Several weeks ago I attended a presentation of video poems by Brandon Downing. The event was staged at the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, and was part of an ongoing series curated by Will Owen, Jessica Powers, Whitney Ford-Terry, and Amelia Hooning, plus a few fellow travellers like Crystal Curry, Eric Fredricsen and Nico Vassilakis that drop by and help out at whim. The series is titled “House Systems,” and is described as “a group experiment” inspired by the model of British-acculturated schools, “which is an attempt to create camaraderie out of a faceless crowd.” The intent is to explore and destabilize assumptions about art and its relation to education and the academic institution.
The program is divided into four themes, each based on the academic calendar. Each theme “takes its overarching conceptual cue from common civilized western social clubs. A club in favor of construction (FORT CLUB), one for academic knowledge (BOOK CLUB), a congregation of solemn observers on the sea (YACHT CLUB), and one of hidden knowledge (NIGHT CLUB). All intended to trigger emotion, to be emotionally charged, to engage the illogic of sense.”
Brandon’s presentation fell within the scope (or coordinates) of the Yacht Club (April 1-June 11, 2011). This theme was poetically described as “The deep. Rain coming down sideways. Seagulls and crows. Trees growing out of cliffs. Old soaked planks. Weathering. Brined goods. Nautical exploration. Curls of smoke. Cold blues. Wind. Wool. Tar. Pine and wood-smell. Flotsam/jetsam. Cruising. Power squadrons. Knot tying. Amateur cartography. Orienteering. Maritime instrumentation. Shanties and sea songs.”
I had to decide first how to get there. Seattle University is located on First Hill, one of Seattle’s denser neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as “Pill Hill,” as three large hospitals are located there, numerous homes for the elderly and a copious array of medical clinics, including Seattle Radiologists, Orthopedic Physician Associates, and the Puget Sound Blood Center. Parking is a nightmare. I decided to take a bus rather than drive. The added amount of time it would take to go by bus rather than drive would easily compensate for the diminished stress and expense of parking.
The next decision was how to dress. It was May. But the weather in no way resembled May. It was still quite wintry. It would make sense to dress for winter. But I was pissed. I was tired of waiting for summer. I refused to dress in my winter clothes. On the other hand, I didn’t want to freeze while I was waiting for the bus. So I thought ok, I’ll wear my winter coat, but do without my hat. That way I won’t appear to be a complete sissy, while retaining a modicum of comfort.
I regretted this decision as soon as I left the house. I was cold. My head felt bare, despite the length of my hair, which is now unequivocally hippie length. I could play guitar for the Allman Brothers. Or Guns and Roses. If I knew how to play the guitar. I can’t play the guitar, but I can grow hair. I’m reasonably good at that. And considering my age (63), it is no small achievement.
Seattle’s public transit system stinks. Literally. The buses often smell of sweat and urine. I call them mobile petri dishes. Fortunately, since I am old, I am no stranger to bacteria, and had had a flu shot for the year. Seattle has not been hit quite as hard by the economic crisis as other cities, but the effects are visible. The streets are beginning to show more craters and ridges than the surface of Mars and the commons, which includes our clinics, libraries, schools, and transit system, are in serious disrepair. A problem that would be solved almost instantly if Boeing paid their taxes, but they don’t.
I waited for the number 4 at the corner of Valley Street and Fifth Avenue North, by Silver Platters. On the way, I passed two hulking police officers dressed in dark blue paramilitary gear who had just, presumably, had lunch at Sushi Land, a small sushi restaurant on the corner which is immensely popular. For some reason, the Seattle police really like eating there. Maybe they got tired of all the doughnut jokes and did a 180.
I noted a high number of people walking by with dogs. This is a strange social phenomenon. I’ve never seen so many dog owners. What’s up with that? Have dogs become the new fashion accessory? I don’t get it.
A woman appeared dressed all in black. Her shawl, her hat, her shoes, her purse, all black. And the hood of her coat, trimmed in black fur, had the shape of one of those old-timey chapeaus of the Victorian era. It made me think of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Quaker meetings, and specially marked passages in the King James Bible.
Another woman walked by wearing a blue backpack, sobbing.
I counted out the nine quarters I had robbed from Roberta’s coin jar. I held them tightly in my fist until the number 4 rounded the corner and I clambered aboard and deposited each quarter into the coin machine which digitally lit up the amount in pretty red numbers. I find this procedure strangely satisfying. The driver, a middle-aged black woman, handed me a transfer, and I proceeded to the back to find a seat. I was lucky. I found a seat to myself.
The diversity of people aboard a Seattle Metro bus, particularly when a bus is headed downtown, offers a rich stratification of humanity. There are nervous young women doing their utmost to pretend they’re not there, become invisible, mothers with bawling children, young men with their pants falling down, tough looking ladies in wife-beater tank tops with astonishing tattoos and tobacco and whiskey on their breath, people so obese they require crutches and wheelchairs, derelict men whose last shower occurred sometime between the fall of the Roman Empire and the opening of the American West whose clothing hasn’t been changed in such a long time that it is impossible to tell where their clothing leaves off and their skin begins, their eyes desperate and crazed as they argue loudly and vociferously with their hallucinations. And then there’s men like me, grouches with sour Baudelaire faces dreaming of that terrible chimera literary fame and Baudelaire’s woeful albatross waddling clumsily on the deck of a Yankee clipper.
