Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: 2008

18 October 2008

Album Review: Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid


I love this album so much that four hundred words are criminally insufficient to do it justice; but I wrote this brief review for a music journalism job application and, partial as it is, it seems pointless to keep it locked up on my hard drive. Enjoy!

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Manchester ballad-kings Elbow found a good thing early on and have ridden it well, doing very little to redefine themselves since 1997's Asleep In The Back. There's a magic potion somewhere between frontman Guy Garvey's velvet rasp, the band's consistent ability to kick out highly dynamic slow-burning odes and dirges, and their rare competency in team songwriting (it's never clear in exactly which instrument their tunes first germinate, as if each piece escapes the studio process to emerge fully-formed). Sudden sprays of aggressive distortion or overpowering organs pepper otherwise tender, even cautious music. Choral repetitions forget they belong to a love song, and hook into hypnotizing drum and bass grooves until an afterthought of a fadeout. Exultant stadium singalongs take turns with ominous, swaggering lounge numbers. One minute, you're hallucinating drunk on your back in the alley outside a pub - and the next minute you're soaring over the golden meadows of your youth.

Elbow's greatest strength is their ability to repeatedly pull listeners though this wash of contradictions, finding the most stirring sentiments and primal urges and then throwing them into the ring together. It's a formula that reaches new levels of sophistication on their latest release, The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction Records, 2008) – in which divorce proceedings inspire floor-stomping anthems, the small grief of loneliness is rendered in widescreen, and the city’s dirty streets magically transform into a romantic wonderland replete with siren-violins and a disco ball made from the Moon.

Garvey’s lyrics paint rich, tactile emotional space that swings from voice to voice, by turns abrasive (“cramming commitments like cats in a sack”) and nostalgic (“out of a doorway the tentacles stretch of a song that I know, and the world moves in slow-mo”). It’s a moving cocktail - one that can get you drunk before you know it - and so I’m willing to forgive the occasional clumsy tracks where depth is traded out for overplayed suave (“Audience With The Pope,” “The Fix”). There are fewer dragging moments on this album than some of their previous efforts, fewer saccharine stumbles and crawling, undeveloped melodies. They do exist – although by the time the album’s last twinkling electric guitar riff fades away, even the rough spots seem indispensable, endearing, somehow part of why this band is worth it. Elbow is, after all, a bar band – and it is these little testaments to their status as ordinary blokes, these slurs and frayed edges, that drive home the incredible humanity of their music.

18 September 2008

Giving In To Astonishment

Giving In To Astonishment: Scenes From Burning Man’s American Dream

(originally published at RealitySandwich.com - author-read audio available at Archive.org)

“The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you… [Visionaries, leaders, and heroes]’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience – that is the hero’s deed.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pp 48-49

“The function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p106

i) Thursday morning while getting coffee from a Hawaiian grower, my partner and I meet a student from UC Davis who is photographing male fashion here for her graduate thesis. She’s building a case for this event as a kind of male wardrobe skunkworks, a rare place where men are afforded the options that might get them ridiculed at home, to explore their male feminine for perhaps the first time. She grabs and Polaroids us, me in my girlfriend’s borrowed (stolen) skirt.
Sure enough, later that day I’m recovering from a brutal paddling at the hands of our neighbors, The 7 Deadly Sins Lounge…my payment for a “Flaming Blue Fuck” shot, as decided by spinning a wheel (I got the pricey and appropriate “Lust”). Sitting tenderly on my amazingly sore ass, I’m approached by a powerfully queer fellow, in clown makeup and a chest-waisted day-glo yellow suspendered tutu emblazoned with a smiley face. He asks, “Are you wearing a SKIRT?”
I look down in mock surprise. “Yes…”
He smirks, cocks his head to one side, and puts his hands on his hips, looking at me with joke puzzlement. “Isn’t that a little bit GAY?”

ii) Thursday evening, I attend a discussion at Entheon Village led by psychonaut-chemist-hero couple Drs. Ann & Alex “Sasha” Shulgin, the pair responsible for popularizing MDMA as a therapeutic substance and pioneering the synthesis of thousands of other psychoactive molecules in their home LAB (“Large Animal Bioassay” – a joke acronym for their daring and rigorous self-testing). In a compassionate description of the insane (“interesting”) United States legal morass surrounding mind-altering chemistry, Sasha Shulgin the sage octogenarian regales our overflowing tent with a core contradiction: The US classifies DMT as a Schedule I substance, something with no known medical or therapeutic value, in spite of government-funded research to the contrary, over a decade old – a chemical that is illegal to transport in any fashion from one place to another. The only problem: DMT is manufactured by every animal brain, as well as a wide range of plants, “Which means,” remarks Shulgin, “that the judge, the prosecutors, and everyone in the courtroom, is transporting it from one place to another.” He chuckles with remarkable aplomb, considering the decades of persecution he and his family of researchers have suffered at the hands of an authority who remains unwilling to understand either the scientific or social import of his life’s work.
Probably the most-experienced and rigorous molecular voyagers alive, a pair who have accidentally spawned innumerable subcultures and liberated countless new mental states into awareness, the Shulgins are unquestionably quite comfortable with the paradoxes of life – paradoxes that bare themselves in every moment of the burn, in snippets of conversation and through incongruous luminous apparel, in the fantastic weirdness of the so-called “Mutant Vehicles” that litter the playa and in the awe-inspiring view at night of this incredible extraterrestrial metropolis that blossomed forth from an alkaline lake bed last week and will be gone in another, scattered back into garages and closets the world over, incubating until next summer.

“Things are coming to life around you all the time. There is a life pouring into the world, and it pours from an inexhaustible source.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p272

iii) Sometime midday on Tuesday I’m stopped by a pleasant young British man who asks me for sunscreen. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he says, “but you’re the only person I’ve seen who’s as pale as I am, and…” Our conversation reveals this to be his second burn; he admits feeling the need to return since, for his first year, he didn’t “relax into it” until the fifth day. Hoping to score more inveterate advice, I ask what he means by “relaxing into it,” and the answer is simple: “I just didn’t get over being AMAZED by everything until it was almost over. Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Oooh, tits!,’ or ‘Oooh, blinky!’”
It’s a commonly reported impression from these frothing shores of unrelenting creative surplus. I can’t make it through a day without at least a few similar discussions of sensory and emotional overload. There are workshops, NECESSARY workshops, on how to keep your outside-world romantic relationships from flying to pieces in the sensual centrifuge – or, failing that, a dozen mixers for rebounding (although every bar & dancefloor already serves the purpose). Some camps gift earplugs to those who can’t find rest amidst the clock saturating “oontz oontz” of 300-watt theme camp audio systems banging from every direction (I had surprisingly little trouble with this, excepting the one afternoon my neighbors to the South played Don MacLean’s “American Pie” on repeat for over an hour – and another night when I awoke from my stolen midnight hour-nap to a pandemonium pile-up of throbs stomping on each other, screams, megaphone drunkenness, I swear the tilting roar of a DRAGON, temporarily cast into the half-asleep pit of helpless blurred aural hell from which neither waking nor dreaming could offer any relief – a condition I later described as “Putting the ‘bed’ in Bedlam.”).
Hourly or more I was reminded of comedian Joe Rogen’s account of his first DMT experience, during which he met a transcendent alien being who urged him through the trip’s unimaginable gorgeous painful intensity by saying, “Don’t give in to astonishment.” As prepared as I felt after years of anticipatory reading, documentary research, and incessant questioning of those friends who had gone before me, this became my mantra for the week. Determined and even eager to take everything in stride (or perhaps more appropriately, the cyclic gait of playa bike pedaling, frequently caught in thigh-burning tire chews through dust drifts before sweet release onto clean and easy straightaways), the moments came when my exuberance simply couldn’t hold as a strategy, my intentions and agendas buckled under the mass of the senses, and in my sobriety I faded into the periphery of an experience too large for my skinbound social constructs to hold. In these seer-less glimpses through Burning Man’s unembarrassed literal luminous ether and into/as plain transparent being, an offering from no one to no one, the unconcerned and unquestioning blossom of sound and color and feeling, this dearly-held dictum is gone without regret or even remembrance. I am learning the lesson breathed by the multitudes before and alongside me: I don’t “give in” to astonishment because I AM astonishment, whatever else I thought I was and I will think I will be. I am astonishing, the verb. In the rapture of exultant community, my brightened little person self, no thicker than flame or smoke, is silently, wordlessly singing: I am Burning Man, I am Burning Man.

