, and country.

The coincidence of the New Sites tour and the city’s protests and ensuing uprising caused Coreil-Allen to improvise his programming a bit; he postponed last weekend’s event and today’s, the Wandering Shards of Specter Riches walking tour, which starts at 2 p.m. from Current, is in some ways a response to “recent events,” which I’m placing in quotes because there’s no way to talk about what is gripping our city right now, and who is involved, in language that isn’t loaded. We’re presently occupying a point where we’re relooking and re-thinking about where we live, and committing words into ideas about the matter is a partisan act.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the content of the tour I participated in here, nor am I’m going to elaborate on his performance as the tour guide—and it is part performance piece, as slyly considered as Andrea Fraser’s “Museum Highlights”. Not because I’m uninterested in what he has to say about the various histories of development in/around downtown West Baltimore, eras about which I knew a healthy amount already just from being a local writer/citizen. And not because I didn’t appreciate the entire experience—I did, and in what has grown in my mind as a significant compliment is the fact that halfway through the tour, as Coreil-Allen pointed out Federal warning signs and talked about why Jersey walls were created and traced the history of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the first point of comparison that popped into my mind was the late local creative worker Peter Zahorecz’ syringe stencil project from the 1990s, one of those quietly profound artistic feats that get you to look at the everyday world you encounter with new eyes.

That interest in the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the ordinary struck me here: the curiosity with which Coreil-Allen approaches his subject matter. His application of an artist/architect’s eye to the socioeconomic history of place compliments a number of politically minded and publically engaged artists and art collectives of the past 30-plus years (at least), and Baltimore has witnessed a fair amount of that activity. Most recently, the Contemporary under Irene Hoffman, from 2006-2010, was especially interested in experimenting with presenting this hybrid variety of work.

And this is one of those moment where I become the old guy shaking a fist at clouds: Coreil-Allen’s tour also made me recall those shows and similarly inquisitive projects like the Cram Sessions Chris Gilbert curated when he was the contemporary art curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which asked questions about the role of artists and museums in the communities in which they reside. I’m thinking about the Contemporary’s Headquarters: Investigating the creation of the ghetto and the prison industrial complex, The Reverse Ark: In the Wake, and Participation Nation, exhibitions that never seemed to spark much substantive local thinking or engagement. That’s not a knock: politically engaged art, installations, and projects are as difficult to do well as run a successful political campaign or change-producing community organizing effort. Failure is always a possibility. But in looking over what writing about these projects I could find online, the quality of the discussion was a bit tepid: they were often met with a mix of curiosity and apathy, as if the intersection of creative labor and real world issues was insufficient to produce thoughtful dialog.

And I bring that up here because “recent events” has so many of us, for good reason, thinking about the What We Do given the All That Has Happened. Yes, that’s the anxiety of comfortable, but that’s OK. All conversations have to start somewhere. So let’s wonder aloud about what good an art critic, criticism, or art in general is in a city on fire. And let’s make an effort not to forget that when we’re doing criticism and creative labor when the city’s not.

2012: The good stuff

At some point I went from being the guy who hates on things just because to being the guy who likes a great deal of the stuff I come across. Below is an attempt to think of about 20 things across the arts spectrum that made 2012 a little better every time I listened to, looked at, watched, read or otherwise consumed them. I wrote about a number of them in some way over the year but I’m not linking to those articles here because while I’m egotisticl enough to make the below lists in the first place, I hope I’m not so fucking egostical to say, “I like this–and you should read me saying why I like this over here too.” Also included are a few of the ones I just couldn’t wrap my head around for whatever reason.



