July 1, 2003

Here We Go, Here We Go... (DIE BITCH)


So, my good buddy Dean Terry has set me up with a new fangled toy...

No, not a toy, a tool. You see, I wanted to use the web to connect to my pals worldwide. We are traveling, now in Dallas... once in Los Angeles, tommorrow in Tossa... and even laters in Tossa/LA. It's a big story, and I'll fill you in later as we go along. Right now, I want to insert some recent artifacts.

In this case, here's a little ditty I titled "DIE BITCH". It was an essay written on the eave of our departure from Los Angeles last March. The title sounds rough, but you'll see, it fits just about right.

(PS: the guy in the picture above is my friend and photographer, Tony Cu?ha)

I used to have this great studio. It was so, so good. I would literally pause each day and thank God for the blessing. I would stop, pause and simply became aware of his blessing and presence. Now, I'm not religious or anything. I was baptized Catholic even though my dad was brought up Baptist. But my folks weren't especially devout. When I was high school, I tunneled through the library stacks in the art section, then philosophy, then psychology, then religion. I've always thought that God was so good that it wouldn't be a big deal if I passed on guessing in this life which religious shell the holy pea was hid under. I just had to just be there, with God... and say thanks.

But I swear, this studio was the best ever. It was in Los Angeles, ChinaTown. It was an old banquet room for a hipster restaurant in the fifties. It looked like the set of "The King and I", and there I was, a veritable Yule Brenner, dancing in ecstatic circles every day. The stage was elevated and sheltered under a mock village roof of fired yellow glazed clay tiles. There was a central skylight that was immense and it had a stained glass lens that resembled a huge flower in reds and green. The ceiling was curved in a draping soffit of wood in the four cardinal directions away from the central skylight to the perimeter walls. Bamboo used to grow around in a perimeter planter strip, the shoots now gone. Another skylight lined the edge of an eastern interior wall, and right after noon, the sunlight would rake the wall. That was perfect for my paintings because they were impasto, painted alla prima, and the low relief of the pigmented material was made dramatic and rich in saturated in full angled sunlight.

I was lucky too, that my art making sustained itself and I could paint all day and night. And because I painted wet into wet, I had to make hay whilst the paint was pliable, often painting in twelve, twenty four or more hour stretches. When I got tired, I would sit on the edge of the stage and lay back on a mat. From that vantage point, I could see the fabulous big bellies of the curving ceiling and radiant skylight. The wood surface made me think of boats, like I was underwater. I would lay there, immersed in the problem and joy of painting, with my rising and dropping energy levels floating me into and out of consciousness. All with this veritable mandala in my ceiling.

Yea, I'm a cat napper. What's the difference between twenty minutes at two in the morning or twenty at eleven? Art for me is the dissolve between work and play, so too did the clock dissolve as well. Louis Kahn used to be cat napper too, on a mat in the corner of his office. You know, the great L. Kahn, the architect from Philadelphia. Unique and immortal. I'm in good company, so there. I read that he died in a toilet stall in a New York subway, returning from India. It would have been better to finally go out of consciousness with the image of my Chinese ceiling instead of toilet stall graffiti and your pants down around your legs.

Thank you, God. Thanks for the years of beautiful moments.

But there was more. This gift from God was situated in ChinaTown, a real pedestrian community in a city of cars that didn?t deserve such a place. When I first got the studio, it was abandoned for twenty-five years. It took six stake bedded truckloads of trash to clear it out. The neighborhood was in a similar state of decline, perfect for artists. The city forgot about that neighborhood. Rent was low and people like me could afford to spend time thinking about art. It enfronted an alley called Bamboo Lane, no less. And what made it better, it wasn't really a city street but a private way. Nothing was made to city regulation specs. Sidewalks were ridiculously narrow, and people parked like idiots, and it was all ok. There was an Dim Sum place, an old family antique store and a bakery next to me. People would double park all day long, to maneuver their cakes into the cars, happy times exported all over the city right from that location.

And There was more! There was a computer gaming place right around the corner. It was created by these two Asian kids for their friends. This the classic story of the maturation, matriculation and deliverance from the street creed. I won't get into the details. I watched the owners Dave and Sonny put this place together from scratch and I'm proud of them. I would (ahem) take a break and play for no more than an hour per day/every other day or two. The kids would play for hours, I would guess an average of four to six hours at a time. And if you think they were wasting their time, remember that this was the kind of activity that contributed to the lower friendly fire and civilian casualty rates in Afghanistan recently. Do the research and see for yourself. At any rate, I think this is a precursor art form, like silent films were to contemporary movies and television. Already, I've heard of games being bundled with action movies. It's easy to imagine a movie as a game with this type, where the story would take a second position to the setting. Stories would become incipient, and variable, even fugal.