“You couldn’t relate at all to something in which you did not somehow participate. That’s why the idea of God as the Absolute Other is a ridiculous idea. There could be no relationship to the Absolute Other.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p227

iv) Against all caution to the contrary – “Don’t bring a strained relationship to Burning Man unless you’re ready to feel it split apart in a meteoric fireball” – I did, and lost a two-year tread against the insurmountable complexity after the intensity of a partners’ heart-opening yoga session tore my love down the middle. Eight hours later, wandering alone through the chilled black pre-dawn Wednesday morning, wings spread to lift a heart heavy from the hanging medallion of “newly-single,” I turn a corner and am unwittingly and suddenly in line to be seated at the nostalgic Red Eye Diner, lifted chrome and all from the roadside of some false Norman Rockwell memory.
Behind me beams a tower of a man, ruddy cheeks and sideburns between the khaki coat and hat of the burn’s Rangers – a volunteer peacekeeping team, now nearly 300 strong, patrolling the playa so police don’t have to – a kind of desert-clad jedi elite revered by the many and (apparently) feared by those few who lack the discernment to distinguish their Ranger SUVs from external law enforcement (a.k.a. “The Man”…a confusing handle, out here). Here is a Bigfoot of a man, whose friendliness leans on menace from simple size, loud and wide (and, he tells me almost immediately, cocained).
He fishes around in shirt pockets and hands me this year’s commemorative patch, ranger-generated quasi-official swag: Old Glory in negative color, the Man tastefully figured over blue and black stripes. It’s the first machine-stitched example I’ve ever seen of the optical effect by which extended staring at a surface or pattern leaves an identical phototracer image on the retina in opposite colors. The patch, beyond being the most professional item I’ve been gifted so far this week, tickles me with its playfulness: Its maker not only assumes recipients to have specific knowledge of visual illusions (a safe bet, here), but seems to have woven in a veiled statement on the participatory nature of the American Dream itself, a reminder that our experience exists not only or even primarily in our symbolic objects but emerges only through our active engagement. That is to say, although maybe I’m merely projecting, this modest gift elegantly contains the coherent transmission of a profound perspective on this entire thing, its place in our larger culture and reality as a whole. And it may have taught me more than the many wonderful but nonspecific gifts I’ve received out here about what Burning Man IS, in all of its simultaneous saturnine silliness.
Perhaps that is why I am drawn so powerfully to this place and these people, that cocktail of play and gravity. Then again, this place is huge, and I am regularly reminded by testimony and experience that a person finds what they attract, here, what they want or need but certainly what they ARE, or are BECOMING, in some way. This is all an intensified reminder that we get what we are looking for (whether or not we realize that we are looking for it, or sometimes that we are even looking for something at all). The myriad energies and impulses of Burning Man are a zodiac, deeper than any exploration except by (and as) the whole beyond any sum. Like life in “the default world,” we can only know the vastness of being through imminent examples, discrete forms and experiences and we see only what we are – what through our evolutionary psychic and cognitive reasoning our bodyminds decide to pass up into conscious awareness – whatever patterns with which, out of a deep history of functional necessity, our being has decided to vibrate in synchrony…what we, in this harmonic unison, tacitly conspire to bring into being with our very attention. (Talk about “radical participation!”)
And so I have begun to reevaluate everything that “happens to me” here as something that I only see or feel because I AM it, that I TOUCH as external to me but KNOW to reflect deeper truths of identity than I may be willing to admit. (“MAY be,” because the fire of this place has incredible momentum for burning away such limited identities and plunging one – willingly or not – into new and wider self-conceptions, as if we are all here to bathe ourselves in it of the people to whom we ordinarily pretend and discover the clean newness of some more and less human “being” underneath.)
…Which is all a mild cause for concern when, after waiting in line for maybe half an hour, the Ranger and I are finally seated in a cramped corner of the diner (one booth, one table, four bar stools, ten square feet of kitchen) only to be immediately made to wait again for shift change. As our French-speaking staff disappear behind a curtain to their campsites and leave us unceremoniously with each other’s impatient indignance, and one minute pulls and stretches into twenty or more, I scan the amusing deconstructed menu. (All of this for…scanning the kitchen… grilled cheese and the cold ground-gritty dregs of coffee?) Leave it to the French: a dozen half-intelligible synonymous entries for grilled cheese, poking fun at both menu lingo and my own illusion of choice. Shoulder-to-shoulder with an increasingly upset and noisy ape-man in dress of authority, I smile and nod at the swelling aggression. Here is a man who believes he is owed something, professing an injustice to the other diners, his voice hoarse and boxy, unaware or unconcerned over the obvious distress his protest is catalyzing in a small crowd doing its best to be agreeable and easygoing, and wait. It says, after all, for Christ’s sake, in the pamphlet they hand you upon entry, that you are not ENTITLED gifts. To receive them, when given, with humility, and to not complain about it otherwise. Here is a man who, in his defense, has for nine consecutive years put himself in trying and frequent service of a community of questionable decisions (While in line he told me of a burner who in 2006 executed a double forward flip off the Man’s elevated platform, landing perfectly erect but dislocating his ankle, crumpling to the ground where he lay moaning while other people scrambled over him unaware…not to mention countless other forms of goonery). Here is a man who does in fact deserve the gratitude (or at least open appreciation) of that community, but he’s acting like a petulant child in flagrant non-acknowledgement of this city’s core principles, pounding the counter insisting on his idea of a good time and splashing scowls on everyone around him. When, finally, the cookstaff returns and we are served, half of his free sandwich is redistributed to someone else who has been waiting to his other side, and in an outrage he throws his own half-eaten piece on the dirty ground, stomping out cursing before a wake of awkward silent relief. Whatever code of Ranger honor binds him to his duty and service remains a mystery to me. Oh, it takes one to know one, though; this is my world, and if this disconcertingly seismic rambunctious caprice isn’t Michael, then it is a facet of whatever bigger thing or self I am. Yikes.

vi) I’m standing in line in San Francisco at an AT&T store waiting to bicker (no, please let’s not bicker, let this be easy) with the desk staff about getting my broken cell phone replaced. There are bright colors and big video screens, multi-lingual clientele and strange sensations…and here, on the first day after hitching my ride out of Burning Man, back in “the matrix,” I’m feeling the first anticipated round of nostalgia for that hallucinatory desert home world, trying to imagine that this air-conditioned orange and blue spectacle is some especially subtle and ironic art installation, that I’m relieved to be momentarily in from the wind and dust, that making it to the counter to get a new phone is some strange play exercise and a trip-within-a-trip commentary on what we as a culture neglect to notice or appreciate about the ever loving gift of our own created technicolor lives. Meanwhile, outside, just a scatter of strange pastel city blocks from my feet, the great blue roiling Pacific Ocean, Oh God, Nature, and I don’t mind being in here because you can take the burner out of Black Rock City, but…
And I do my best to commit myself moment to moment, in every meeting and in the carriage of my body, to bringing the love I found out in that abominable gorgeous bliss wasteland (totally, TOTALLY unwasted, a sleeping primordial landscape entirely appreciated to the fullest possible human extent) back here into this internally-combusting modern urban beauty-mess. It’s a real blessing to follow up my first burn with this vagabonding, new voyages in unfamiliar places, realms not completely alien but rife with gambits (Of the people I know out here, who will let me sleep on their couch? Can I find an open laundromat on Labor Day? Did my friends in Colorado pull through for me and find me temp work out here like they said they could? Can I carry all of these things around every day for the next two weeks?)

