Thursday, April 30, 2009

Artist Talk: Basim Magdy and Regine Basha

Basim Magdy, We Performed Miracles Then Everything Disappeared,
2009, gouache on wooden panel, 30 x 42 cm.

What: Conversation: Basim Magdy and Regine Basha

When: Wed May 6, 7:oo –9:oo pm

Where: Cabinet, 300 Nevins Street, Brooklyn

Egyptian artist Basim Magdy will present some of his recent projects
in video, installation, drawing and
public space that intertwine his
investigations of
quasi-histories, failed scientific promises, unexplored
future possibilities and the simple notion of belief
with absurdity,
irony and subtle humor. Magdy and
independent curator Regine Basha
will then discuss
his current show "1968: Memorial to a Rising Continent"
at Newman Popiashvili Gallery. Within this context, the discussion will
focus on the running thread of
mythology, symbolism, and potential for
through science which influences Magdy's ongoing interest
in the obscure space between reality and
fiction and the construction
and dissemination of
the knowledge that fills it. During the talk, copies
of a poster project the artist realized this year for Kunsthaus Baselland
in Switzerland and other
printed material will be available for free.

FREE. No RSVP necessary.

Drinks will be served.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Seven Jewish Children Video

The Guardian has produced a video performance of Caryl Churchill's play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza with actress Jennie Stoller reading all of the parts. The performance is lovely and suggests an alternate conception of the play as a monologue. Below is the complete script of the play, which Churchill has offered for free to encourage its performance.

a play for Gaza

by Caryl Churchill

No children appear in the play. The speakers are adults, the parents and if you like
other relations of the children. The lines can be shared out in any way you like among
those characters. The characters are different in each small scene as the time and
child are different.


Tell her it’s a game

Tell her it’s serious

But don't frighten her

Don’t tell her they’ll kill her

Tell her it’s important to be quiet

Tell her she’ll have cake if she’s good

Tell her to curl up as if she’s in bed

But not to sing.

Tell her not to come out

Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting

Don’t frighten her

Tell her not to come out even if she hears nothing for a long time

Tell her we’ll come and find her

Tell her we’ll be here all the time.

Tell her something about the men

Tell her they’re bad in the game

Tell her it’s a story

Tell her they’ll go away

Tell her she can make them go away if she keeps still

By magic

But not to sing.


Tell her this is a photograph of her grandmother, her uncles and me

Tell her her uncles died

Don’t tell her they were killed

Tell her they were killed

Don’t frighten her.

Tell her her grandmother was clever

Don’t tell her what they did

Tell her she was brave

Tell her she taught me how to make cakes

Don’t tell her what they did

Tell her something

Tell her more when she’s older.

Tell her there were people who hated Jews

Don’t tell her

Tell her it’s over now

Tell her there are still people who hate Jews

Tell her there are people who love Jews

Don’t tell her to think Jews or not Jews

Tell her more when she’s older

Tell her how many when she’s older

Tell her it was before she was born and she’s not in danger

Don’t tell her there’s any question of danger.

Tell her we love her

Tell her dead or alive her family all love her

Tell her her grandmother would be proud of her.


Don’t tell her we’re going forever

Tell her she can write to her friends, tell her her friends can maybe come and visit

Tell her it’s sunny there

Tell her we’re going home

Tell her it’s the land God gave us

Don’t tell her religion

Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there

Don’t tell her he was driven out

Tell her, of course tell her, tell her everyone was driven out and the country is waiting for us to come home

Don’t tell her she doesn’t belong here

Tell her of course she likes it here but she’ll like it there even more.

Tell her it’s an adventure

Tell her no one will tease her

Tell her she’ll have new friends

Tell her she can take her toys

Don’t tell her she can take all her toys

Tell her she’s a special girl

Tell her about Jerusalem.


Don’t tell her who they are

Tell her something

Tell her they’re Bedouin, they travel about

Tell her about camels in the desert and dates

Tell her they live in tents

Tell her this wasn’t their home

Don’t tell her home, not home, tell her they’re going away

Don’t tell her they don’t like her

Tell her to be careful.

Don’t tell her who used to live in this house

No but don’t tell her her great great grandfather used to live in this house

No but don’t tell her Arabs used to sleep in her bedroom.

Tell her not to be rude to them

Tell her not to be frightened

Don’t tell her she can’t play with the children

Don’t tell her she can have them in the house.

Tell her they have plenty of friends and family

Tell her for miles and miles all round they have lands of their own

Tell her again this is our promised land.

Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people

Don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I’d known.

Tell her maybe we can share.

Don’t tell her that.


Tell her we won

Tell her her brother’s a hero

Tell her how big their armies are

Tell her we turned them back

Tell her we’re fighters

Tell her we’ve got new land.


Don’t tell her

Don’t tell her the trouble about the swimming pool

Tell her it’s our water, we have the right

Tell her it’s not the water for their fields

Don’t tell her anything about water.

Don’t tell her about the bulldozer

Don’t tell her not to look at the bulldozer

Don’t tell her it was knocking the house down

Tell her it’s a building site

Don’t tell her anything about bulldozers.

Don’t tell her about the queues at the checkpoint

Tell her we’ll be there in no time

Don’t tell her anything she doesn’t ask

Don’t tell her the boy was shot

Don’t tell her anything.

Tell her we’re making new farms in the desert

Don’t tell her about the olive trees

Tell her we’re building new towns in the wilderness.

Don’t tell her they throw stones

Tell her they’re not much good against tanks

Don’t tell her that.

Don’t tell her they set off bombs in cafes

Tell her, tell her they set off bombs in cafes

Tell her to be careful

Don’t frighten her.

Tell her we need the wall to keep us safe

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea

Tell her they don’t

Tell her they want to drive us into the sea.

Tell her we kill far more of them

Don’t tell her that

Tell her that

Tell her we’re stronger

Tell her we’re entitled

Tell her they don’t understand anything except violence

Tell her we want peace

Tell her we’re going swimming.


Tell her she can’t watch the news

Tell her she can watch cartoons

Tell her she can stay up late and watch Friends.

Tell her they’re attacking with rockets

Don’t frighten her

Tell her only a few of us have been killed

Tell her the army has come to our defence

Don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army.

Don’t tell her how many of them have been killed

Tell her the Hamas fighters have been killed

Tell her they’re terrorists

Tell her they’re filth


Don’t tell her about the family of dead girls

Tell her you can’t believe what you see on television

Tell her we killed the babies by mistake

Don’t tell her anything about the army

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army. Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn’t she know? Tell her there’s dead babies, did she see babies? Tell her she’s got nothing to be ashamed of. Tell her they did it to themselves. Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I’m not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we’re the ones to be sorry for, tell her they cant talk suffering to us. Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we wont stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.

Don't tell her that.

Tell her we love her.

Don't frighten her.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crtiquing the Critiques of "End the University as We Know It" (Or: First, Kill All the Artists...)

In a controversial Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Mark C. Taylor, a Professor of Religion at Columbia University has declared that the "University as we know it" should be "ended". Making an explicit critique of the model of U.S. educational institutions by comparing them to the failed American Auto industry, Taylor writes,

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)... Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

Like Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church, Professor Taylor offers a provocative six point plan to address what he sees as the endemic failures of the U.S university:

1) Restructure the curriculum.

2) Abolish permanent departments.

3) Increase collaboration among institutions.

4) Transform the traditional dissertation.

5) Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.

6) Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

... Whoo boy.

