When I first arrived in Los Angeles, most of the art circles I was moving in seemed highly de-politicized, or the kinds of politics they espoused were fairly nebulous, like the feel-good "super hero" Jennifer Moon-style, or the desert-raver brand of drug-fueled optimism. Which I didnt mind, but in a city where the two most striking characteristics to a newcomer are the plethora of black homeless people, and the omnipresent Latino "underclass" of workers, avoiding political engagement seems akin to simply reinforcing the status quo. Particularly once Bush inveigled his way into The White House, it became suddenly crucial to find people who wanted to talk about more than astrology and ecstasy.
I tried to attend something called Agents and Assets by the LAPD (the Los Angeles Poverty Department). It was a coalition of homeless actors reading segments of a court hearing about CIA connections to drug trafficking. The idea was that the "war on drugs" was bad for Colombian peasants, and bad for the US homeless, and that it was lining the pockets of big business and government officials alike. But I never got to see Agents and Assets because of the power crisis. The play was in downtown, and when we got there, there were flares all over the road and traffic was haywire. It was raining, which it never does in LA, and I said to my husband, "Lets just go home." He missed his freeway turn-off and got road-rage and swerved into the next lane - and almost hit a cop car. They had to slam on their brakes and blast their horn. I thought we were definitely going to get pulled over, but they kept on driving. Whites and Asians tend to get away with a lot more than blacks and Hispanics.
As for Agents and Assets, apparently the show did go on, despite lack of power, and I missed what was apparently the best piece of politicized theater LA has seen for a long, long time. Ironically, this botch-up of a theatrical night out was the only time I ever heard of any power cuts in LA, even though the TV was telling us to be prepared, and, most of all, everyone in NZ sent me gloating emails at every opportunity, wondering how I was "coping". Everyone outside the US is hungry for the collapse of the superpowers infrastructure, just like they were hungry for Y2K disaster. These days, we dont plan revolution, we just wait for technology to fail. But I think NZers should stop wasting their time by wishing the US ill. It has already collapsed on the inside - I havent seen so much filth and poverty since I was in India.
When I was talking to Gwyn Porter about this "revolutionary" issue, and suggesting stuff like, "Lets interview John Minto" and other such overtly predictable pinkos of the leftist canon, our esteemed editor said Naah, that, as far as she was concerned, the woman who had just rescued the waxeye Gwyn found stranded was much more of an interesting political hero. Funnily enough, just a day or so later, I found a fucked-up pigeon next to the dumpster in my apartment block (Gwyn and I often have these long-distance coincidences, like women whose menstrual cycles synch up). The poor pigeon was sitting in the rain (and it never rains in LA) with its tail on backwards and its leg all bent, a veritable cubist bird. I cant think for the life of me what had happened to it to get it into such bad shape.
I brought it into my apartment and put it in a Royal Crown cola box where at least it was able to dry out. But it wasnt eating and it shat everywhere and occasionally started having a feathery fit which was painful to watch. After searching the internet and the phone book for bird rescue, animal rescue, and so on, it became apparent that no one gave a shit about a pigeon with its tail on backwards. The pigeon gave a shit though, several times, and after one night of this, my husband made me do one of the most cowardly things Ive ever done: leave the bird in a box outside an animal hospital. Who knows what happened to it.
What filled me with sadness though was that even though my pigeon philanthropy was short-lived and essentially useless, I still did more for our feathered friend than Ive ever done for anyone homeless. I never give the homeless money, mainly because I dont have any, but I still think thats a lousy excuse. Basically Im just so paralyzed by fear and disgust that a society like this should even exist, that I cant even get the motor coordination to reach into my pocket and retrieve some nickel-plated salve for some poor soul.
The reason I dont have any money is because, despite the fact that Im married to a US citizen, and have been for five months now, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service is really not so much a service as a cunningly devised bureaucratic maze designed to stop you from infiltrating the inner sanctum of this beloved country. I have queued up for whole days outside the INS building, along with the rest of the international flotsam who seem to think its worth the humiliation to live and work in the US. Funnily enough, the security guard with the worst tude this side of pro-wrestling (he loves to make the patient multitudes feel like shit, and if you arrive there at 9am he always tells you to "Go home and come back tomorrow at 4am!") is a Samoan! And despite the fact that hes such a cunt, his voice makes me homesick every time I go there.
So yeah, there we are, all lined up like so much human cattle, and you know what building looms above us? The Los Angeles Correctional Facility, with its barbed wire and tiny slits for windows, so theres no jumping. And no waving, or yelling "dont do it!" to the poor fools who are trying so desperately to get into this country. And one of the saddest things is that homeless people are panhandling the people in the INS queue! There was one white homeless guy in rags, looking like hell. His cardboard sign said "I have AIDS" and also "Yo tengo SIDA" because, typically, the Latino community seem to be a little more generous. Of course, I didnt give him anything.
I went to an anti-Bush political rally the day he was inaugurated. The recommendation was to wear black, as if in mourning. Of course it was blindingly hot (did I mention it never rains?) and I was dripping with sweat as voices from different movements spoke about abortion rights and abolishing the death sentence. In fact, a woman whose son was scheduled to die the following week spoke. What a fucking trip! I hadnt done too much thinking about capital punishment while I was in New Zealand, but here it seems like a controlled experiment in genocide as practically everyone who fries is coloured. And of course, Bush, the king frier, is now president. How did things ever get this sick? Or rather, how did we ever end up feeling superior, as if wed actually progressed from the days of slavery, and the days of lynch mobs, and the days of apartheid?