vii) And now, sitting without pants in “The Washing Well,” the heaven-sent open laundromat on Labor Day, money belt tucked under my boxers and feeling like a proper vagabond in my last clean shirt. (Colored by Hawaiian red clay, it reads “Do It In The Dirt”…and I left it in the bag all week at Burning Man, ironically.) Whatever a “proper vagabond” is I don’t know – but here is my notion of such a person: traveling at a deliberate pace, sharing and receiving, learning and using humility, keeping my eyes and ears wide open to experience what Allyson Grey in her lecture at Pantheogenesis Temple a few days ago called “life as a synaesthetic symphony,” tuning in to the quiet voices, intuitive whispering, which is how I found this laundromat in the first place, by taking an urging left instead of a silent right on my way out of the phone store (where nothing is free again, apparently – some art installation!).
This same suggestive silence led me into conversation with a particular man at Pantheogenesis a few days ago, where we eagerly discussed an exciting point from Daniel Pinchbeck’s recent lecture – how we seem on the brink of a collective awakening to psychic energy and engineering, akin to the 18th Century threshold between fearful awe of lightning and an electrified industrial revolution. Instances of so-called synchronicity seem by all sensitive accounts to be on the rise, drawing us toward an inevitable reckoning between our current mechanisms and a world of more vivid and obvious structuring, simultaneity of cause and effect, free information, living language, playful inexplicability, trust and instantaneous response that will challenge our very notions of the separation between inner and outer, question and answer, the strange (to us) overlay of our linear living experience and the inescapable knowledge of the at-onceness of all time and all-hereness of space.
One of Daniel’s examples came from a burner who had declared his desire for a fig, and THE NEXT THING that happened? Someone walks by with a basket of figs and offers him one. My new friend tells me how he had lost his coat two days earlier in another camp and found it, after Daniel’s rant on synchronicity, sitting in the corner of the temple, waiting for him like the world knew he’d find it there. By the end of this conversation, he is offering me the ride to San Francisco I’d been worrying about. These are small requests – not rain dances, not politics by the hyper-democratic mechanism of collective wish-fulfillment. Not YET. But, but…I was attending this lecture, and having this conversation, while wearing the one custom shirt I brought to the Burn, the freak-flag betraying my most deeply-held sociopolitical platform, my model for visionary economics, the most hope-inspiring thing I can think to say in the midst of this Malthusian delusion of the United States: “Imagination is our greatest natural resource.” Sure enough, I end up sharing the RV back to California with five others: two globetrotting women on their way “back to Egypt” via Yosemite…and a fellow illustrator, musician, concert poster artist and his partner, who let me stay the night in their second bedroom and wake up to the delicious coincidence that he plays drums for a friend of mine from college, someone whom I haven’t spoken to in years. Eating my breakfast, I muse on the persistent reminders of how miraculous it all is, this experience of one thing leading to another, when I know that REALLY, this is ALL one thing, happening at ONCE. Being surprised, or confused, is our reward for trying to understand this party as it if were a parade.

“Chance, or what might seem to be chance, is the means through which life is realized.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p203

viii) On my way out to Burning Man, I read The Power of Myth, transcript of a conversation between ur-comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. Campbell, you may remember, seeded the public consciousness with the idea that myths are not merely the inadequate explanatory schema of ages past, but maps of experience that connect us, when we immerse ourselves in them, to the vaster patterns of humans being and becoming. They teach us how to navigate the parade of our lives, and deepen our sense of belonging in a mysterious but somewhat/somehow sensible universe. I am in love with Campbell’s ability to weave together the disparate mythologies of cultures the world over, highlighting common contours that converge on the horizon line of our collective unconscious, archetypes as the intermediaries of an organic intelligence alive too deep for our waking awareness to contact directly. But in spite of the rapture I feel when reading Campbell & Moyers’ incredible exchanges on the trans-cultural core form of the dead-and-resurrected savior, or the organismic and embodied origins of deities hidden in our shared evolutionary heritage, or how 13th Century troubadours shook the world apart by inventing and professing for the first time the notion of personal romantic love as a spiritual ideal, my Burning Man experience was most illuminated by their discussion of the mandala…

“In India, I have seen a red ring put around a stone, and then the stone becomes regarded as an incarnation of the mystery. Usually you think of things in practical terms, but you could think of anything in terms of its mystery. For example, this is a watch, but it is also a thing in being. You could put it down, draw a ring around it, and regard it in that dimension. That is the point of what is called ‘consecration.’”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p74

ix) The mandala is a circular map of the world common to every wisdom tradition from the Tibetan Buddhists to the Navajo Indians. Circular, because of our universal understanding of the circle as a symbol of wholeness, totality…because the heavens above stretch out infinitely beyond the circular boundary of the horizon…because of lunar cycles and the relationship between the full moon and a full belly or breast or basket. Mythological circles are the containers of everything, and within them everything is organized, the center point representing a still axis or fertile ground of origin (masculine and feminine creative power, respectively), the node around which the rest of the mandala effulges or accretes.
A compass is a mandala. A map of our solar system is one, as well. Understand the map, and you can understand the territory. The reading of a mandala, like the exploration of any metaphor, illuminates a network of meanings, placing them together in a landscape of interrelated significance.
A week into my forays at Burning man, and I’ve finished The Power of Myth, allowed it to percolate in me while I give my attention to the stupendous display of creativity that bombards and invites me from every direction. This is, after all, what Alex Grey has declared “The Freest Place On Earth,” the living example of our western republic’s constitutional freedoms, a place so intentionally permissive that – finally! – the only taboo TRULY IS cruelty to the environment and one’s fellow beings (of course, taboos get broken).
Such open, radical acceptance clears space for an unprecedented array of strange beauties:
…Being swept up in the silent theatrics of a playa documentary team’s between scene choreography. I find them recruiting in someone else’s camp and follow them into the center of the playa, where we are paired up and filmed kissing, falling to the ground, lying there for long, still, amused minutes as if dead – I’m not entirely sure what this bizarre pantomime is intended to communicate about Black Rock City – except that it’s full of weirdo film students – but it was delightful to connect in this way with a total stranger, in front of the camera, in the middle of the desert. And I came back to camp at dusk, grinning to report I had stumbled onto film…a fitting spectacle for my first ever Monday at Burning Man.
…Attending a seminar held by Poly Paradise on understanding and overcoming jealousy, after which my ex-ex and I are coached by a fellow attendee for over an hour in Nonviolent Communication and then draft our (long-awaited, long-discussed, finally realized) first working constitution for a mutually satisfying open relationship between us.
…Packing ourselves into a sweating friendly mass of couples both straight and gay for a workshop on male full body erotic massage, a form of electric body work that culminates in a surprisingly nonsexual intensity that shudders me from lips to fingertips, prickling pleasure-gnosis revealing the precise locations of personal contractions in my subtle, auric body – and suddenly I know can I heal myself, for suddenly I know beyond doubt that I have the hands of a healer (and wow, she does too, apparently). Leaving the sweat-and-serotonin drench of the massage tent, I share a depth of surprise and gratitude and comfort/relief, praise for this newly discovered realm of embodiment, through “Were you there for that, too?” eye contact with the half dozen gay men I was, not an hour earlier, worried would kick me in the head while tossed about in the throes of orgasm.
…Roaming around on a photojournalistic tour of the endless fake road and warning signs: “Yield To Art In Plaza,” “Reserved For Theme Camps,” “Now Leaving The United States,” “Speed Limit: Terminal Velocity,” “Department of Spontaneous Combustion,” “Larry Harvey for United States Congress,” “Slow – Children At Playa.”
…Getting myself zapped by “Got Stickers?” camp’s electric fence in exchange for a delicious frozen margarita, then standing with my woman, each of us putting one hand on an arm of their variable-voltage electric chair, and closing the circuit with a kiss.
…Watching the biggest smoke rings I’ve ever seen get shot from some invisible cannon across the playa and into the evening sky, trailing arabesques as they drift up into the air like giant lung cancer jellyfish, one of them threaded by a party of skydivers.
…Playing guitar with one hand and spinning fire poi with the other.
…Drinking a Canadian margarita blended by a chainsaw motor and calling that breakfast.
…Hunkering down with goggles and face mask through two day-long dust storms that turn our entire camp, tents with sleeping bags and all, into a rippling alkaline dunescape.
It was some time in the middle of one of these dust storms, I believe, when I recognized, possibly even while staring directly at a pale white Sun no brighter than the Moon, that Black Rock City is a mandala.