He argues that "the University" is based on models which are out of step with contemporary society, emerging educational technologies and a job market that is irrevocably changed from the one he entered as a young professor. To respond to the changing needs of students Taylor favors cross-disciplinary collaboration as an educational model: He proposes a shift away from traditional disciplinary categories toward a model of "constantly evolving... problem-based" programs that turn around the pressing problems of the new century. In order to accommodate such a sweeping reformation Taylor proposes a division of labor between institutions so departments across disciplines might co-teach classes via teleconference, an approach that would allow "strong" departments in various Universities to emerge and work across institutional boundaries while minimizing staff needs through technology. He extends this idea to the dissertation process, suggesting an evolution from its "medieval" text-based format to a new analytic model comprised of hyperlinks that takes advantages of the possibilities presented by new media.

The plight of overworked and under-prepared for the job market graduate students looms large for Taylor who writes, "Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained." And so he proposes instead to prepare grad students for opportunities outside of education, in the business and nonprofit worlds. Such a shift would effectively abolish what Taylor sees as the "cloning" of students in the images of their professors by sending them out into fields unrelated to those in which their professors "live" professionally. (And also effectively cut graduate students out of their professors extensive professional networks, a consequence he does not explore). But, in many ways the most provocative argument he makes involves ending the system of tenure, which ensures a lifetime of job security for professors who achieve it. Taylor reiterates the typical objection to the tenure system, i.e. it creates an entrenched culture where change is impossible because faculty have little impetus to develop professionally once their positions are secure.
As you can imagine the suggestion of such sweeping changes, prompted by pointed institutional critique has not been warmly met. I have my own issues with Taylor's editorial, which I'll state to get them out of the way so I can make my larger point: As in the ongoing debates against other forms of institutionalized protections from affirmative action to welfare to rent control, those who exploit the system are easy to spot and rail against but ultimately the dissolution of a system like tenure would create more problems than it solves. While impossible-to-fire tenured Professors are easy targets, the cost to students incurred by forcing their most experienced professors into retirement would be incalculable. Perhaps my judgment is colored by my arguably atypical experience, but rather than withdrawing into their academic dotage the tenured professors I studied with were dynamically involved with their students and passionate about teaching. Further, I learned a great deal from my time as a graduate assistant, running and fetching for tenured professors and I draw on that experience constantly as I teach my own classes. Taylor makes a compelling argument against the "medieval" dissertation model, however in my experience it had benefits that are not easily quantified. For me, writing a dissertation was as much about training my mind to construct academic arguments as it was a writing exercise. Despite these objections (and others, which are beyond my scope here), I think Professor Taylor's editorial, which can be accessed here in its entirety, should be considered a catalyst for further discussion rather than a point-by-point plan for educational reform.

While some of the criticisms Taylor's editorial has provoked have been thoughtful, others have contained political dog-whistles that concern me deeply. For example, it has been rightly pointed out that the problems Taylor sees as pervasive are more typical of arts and humanities study. Several professors of hard sciences countered that their graduate students have had no problems finding employment and are, in any event, already focused on the private sector. While this is an insightful argument, one which (ironically) highlights an obvious disciplinary bias on Taylor's part, it has tended to bleed into a general critique of arts and humanities disciplines as the province of a privileged class who demand time, space and money to "count angels dancing on the heads of pins." This argument, which also haunts contemporary art practice, proceeds from the assumption that the humanities have no discernible value and are therefore frivolous "extras"-- not necessary cultural functions. This point of view was deployed in the last quarter of the 20th Century with chilling effectiveness to generally devalue art that challenges dominant value systems by de-funding it, hobbling artists who'd depended on grants to live while they worked outside the mainstream. So while I can understand the objections Taylor's critique has generated, the presence of this anti-art and humanities meme in some of the arguments is troubling. Such objections, which have also been employed to justify cutting arts programs from public schools, thereby making the development of succeeding generations of artists infinitely more difficult, create a self-fulfilling prophecy as only artists from the privileged class have access to art and the wherewithal to pursue it as a career path. Significantly, academia is a safe-haven for artists in all disciplines to explore their work while maintaining such otherwise out-of-reach luxuries as health insurance. So a class-based prejudice against the humanities as the purview of cultural elites (a conservative slur regularly aimed at people who both read and vote Democrat) misses the point entirely: the University that Taylor wants to reform and his critics want to maintain, but at the expense of the humanities, is the last American refuge for culture-workers who don't have trust-funds.

But frankly, such judgments would not be possible without the underlying assumption that arts and humanities study was a pointless endeavor, no matter who was doing it.... And I can't agree with that. There are certainly humorous examples of esoteric dissertation topics, incredibly finite disciplinary focii and fundamentally exclusionary language... but so what? As a culture do we assume an insult is intended by the specialization of medical doctors or lawyers and the obscure language that accompanies these disciplines? No. And like these disciplines, arts and humanities study requires a space where even its most minute expressions can flourish for the good of the larger culture they serve. So I think focusing on easy-to-misunderstand examples obscures the anti-intellectual prejudice at the core of the objections to humanities study at the University level. The real issue is a fundamental disagreement about the value inherent in these fields of study. I agree with Taylor that the impending economic meltdown will impact the arts and humanities disproportionately-- but not necessarily, as he believes, because of institutional defects (or at least, not exclusively) but rather because we--the "we" of Taylor's title whom he calls upon to "end" the University--that is, Americans, do not value arts and humanities for their own sake. And that scares me way more than not being able to find a job.

The ever-astute Atlasien, of the excellent trans-racial adoption blog Upside Down Adoption (and regular commenter on race and related issues at Racialicious and elsewhere throughout the blogosphere) referred me to another critique of Taylor's Op-Ed that I thought should be referenced here. Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of Cultural Studies and Writing with New Media at Santa Clara University, in his Brainstorm column at the Chronicle of Higher Education writes,

The problem isn’t an oversupply of qualified labor. It’s a restructuring of “demand” so that work that used to be done by people with doctorates is being done by persons with a master’s or a B.A., or even by undergraduates. During the whole period of time that The New York Times has been pimping junk analysis of graduate education (that there’s an “oversupply” of doctorates), the percentage of faculty with doctorates has been dropping, not rising.

Bousquet's point here is that universities have essentially replaced tenured jobs with clusters of adjuncts, many of whom are not PhD.'s, let alone on the tenure-track. He writes,

As anyone actually paying attention has observed, we’ve ALREADY ended tenure. With the overwhelming majority of faculty off the tenure track, and most of teaching work being done by them, by students, and professional staff, tenured appointments are basically the privilege of a) a retiring generation b) grant-getters and c) the candidate pool for administration.

This argument refocuses the critique away from the Professoriate and on to University administration, who are responsible for this restructuring. It is also worth mentioning--although Bousquet does not go into this--that while universities are using adjuncts and graduate assistants to teach instead of creating more tenure track positions they are also simultaneously blocking efforts to unionize this cheap labor. As Atlasien points out in her comment, by "centering labor issues" we can critique Taylor's proposal in a way that does not lead to anti-intellectualism. Although I don't think that undoes my earlier point, I thought it was a significant enough contribution to the conversation to be included in the main body of the post. Thanks Atlasien.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Artist Interview: Sabina England, Part Two

Photo of Sabina England by Aaron Rosenblatt

This is the second half of my interview with Deaf, Indian, Muslim, Anarchist playwright Sabina England. In which we discussed "nice, sweet typical Desi plays", talking monkeys, the lasting influence of Lucille Ball, and making people uncomfortable.

Joe: Have you had a play produced?

Sabina: I have had staged readings of my plays in London two times.

Joe: Were you able to

Sabina: Yes, I went to both.

Joe: How did it feel to hear your words coming out of other people's mouths?

Sabina: It was pretty exhilarating watching actors performing my plays. It was fantastic, but some people in the audience were offended. I didn't give a shit back then, I don't give a shit now and I never will.