I remember thinking THANK GOD that the world was saved the embarrassment of crossing the year 2000 threshold with apartheid still in place. But there are plenty of less obvious evils to chose from. The continually deferred but always immanent execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of those embarrassments of injustice that inspired an exhibition of politicized art at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica. Track 16 seems to be one of the few LA galleries thats willing to take the risk with art thats not trendy or commodifiable, and this was one of those shows, with lots of homages to graff, poster and mural art, with the occasional odd installation (such as Dread Scotts strange electric chair assemblage, which nevertheless contained one of the most horrendous photos I have seen - a black man who has been crucified on a fire in 1918, and, all around him, the smiling faces of his white lynch mob).
Track 16 initiated a series of panel discussions and musical events to help generate more conversation around the issue of the death penalty. I went with Joyce Campbell to the first session, called "Aesthetics and the Specters of Revolution". Unfortunately, the panel of four were all male, and it reminded me of an old Rosemary McLeod cartoon which depicts a woman with a tray of tea and biscuits, feeding a room full of men with beards, berets and badges. The subtitle is "The first time she heard the word "Revolution". Yeah, well, nothing really changes baby, and now I too am married and cooking and cleaning for a man who "has more important things to do".
The panelists included Robbie Conal, a political caricaturist, and the aforementioned Dread Scott, who turned out to be a fricken Maoist of all things, and was calling for an armed revolution. This pissed me off, and it plain embarrassed Daniel Joseph Martinez (who NZers might remember from his rather fine show at Artspace in Auckland in 1996). Martinez, I thought, was by far the best speaker, though I could be biased since he was the only one who said that since every political movement had failed so far "we have inherited complete dysfunction" and maybe wed be better off examining new technologies and AI and have an information war. He also talked about evolution (my husbands favourite maxim is that revolution is just going round in circles, drop the "r", and you have something quite different altogether).
One woman from the audience didnt agree with me that Martinezs ramble about "cultural amnesia" and "linguistic claustrophobia" had any redeeming features at all, and proceeded to lambaste him about "exclusionary language" because she worked with people on death row on a daily basis, and she wanted a practical political forum, not some half-baked Chicano art-wankery. To his discredit, Martinez rose to the bait and instantly accused the woman of being stupid, and after that it was a free-for-all. Joyce was cringing so hard, she was really trying to make the floor swallow her, but it wouldnt, and we had to listen to these two perfectly intelligent people, both fighting for the same thing, savage each other in front of a room of others who all also wanted the same thing. At this moment, a clear picture emerged of why the left is always losing to simple-minded fundamentalists who all adhere to the same set of rules, be it the Bible, Koran, Maos red book, or whatever. Trying to find unity among artists, of all people, Martinez likened to "herding cats".
At this point, the conversation, like revolutions, was just getting more and more circular, and then the chair, Mark LeVine (some hippie-looking dude from New York), suggested we hear from someone who had actually spent time on death row. Everyone looked around, searching for the black man who was undoubtedly going to address the crowd. And then a small voice said, "Yes, I would like to share my experiences with you." It was a meekly prim white woman, who seemed to radiate good will, and certainly poured oil on the waters that had begun to swirl like a storm drain (not in LA though, because as I mentioned, it never rains here). She looked as if she had been enlightened during her five years on death row (17 years incarcerated altogether). In fact she was the only person with the grace to acknowledge that "the opposition wants the same thing we do." Its just that our ideas of a "better society" are achieved through radically different means.
As if to illustrate that very point, a Frank Zappa lookalike leapt to his feet to tell us about his political street theatre which had unleashed, according to him, "powerful, powerful mojo!" What exactly that means Ill hopefully never find out. Joyce and I left feeling somewhat embarrassed and disheartened, but at the same time impressed that wed heard all these impassioned voices within the walls of an art gallery a rarity and maybe the start of a return to a more politicized aesthetic?
The funniest thing of all, is that most classic, a-political of all conversation starters, the weather, is perhaps becoming the most political issue of all, if you believe in global warming, and I do. The persistently fucked attitude of the Angelinos, i.e. absolute right to individual car ownership, despite crippling traffic jams and unbreathable air, is even more depressing than the racial segregation in this town. And, although its supposed to NEVER RAIN here, it has been raining practically non-stop for about a month now. Whether or not this is some El Nino, La Nena thing, or global warming, or whatever, I dont know, but the fact remains that the CO2 levels in this city are too high, and they cause a severe increase in paranoia, and a dramatic reduction of altruism. Though my husband promises me that something called "Ginger" will soon provide emission-free transport, or that nanobots will start gobbling CO2 molecules, I would rather we learnt to practice a little self-restraint, to allay the onslaught of armageddon.
The one thing that living here has taught me: the vastness of this place is overwhelming. The enormity of problems induces paralysis. But in New Zealand, its still small enough, and your voice is still loud enough, to actually make a difference. Use it! Love your land! As they say about Canterbury Draught, "You dont know how lucky you are!"
Tessa Laird is a writer and artist presently living and working in Los Angeles.