“I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p65

xii) I am only familiar with a handful of mandalas – the Tibetan wheel of the Six Realms, the magnetic grid of the Cardinal Directions, and the four quadrants of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. On a Cartesian plane, Wilber has divided domains of human knowledge into the interior (loosely, mind and experience, the first-person perspective) and exterior (loosely, body and description, the third-person perspective) along the y-axis, and into “singular” and “collective” along the x-axis. You end up with a grid of the various ways that truth can be found in the world, the various long-competing methods of inquiry finally put to work in complementarity.
I studied Wilber’s work in graduate school and have not forgotten his insistence that our models are no replacement for direct experience – that we must not mistake the map for the territory. And yet, fresh from my immersion in Joseph Campbell and absorbed by how the perceived world is constructed – how fact and interpretation wash back and forth, creating one another – I can’t help but suspect that the TERRITORY is actually the MAP. Carl Jung, after all, said that dream architecture signifies the dreamer’s mind. Since our minds construct the contents of consciousness according to their favored theories of self, it seems perfectly rational to engage the world in a way that recognizes perceptions as propositions ABOUT the self. Rather than “mistaking the map for the territory” by losing myself in the disembodied game of theoretical abstractions, I set out to discover just how deeply the intentional ritualistic design of Black Rock City, and my own half-conscious meaning-making, shape the literal physical topology of the event. And so, for the last twenty four hours of my stay at Burning Man, everything has cast itself in a new light, a glowing metaphysical, metaphorical grid overlaid on the dusty streets of the city, reaching back in time to web together all of my experiences in a newly-discovered structure.
Consequently, my theme camp, situated facing the 9:00 Portal, fell into the upper left quadrant of personal experience and individual psychology – albeit with our camp bar and tent door open to the lower left quadrant, the jurisdiction of shared meaning and intersubjectivity – what “we” know, what is true for us, our common language and symbols. It makes sense for my partner and I, arriving at Burning Man in a confused state over our relationship and torn between personal and mutual interests, to be camping on the boundary between “I” and “We” – just a few minutes’ walk from where we attend those 7:00 workshops on open relationships and partner massage down in the Land of You and I.
Across the mandala, the Opulent Temple Sound Stage at 2:00, square in the middle of the empirical, behavioral, anatomical domain of the upper right, where my strongest individualistic urges all week focus me on the sight of dancing women, the joy of being out alone to peoplewatch, intensely interested in seeing other people’s experiences from an objective distance.
At 4:00, Entheon Village’s lecture series on drug policy, social reform, sustainable design, and crystal lattices makes perfect sense – Entheon sitting, after all, in the dead center of the lower right quadrant, domain of the collective exteriors, socioeconomic research, network logic, complexity. In retrospect, it’s little wonder that this is where I have found so much discussion about synchronicity, ecology, and unified field theories.
And right on the 3:00 Portal, between individual behavior and social practicality, the Red Eye Diner, where the Bigfoot ranger threw his petulant fit and disturbed everyone’s micropolitics of decency.
At 12:00, between “I” and “It,” the Temple (“Basura Sagrada,” Sacred Trash) where Burners were encouraged to write their prayers for deceased loved ones, performing ritual release from painful personal identification and to equanimous simple observation.
At 6:00, between “We” and “They,” shared experience and economic infrastructure, waved the banners of Center Camp, where people alternately gathered on couches to watch live music or entered data into information kiosks, huddled together during the whiteout of Monday’s dust storm or stood in line to buy coffee and look up lost friends in the registry.
Center Camp is body painting and filling out the 2008 Census. The Temple is silent prayer and stargazing.
This is the thinking in which I’m steeped, the mythological and the geographical making sweet angel love in my psyche, when after sundown on Saturday night the wind & dust finally relent and our camp, Deviant Playground, finally cleans up and heads out to get front row seats to the Burn. I am expecting now that all of my experiences will be textured, impressed by this hidden fractal enformy, everywhere I go to yield conversations predicted by the coordinates, my last night at Burning Man to be the decoding of an endlessly rich cryptex I can finally navigate with some minor degree of intentionality.
And then we are all walking together toward the center of the promenade, the axis, the point of all points, the mathematico-spiritual origin of this entire orgy, the center of the galaxy. The art cars have all answered the homing beacon and cluster in a circle around the Man as if waiting to be nursed, or prostrate in deference. The entire crowd, 50,000 strong, has accreted/gravitated around and within this flammable blinking equator, eyes and subwoofers turned like petals to the Sun, all charged by the pressure cooker of eager flesh, all expectant, light shooting everywhere.

xii) Four days vagabonding in San Francisco and in spite of the great people I’ve met and the lovely homes in which I’m staying – and in spite of the delicious fact that I took the 19 North to Market Street and bought everything I need to do live performance painting at Golden Gate Park’s 10th Annual Power To The Peaceful Festival this weekend, I feel like I’m losing the glow. Perhaps traveling to distract myself from the post-Burning Man blues really wasn’t such a bright idea, after all. And then, on a deck looking out over the Bay Bridge and a vast swath of the city at night, the ancient flickering spectacle of gathering that yawns into unwalkable distance, life love and death stretched out before us hidden in plain view, one of the guys with whom I’m staying says, “At Burning Man, there was so much to do that…it’s not that I was doing things RANDOMLY, so much as…I wasn’t using my social self to make the choices.” And all at once I taste it again, The Freest Place On Earth.

x) Yeah, it has a commercial side. Like every other fucking thing in our society. But that in no way detracts from the good of what is accomplished by this event. The magic of this place.

“Myths are so intimately bound to the culture, time, and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by constant recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p72

xiv) So, the middle. The mandala’s Godhead-Spot, on Saturday night, with the largest display of saturnalia around us that I have ever seen. Oh I’ve seen larger crowds, but this is ALL ONE SINGLE PARTY.
THIS one has a fifty-foot Duck Car with a flaming Mohawk.
THIS one has a full tour bus AND trailer covered in white fur & glowing from inside.
THIS one has more blinking things than the alien city on the fucking Moon.
THIS one has spindly Victorian tricycles squeezing flame minarets from twinned antique flutes, and a van crowned by insectile light webbing that curls into a gently poised ten foot tall wireframe heart, the alien love symbol of some tryptamine entity giving the Earth language of affection a college try, flanked to each side by battleship wings of subwoofers.
And firetruck sentinels guarding the Man’s central conclave like lions to either side of each cardinal portal.
And hundreds of chagrined firedancers disallowed due to high winds.
And apocalyptic orange light on the low clouds.
THIS one has me finally donning the ankle-length Ethiopian gown my mother bought in Kansas City the week before I left for the desert, the cool, thin fabric barely touching my skin, the most sacred article of clothing I possess, at long last out of its giant zip-lock bag for the appropriate hour, a sacramental and sacrificial garment now obviously meant for THIS, NOW, the bearing witness of a grand ritual transition.

xiii) This book is falling apart, as I write this.

v) [I write the following passage waiting in the front row to watch the burn, steeped in the moment’s incredible anticipatory energy. The intensity of waiting is so powerful I feel – as I often do – as if I have died, as if the whole affair were taking place in some adjacent alchemical realm where mundane identity is shed and sacred anonymity is the norm. And, in my best attempt to do something worthwhile with my wait, I start exploring the various voices in my freshly dead head, the muted clamor of subpersonalities that come together as Michael in daylight.
My friend Lindsey asks me what’s up, so I tell her, and she says, “Oooh, voices? How many are there?”
And I know she’s being silly, so I’ll be silly too, and say, “Hmmm…five, I think.” And I listen for a moment. “Or six.”
“Or six?”
“Well, one of them is kind of in between being and not being. It’s not ‘six.’ It’s ‘OR six.’” Many spiritual traditions add one to any count in their sacred geometries – the one extra actually representing the void from which all forms emerge. It’s kind of like pouring one for your dead homies...]
(Or Six.) Well, here we are. Waiting. On the other Side. You are already dead. I think a lot (a LOT) about the Super Mario World game, the first released on the Super Nintendo, the punchcard of a new system, and in it, a Dungeon Castle navigable only by climbing around on fences crawling with turtles (Turtles? The only CLIMBING turtle in the world is the SE Asian Big Headed Turtle, a personal favorite, but then). And to get around them, find a gate in the fence, and punch it. It’ll swing you around onto the other side.
[The music is intensifying around me. Fireworks are shooting off. Flames are spraying everywhere. The inner world and the outer world are mirroring each other. It’s all I can do to think, to get this down on paper in the middle of this carnival.]
DUNGEON, mind you.
[Cheering!]
Rocks.
[Eruptions!]
Ominous tritone organ music.
[Strobes!]
You’re – primary colors! – you’re almost, er, uh, maybe already
[I turn the page to write one more word exactly as the Man erupts in flame.]
DEAD.