Joe: What in particular did they take offense to?

Sabina: Well, the first staged reading I had of my play was called Chess for Asian Punks, Greek Losers, and Dorks at Theatre Royal Stratford East, in the East End of London, which has a heavy South Asian and Black population. But there were some white people in the audience.

The play had two protagonists, a South Asian outcast and her best friend, a Greek immigrant, who both hated their lives and had nothing to look forward to since they just graduated from high school. In the play, they were in the park, playing chess with each other and cussing each other, then they discussed their hatred of America and white people. And I guess some white people took offense to it, lol. While I got a lot of compliments from Black and South Asian youths, which felt great, though.

I wasn't trying to offend white people on purpose. It was genuine anger I felt at white people. When I wrote it down, it felt good. And the South Asians and black youths in the audience told me they could totally relate. I don't feel the same way I did years ago, I was 21 when I wrote that play. I am 26 now and I'm not as angry at white people anymore, although I guess part of me will always be angry at white people.

Joe: I am glad you said that (about not caring about the reception your plays get) because it confirms my thinking about your work: that you are not really invested in shocking your audience.

Sabina: It makes me laugh when people accuse me of trying to shock them on purpose, just the same as when white yuppies accuse me of being a punk just so I can be "cool.” What the fuck, right? I live my own goddamned life and I'm not here to please or piss off anyone.

Joe: It’s interesting that you put it that way: pleasing people and/or pissing them off is the same because it is about THEM, not you. Either way it puts others at the center of your life.

Sabina: When I was in college this frat boy sent me a bunch of emails via Facebook, accusing me of being a fake ass poser, claiming that I was a punk because I had low self esteem and that I decided to dye my hair to be "cool," and last time I checked, I dyed my hair because I WANTED to. I wasn't trying to impress or offend ANYONE, they can all fuck off. If they think they need to put themselves into my face, then it shows that they can't handle someone who's so different from them, that they feel the need to say something to me.

Fucking goddamned crybabies.

Go fight your own battles and leave me the fuck alone.

Joe: I think
that is what is so provocative about your work, it isn't trying to impress.

Sabina: I write plays because I love writing, because it helps me vent my feelings, and it gives me an artistic freedom to create characters and create a world, then destroy them.

I dress like a punk rocker because it's FUN and it makes life more interesting. I think life is beautiful and should be lived to its fullest.

I do NOTHING for nobody.

And in the end, I'll only answer to Allah and nobody else.

Joe: Do you have any influences as a writer that has shaped your approach to your work?

Sabina: Oh yes, many, many MANY.

Joe: Ha, okay. Like who?

Sabina: Like I said earlier, as a teen, I read many stage plays and watched loads of movies.

I love Tennessee Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Sam Shepherd, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Suzan-Lori Parks…

While I also enjoyed old B horror films and 60s French New Wave films, but I also loved watching stupid 80s family movies like The Goonies…

My influences are vast and varied. I can't really pinpoint it down. But as a teen, I had great admiration for Lucille Ball because she was the first woman in Hollywood to own and operate her own Hollywood studio. She was fiercely independent and she talked of her childhood of how she was taunted and mocked by others for being ugly and talentless.

Somehow I could relate to that.

And today she's one of the biggest American icons.

As of now, my influences are old Indian films and modern Indian literature and now I guess I'm really getting into reading books with a strong Desi or Islamic influence.

Joe: I like how many of your pieces are extended conversations between two people.

Sabina: You want to know why it's between two people?

‘Cos I don't know how a group conversation works.

I’ve never had one.

It's hard having one if you're Deaf.

Joe: Oh my God. Of course. That never occurred to me.

Sabina: The only group conversations I can really write are a conversation between a family…

Joe: How stupid. Of co

Sabina: But between strangers and friends… I just can’t do it because I'm not able to eavesdrop into people's conversations in public or at school or at work.

It's kind of sad, I wish I could listen to others' conversations but I can't. So sometimes when I watch people I make up in my mind what they're discussing.

Joe: You bring so many layers of complication into a two-person dialogue... it is so intimate that it is almost uncomfortable.

Sabina: Thanks, I think.

Joe: Oh no, I meant that as a compliment. That is how I know something is good... if it starts to make me squirm a little...

Sabina: Oh, okay haha.

I guess I'm good at making people uncomfortable 'cos I tend to ask a lot of nosey questions to strangers. But that's because I am just trying to make a conversation. As a child I wasn't good at making friends.

Joe: I am thinking here of the screenplay you have on your site now. The conversation in the diner between the brother and sister…

Sabina: Oh you mean both sisters, haha. Both of them are female, but I guess Fizzy sounds like a man.

Joe: That's right. Anyway it breaks my heart... the longing in it.

Sabina: I guess there's always some kind of an emotional longing in almost every play or story I write.

I don't have a best friend and I don't belong in a circle of friends...

Sometimes I wish I could have that fraternity sense of belonging to a group of friends or just have a best friend to talk to everyday, but I don't and it makes me feel lonely sometimes.

Joe: Hm. Yeah I hadn't thought that before but in thinking about your work I can see what you mean.

Sabina: I was born a loner and I will die a loner.

Joe: Well, lemme tell you: you have no idea what will happen in the future.

Sabina: I'm not suicidal and I'm not depressed, though. People think they know me but they don't. I just wish I had a group of friends to hang out with.

Joe: Of course they don't. Nobody ever really knows anyone.

Sabina: Yeah. Except Allah of course.

Sabina England with playwright John Guare,
who wrote her a letter of recommendation to Yale School of Drama;
courtesy of the artist

Joe: I think the theatre can do that though… Provide a place of coming together. That is as powerful as anything I have ever known.

Sabina: Yes, both theatre and films, I like how they have nice stories with relatable characters that bring people together.

So I like that.

Joe: I love the movies too. But in the movies you sit by yourself in the dark. When you go to a live performance you are part of it in a way that can be extremely dangerous. That is what I love about it.

Sabina: That is very true, I never thought of that. Also, the actors depend on the audience to make it spontaneous… if the audience doesn't laugh, the actors' performances can become clumsy.

Joe: Yes. Exactly.

Sabina: If they do laugh, the actors' performances get stronger and more bold. I love that. Every night, it is unpredictable.

Joe: I love it too.

Sabina: You never know what's going to happen.

Joe: Nope.

Sabina: If something on the stage falls, they’ll have to improvise.

Joe: And it is that sense of connection that is so powerful.

Do you have plans for your work?

Sabina: I am working on a literary fiction novel, which I hope to find an agent and help me get it published. I've been working on it for almost a year, so it's a serious project.

Joe: That’s great.

Sabina: I also have a few screenplays in the pipe, one about a high school shooting and one about a dysfunctional Desi family in the Midwest. But I figure for now, I'm going to try to get published as a novelist before I try to make it as a screenwriter. It's harder if you're trying to sell screenplays because you need to live in LA and you need to know the right people. With novels, you don’t need connections you just send out letters to agents and see if anyone is interested.

What happened was, with the 2nd staged reading of a different play I wrote, How the Rapist was Born, which was read at Soho Theatre in London, the producer and the director, they both LOVED it and they wanted to produce it full time. But nobody else wanted to, because it wasn't the typical "nice, sweet typical Desi" play that white and brown people would want to see.

Joe: Ah.

Sabina: So it never happened.

There were no magical gurus…

No elephants….

No talking monkeys…


(But) I don't give a shit anyway if nobody wants to produce it. If they want to produce a stupid, sloppy fake happy musical with dancing morons, by all means, let them do it and the audience will never know that their intelligence is being INSULTED.