Seattle’s electric trolleys make a sweet humming sound. I always associate that sound with departure, the promise of a long-awaited appointment. And as the bus proceeds downtown it gets more crowded. I began wondering why no one was sitting next to me. I was happy no one was sitting next to me, but I was also a little insecure about it. Did I look homeless? Is this the price of having long hair? Have I become a pariah? Seattle is full of pariahs. It’s one of the reasons I moved to Seattle from California. I wanted to be a pariah among pariahs.
The number four arrived at its busiest stop at Third and Pine, by Macy’s. I saw a large woman with enormous breasts dressed in a Cookie Monster T-shirt. The eyes of the Cookie Monster wobbled and bounced on her breasts. One eye bouncing one way, the other rotating in the opposite direction. It looked as if someone had punched the Cookie Monster so hard his eyes were spinning round the way they do in cartoons. It was an amazing sight.
I got off the 4 at Twelfth and Jefferson and walked to the Hedreen Gallery. This proved to be a bright, sunny, open space with a beautiful hardwood floor. I was offered a sandwich as soon as I entered. I declined (I had just eaten breakfast) but appreciated the gesture, and regretted not feeling hungry. I greeted Brandon, who was busy fiddling with a projector and laptop computer. We remarked on the nautical theme, the many rope knots lying about, a web of knots on the wall, and some other implements from a yacht dispersed on a dais.
I sat down on a window sill and waited for the show. I was happy to see Jennifer Borges Foster and her husband David Nixon who came over to say hi. Jennifer makes gorgeous books, all by hand, devoting careful artistic attention to their design and material. David has a degree in philosophy and also plays banjo for a group called The Half Brothers who perform traditional bluegrass and “old-timey sounds and tweak them into an irreverent, fresh-sounding mélange.” Jennifer told me she was going to make a book of Brandon’s poetry and collages. This should be spectacular: Jennifer’s facility for turning books into objets d’art, and Brandon’s facility for creating strange new worlds via humorously contrived dislocations and comical incongruities that somehow intuitively cohere. The effect is often strange, jarring, and fresh.
Brandon’s first video poem was titled “Yeh Mard Bade (II),” which features a song (“Yeh Mard Bade”) taken from an early Bollywood classic called Miss Mary, performed by Lata Mangeshkar, slowed down and remixed and used for the footage of Kermit’s soliloquy from the 1979 The Muppet Movie, drastically recut, along with short bits from William Peter Blattyu’s 1980 bomb, The Ninth Configuration. Brandon will sometimes tweak the lyrics of a song, transforming it by way of a homophonic translation so that it continues to sound like the actual song - or an actual song - but which it is clearly not, and subtitling it in his movie, so that the song we hear sung in a foreign language appears to be authentically translated. It is a tactic he uses to get his poetry across. Poetry is notoriously difficult to listen to. My difficulties stem not from inattention but full attention; I will hear a provocative line, or especially rich image, and my mind will go spinning off into an array of dazzling associations while the poet continues reading.
Brandon’s strategy works brilliantly. While Kermit jauntily strolls about on what appears to be a moonscape, we read lines such as “An unmarked body’s / A dark body / Better for provoking drama, / Your mythic, badass changes / Turn to ghoulish armor.” The next stanza is even more hilarious: “Hotel chains can choke me / Lambs freckling the valley / Detained by malware / In Decatholon Valley.” As odd as these lines are, they sound weirdly matched to the voice of the singer, and the jaunty splash of marimbas.
His next film (albeit I may not have this in order) was “The Franklin Expedition.” This used footage from the 1967 film by Toho Tokusatsu King Kong Escapes. In this piece, Brandon homophonically translates a song, a plaintive highly romantic piece called “Three Ravens,” performed by Judy Henske and Jerry Yester, whose lyrics are already in English. Translating English into English is not as unlikely as it would seem, considering how many songs have been mistranslated: many people have confessed to hearing Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as “excuse me while I kiss this guy” when the actual lyric reads “excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
Here we see a giant robot walking about in an arctic or Antarctic realm of snow and ice, and later a giant gorilla pummeling a wall of ice, making a violent escape, while we hear the words “A knight / has fallen here / he lies / beneath his shit / through bathing’s flight / downwind and styled / To watch and waste / he will neutralize / his staring eyes / now are blind / and above him / the raving sin,” plaintively sung. The effect was strangely moving. I have no idea what the actual lyrics to this song are, but Brandon’s provocative lines seemed to truly fit the struggles of a giant gorilla and the lonely pursuit of a giant robot.
The strangest video poem was titled, aptly, I think, “Untitled.” This consisted of re-cut scenes from Burt Reynold’s 1978 vehicle The End, with remixed and multi-phased recordings of various performances of rhythmic chants by Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Montana-based Church Universal and Triumphant.
The chanting is unearthly, haunting, riveting, intense. While the chanting continues (it almost sounds more like an electrical occurrence than a human voice), we see Burt Reynold’s face, wrought with agony, through the water and glass of an aquarium, little multi-colored tropical fish swimming by, totally unconcerned. Reynold’s mouth moves and the chanting appears to be emanating from him in some, bizarre, inexplicable way. It could be a religious ecstasy, or the throes of despair. The effect is one of stunned amazement.
Here is a link to a library of videos and video poems by Brandon Downing.
I will be reading my work at the Hedreen Gallery, with Jeanne Heuving, at noon on May 20th, 2011.
The Value of Everything
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