xv) There was so much more to that night: third eye wonders, safety risks, the Shrine of Fortuna, ongoing play with paradoxes and inversions, a pervasive triradial geometry popping up everywhere, fascinating conversations with fellow wanderers, the inheritance of a boomerang, and finally passing out from exhaustion with my wife and a nosebleed on a couch in front of the Café Stage at Center Camp at five in the morning only to be awakened and evicted by my own album shimmering and slamming over the loudspeakers (and only the two of us knew; it was like attending my own funeral) – then walking on dead legs back to camp in birthing light past exhausted burn-barrel clusters turned eastward in silent expectant devotion, the playa already on the out-tide, the first tents already folded like flowers back into the desert ground, the amazing calm of this city finally ASLEEP.
And so much more to say about the land, the mythological playa winter, the simple duration of place that seeped into our schedules and, like persistent roots, penetrated and crumbled our rigid sense of city time, forcing us to let go of the “What/Where/When” as anything more than a handbook of intriguing but improbable diversions.
And a palpable wound in my writer’s duty that, sitting here a week (only one week!) later in a café on Fillmore, I can’t line up my vagabonding mind and schedule with the desire to say what I have left to say about the shadow work of my first burn, the continuous ebbing and surging revelations drawing me deeper into the understanding and experience of “the world out there” as an esoteric map of whoever I “actually” am.
And the myriad synchronicities and soul-family recognitions kindled at Black Rock City that have led me half-aware around the industrial cyber-beach of San Francisco in the contrail of Burning Man’s passage.
But for now those stories will have to wait…and anyway, one of the best hard lessons of my “virgin Burn” is that there are ALWAYS more stories untold, more roots than branches, the conscious boat skimming across the choppy meniscus of an unconscious ocean bulging with glowing fish and dark angels.

xvi) For now, I will say only this about the Burn itself: Here I am with fifty thousand people’s eyes trained on an effigy into which we have all invested the idea of the American Dream, filled it with our hopes and fears, our criticism and cherishing, our making of peace with the past and our cautious celebratory embrace of the future, reverence and wistfulness, eagerness and irony, love and loss, joy and anxiety, all that would have been but never was, all that is and will not be, the Leviathan of industrial exhaust and pharmaceuticals, the Phoenix Eagle of innovation and community. And the Man takes FOREVER to burn down, they have to light it twice, bouquets of fireworks everywhere, flourishing echoes of independence, encouragement from the coming us that this moment is the first light over the horizon, a cosmic passage, the magical instant between this page and the next, and I am so blessed to be here to report back to my friends and family that I have seen the American Dream finally collapse in a fountain of ashes and cheering, foundation buckling to crack and release the most exultant orange firelight, bending metal and wide sighs of dragon smoke, an inferno vortex that pulls us all into a tribal wheel of squeezing bodies, a galaxy party spinning in tight counterclockwise coils around the rising ghost, a crowd cyclone primally praising what we were all the way to heaven, crying tears of relief and cooking our faces in the heat of its dying light. And here I am again, running hand in hand with Lindsey, weaving through the whirlpool with kindergarten glee, washing in the innocence of a new day, given in to astonishment and lost in absorption, eyes and ears overflowing with celebration, newly confident that I can soon write home and tell them our hope is NOT EVEN audacious. It’s plain and obvious, natural and common as the earth or sky. And it’s here. And it’s us. It’s a dream, all right, but dreams are borne from our imagination, and imagination is our greatest natural resource. There is more than enough to share.

[Post-script:] After Burning Man, after my two-week sojourn in San Francisco and before my move to Chicago, I returned to Boulder and spent my precious last days there sleeping on my friend Tristan’s couch, breathing as much Colorado air as possible. One night, while talking with Tristan (who couldn’t make it to Burning Man this year), I mentioned how fond I had become of wearing a skirt, of knowing we all had put aside our judgments and agreed to let each other present ourselves in whatever ways we were most comfortable. He said he’d met a man who put it well: “At Burning Man, you are free to be who you actually are.” (But the all-important caveat:) “You might not SUCCEED, but you can certainly TRY.”
The night before I left, I noticed an interesting book – Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (published 1985, one year before the first burn) – sitting on an old broken television in Tristan’s apartment. I’d heard of this book but had never read it, picked it up out of curiosity and opened to this:

“The dérive or “drift” was conceived as an exercise in deliberate revolutionizing of everyday life – a sort of aimless wandering thru city streets, a visionary urban nomadism involving an openness to ‘culture as nature’ (if I grasp the idea correctly) – which by its sheer duration would inculcate in the drifters a propensity to experience the marvelous; not always in its beneficent form perhaps, but hopefully always productive of insight – whether thru architecture, the erotic, adventure, drink & drugs, danger, inspiration, whatever – into the intensity of unmediated perception & experience.
“The parallel term in sufism would be ‘journeying to the far horizons’ or simply ‘journeying,’ a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies of Islam into a single trajectory, sometimes called ‘the Caravan of Summer.’ The dervish vows to travel at a certain velocity, perhaps spending no more than 7 nights or 40 nights in one city, accepting whatever comes, moving wherever signs & coincidences or simply whims may lead, heading from power-spot to power-spot, conscious of ‘sacred geography,’ of itinerary as meaning, of topology as symbology.”

And then:

“Art project: the construction of a ‘map’ bearing a 1:1 ratio to the ‘territory’ explored.”

Once again, I have mistaken the party for a parade.

24 April 2008

A Window Into The Future Of Sound

The way we listen to music today is not going to last. A bevy of new technologies is set to radically change our relationship to auditory media. novel speaker materials, remarkable advances in recording equipment, and pioneering mind-machine interfaces have perched our culture on the verge of a world we would scarcely recognize: where music can be played back on any surface, where headphones have been replaced by custom isolated open-air audioscapes, and where we don't even need mouths to sing or hands to play our instruments. For your consideration, I present the following major innovations - each of which, sooner or later, will force us to reconsider what we think we know about communication.

SURFACESOUND

The first, like many wonderful discoveries, came from failure - failure by the UK Ministry of Defense to find a suitable material for dampening the sound of their helicopters. Instead, they stumbled upon a unique honeycombed structure that conducts sound with surprising efficiency. Already, the technology as been sold to NXT Sound, named SurfaceSound, and crafted into folding flat-panel speakers (14 mm thick) and "speakerless" automobile interiors and mobile phones.
It has also been fashioned into transparent overlays for computer screens, which can be segregated into as many as SIX isolated sound panes. It's only a matter of time (less than a year, according to NXT's projections) before we have integrated speakers in our greeting cards and digital photo displays, and ultra-thin clip-on speakers for juicing up obsolete non-musical surfaces. One of the most exciting prospects for SurfaceSound is as a responsive natural interface for audio engineering - according to the Discovery News article, it "can be made to vibrate when touched, with individual frequencies tailored to each finger" (a benefit of its capacity to be partitioned). With the ability to place sound-conducting surfaces almost anywhere imaginable, the next challenge for NXT seems simple enough: to make "silent loudspeakers" which can only be heard when the listener is in direct contact with the speaker surface.