Like that Rachel Corrie play you wrote about on your blog, for instance, what an insult. The audience should be outraged that they were prevented from seeing it years ago when it got censored. I just love how theatre producers, along with film producers, think so lowly of the audience, that they are convinced people won't want to see this or that.

Joe: Yeah well, that is an ongoing thing... but
that play IS being produced all over America...

Sabina: Good, I'm glad to hear that. There's one play I want to write full time, it would be called Anarchy in America. It's based on an older play, called Battle of Britain, which is set in Liverpool, 1983, that involves punk rock, English football, hooliganism, Margaret Thatcher, the Pope, and racism.

Joe: All of my favorite things.

Sabina: But I figure I'm going to change that to the United States and focus on rednecks vs. immigrants, and see how that goes…

Joe: Sabina, thanks so much for talking with me.

Sabina: No problem, this was such a fun conversation and I'm glad we talked.

Joe: It has been a pleasure learning about your work.

Sabina: Thanks! Cheers.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Artist Interview: Sabina England, Part One

Photo of Sabina England by Jamie Devillez

Playwright Sabina England (née Sabina Sobia Iram Alam) was born in London to Indian parents. She studied at The London Film Academy and graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A in Theatre-Playwriting, and she has had two plays produced in London. England has been featured in national publications such as Mosaics, The Guardian and BITCH and she posts short works on her popular blog THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD. In conversation England, who was diagnosed deaf as a baby, is funny, raw and expressive, much like her plays. I was having such a good time talking with her that I didn’t realize how long we’d talked, the transcript our conversation was 23 pages... Rather than edit it too heavily I decided to break the interview into two posts. Part one, in which we discuss being ugly, punk rock Muslims, Bollywood, the theater, and white people's fascination with her hair, is below.

Joe: I first learned about your work through an article on you that was posted on the Taqwacore site about two years ago. When I joined the community at Racialicious and you described yourself on the site as a Mohawk-having, deaf, Muslim, Indian playwright I thought: yeah that must be the same girl...

Sabina: heh.

I think Taqwacores has helped open up a new world for Muslims to express themselves in a safe space and not have to worry about being ridiculed or mocked by other Muslims or any other groups.

Joe: You used to blog under the name Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Girl and more recently as Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist... each of these descriptions has a pretty extensive culture attached to it. What is the significance for you of using them all at once?

Sabina: Oh there's no significance behind that, but sometimes I just get bored and I like to change my avatar on the Internet. I liked the name "Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl" because people think, "oh what is that? There can't be ugly Deaf Muslim punk gurls, can there be?" and it's fun to challenge people's stereotypes of Muslims, Deaf people and ugly girls.

I've now started calling myself a "Muslim anarchist" in terms of challenging the Quran and interpreting it in my own way with no rules, which I think is similar to anarchy.

Joe: Yeah, I get that.

When I was going to punk rock shows back in the day we had serious discussions about what Anarchy "meant" ... and what it meant to us. I think it has an obvious political meaning but it is a really great way to describe an attitude toward authority in a more general way too.

Am I getting that right? In terms of the way you are using it I mean.

Sabina: Yes, you got that right because I have absolutely no tolerance for religious figures that try to mix religion and politics together and then try to shove it down our throats. But it's also my hatred for authority in Muslim leaders in the community, like the "elders" that everyone are supposed to look up to. Why should I look up to them and why should I let them tell me how to live my life? I believe in making my own rules and I'll live my life and I'll interpret Islam my way.

Joe: I can see that philosophy in your work. The way you deal with sex for example.

Sabina: The funny thing about sex and Islam, many people, especially Westerners, are under the mistaken impression that somehow Muslims are prudes when it comes to sex and that maybe Islam looks down at sex, when they got that wrong.

The Quran and Hadith clearly state that sex is a beautiful, natural human need and that all human beings SHOULD satisfy it within "legal" bounds, of course.

Joe: Oh sure... I actually had a funny conversation recently where this guy had taken all of his Christian sexual hang-ups and projected them on to Islam...

Sabina: What did he say exactly?

Joe: Oh it was textbook... you know the drill: Blah blah women...blah blah the veil...blah blah men who are secretly gay and/or can't handle sexuality in any sense...

Sabina: There's always ignorant people who are ignorant about other groups. Sadly, Muslims can be ignorant about other groups. Even Indian Muslims and Pakistanis can be ignorant against Hindus and Sikhs, which I just find absolutely sad.

Joe: Well in the west I think that various immigrant groups get pitted against each other in a contest to see who can be the most "American"... And then sometimes the inverse of that: who can be the most "authentic"...

Sabina: I was going to say the same thing about being "most authentic" as well.

Joe: It is really weird when you see both of those things happening at once. I think young women get caught in that a lot. As in: Fit in, be American...but DON'T BE A WHORE!

Sabina: Yes, it is mind-boggling. I'm not sure if many immigrants can realize that you can be "modern," American and still be true to your heritage, but there's always confusion between being modern, being Americanized, and being fetishized, if that makes sense.

Joe: It does to me. I think this is something that almost all immigrants deal with but it is a particular problem for Arabs, South Asians and Muslims.

Sabina: Even I am confused if I'm letting other people fetishize me as an Indian woman, but I don't think that happens.

Joe: Hm. What do you mean by letting people fetishize you?

Sabina: Well, I love Indian culture, Indian fashion, Indian food, Bollywood, and history of South Asia. I love to wear sari's sometimes and I like the old-fashioned 1960s Bollywood movie stars that don't exist anymore, in the similar sense that Americans love the old Hollywood style, but I worry about letting that go out of my control and being turned into some kind of a racial fetish for white guys, which I DON'T want to happen.

Joe: Ah, I see.

Sabina: I like to dress up and look like an old movie star, but at the same time, I feel disturbed, worrying that people would fetishize me into some sort of an Asian fantasy doll.

Old Bollywood star, I mean.

Joe: Well I guess that answers my questions about, why "ugly”?

Sabina: I think Ugly is a beautiful word. Nobody is really beautiful or ugly, and of course it doesn't need to be said, but beauty is REALLY in the eye of the beholder. I have met people who others found ugly, but I thought they were beautiful, and I have met people, who are supposedly good-looking, just shallow and unattractive.

Joe: Does calling yourself ugly make a space between you and the expectations/fantasies of white guys?

...Or anybody really?

Sabina: Nah, Ugly doesn't have anything to do with white guys.

It's about embracing the Ugliness of yourself; calling yourself ugly proudly, and throwing it back into people's faces. When people call me Ugly, I proudly say, YES! I AM UGLY and I don't care, what does it matter to you?

Why are people so obsessed with beauty? Who gives a shit? Because I sure as hell don't. That's the thing, though; I don't consider Ugly to be a bad thing.

I think being Ugly is unique.

Beauty is boring.

There is one particular quote that I love...

Joe: Yeah?

Sabina: I think it was Hedy Lamarr who said it, but I can't be sure.

She said something like "anyone can stand there and look beautiful and dumb." that struck a chord with me, because ANYONE can try to doll themselves up and look beautiful, but it doesn't change the fact that you're a bimbo or a moron, whereas "ugly" people have such a lively personality and are just more interesting.

The quote is more "Anyone can stand there and look beautiful and BE dumb," my bad.

Anytime someone cries about being ugly I'll say something like "yes so what if you're ugly? What's wrong with being ugly? At least you stand out in a room full of dumb, beautiful bimbos. Use that to your advantage."

Joe: I had a conversation with a black actress once years ago who said to me "As a black woman I feel like it is my responsibility to find myself beautiful."

Sabina: Oh that's interesting. I haven't thought about beauty in that way.