They hooked up a limited area network (LAN) and plugged it all into the internet with a ultra high speed connection. They played games, and the one that had everyone's attention was the one called "Counter-Strike". It was modified from a commercially available game called "Half Life" free of charge, open source style. It was created by amateurs and it was propagated by enthusiasts. There was no career idea, no commercial motive. Communities spread like wildfire, spontaneously through the net. The game program provided the simulated environment and we played within it through avatars: terrorists and counter terrorists. The simulated environments were called ?maps? and there were about fifty or more maps available. Las Vegas, a nuclear container in a train yard, a chateau, a high rise under construction, an airport, a dusty town in the MidEast. Bad guys placed bombs and good guys defused them whilst the two sides blasted each other away ferociously.

I mean ferociously. Each game would have about a five minute time limit, a long time when you are trying to kill a deadly adversary. The round would begin with the spawning of the players at opposite ends of the map, the bomb site is indicated by spray painted graffiti. After the early months of game mayhem, people began teaming up spontaneously. They called themselves Clans. They were deadly. One clan called itself "KGB", so a team member might be called "KGB-Snoopy". One group was called the "Seven Dwarfs". "Sleepy" was the king, harvesting three or four times as many kills as the average player. You know you were good when they accused you of cheating, employing hacks to improve your aim, for example. They would say: "It's all about the skills, homie". Indeed it is.

The immersion into the virtual environment was so total that the interface of keyboard and mouse vanished and one had a vivid feeling of the immediate reality of that place. You... are... there. The sound was three dimensional. You could hear the boots grind around the corner, if you stopped to listen. At first, it could make you dizzy. But then the imperative of saving your ass kicks in as your opponents close in on you. Then your mind leads the action on the screen and presto!, you are really there, for all practical purposes. A frickin' Hobbesian practical purpose with (virtual) teeth. Adrenaline addicts, that's what we are.

It's like basket ball, especially when we would play in the same map repeatedly. After a while, we would get to know the map intimately and calculate the limited number of variables described by the three dimensional spaces/places. Every action delimited and truncated all subsequent actions. This is a martial art, full-on. The basic rule is make a pattern, break a pattern. You find what pattern your opponent is habituated to and you disrupt it. And your opponent was not a program, it was a real person and that person could be in the room with you, or on another continent, in real time. Talk about a smaller world. It wasn't unusual to read their text messages in German, Spanish, Vietnamese or anything else.

The span of a lifetime is made smaller, too. Age doesn?t matter. Most of the kids were in their late teens. In the afternoon, when school was out, the place was lousy with kids. Some so young, I would marvel at how their hands could spread to hit the keys. And some of those little babies are very formidable inside the game. Ruthless. Counter-Strike levels, it didn't recognize age, just skills. But mostly, there were the regulars, older kids in their late teens, early twenties who would plow hours in there. I couldn?t match them in the skill building, forget it. I would limit myself to an hour, sometimes two on special occasions, and rarely more, once in a great while. Honest.

The kids would take on screen names like "BiGDiCKBaSTaRD?, or DONTSHOOTMEIMAGuRL", or "ARSON", or image-names like "<======[]=+". My name was RINGO. Like I had mentioned, they could communicate via text messages on the corner of the screen, and the banter was wild, sometimes nasty, always flashing identity, full of cocky attitude like Cassius Clay. Bravado. Sometimes, they would ask my age. I would tap it in. 46. Silence would follow in what I would take to be astonishment. Well, why the hell not? Rarely, once a year, someone (Mr. Punk, I assume?) would get in my face. I would play it real flat like, deadpan... that would defuse the tension. Just doin' my job, man. My favorite screen name was someone who called himself "DIE BITCH". Brilliant. When you died in the game, your opponent's name would appear in the center of the screen. This kid's name would grace your demise with the those incisive words, all mocking attitude and disdain. A challenge to do better.