AUDIO SPOTLIGHT

It's an end that may already have been achieved, albeit differently, by Holosonic Research Labs. Their incredibly cool Audio Spotlight technology fires a narrow beam of ultrasound that distorts in a predictable pattern through as it travels through air. The result is the sonic equivalent of a laser - an invisible ray of sound that can only be heard by someone standing directly in its path. (Their technical explanatory page can be found here.)
I'll say it again: Audio Spotlight turns the AIR into a loudspeaker that can only be heard by standing INSIDE of it. Sound can be projected like a beam of light, bounced off of surfaces, and manipulated in all kinds of other novel ways. The New York Times called Audio Spotlight "the most radical technological development in acoustics since the coil loudspeaker was invented in 1925," and with good reason:

Headphone museum tours are over, soon to be replaced with isolated audio programs for each display. You can listen to music over open air in the public library. The insane cacophony of public advertisements will be forgotten in favor of more discrete "hotspots" pedestrians will learn to systematically avoid. Performing musicians will be able to broadcast multiple submixes into their audiences to compensate for micro-variations in venue acoustics - or even play several concerts at once, through which listeners can move as they dance from one end of the room to the other. You'll never register a noise complaint against your neighbor's bassy stereo system again. The technology is already being adapted by an impressive array of clients, including

Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, GM, Motorola, and Walt Disney Imagineering (the guys who build the rides). (A full list of current applications can be found here.) It isn't long before our children are digging iPod earbuds out of the attic and querying their internet implants as to what the hell those things are...

EPOC

And when they do, they'll probably be using technology similar to Emotiv Systems' Epoc, a new videogaming interface that replaces handheld controllers with a mind-reading headset.
Combining 100 year old EEG technology with new software algorithms that analyze human brainwave patterns, the Epoc is a glorified biofeedback device, enabling its users to navigate computer interfaces with nothing more than intent. Beyond its immediate gaming applications (headsets will be on the market for $300 this Christmas), Emotiv is exploring numerous applications in robotics, education, and medicine - making it possible, for example, for quadraplegics to operate household devices on their own. I'm giving us a year before progressive musical acts are using these or similar headsets to control electronic music production arrays - heralding the advent of a long-imagined age when artists are able to directly convey their thoughts to an audience.

(A speculative recipe: combining the Epoc with the Audio Spotlight yields the potential for multi-scaped audio arrays that are activated and operated without so much as lifting a finger.)

And if that weren't enough, it is easy to imagine how such a device - apparently already well on the road to ubiquity - might catalyze a radical development of mental acuity in our culture. Having to learn what is currently an uncommon finesse with concentration and intent could well improve the focus and self-control of everyone who uses it...and already, I can hear the next generation marvel with pity and disbelief at our limited attention spans and cognitive agency.

(More on this here: Discovery Channel)

AUDEO

The Epoc's clever decryption of brainwave semantics has its limitations, however. One significant "drawback" (if that term can even be applied to such a stunning advancement) is that it cannot read your brain with enough precision to decode speech. You'll still have to move your mouth to talk...

...UNLESS, that is, you're using Ambient Corporation's Audeo, a neckband-mounted microchip that relays nerve impulses on their way to the focal cords to a computer, where they are translated into an audible computerized voice.
Although the device can currently recognize fewer than 200 words, Ambient is working to release an improved model by the end of the year that recognizes individualphonemes and has a functionally limitless vocabulary. Michael Callahan, Ambient'stwenty-four year old co-founder, recently placed the first public "voiceless phone call" at a recent technology conference (You can find the video embedded in The New Scientist's recent article). In support of my generation-of-techno-yogis hypothesis, Callahan says that making clean electrical signals that the Audeo can understand requires the specific, deliberate imagining of voicing each word - something he calls "a level above thinking."

It's an innovation whose significance extends beyond the obvious enabling-speech-in-the-mute. Private telephone calls will be made in public, by people who look like they're listening to you. Ventriloquism through invisible wallspeakers and audio beams will further challenge our confidence in human perception. Maybe our hyper-attentive descendents will be able to deliver two different speeches at once. (Most of us already know how to talk without thinking...all it would require is to also talk whilethinking. It's like riding a bike.)

But for me, fettered as I am by my unilingual peasantry, one application takes the cake: linguistic software could be packed into that auxiliary computer, finally realizing something not too distant from the long-fantasized Universal Translator.

It's not technomusical telepathy, but it's close. We're getting there. Yes, indeed: the future is singing quite a tune.

(Written for iggli.com.)

16 April 2008

Painting While Dancing, Part 4: The Danger of Creativity

Icarus Falling, by Paul Ambroise Stoldtz, 1743

Painting is dangerous.

We don't typically think of painting as dangerous, because we imagine the landscape print in our motel room to have emerged uncomplicatedly from the sweatless brow of some middle-aged homebody with a neat row of clean brushes and a comfortable desk chair. We are the children of Late Capitalism, recognizing product over process. Our physicists are busy looking not for fundamental relationships in the universe, but fundamental particles. We seem not to really grasp the wisdom in statements like, "Happiness is a journey, not a destination." Machines build things for us.

Through clever modern chemistry, being an artist is almost totally non-toxic. You don't even have to get your hands dirty; just use an electronic stylus and tablet, and you can do more with pixels than you ever could have with messier media. And you can do it sitting down.

Even the treacherous borderlands of the mind have been neutered, packaged, labeled, and thus contained. Psychedelia is trite. Been there, done that - our chain retailers advertise with swirling floral blooms and rippling waves of color with an otherworldly richness that puts every Boomer album cover to shame.

Maybe acid did break our parents' chromosomes...or maybe we, like the kids of those Brazilian shamans, have just been innoculated to these deeper weirdnesses by growing up inside of them. Maybe consumer culture just gives us too much to experience, and we've grown even thicker shades to wear as we parade into the Light.

Aliens, angels, ascended masters? Oh yeah, my buddy channels them. Bilocation? I did that, once. We're living in a world that is rending the minds of our parents to tatters, and it's No Big Deal. The extraordinary is, like, so totally ordinary.

But I don't blame any of us for blinding ourselves to the incredible intensity of our age. After all, we're dealing with what Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum - the deep unknown at the heart of the world that is so beyond our ken that we could not survive the knowledge. We cower from the face of God for good reason: that creative Source is a burning brightness of which fire is only a cool, pale imitation. History can be read as the story of one daring soul after another throwing itself into the flame, hoping to capture a spark. Our lineage is one of suicide missions, artists and scientists sacrificing themselves for the greater knowledge and experience of the collective.

I believe that the danger of creativity never really went away - it just moved, leaving a sediment of the once-extraordinary behind as it rolled outward like cooling lava into the sea. We live on what was once the boiling coitus of elements - now the terra firma, solid and predictable terrain. Genius and Madness are neighbors because they move fast enough to stay ahead of everyone else, snapping up beachfront property as fast as it is made. (Madness just builds a slightly shoddier house, slightly closer to the tide.) And playing around on the edges is inherently dangerous. In any form, creativity challenges preconceptions, digests conventions, and throws us to burn and drown in the intensely unfamiliar. It changes who we are. "Being creative" is agreeing to an adventure from which nobody has ever, ever returned.

The deep blue pigment bygone painters used for sea and sky was cobalt - it drove them insane with chemical poisoning. Nature photographers have a bad habit of being eaten by wild animals or falling off of cliffs. The most gifted musicians seem especially likely to drown or overdose. It's a common myth across ancient cultures from Africa to Athens that the best artists inherit their talent through deals with water spirits - deals eventually repaid with blood.

(For more on this mysterious phenomenon, I encourage you to read up on the Saturn Return and the 27 Club.)

The Muse - actually an entire coterie of entities that the Greeks held responsible for inspiring every creative act - is a lunar, feminine archetype. The muses were water nymphs, legendary for blinding those arrogant enough to challenge them.

Honest artists admit that they can claim no ownership of their creative work - that it emerges through them, and not from them. And like the biological creative passion of our sexual inheritance, artistic creativity drives us into all kinds of self-destructive recklessness in order to satisfy its own expansive urge. The Muse does not care about you, except as a means to an end. The island on which we perch our traditions is literally built from the bones of artists and scientists.