Joe: In other words: the world constantly tells me that I am ugly, so I must find myself beautiful.

Sabina: Very true.

Joe: I always remembered that because she used the word "responsibility”, which I would normally rebel against…

Sabina: Same here as well, yet at the same time I can sympathize with her…

Joe: Yeah, for some reason it made such sense when she put it that way. I think it struck me because she said it so simply. It wasn't about vanity. Or self-hatred. Its almost as if you are saying the same thing by calling yourself ugly.

Sabina: Yes, that's kind of similar with being "ugly," it's empowering sort of like how queer people proudly call themselves faggot or fat women proudly calling themselves Fat.

Joe: Yeah, I was thinking that as well.

Sabina: Because it is beautiful.

Joe: Right right.

Sabina: There is an Islamic proverb…

Joe: Yes?

Sabina: "Allah is Beautiful and loves beautiful things." And Allah loves Ugly things, too.

Joe: Oh, I really like that a lot.

Sabina: Yes, because surely Allah loves people who aren't blonde, thin and have big boobs, too, right?

Joe: And the thin, big-boobed blondes pretty much nominated themselves as "beautiful” too, right? I mean, I didn't vote for that.

Sabina: Yeah, in this American society being white and being blonde automatically makes you beautiful, even though I've met many blondes who were just hideous, ugly and nasty looking. No offense to any good-looking blondes out there, of course.

Joe: Ha ha... I am not worried about offending the hot blondes, in my experience they can take care of themselves...

Sabina: I think that the white people I find most attractive are redheads and brunettes with really dark hair anyway.

Joe: Ah, me too.

So let me ask how this philosophy of yours extends to your deafness, which is an important enough aspect of your identity to include in your avatar.

Sabina: Of course.

Joe: I have known some folks in the deaf community and it can be pretty insular.

Sabina: What does insular mean?

Joe: Like insulated. Exclusive. Almost to the point where it reminds me of the immigrant family dynamics we were discussing.

Sabina: Ohhh of course alright gotcha. Indeed it does.

Joe: I think a lot of hearing people don't realize there is such a thing as deaf culture. (Maybe hearing people in the theater are a little more aware because there is such a vibrant deaf theater tradition...) But anyway, how does that play out for you?

You've talked about wanting to define your Islamic identity for yourself... does this extend to your deaf identity too?

Sabina: Yes.

When I was a child, I was sent to Deaf schools for oral speech training and reading lips… And because I was the only Deaf child in the ENTIRE family clan. I don't even have any relatives with disabilities, NONE, I was the only "disabled" person in the WHOLE family, that includes cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc, all of in India and England, so it made me feel alienated and lonely at home. Whereas I had friends at deaf school who understood me… but mostly everyone at the deaf school were white. And even THEY would ask me questions about being Indian or Islam, so that made me feel alienated from Deaf white kids, while at the same time, I felt alienated from Desi people and from Muslims at the mosque.

Joe: So you were a perpetual outsider?

Sabina: Oh yes, big time. I was an angry Deaf child. I didn't belong anywhere. I felt like a freak, like something was wrong with me.

Joe: Deaf at home, Indian/Muslim at school?

Sabina: Deaf at home and EVERYWHERE.

Joe: Of course, yes.

Sabina: I was ashamed of being Deaf and I felt ashamed for being Indian and Muslim.

Because I had a difficult time communicating with hearing people, it made me feel inferior and inadequate, and then of course, when white people (deaf or hearing) would ask me patronizing questions about my background, it made me so GODDAMNED angry, yet Muslims at the mosque also thought I was retarded, but I'm not retarded.

Joe: Of course not.

So I am curious about how moving between cultures and languages influenced you to become a playwright.

Sabina: Well, as a child and teenager, I was a loner. I did have a few friends. But I didn't have a best friend. Everyone else loved music. I preferred films. I loved watching movies, old classic films. And when I "graduated" from a Deaf school and the authorities told me I was ready for hearing school, I was terrified.

Joe: I can't imagine what a culture shock that must have been.

Sabina: Yes, being put in a hearing school was one of the worst times in my life. There were days when I wanted to go back to the Deaf school and just be with my Deaf friends.

So they put me in a hearing public school and I was required to take a Drama class and the Drama teacher was just so nice and the class helped me open up socially, when I had to go onstage and say some lines.

Also, the Drama teacher decided to do The Miracle Worker (a play about Helen Keller) and she asked me to try out, and I got the leading role, and ever since then I was hooked.

Joe: What grade was this? High school?

Sabina: 7th grade. That was when they told me I was ready and I was just so scared, lonely and confused. Everyone in 7th grade were hearing, white, WASP-y and mostly blonde.

I made 2 new hearing friends in 7th grade; both of them weren't typically "pretty" girls. The two of them were overweight and everyone always taunted them and mocked them for being fat, but they were nice and I valued their friendship.

Joe: Yeah the outsiders find each other, if they are lucky.

Sabina: Yes, I was lucky. I would probably have gone down deep if I didn't find those two girls in 7th grade.

Joe: When did you become punk? Because for me punk was such a refuge.

Sabina: it was a refuge, (for me) too.

Joe: That whole scene seemed like the Bizarro universe, where being a freak was normal and even good.

Sabina: For angry, alienated outcasts who didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere… And what appealed to me about punk rock was that those punkers were saying LOUD and CLEAR, "yes I'm different, I'm angry, I’m an outcast and I DON'T CARE!" It greatly appealed to me because I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere with Muslims, Desi people, or Deaf people.

Joe: So you felt a sense of community as a punk?

Sabina: Yes and no.

Joe: How so?

Sabina: Sometimes I felt like I couldn't relate to white punks, as much as I tried, although they were really nice, warm and welcoming, not unlike white yuppies.

Well, it was their backgrounds: some of them came from working class white backgrounds and they talked about their problems like how they had a drunk father or their teenaged sister was pregnant. I didn't have problems like that.

My parents are normal, moderate Muslims who don't beat me and my father isn't a drunkard and I never had a teenaged pregnant sister.

So sometimes I didn't feel like I belonged in the punk scene 'cos some of them really had fucked up lives at home, but I wanted to be there with them because I didn't feel belonged ANYWHERE else.

Joe: Sure sure.

Sabina: There were also times when white punks would sing in angry songs, railing against the Church and against right wing Christian hypocrites. And again, I didn't face that in my life because well, I'm a Muslim and I had problems with mullahs who were hypocrites but I didn't have any problems with Christian authorities because I never had to face any in my life.

Joe: Right.

Sabina: Although I did sympathize with angry white punks who hated the Church ‘cos I knew where they were coming from.

But if I'd rail against Islam, they wouldn't know what I was talking about because they're not Muslim and they don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, lol.

Joe: Lol.

So when did you start writing for the theatre?

Sabina: I started writing plays when I was 12. When I was pushed into drama in 7th grade and I began reading plays and I thought, "Wow I didn't know you could write a play like this" so I began writing short plays and stories and stupid poems.

Joe: Talk a bit about your work... how did it evolve?

Sabina: I used to write hateful short stories about Indians who I mocked.

Looking back at it now, I can't believe how much I used to hate myself as an Indian.

Joe: Hm.

Sabina: I would write these awful short stories about how Indians were filthy cow worshippers, while I created white characters who were sympathetic and likeable.

I should also mention that when I was a child, I used to wish everyday that Allah would make me white.

Joe: Ah... well that seems like a story you hear over and over.

Sabina: Of course.

Joe: I used to wish I was darker. Seriously. Darker skinned people hate it when I say that but its true.

I hated being fair.

Sabina: Haha, NOW I wish I were darker skinned.