And there was more still. My previous studio was a fifteen minute walk from my home, but I ended up driving all the time anyway, to get lunch or run errands. Restaurants and bars were all over ChinaTown. Artists too. Rent was good (not cheap) four years ago. I have this theory. the artworld is like an aquarium. It needs the requisite components to sustain a lifeworld: water, gravel, bottom feeders, top feeders, plants, bubbles... and therefore, an artworld needs artists (yea, I have to say it, lest ye forget), naive galleries, ?sophisticated? galleries, critics, publications, collectors, museums... Artists need time to think, time to nurture some thing/activity for it's own sake, time to be able to be the first audience for the manifestation of something so good that others may notice and join in on the party. Therefore, rent has to be cheap. Johns and Rauchenberg paid twenty five dollars a month for entire floors of buildings in young SoHo. Picasso had bohemian Montmartre. ChinaTown.

There were a lot of artists within walking distance. They were of all kinds: bottom feeders, top feeders. Most were real, not bullshit lifestylers, making the crazy gamble that their nucleus of an audience will dilate in time sufficiently to curb an early death and wretched privation. There were many late night crits and dishing the artworld around a cup of coffee. There were cool bars there, too. One was in the base of a pagoda that was a marker in town. Art was never really talked about directly there. People talked about sports, or politics or the gnashing of the various personalities. Art was a subtext for a social eddy where some would cruise, art-professional style, and others would play dead pan. Another bar is set to open soon, called the "Mountain", owned by a troika of genial guys. It is sure to attract the all the art sharks in black leather jackets as well as few sardines like me. I won't be there for that.

There was no cultural displacement. There was plenty of anticipation of it. The local Chinese residents, businesses and property owners got along with the new artist population seamlessly. There was a symbiosis, a complementariness. One gallery even gave my 82 year old landlady a show, capturing via installation, her curio shop on the occassion of her retirement. It was simultaneously a classic appropriation, and a simple act of kindness, a neighborly homage. Brilliant.

I'm leaving town. I'm not going because of the cycle of gentrification: artist as pioneer, the early adopter, a force for urban change and evolution. Although I like the moniker of one who was part of vital beginnings, I didn't plan it that way. I just wanted cheaper rent. I'm leaving town for important, personal reasons... not because of the strange hard edge that belies the dreamscape of Los Angeles. I heard once that a traffic accident in San Diego versus one in Los Angeles differs in that the former was one where the participants would tend to work it out privately and the ones here would engage their lawyers. That?s a good rough sketch of LA. ChinaTown was a place where the people (artists and the Asian locals) would work things out privately, with various levels of heat and light. There was plenty of drama. Property owners getting defensive, reporters looking for cliches, young kids fucking like minks, babies were born. One young artist even totally flipped out (rubber room style), the police had to shoot him seven times with bean bags whilst he stripped naked. He shit in his hands and smeared his body brown. Another died from an overdose. And now, the lawyers are moving in. They are the ones who seek the artist lifestyle. Who can blame them? I certainly like it sure enough. The only trouble is they are a million miles away from art.

I'm leaving not because Los Angeles is a hard assed town and an Elysium tambien. I'm not leaving because the social circles are only as big as the number of people one can bar-b-que for in the back yard. I'm not leaving because the movies "ChinaTown" and "The Day of the Locust" are spot-on accurate. I'm not leaving because John Fante nailed the city when he wrote: "...you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town ...". I'm not leaving because this metroplex is simultaneously parochial and international... and yet finally, parochial. This is LA with all its' mocking attitude and disdain, a challenge to do better.

I was a "military brat" growing up, moving constantly. So when I got out of college, I settled into Los Angeles to make it my home, one I never had. And to my surprise, I never developed a tap root... they spread out horizontally instead, in this desert soil by the sea. And now I... and my little family, will travel horizontally. It's too big a story to tell here. We're keeping our house and we're renting it out to good, nurturing people. That means that we aren't really leaving in a fundamental sense. We're moving, but we're not moving away. We'll be back someday when we can, after this grand adventure to unfold.

And now, music is playing in my head, the refrain of a song in the musical "Gospel at Colonus":

While you can!
Be happy!
While you can!
Happier than God has made your father

While you can!
Be happy!
While you can!
You might not be here tomorrow..."

-by Ringo
Spring 2003

Posted by Dennis at July 1, 2003 5:00 PM

1 Comment

Great diary! For a youngin like me, living the future of the unknown, you've always been (artistically) an inspiration. Love the "counterstrike" insert. Thanks for being real, one of the concept you thought me and that I will never forget.

your student,

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