Joshua Abrams Represencing (Eremite)
Oren Ambarchi/ Keiji Haino/ Jim O’Rourke Imikuzushi (Black Truffle)
Jessica Bailiff At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky (Kranky)
The Coup Sorry to Bother You (ANTI-)
Converge All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)
The Evens The Odds (Dischord)
Julia Holter Ekstasis (RVNG)
Gate Damned Revolutions (Ultramarine) At some point in this life I may tire of Michael Morley’s thousand-mile-stare of a voice, the way his distorted guitar sounds like its fighting through the settling debris fog of a just detonated grenade, and stuttering pulses of electronic devices right before they malfunction, but that won’t be this year thanks to these two side-long excursions into existentialism’s morning after. Side note: Between this album and new releases from Smegma release and BeNe GeSSeRiT, and a Blood Stereo cassette, Ultramarine finished 2012 strong.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation) You can take all the time you need between recordings when what finally comes out is this devastatingly beautiful. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” = 20 minutes of glacial burn flowering into skin-puckering spine chill.
Grass Roots s/t (AUM Fidelity) One of the year’s best delivery systems for unfettered joy.
Guardian Alien See the World Given to a One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey)
The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation Egor (Denovali)
Nadja Dagdrøm (Broken Spine) The Canadian drone duo of Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff teamed up with Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly to smelt this four-song slab of faraway storm thunder rattling the China cabinet. A great long winter nights album.
Frank Ocean Channel Orange (Def Jam)
Prince Paul Negroes On Ice (Nature Sounds)
Protomartyr No Passion All Technique (Urinal Cake) One of those albums that should be getting dry humped into instant classic status. Nothing really new here, but holy exit-this-Roman-shell does this Detroit quartet deliver the goods.
Schoolboy Q Habits and Contradictions (Top Dawg)
Swans The Seer (Young God) A tremendous statement of an album and despite–or, maybe, because–of its monolithicness I found myself listening to it quite often.
Ana Tijoux La Bala (Nacional Records) Another reason why I need to up my Spanish game.
Vatican Shadow Ornamented Walls (Modern Love)
Scott Walker Bisch Bosh (4AD)

My blind spot: The fish/barrel choice is Japandroids Celebration Rock (Polyvinvyl)–like all pop-punk dreck in the Green Day vibe, it’s a horn section away from a ska band–but I’m going to have to go with Baroness Yellow and Green (Relapse), which didn’t have the hooks to update .38 Special’s pop metal, wasn’t psych/prog enough to warrant the extended running time, and jettisoned conventional heaviness for a sound that felt merely frustrated and irritated. What was left was something the skirted far too close to Smashing Pumpkins dorm rock.

Baklavaa Hairmoans

Baltimore Albums

Baklavaa Hairmoans EP (self released)
Bamboo Jams (Friends)
Cex Presumed Dead (Automation Records)
Curse s/t (Realicide Youth Records)
Dan Deacon America (Ribbon) Side two is what really gets me here, the sound of an artist who has always invited his audience into the music becoming self-aware of himself as a product of a time and very specific place and responding to it with candid sincerity.
Dope Body Natural History (Drag City)
Friend Collector Americna Demos (Terra Firma) I thought this was called Bandwagon, based on the CD I picked up from Sound Garden, but the bandcamp page calls it American Demos and now I see that the first track is called “Bandwagon,” so I’m the old guy who doesn’t know how to interface with this new fangled technology or something. Regardless, Friend Collector chokes out a serious slab of suffocating noise rock, and I’d like to thank the band very much for that.
Gaybomb Weather Man (Ehse Suspicious Stimulus cassette)
Chester Endersby Gwazda Shroud (Friends Records)
Horse Lords s/t (Ehse) I’ve sung this quartet’s praises a few times already, and I should prolly shut up about it already, but every time I see the group play this or this live, I start shooting my mouth off again.
Multicult Spaces Tangled (Sleeping Giant Glossolalia) I hate myself a little bit for having yet to catch this trio live yet. Something to look forward to in 2013.
Labtekwon Hardcore: Labtekwon and the Righteous Indignation/Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar (self released)
Lower Dens Nootropics (Ribbon) A quick hat tip to the Push Record Play blog for its Top 10 list of Baltimore music videos (FYI: it’s a slow loading page), which appropriately includes Lower Dens’ striking videos for “Brain” and “Candy.”
Liz Meredith self-titled (self released)
Old Lines s/t (self released)
Roomrunner Super Vague (Fan Death)
Sexgender Transgenital (self released)
Silence Kid Thin Walls (self) A band that really deserves much more attention than it’s received so far. No wheel gets reinvented here–it’s a no-fuss guitar and drums duo capable of generating the skittish pop/rock joy of the Yips (Seven Pillars of the Yips, Bonfire in a Dixie Cup)–but sometimes all you want is so good no-fuss rock.
Spectre The True & Living (Wordsound)
Zomes Variations Vol. 1 (Thrill Jockey)