I always complain to my Desi friends that I am too pale skinned and that I wish I were darker skinned like my South Indian friends.

Whenever I visit India everyone tells me I don't look Indian, which pisses me off because I AM Indian and I WANT to look Indian, Goddamnit. Everyone always mistakes me for something I'm not.

Joe: Yeah, well if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I didn't look like an Arab... I look Lebanese folks... this is what that looks like.

Sabina: Mexicans and Hispanics think I am one of them. Black folks actually think I am half black, half white because of my style. Indians look at me, and they wonder if I could be Indian, but naahhhh I CAN'T be Indian because of my style.


I don’t think I've ever been mistaken as an Arab, but I wore hijab for 2 years, so white folks always asked me if I was from I-ran.

Joe: LOL

Sabina: When I was a small child I used to have long black hair. People would tease me and call me "Princess Jasmine" from Aladdin, even though she was Middle Eastern and I’m not.

It pissed me off.

Then when I cut my hair off, everyone was like "WHERE DID UR BEAUTIFUL LONG HAIR GO? U DONT LOOK INDIAN ANYMORE" and this was when I was 10 or 11.

White people were upset that I didn't have long Indian hair anymore, go figure.

Now they're all obsessed with putting Indian hair extensions into their hair, it's just so laughable.

I once heard a story from a Native American woman. A full-blooded Native woman, who has long beautiful black hair, just like I did as a child. She complained that white women would go up to her and touch her hair without her permission and then proceed to tell her that she should cut it off for charity, at which she would coldly reply, "no I won't and this is my hair, don’t touch it" and white people would get offended.

Joe: I was at a workshop once with Guillermo Gomez Pena... you know him?

Sabina: No, who's that?

Joe: Amazing theater/performance artist whose company
La Pocha Nostra does really interesting work on "border identities."

I'll send you a link.

Sabina: Oh that sounds interesting.

Joe: Anyway GGP was running this exercise and I got there late so I had to sit and watch.
Everyone is rolling around on the ground and this performance artist I know--a black woman--was paired up with this young white girl.

Sabina: Uh oh.

Joe: And out of nowhere in their improv the girl just grabbed a hold of her hair and started smooshing it aaaall around.

And I watched all these emotions fly across the woman's face,




And finally she just let her do it because making an issue of it would have stopped the exercise.

Sabina: Yeah.

Joe: I could see the whole thing because I was sitting on the side. And I knew the woman so of course I thought it was hilarious because I could practically hear her thinking "am I gonna have to smack this girl?" And the girl had no idea. She was having a great old time.

Sabina: Did she talk to the white girl about it after it was over?

Joe: Nope. She didn't say anything.

Sabina: When I had a Mohawk, strangers would randomly pull my hair and touch the spikes, it made me so unbelievably angry. It’s amazing how people think they have the fuckin’ right to violate someone else's space just because they can't contain their own fuckin’ curiosity!

Joe: Yeah. It’s really weird. It’s the rudest thing I can think of that is completely socially acceptable.

Sabina: Although to be fair, some strangers did ask me politely if they could touch my Mohawk and I would answer, NO, I'm not a zoo animal so fuck off.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Manufacturing a Culture of Collaboration: Arab Liberalism at Home and Abroad

Alwan for The Arts PRESENTS:

Lecture: Manufacturing a Culture of Collaboration: Arab Liberalism at Home and Abroad by As'ad Abu Khalil
Wed, April 22, 2009 7:00 P.M.


Contemporary Arab liberalism has distinct features and history. One of its inaugural moments can be traced to Anwar Sadat's policies in the seventies that culminated with his visit to Israel. Sadat's policies opened the region up to a Pax-Americana wherein client regimes, under the aegis of Gulf finances, worked to defeat progressive forces in the Arab world and among Arabs abroad. In the decades since, Gulf-owned and financed media outlets and think-tanks have successfully altered the cultural, aesthetic and intellectual landscape of the Arab world in a manner consistent with liberal values and tastes that act in the service of Western hegemony. This talk will identify the factors behind the rise of Arab liberalism and analyze the environment that made such a regime of truth possible.

As'ad Abu Khalil was born in Tyre, Lebanon, and grew up in Beirut. He received his B.A. and M.A. in political science from the American University of Beirut, and a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He is a professor at California State University, Stanislaus and a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. Abu Khalil is the author of Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam & America's New "War on Terrorism" (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He maintains the blog, The Angry Arab News Service. He is a commentator on Middle East issues for television in the United States and a frequent commentator for Al-Jazeera.

Alwan for the Arts
16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor (bet. Broad & Broadway)
New York, NY 10004
(646) 732-3261

TRAINS: 4/5 to Bowling Green; J/M/Z to Broad St.; R/W to Whitehall St.; 1 to Rector St. or South Ferry; 2/3 to Wall St.; A/C to Broadway-Nassau
BUSES: M1, M6, M9, M16, M20.
BIKE: Hudson Rvr. Greenway, East Rvr. path, Liberty St., Broadway, Water St.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Artist Interview, From the Archive: Roberto Sifuentes

In 2003 I interviewed interdisciplinary/performance artist Roberto Sifuentes at his studio in lower Manhattan for a project I was making called The National Identity Project, in which I captured stories from people who experienced street violence post-9/11 because they were presumed to be Arabs. I met Sifuentes through his then-wife, Lián Amaris, a fascinating artist in her own right, who was a colleague during my Masters at NYU. She overheard me talking about my idea and said, "Ha. You should talk with my husband." Sifuentes is a core member of La Pocha Nostra, Guillermo Gómez-Peña's techno-art/performance ensemble. La Pocha Nostra has done some fascinating work post-9/11 on the dangers of ethnic profiling and the blurring of Middle Eastern and Chicano identities in the imagination of western authority. I'm posting this because I think it is even more relevant now than it was four years ago.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Paul Sakoilsky: Are these the Dark Times? Art in the Age of Media Panic

By Mike Watson
via art a part of cult(ure)

It was 2007 when Paul began collecting London’s free (and other) newspapers from trains, buses, the street, ‘editing’ the covers using paint and collage techniques, adding, altering and deconstructing images and text to create a new periodical: The Dark Times.

Across Austria, Germany, England, Italy, Sakoilsky has provoked thought on the status of our world, or our times, with one question, issued over and over, daily, ‘are these the dark times?’

This moniker ‘The Dark Times’ (after The New York Times, The Times, and so on) serves to remind the viewer of the difficult times we live in, whilst also satirising the absurdity of the media world we live in, driven by its desire to shock the public in order that papers may be sold, but possibly for more sinister reasons; is a fearful public a more malleable public?

Such questions are raised unflinchingly by the huge body of work that has now been amassed, and which has adorned many gallery walls - such as those in BonneliLab, Cannetto, Oct’02 to Feb ‘09 as part of group show ‘Paradiso Terrestre’ - as a vast tapestry of individual ‘newspaper’ editions, all collated and created by the artist-’Editor’ Paul Sakoilsky.

Days after revealing the first Dark Times: News Stand, an art installation at the V22 Sculpture show in London (opening 26h April), Sakoilsky’s next exhibition sees him assume the role of curator and Editor-proper as he presents Mayday: The Dark Times (Editor’s Choice ≠1) in Hastings. As the artist once maintained, of a live-in performance, in which he slept and worked in a makeshift ‘press office’ as part of the well documented environmental awareness exhibition ‘Climate of Change‘, ‘this is categorically not a performance’, so too we find his role as artist-Editor of the Dark Times newspaper takes on real-life proportions as he collates a genuine ‘newspaper’ consisting of writings and artworks from over 20 practitioners.