I think about this a lot, when painting at concerts in front of a heart-rattling beam of sound. I may not have to worry about carcinogenic paints devouring my brain, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like I make my living like a deep sea creature on periphery of a hydrothermal vent, somehow surviving on the narrow ledge between crushing pressure and unbelievable heat, thriving off the rich intersection of extremes. Those benthic creatures lay root at the sweetspot where the ocean carries sustenance directly into their blood - and I plant myself right where a wall of tidal music energy is sieved through my energetic body into crystalline patterns of paint. These images are the love child of the audience's and performers' energies feeding back over a massive electrified circuit, leaving cross-sectional deposits in opaque pigment on a black board - a kind of spectrograph of the evening's collective resonance, deformed and amplified by the matrix of my interpretation.

And this is matter-of-fact science. Chemist Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for his theory of dissipative structures - the gist of which is that order emerges when so much energy flows through a system that it must reorganize into a higher level of complexity. If it can't keep up with the surge, it is totally destroyed.

Necessity is the mother of invention, just as whirlpools form because the river's current is constrained by the lay of the riverbed. Life is the floret that pushes forth from the equal and opposite vectors of structure and chaos. And so, like Robert Johnson (a member of the 27 Club), I find the soul of my artwork at the crossroads. That's about as deep a truth as I have ever known: that creativity lives in between things, balanced on the head of a pin, spilling from the broken crust of opposing forces.

Putting in my earplugs comes with a sense of frontier glee akin to what I imagine a welder feels when lowering the mask: the pride of having to wear protective equipment so I can play on the turbulent edge of knowing. I didn't think to bring any on my first night out painting, and my ears rang afterward for an entire day. Working on fine art in a crowd of hundreds of drunk dancers requires a special awareness of the space around me, should any teetering reveler pitch over into my easel or elbows. Keeping a dance party schedule means getting to sleep at hours that can't be good for my health. After five consecutive nights of painting, my legs begged for days to wobble out from beneath me.

And even in this supposedly enlightened age, I still have to work in a cloud of noxious fumes if I want to use gold or silver paint. (It's funny: When I was a child, I acted in a public service announcement declaring the dangers of huffing paint. I was the "bad kid" who didn't learn his lesson from the hospitalization of his friends...and now here I am huffing paint every week, only barely against my will.) My burning nostrils connect me to every artist who ever chose beauty over practicality.

I like to think that this job is somehow a mythological gauntlet or trial, that the frightful intensity is a door to greatness. Surely, these four-hour performance painting sessions are growing more muscle in my legs, cultivating my ability to improvise and listen, and teaching me how to conduct myself like a professional. Maybe one of these days I'll come out of the kiln with the strength and coherence that can only be found in fire. Maybe this is just what I need, in a culture that has abandoned its rites of passage.

In the meantime, however, I'm glad that performance painting doesn't require me to dive any deeper into the creative maelstrom than I already do. Sustainable artistry requires compromise, comfort, and care. It demands that artists be responsible enough to keep a little distance from the turbulent shores of the Godhead. Get too close and you'll be consumed, erasing any further gifts you might have transmitted. If you care at all about keeping yourself alive and sane for long enough to do something more than a single incandescent opus, remember that the womb has teeth. The sun is on fire. You can't breathe underwater. And painting is dangerous.

"What gives light, must endure burning."
- Viktor Frankl

(Written for iggli.com)

31 March 2008

The Transhuman Music of Akhentek


A moment of speculation, rooted in a study of universal trends: Human history can be defined as development along any of numerous axes, but my preferred story-for-our-species is of an advance in mind control technologies. For good and ill, the development of our consciousness flies tandem with our expanding capacity to access and explore various states of mind at will. Our command of navigating mind with sensory and electrochemical stimulation has matured to include everything from early entheogenic experiments with drumming and chanting, to contemporary techniques of magnetic temporal lobe stimulation and virtual reality immersion…and with the impending advent of biotech and nanotech that will profoundly deepen the intimacy between brain and machine (and erase such primitive distinctions), we can be sure that mind control is one of the best markers we have for measuring our humanity (and our trans-humanity).

With this in mind, I spend much of my time looking at contemporary art and music as touchstones, clues to our place as a self-transcending species in the cosmos. Every time I see intention meet technology in a deliberate manipulation of mindstates, I rejoice that we are on the right track. And nowhere is this confluence more apparent than in the careful structuring of electronic musicians like Akhentek, a self-described “crystalline array technician” from Elphinstone, BC, whose psy-trance productions are “precision engineered sonic textures intentionally designed to induce higher frequency mindstates.”

Akhentek’s nuanced tracks, like the burbling glitch of “Spectrality” or the free-floating guitar and synthesizers on his “White Girls In Saris” remix, definitely induce a strange, buzzing feeling – and unlike many other buzz-inducing artists, I know that he’s doing it on purpose.

Deep beneath the art of this music coils the esoteric science of neuroentrainment: getting the brain to vibrate at specific frequencies. It's an easy enough trick. Our brains expect to hear more or less the same thing in each ear, so they split the difference between tones that don't quite line up, creating the auditory illusion of a single note. This activity requires special collaboration between the right and left hemispheres, which syncs brain activity at that agreed-upon mean. If the left ear hears 104 Hz and the right ear hears 108 Hz, the entire brain will pulse at 4 Hz - with the brainwaves producing a corresponding state of mind. It's one of the cheapest ways to engineer consciousness. No drugs, no surgery, no nanobots - all you need is a pair of headphones and a "crystalline array technician" to prepare the sounds for you.

These binaural beats coast inaudibly across each other underneath warm and deep mastering, giving this music the strange quality of feeling at once transparent and mysterious. It’s little wonder that he has a background in biology and “Brazilian Genetics” (which I assume is a euphemism for ayahuasca initiation) – this guy’s eye and ear are definitely trained on human evolution and accelerating its numerous permutations. Cascades of twittering clicks and swells of buzzing oscillations sweep through me as I listen, reformatting my consciousness on a subliminal level. I start feeling the effects of his “rare sensitivity to frequencies” as the café around me starts to ripple with gauzy transparency.

We may be a long way from having total agency over individual awareness. In the meantime, however, I’m relieved to know that we have innovators like Akhentek out there fighting the good fight, sculpting sound with to elevate consciousness directly and for the greater good, those secret agent techno-shamans enlightening unwitting ravers and inspiring the next generation of state-engineers to plunge even deeper into our limitless potential to explore – and create – novel states of mind.

Akhentek’s music, as well as information about Entheogenetic (his electronic music label) and the Entheos Gathering (his festival) can be found online at CBC Radio 3.

(Written for iggli.com)

29 March 2008

Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part VII: Switching Off

(Temple Burn, Burning Man 2008, image from


Compared to Life (if the familiar dyad even makes sense), Death is famously dispassionate. Death doesn't care when, or why, or how, or who. Death can not care, because caring is the job of the living. And so choice has precious little to do with death, which is why we clutch at whatever choices we do have about our final moments. We usually don't have the luxury of the death we would prefer, and so we do insignificant and desperate things like making living wills and funeral playlists, pre-emptive strikes at the infinite unyielding unconcern of nonexistence.

Some cultures don't consider suicide to be as tasteless as ours does (thanatophobic and euphemistic, we have a long history of plucking out our own offending eyes without mourning our lost sight). Here and now, we can do little to decide the terms of our passage without distressing the ones we love.

We can, however, write declarations of love that stamp a seal of determination on our last breath. Tenderly capturing his request to die in the presence of his beloved, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey penned an exemplar of such quietly raging hopeful confessions: the organ ballad, "Switching Off." Painting precious, half-iambic metaphors of his last night's fading lights from the perch of candid youth, Garvey imagines a distant and peaceful shutdown - and his partner's place beside him, amidst the creeping noise and the crumbling synchrony.

