Somewhere along the line I learned that random finds can prove to be inspirational. As a young songwriter, I had a breakthrough with the word “Topeka”. It was written on the back of an old family photo. Though I had visited my Kansan relatives in that city a few times, the mystery of the word hadn’t taken hold of me until that moment. I wasn’t looking for it. It reached out to me and I realized I had stumbled upon a portal that needed to be explored. I started researching the lives of my great grandparents and uncovered all kinds of stories about Topeka in the ’20s and ’30s. My Mexican great grandmother ran a grocery store and eventually, a pool hall. My Scotch-Irish great grandmother had been adopted by two sisters, one of whom was a prominent dentist in town. I eventually wrote several songs inspired by my ruminations on Topeka.
Taking this kind of exercise a bit further, I frequently play the game of opening up a random book, plopping my finger down on the page and then attempt to create a song or drawing or poem based on the designated find. I find encyclopedias work very well for this exercise. Having just now reached for my copy of the Golden Book Encyclopedia, my finger landed on “comet”. So many possibilities!
One of the aspects of city life that’s now slightly more difficult to access is the plethora of words we would see every day as we moved about the city. My subway ride to work provided me with advertisements filled with copy. I started playing a game where I would write poems using only the words contained in a single ad. Then there were the covers of other passengers’ books or their newspapers. Is the city speaking to us as we move through it? Showing us little treasures if we take the time to look?
I took this photo while walking on The High Line last September. I started wondering what the Arabic sentence meant only when I looked at the photo recently reminiscing about the pleasure of walking in a crowded area. With the miracle of Internet, I was able to quickly find out that it was an installation by a Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.
ex libris commemorates the approximately thirty thousand books from Palestinian homes, libraries, and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948.
Not knowing much about the Israeli-Palestinian politic, I can’t really comment on the political aspect of the work. However, it made me wonder if one of the thirty thousand books could be the book that is a foundation of modern computing that allowed me to write this post on a computer. The book “Rules of restoring and equating” is written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 825) and the latinized word “algorithm” is derived from his name.
This is a little known fact that I learned when I was studying computer science (the field I chose after all my options ran out) as an undergraduate. This is probably a fact that most Americans are ignorant of even though nowadays everyone at least heard of the word “algorithm”. Of course, a popular image of the middle east is the land of savagery and war-mongering, not the enlightenment.
In The Western Lands (probably a perfect book to read during a quarantine), William S. Burroughs acknowledges this intellectual debt the world owes to the Islamic world by using the company his grandfather founded as an example:
Much like the legacy of the Islamic world is veiled by Yashmak and being forgotten by the rest of the world, the legacy of the Burroughs corporation and William S. Burroughs (a perfect example of xenogenesis) himself seems to be disappearing. The Burroughs corporation had invented adding machines (mechanical computers that are literally made out of steel and wood) in the 19th century and introduced a series of technical breakthroughs since then only to become a shadow of itself later. William S. Burroughs, who invented the cut-up technique, is now only given that dreadful title “a controversial gay writer”.
When German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys came to the United States for the first time in 1974 he conceived of his own version of quarantine. Angered by the US involvement in the Vietnam War, Beuys arrived in NYC and refused to set his feet down on American soil. Blindfolded, he saw nothing other than a coyote that was inside the gallery with him the entire time. As if he were thinking about the situation immigrants still face in detention centers in 2020, he named his piece ‘I Like America and America Likes Me’, with full ironic bite. Now during this time of Corona Virus shelter, we can revisit Beuys’ prescient work, finding ourselves in isolation, and wanting to express our own anger at the country where we would normally be living. We are INQUILINES, temporary inhabitants of a shelter that may or may not protect us.
In case of flesh wound, blood will clot. Fibrin (a thread-like protein) forms network. It dries up. Clot becomes scab. Scab protects. Healing begins. Dear earth, may it be so. May we let it happen. Dear you… Drink water. Mix up your life. Eat your veggies. Hug a tree. Call one another. Near and far. Someone new. Skype and zoom. Travel. Across time zones. Ask “What’s up?”… Stay home.
I don’t remember much from high school biology. What I can recall is that a bone’s capillary network is arranged in a series of concentric circles. This means that at the microscopic level, our insides resemble the rings of a tree trunk. This shared architecture has been running my mind. The trees on my block are just beginning to flower; the budding branches are tender and bright. As for myself, after weeks of eating chips and festering in my apartment, I am growing sour and more bloated by the day. How dare you! I think, glumly staring at the view from my window. Nobody is flourishing right now, but spring is a reminder some things are certain. The sun rises, flowers bloom. With each passing year a tree gains a new ring around its trunk and grows stronger, all the more able to weather what comes next.
I love coming to know a city through walking. When I was last in New York in early Autumn 2018, I travelled by foot almost everywhere – from Mid to Downtown Manhattan, across Brooklyn Bridge to the Time Out Market and from Brooklyn Heights down to Carroll Gardens. Amongst my many photographs mapping these treks, are a series of short audio-visual clips on The High Line. In the late, warm afternoon sun, walkers meander lazily, casting their fleeting shadows on the trees and foliage of the Line. The moving imagery and sounds are now traces of a fully breathing city, in temporary slumber, waiting to dazzle again.
New York has always had a special place in my heart for me. Even as a kid watching American movies in Korea, I loved the images of NYC: populous streets, people in sophisticated dark suits, and opulent classic American breakfast dishes with sweet and gooey pancakes (Do they really eat those as breakfast?! Phew…).
Although I’ve failed to make New York my home, it will always be a special place for me. Where else would I be able to meet Barbara Hammer in person and see an awesome production of King Lear at BAM on the same day? On the subway coming back from the theater, I remember thinking about the last lines of King Lear spoken by Edgar. I would be lying if I said I completely understood them, but since then I’ve thought about them often. How fitting they are in so many circumstances…
I just recently discovered that designer Alexander McQueen commissioned jeweler Shaun Leane and sculptor Annika Hellgren to revamp the traditional YASHMAK from Muslim women’s culture into a bejeweled, non-gendered medieval-style piece of armor. It’s now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can see a video of the piece being worn for the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London here. It’s a daunting work.
This video is an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76. Words can still resonate even hundreds of years later and in strikingly different contexts. It was recorded at the West Village institution, Kettle of Fish. A moment with Shakespeare on a winter evening. Certainly culminant. A fine actor and no better words written.