As he mounts the now familiar daytime ‘press-office’, collaging and painting his take of the days news upon free newspapers within the F-ISH gallery, Hastings, East Sussex, editions of this first ever print version of ‘The Dark Times’ will be for sale both as an affordable, standalone newsprint catalogue-paper, and as a limited edition boxed-set, comprised of digital C-Prints of selected submissions.

When you add to this the curated exhibition that will appear simultaneously at F-ISH, involving, amongst others, Gavin Turk and Liam Scully, we are presented with a metaphorical hall of mirrors, as art mimics life, mimicking art; found newspapers providing the impetus for painted works, which then inspire a printed edition.

This all compliments the forthrightness of Sakoilsky’s work, in which we are asked remorselessly to account for the times we live in now, right now, yet in the full knowledge that we will be asked the question over and over ad infinitum.

There is no easy answer to whether or not we live in the Dark Times, the end of days, yet it seems appropriate that Paul Sakoilsky asks this same question at the opening of this show on May 1st - the official International Workers Day, but also the date of a Pagan festival signifying renewal - in the town of Hastings; a seaside jewel that lost its lustre many aeons ago.

At a time when the fate and security of the United Kingdom seems constantly under threat from terrorists, from failing banks, from freak weather patterns, and at a time when the frivolity of art comes into question, Sakoilsky takes his mixture of dry wit and pointed wisdom to the heart of the UK itself; not to London, but to the environs, to the kind of place where people of normal aspirations (to remain safe, to remain calm, and so on) live and work.

In doing this Paul asks, amongst all the other questions, whether the UK art scene has really collapsed – as some doomsayers argue - or even diminished? If the activity of the artist seems frivolous in times of economic hardship this is in part due to the artwork’s ability to stand aside from the indignities of financial squalor, just as the best art stands aside from the indignity of gross wealth in times of prosperity. If these are the Dark Times, Sakoilsky reminds us that Art is in a unique position to shine a light upon them.

Art cannot bemoan the current state of the economy: The financial industry wakes periodically to the illusory reality that is, in any case, art’s premise. It is this illusion - that which makes it possible to take and transform a daily newspaper into satire, for example - which adds the lustre to these Dark Times.

Upcoming Show: MAY DAY: THE DARK TIMES (Editor’s Choice≠1). F-ISH, Hastings, UK, England. 2nd May - 12th June Wednesday, V22 Sculpture Show, The Biscuit Factory, Bermondsey, London, SE16. Exhibiton and Artist Preview.

The first ever print edition of ‘The Dark Times’ will be issued in a run of 2,000, and also as a Limited Edition box-set. Editor, Paul Sakoilsky, Art designer Rogan Jeans, in conjunction with F-ISH Gallery.

More about Paul Sakoilsky here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Justine Lai: Join or Die

I came across painter Justine Lai's work on one of my favorite art blogs, ILoveBadThings where her series Join or Die inspired a recent post. Lai writes on her site,

"In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated."

I love the ambiguity of this work. Perhaps I am reading more into it than Lai intends but I see these as a kind of literalization of an outsider's desire to join with the country. Beyond the obvious allusions to pornography I find something touching and heartfelt about these images. Lai describes "inserting herself" into the timeline of Presidential authority to subvert it, not simply depicting Presidential authority inserting itself into her. The renegotiation of power she is concerned with is staged literally through sex but I don't think of the paintings in Join or Die as erotic works other than in the most obvious sense.

In following the chain of links on this series around the web I came across some interesting commentary about these works. Stefan at Collectiva wrote,

"You can already begin to anticipate the media circus that will cloud around Lai when she reaches the point in this series in which she depicts hereself screwing all of the living President, especially Obama…"

...And I thought, why "especially" Obama? But then I thought... eh, maybe he has a point. Sure, the racist nutjobs will lose their shit, but then progressives might too. There are already strange disconnects between the sorts of caricatured representations Americans usually subject their Presidents to and the long tradition of racist depictions African Americans have had to endure. This is the sort of tension that haunts Presidential kitsch like the Obama Chia Head.

Of course, since she is an Asian American woman painter the racial angle is not limited to her subjects. One of the comments to Stefan's Collectiva post, from a poster called "ibi001" was telling. S/he complained,

"No respect for the highest office in the United States of America…
You should be escorted out of the country… You are no American. Youi (sic)
must be planted in From Communist China… I believe in free expression…
But come on… Sex with Jesus next… Doesn’t anybody have any
respect for anything????? When they deport you…I will wave when they
put u on the ship to Russia or China…. Get a life… You made yourself
a name… and now every American , I say true American should see u deported…
Get out of the country please….We don’t need idiots like you…"

This one is right from the playbook. You got your "go back where you came from" (Lai was born in San Francisco), you got your "insert undesirable political philosophy here", you got your "true American", contrasted with eastern identity... because they can't possibly be compatible, etc. etc. etc. But the thing that fascinates me about this comment, besides the fact that it sounds like it was sent via time machine from 1964, which elevates it beyond the usual orientalist/racist blather is... sex with Jesus? How do you get to sex with Jesus? I mean, "communist China" is good but "sex with Jesus" is golden!

(Funny story:

My Mom and I used to go to the same shrink... don't ask... and like every shrink in the universe his office was loaded with shitty art. Among these was a pen and ink drawing of a shirtless hippie laying on a bed with his hand in his pocket. One time, in describing where she was sitting in the room when she'd had a particular insight, my Mom said to me, "I was sitting under that picture of Jesus masturbating!"

... And I think that answers the unspoken question, "Gee, why did you go to a shrink, Joe?")

On her website Lai describes the sexual and political content of her work as a "spectacle" that she approaches with "a certain playfulness." She writes,

"It would be easy to let the images slide into territory that's strictly pornographic—the lurid and hardcore, the predictably "controversial." One could also imagine a series preoccupied with wearing its "Fuck the Man" symbolism on its sleeve. But I wish to move beyond these things and make something playful and tender and maybe a little ambiguous, but exuberantly so. This, I feel, is the most humanizing act I can do."

To learn more about Justine Lai visit her website here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Against A Safe Space

Editrix Latoya Peterson informs me that my essay Look Twice received 22, 000 views on Racialicious in March, making it the most viewed essay on the site. I was happy with how it was received but there was a sub theme that popped up in the comment thread around my use of the word “Bitch” in the post that inspired further discussion on the site... including a reassessment of the commenting policy. Ooops. In Look Twice I wrote,

He jerks his hand away and begins to step back. But I am not making it easy for him. I am ready to go and I tell him so. He is more and more wary and tries to get away from me. “Yeah, when you tell this story don’t forget to add the part where you walked away, bitch!” I shouted after him as he high tailed it up the subway steps.

Yeah, I know. Stupid. I’m not telling it because I am proud of myself.

I thought it was obvious from the essay that I wasn’t using the word “bitch” uncritically, and for most readers, it was. But some could not get past the word itself and that made it impossible for them to interact with the rest of the piece. This small but vocal minority raised this issue aggressively enough that Latoya dedicated an Open Thread (On language and terms) as a follow up. In her preface to the Open Thread Latoya wrote,

1. Where in this is the author’s right to relate a story as they see fit?

2. At what point do the words used in the source piece encourage/discourage certain types of dialogue in the comments section? (For example, I’ve deleted scores of misogynistic comments [from men and women] on the Ciara piece and on the Esther Ku piece - though neither of those posts contained the type of gendered language that normally prompts an outcry.)