My blind spot: Beach House Bloom (Sub Pop) I tried. Really. As a fan of female vocals and downtempo dream pop that works great for soundtracking a lost Quaalude weekend, I tried. But there’s something about this group that just makes me think Swing Out Sister making house music for The Limited.



Fair Warning: My taste in singles has always run toward the things I wish were on the radio but aren’t, even though they’re kinda/sorta just as explosively superficial as the other things on the radio. I just like them a little more better.

Neneh Cherry and the Cherry Thing “Dirt”” I’m a total sucker for any cover of this Stooges nugget, but Cherry and company here, with a sax providing the riff, wring the living fuck out of it.
Big Christ “Living Dead” I know only two things about this Baltimore quartet: 1) This debut features a fantastic title/cover image combo and 2) “Living Dead” is a wonderfully infectious 95-second nervous breakdown.
The Dirty Projectors “Offspring Are Blank” I still think this is a pretty great Queen song.
Daughn Gibson “Lookin’ Back on 99”
Zebra Katz “Ima Read” The passive menace here cracks me up. It’s nothing but bass and voice making a flat statement of fact, like Proposition Joe calmly informing somebody, “You fuck with me I’ll kill your whole family.”
Solange Knowles “Losing You”
In this Moment “Blood” Because I apparently have been waiting for a woman with a big scream to front White Zombie.
Kendrick Lamar “Backseat Freestyle”
MIABad Gurlz” Just a thought: can Romain Gavras direct the next Bond flick with MIA penning the title song?
Neon Hitch “Gold (Arcade 44 Boombox Session featuring Rahzel and Black Violin)” I love all those short video live treatments of songs that people do these days, such as NPRmusic’s fab Tiny Desk Concerts. The BBC does these well, whether 6 Music Live at Maida Vale or BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, and there’s other overseas collaborative activities that I’m really late to hear about, such as MADE in Berlin. What comes out of these isn’t always amazing, but when lightning strikes–viz., MADE pairing Aloe Blacc with ciolinist/composer Mihalj Kekenj and painter Jaybo for this “Billie Jean” cover and DJ Fresh going acoustic for this gorgeous version of “Gold Dust” featuring Ms. Dynamite, both from 2011–it can be ass flattening.
Killer Mike “Reagan”
Frank Ocean “Super Rich Kids”
Rita Ora “How We Do (Party)”
Public Enemy “Catch the Thrown” Look, I don’t care that Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamp was a little listless, to put it mildly. Some of the tracks hit pretty well–“Run Til Its Dark” and “I Shall Not Be Moved”–and this is just a solid jolt of righteous frustration.
Santigold “Disparate Youth”
Sleigh Bells “True Shred Guitar” Treats did nothing for me in 2010, save remind me of something Keven McAlester said about Atari Teenage Riot: “Ministry with hipper fans.” Sleigh Bells aimed squarely at the VH1 middle with Reign of Terror and somehow whiffed, but “True Shred Guitar,” with the hokey Live at Budokan-ish intro, see-spot-run simple lyrics, and grandiose sense of self-importance is one smart sports-stadium DJ from becoming a classic our-team-is-the-best jock jam.
Bruce Springsteen “Death to My Hometown” Dear 2013: Could you please make a Springsteen and Jon Langford collaboration happen in some way?
Taylor Swift “State of Grace” I really have to credit Erin Markey for even getting me to pay attention Taylor Swift’s songwriting in the first place and then thank my wife for genuinely loving “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” enough to make we want to buy the album, which I do enjoy. And this lead track is one of those generically epic songs that’s trying to appeal to the widest possible audience but the song boats one of those three-act structures–see also Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days”–that I’m a sucker for.
Protomartyr “Bubba Helms” For my money the year’s closest to perfect 7-inch.
ZZ Top “I Gotsa Get Paid”