Elbow - "Switching Off"

Last of the men in hats hops off the coil
And a final scene unfolds inside
Deep in the rain of sparks behind his brow
Is a part replayed from a perfect day
Teaching her how to whistle like a boy
In love's first blush

Is this making sense?
What am I trying to say?
Early evening June, this room and a radio play
This I need to save
I choose my final thoughts today
Switching off with you

All the clocks give in, and the traffic fades
And the insects like...like a neon choir
The instant fizz, connection made
And the curtains sigh in time with you

You're the only sense the world has ever made
Early evening June, this room and radio play
This I need to save
I choose my final scene today
Switching off...

Ran to ground, ran to ground for a while there
But I came off pretty well, I came off pretty well...

You're the only sense the world has ever made
This I need to save
A simple trinket locked away
I choose my final scene today
Switching off with you


This song is one of the truest love letters I've ever heard, daisies growing from a double grave, holding hands to die of old age, because "You're the only sense the world has ever made." Whatever happens between now and then, God save this feeling, this certainty and adoration, togetherness and memory, this "simple trinket locked away," until I can look back and smile at its accurate prediction.

We may not get to choose how we die, but we can hope against hope that we die in someone's arms. We can't carry anything across that threshold, but we can carry our cares right up to its silver edge. We can adorn our lives with these solemn vows, giving worth to each living moment. We can prove that death is in fact meaningful, because it is by death that we determine what is valuable. Romance as I know it is a skull with rose window eyes, burgeoning even as it breaks. And so there is nothing more romantic than telling someone you want them there when you die.

"Switching Off" is a perfect portrait of recognizing what matters. It is the beauty of yearning listening as it strains against fadeout. It'd be a strange song to play at my funeral - bringing the particulars of my death into sharp focus, where wishes may not hold against facts - but I would put it on my funeral playlist anyway, because it so gracefully captures for me the timeless splendor of love. Because we may not get to choose, but we can always hope to choose. And after years of arguing for the concrete value of choice, I am only now beginning to understand the diaphonous, glistening value of hope.

28 March 2008

Painting While Dancing, Part 3: Stray Dog In The Temple

Sometimes I feel like grabbing someone and pleading with them to please remind me what I'm doing, pretending to be a painter. It's a term I can only offer with the following (usually unuttered) disclaimer:

I don't know how to use a paint brush. I am intimidated by the notion of mixing my own colors. In fact, I have no formal education in art of any kind - and so I use paint markers on foam board. I borrowed an easel to do my first show.

It's one of the enduring ironies of my existence, that I define myself by my work but the best descriptor for what I do is something I don't consider myself to be. There's more than a little imposter's guilt in me when I carry my easel into the Trilogy Wine Bar every Wednesday night to be a painter, like I accidentally received an invitation to the party and I don't have the guts to admit I don't belong there. Like I'm a wild bird that snuck into the aviary to live off the free food. Like I'm a fox pretending to be a lapdog.

But I might make up for my lack of disciplined training with twenty years' experience of doodling in class, at parties, on planes, and in my sleep (although those images rarely survive the morning). A childhood of dinosaurs and aliens carried me into a scientific illustration course in college, from which I was hired directly to draw plates of frogs, snakes, and lizards for species descriptions at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.
Frogs, University of Kansas Natural History Museum

I reconstructed the fossil armor of bizarre pig-crocodiles, two hundred million years dead...
Aetosaurs, July 2005

...and pieced together the awkward gait of extinct flying reptiles from trackways preserved in the mud of an ancient lake.
Pteraichnus, Tate Museum of Casper College

I brought to life numerous prehistoric invertebrates in ink - alternate-reality lobsters with rows of flippers and compound eyes.
Nettapedoura, University of Kansas Department of Geology

Over the three years that I was working daily hours at the museum, I must have drawn at least a hundred thousand scales.
Gekko, University of Kansas Natural History Museum

How I stumbled into live painting is easy to see, in retrospect: those were three years I spent drawing with headphones on, learning to make the cleanest possible lines with the smoothest possible strokes, making immersive and meticulous detail my natural habitat. Training and straining my attention. Doing my best to hold the pen as lightly as possible and push the rate at which a person can stipple in a relaxed and even rhythm. Dot after dot, slowly sculpting the contours, ridges, recesses, tubercles of creatures as long as my thumb, working under a microscope, moving through my whole arm in slow sweeps and hypnotic pointillist pecking.

The living pulse of this work is trance-inducing, tunneling through boredom into exultation. Hunched and squinting, I felt connected to the ocean of nameless monks whose gilded script illuminates our ancient sacred manuscripts. And there was never any doubt for me that I was working in a church - a temple to the natural world, complete with byzantine catacombs of holy relics, shelf after shelf of preserved creatures from all over the world, soaking in alcohol jars.

But then, I was probably the only one having such thoughts. I was the contract artist in a hall of scholars and their graduate disciples, a hundred others who would probably have balked at the notion of science as a religious institution. (Kansas is, after all, the epicenter of a fierce debate between Evolutionary Biology and the so-called science of Intelligent Design. It's a tender topic.) Not a grad student, not a field researcher, not an official employee, I worked as someone whose dreams of paleontology had evaporated and left me in the alkaline and existential expanse of accidental mercenary illustration.

And so, long before I had ever entertained the notion of live painting, the whole foundation had already been poured. A degree-carrying biologist pretending to be an artist, or an artist pretending to be a biologist? Whether inking frogs in a corner of the herpetology library or staking out easel space to the side of the stage, I can't shake the feelings of being a peripheral animal, living on the fringes. The meditative and monastic quality of my experience as an artist, ritually ornamenting some precious text, has flown from the stone cloisters of the halls of science and landed in the whirling ecstasies of more embodied worship.

While illustrating descriptive papers and field guides in the museum, I used the creative faculties of my right brain to present ideas with fidelity and frugal care. While tracing psychedelic lattices and floral blooms in vivid color at concerts, my left brain remains engaged in executing emergent rules and patterns, the visual genome and evolving geometry of pieces I consider living and breathing artifacts of the evening's energies. The organic metaphors that pervade my identity and work, my doing and being, point to the deep structures of my ecological education - while the creative yearning and the commitment to exact visions are the signature of a poetry that runs through my life in settings hushed or boisterous, scholarly or celebratory.

With all of this in mind, my inability to paint (according to my definition) makes little difference to my identity as a naturalist-artist-monk, exploring the strange fauna of the subtle energy worlds conducted by heaving bass and dancing throngs. Plate by plate, I'm assembling a new field guide: a field guide to living jewelry, the bizarre beauties of a mind just on the other side of this one.

2007 12 14, Trilogy Lounge

2007 12 19, Trilogy Lounge

2008 01 29, Avalon Ballroom

Whenever I set up my easel and pull out my bundle of paint markers, I remember one passage in particular: Aldous Huxley's introduction to his essay, "Heaven and Hell." Before my work in the museum, before I recognized the sacred responsibility of the artist, this passage fell through my eyes and down into my deepest reaches - rippling outward until now, finally, I hear it and know who I am:

"Like the earth of a hundred years ago, our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins. In relation to the fauna of these regions we are not yet zoologists, we are mere naturalists and collectors of specimens. The fact is unfortunate; but we have to accept it, we have to maket he best of it. However lowly, the work of the collector must be done, before we can proceed to the higher scientific tasks of classification, analysis, experiment, and theory making.

Like the giraffe and the duck-billed platypus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation; and as such, they cannot be ignored by anyone who is honestly trying to understand the world in which he lives.

It is difficult, it is all but impossible, to speak of mental events except in similes drawn from the more familiar universe of material things. If I have made use of geographical and zoological metaphors, it is not wantonly, out of a mere addiction to picturesque language. It is because such metaphors express very forcibly the essential otherness of the mind's far continents, the complete autonomy and self-sufficiency of their inhabitants. A man consists of what I may call an Old Wold of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds - the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious, with its flora of symbols, its tribes of aboriginal archetypes; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience.

If you go to New South Wales, you will see marsupials hopping about the countryside. And if you go to the antipodes of the conscious mind, you will encounter all sorts of creatures at least as odd as kangaroos. You do not invent these creatures any more than you invent marsupials. They live their own lives in complete independence. A man cannot control them. All he can do is go to the mental equivalent of Australia and look around him."


So that's what I do.

(Written for iggli.com.)