3. Is it possible for a place designed to encourage conversation to also be a safe space?

I didn’t post on the Open Thread myself, even though my essay was the catalyst for the discussion and many posters talked about me directly. I thought I’d answered the questions about why I included the word “bitch” well enough during the original thread dedicated to my essay, which can be accessed here. So I didn’t feel any need to explain, elaborate or apologize. I also thought that if I entered the conversation the thread would have become too much about me, and not enough about Latoya’s questions. Mostly people made reasonable assessments, about balancing civility with expression and a free exchange of ideas. But a poster called Bekka wrote,

There are a very, VERY few occasions in which the word bitch doesn’t invoke all the worst stereotypes of women - shallow, petty, and, fundamentally, so far inferior to men that any association with the even the word is tainting. It’s the entire concept of the female as dirty, disgusting, cowardly, mean. There’s a very real problem with that. There’s a problem with the fact that there are huge numbers of men who casually use ‘bitches’ as a stand in for ‘women.’ It parallels, in form, the use of the k word for Jews, the s word for Hispanics, the n word for blacks. It is a denigration of the entire group, and to direct it at someone who is clearly not part of that group (i.e. calling a man ‘bitch’) is meant to insult because the mere association with the group is insulting. Period.

“Bitch” is a rude word but I can’t agree with relating it (in cause or effect) to a racial slur. Creating false correspondences between race, gender and sexual identity etc. does not make things more clear, it obscures the things that make each of these things special in their own right: Everything is not the same. My generation was the one that set about reclaiming slurs from their original discriminatory contexts as a way to bleed them of their power to hurt. “Bitch”, “slut”, “queer”, “fag”, “dyke”, and “nigger” all got a postmodern makeover. I have mixed feelings myself about the ultimate results of this project but nevertheless, it occurred. The fairly playful way that the word “bitch” is used in everyday discourse reveals the disparity between racial slurs and this word—or at least the wider range of its use. For example the existence of a bestselling cookbook written by women, for women, titled Skinny Bitch is only one contemporary illustration.

So I suppose I also have a different, and frankly less dire, idea of what “bitch” means.

But I never thought that “bitch” meant inferior to men, in any case. If anything, it describes a woman who is too loud, vengeful, aggressive, in other words, too much like a man. Used this way, “bitch” is a corrective that says, more or less “Act like a lady.” That is, if you say it to a woman. When a man says it to another man, as I did in my essay, it has the opposite meaning. It is meant to emasculate. To say, “You are acting like a girl.” The assumption of course that being “like a girl” is a bad thing, which is what makes it sexist, about this Bekka and I agree. Even though it was uncomfortable to be the focus I am glad that the subsequent discussion really explored the idea of acceptable public speech vs. free expression.


I do have a strong reaction to the notion that there is such a thing as a “safe space”, which is the impetus for this follow-up.

A story:

After 9/11 I was invited to join a nascent non-profit whose mission involved bringing artists and therapists together to strategize responses to the tragedy with children. I showed up to the first group meeting and discovered that, other than the Executive Director, who had been a dancer, I was the only artist there. I sat at the edge of a large conference table and looked across at a sea of New York area therapy professionals: white women wearing ethnic jewelry who were riding out the terrible disruption to the city caused by the destruction of the twin towers in their summer homes in the Hamptons/Shelter Island/Upstate. And I thought, "Uh-oh."

The meeting began and after introductions we spent maybe 40 minutes discussing the necessity of creating a "safe space" for the work we planned to do. It went on and on as each of the therapists in the room qualified what the others had said in an effort to create an environment of perfect safety in which no one would feel threatened in any way. But of course, since standards of personal safety vary the therapists began to argue so one of them suggested that before moving forward we spend time making our meeting room itself into a “safe space.” That is, a space where differences of opinion might be aired without anyone feeling unheard. There was wide agreement among the assembled therapists that this was necessary and the entire process started again from scratch.

Two minutes into this re-do I raised my hand.

A dozen pairs of eyes turned to face me and I said, “I am an artist, so I don’t believe in creating a safe space.”

There was collective gasp and much shifting of ethnic jewelry.

“If anything, I think my job is to make the space less safe. As an adult I make my own safety and my assumption is that other adults do the same. I don’t need or want anyone to take responsibility to that for me. In fact, when someone presumes to do so it makes me really angry.”

A dozen eyebrows shot up and there was some murmuring. The awkwardness (finally) gave way to a conversation.

So, in light of that experience I can answer Latoya’s question, “Is it possible for a place designed to encourage conversation to also be a safe space?”

No. No it is not.

But that is only bad news if you expect that your community will completely insulate you at all times from anything that might upset you. If you are there to be part of a conversation then you might welcome a free exchange of ideas, which by definition includes dissent. It should not surprise you at this point that I want this blog to be the second one, not the first.

I understand what is meant by the term "safe space" but I hate that expression. It is used so often in lefty circles to passive aggressively control discourse that just seeing it printed on a page makes me angry. This is why I have not bothered to come up with a commenting policy for this blog. If you submit a comment I don’t like because it doesn’t move the conversation forward then I’ll just delete it. Above and beyond that I am happy to quote my friend Andrea who blogs as The Cruel Secretary, “Act like you got some home training.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Video Games

The Power of Play:
Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Video Games

A public lecture at Manhattan College

Vit Šisler
Fulbright Scholar
Buffett Center for International Studies,
Northwestern University

Monday, May 4 – 4 PM
William J. Scala Room, Leo Hall

Sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, the International Studies Program, the Department of Modern Foreign Languages, and the Department of Communication

For more information, please contact Dr. Robert M Geraci, Department of Religious Studies, Manhattan College, 718-862-7402,

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Evening With Augusto Boal/ R.I.P. Augusto Boal

An Evening with Augusto Boal

in a Performance/Demonstration of Forum Theater (a Theater of the
Oppressed technique) with assistance of members of his Intensive Master Workshop at the Brecht Forum

Monday, May 25, 2009 at 7:00 pm

At the Assembly Hall of The Riverside Church
91 Claremont Avenue at West 120 Street (one block west of Broadway)
New York City

(Subway: IRT Broadway/Seventh Avenue local #1 to 116 Street; walk north on Broadway to 120 Street, turn left, walk one block to Claremont. Bus: M-4, M-5 or M-104 to 120 Street or 122 Street.)

Forum Theater, one of the techniques in the Theater of the Oppressed repertory, is an innovative approach to public forums, and is rooted in the Brazilian popular education and culture movements of the 1950s and 1960s. It is designed for use in schools, community centers, trade unions, and political, solidarity and grassroots organizations. It is especially useful as an organizing tool in social justice movements. Workshop participants (the actors) are asked to tell a story, taken from daily life, containing a political or social problem of difficult solution. A skit presenting that problem is improvised and presented. The original solution proposed by the protagonist must contain at least one social or political error which leaves the problem unresolved. When the skit is over, the audience discusses the proposed solution, and then the scene is performed once more. But now, audience members are urged to intervene by stopping the action, coming on stage to replace actors, and enacting their own ideas. Thus, instead of remaining passive, the audience becomes active "spect-actors" who now create alternative solutions and control the dramatic action. The aim of the forum is not to find an ideal solution, but to invent new ways of confronting oppression. In Brazil and other parts of Latin America, as well as in India and Africa, Forum Theater has been used with peasant and worker "audiences" as training in labor and community organizing and participatory democracy.

Contribution--sliding scale: $10/$15/$25
(free for Brecht Forum subscribers and Riverside Church congregants)
Reserve online at

Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratory has announced that Augusto Boal died May 1st of "complications arising from a long-term health condition." They write, "TOPLAB has had a close relationship with Augusto for twenty years; He was our inspiration, teacher and comrade.The members of TOPLAB consider it a privilege to have known and worked with him. We will miss him immensely."