My blind spot: Fun “We Are Young” I know this came out in 2011 but it seemed to wallpaper the background in 2012, and not even the presence of Janelle Monae helps, though I suppose it was only a matter of time before somebody combined Air Supply’s junior-high power ballad with Decemberistsesque twee.



Megan Abbott Dare Me (Reagan Arthur)
Jami Attenberg The Middlsteins (Grand Central)
Dale Carpenter Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence vs. Texas (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Lisa Cohen All We Know: Three Lives (FSG)
Geoff Dyer Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Pantheon) Dyer’s ability to write about anything and keep me interested would really piss me off if I didn’t enjoy reading it so much.
Ben Fountain Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)
Gillian Flynn Gone Girl (Crown) I loved the pace of this thriller, its conversational tone and She Woke to Darkness narrative card shuffle, and I have to say Flynn’s creation Amy Dunne really knows how to bring the “Cathago delanda est.”
Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire, editors We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberations (AK Press)
Michael Kimball Big Ray (Bloomsbury)
Jonathan Kozol Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (Crown)
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books)
Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter) Beside the Sea (Tin House)
Rachel Maddow Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown)
Daniel Sada Almost Never (Graywolf Press)
Richard Seaver The Tender Hour of Twilight (FSG)
Sylvie Simmons I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco)
RJ Smith The One: The Life and Times of James Brown (Gotham)
Chris Ware Building Stories (Pantheon)
Barry Webster The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp Press)
G. Willow Wilson Alif the Unseen (Grove Press)

My blind spot: Dave Eggers Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s) The twists and turns that made Zeitoun a strong piece of nonfiction feel soulless and schematic when Eggers tries to pile themes in his fiction, from You Shall Know Our Velocity through What is the What and now King, and the writing strains under the effort to Have Something Important to Say.

Also: I know I really need to start upping my small press game, and for helping me catch up on 2012 I’d like to thank the awesome Roxane Gay for this list of reads.



The local exhibitions I enjoyed the most are listed below, but one thing hadn’t happened when I made that list, and over the past few weeks I’ve come to the realization that any list of my favorite feats of creative labor in 2012 pretty much begins and ends with Pink Loves Consent.

Lesser Gonzales Alvarez Make/Shift at Open Space
Mina Cheon Polipop & Paintings at Maryland Art Place
Command Z: Artists Working with Phenomena and Technology at UMBC
Alex Ebstein at Sophiajacob
F.E.A.S.T. at Transmodern
Post Typography Ohsaycanyousee at the Windup Space
Gran Prix at Nudashank An explosion of searching, conceptual work that recognizes that conceptual art is about dialog, not getting it. Plus: all love for a show that includes pieces such as Caitlin Cunningham’s “Jack/son Torrence,” seen above, which cheekily alludes to the below premonition-qua-hallucination that a son envisions his father causing in The Shining.

The Shining

Szechuan Best at Sophiajacob
Lauren Nikolacs and Becca Pad A Captive Behavior at School 33
Erin Zerbe Body Magic at School 33

My blind spot: Open Walls Baltimore. All respect to street art, private businesses funding destination art–I mean, transformative art, and synergistic alliances between artists and organizations to get involved in economic development, I’d just like the work itself to be stronger and more compelling.



Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Goon (Michael Dowse)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan) I wrote this flick off on based on its ad campaign alone, and I have to give all respect for my checking it out to the movie/DVD reviewer over at 92Q (I think), whose afternoon drive-time review went something like: “Liam Neeson plays a dude who is in a plane crash with a bunch of other dudes and they get chased by wolves. And the wolves have the upper hand ’cause they on their own turf. Trust me, this one goes hard.” That totally sold me, and when I finally did see it was when I found out it was helmed by Joe Carnahan, a director for whom I have a considerable soft spot.
Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
The Imposter (Bart Layton)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik) A first viewing had me loving its blunt-nose cynicism, but after a few more I’m a bit amazed at its baroque minimalism and its sublime use of sound.
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott) I suppose it would be more accurate to say Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, simply for bringing three things together that I never would’ve presumed would go so great together: looking like Peter O’Toole, dressing like Mao, and talking like Nietzsche.
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendjelloul)
The Source (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos)
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel)
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy)

My blind spot: Moonrise Kingdom. I’m sure it’s just because I have a hard piece of coal where my heart should be, but every Wes Anderson film is starting to feel like a middle-aged man making an it’s-going-to-be-OK mixtape for his teenage self.

And full disclosure, things I still haven’t seen that I know I’m predisposed to appreciate: Silver Linings Playbook, The Sessions, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Kid With a Bike, The Deep Blue Sea, Tabu, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

The Revolution Will Be Televised


I had no idea how much BBC television I watched until I made this list–and I’m not even including all the solid documentaries it does that I enjoyed, from the one about toilets to docs about Ken Russell and Lucian Freud. And despite coming up with only 17 programs I now feel like I waste a wealth of time watching the damned thing.

Castle (ABC) Nobody has more fun on TV than Nathan Fillion.
Elementary (ABC) In the same way Castle is all about Fillion, Elementary is all about Johnny Lee Miller. This Sherlock Holmes update isn’t as beloved as the BBC’s Sherlock, but here’s one instance where I quite enjoy this very Americanized mass TV approach. Miller’s Holmes is a recovering addict who is pretty much using his impressive deductive reasoning as a shield between his very controlled seld and the out of control rest of the world. Fun.
Falcon (BSkyB)
Fringe (Fox) Not sure if I’m enjoying this final season or even particularly care all that much about it as much as I’m waiting to see just where the hell it’s going.
Girls (HBO)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Happy Endings (ABC) The only sitcom I can do these days that doesn’t involve Peter Capaldi cussing a blue streak.
Homeland (HBO)
The Hour (BBC)
Hunted (BBC One/Cinemax) So I have a thing for a certain kind of TV program that Hunted, Last Resort, and Strike Back very neatly fit into, only these days I can’t really tell the ostensible good guys from the bad guys, given that everybody is employed by some well-funded organization of people with money. This may very well be the case these days.
Justified (FX)
Last Resort (ABC)
Nashville (ABC) More music, less politics, please.
Sons of Anarchy (FX) Gotta hand it to series creator Kurt Sutter: he’s created a man who becomes more frightening than Michael Corleone.
Strike Back: Vengeance (Sky1/Cinemax) Even when there are things on TV like Amish Mafia, this is the most preposterous show out there. Damn good fun.
The Revolution Will Be Televised (BBC) Smarter and funnier than The Daily Show but much fewer episodes.
The Thick of It (BBC) What would Malcolm Tucker do?

My blind spot: Mad Men I appreciate that the women are the more interesting characters, I appreciate the set design porn, I appreciate the narrative ambition the show attempts, but it all comes across like a heaping helping of white, heterosexual male self pity.

Finally, the best thing ever about 2012 remains July 24, the day I married the most amazingest woman ever.


Love you, sweetie. Thanks for continuing to make my life the exact opposite of suck.

New news looks a bit like the old news

Since I’m always late to the party, the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ July #OccupyGaddis posts only recently sent me rooting through some of the few old reading notebooks I still own from the early 1990s. I was looking for a specific passage from JR I recalled copying down that always tickled me for some reason when I came across the attached flier, which I believe was passed to me by my friend Vince, who remains a constant source of good conversation about all things music&books&films&life&ideas. In light of, well, nearly weekly events, only the low photocopy resolution gives away its 20-year-old age.

Now playing: Public Enemy’s “Catch the Thrown” | The cheapest price is to pay attention/ Now the test is just being at your best