The Maine Arts Journal’s theme of “Truths and Lies” aligns with my personal interest in social justice. For me, seeking the “Truth,” in the context of social activism, becomes a task of exposing suppressed narratives. A lie, for me, is a deliberate, knowing, calculated evasion of what is known to be otherwise, and in this age of alternative truths, accusations and differing agendas, I believe that this distinction is often lost. The accusation of lying becomes more of an emotional epithet than a nuanced accurate description or analysis of an array of narratives.
In trying to fit the theme with my work, I’m more comfortable with “truths and untruths.” I think people really believe the untruths that they spew, or half believe, or want to believe, or can’t figure things out so go along with it. Belief systems are flawed and cause much harm to many people who are not protected by those systems or have not been able to participate in creating them. I think that my work generally explores and investigates the underlying structures that generate and support untruths . . . or myths. Are myths lies?
I’m “picturing” a realm or narrative or code that is hidden within a societal structure, but is the basis or reference for societal control. My goals are aesthetic: to create an art experience of “seeing” something that is structurally hidden. Am I exposing a calculated lie that was created in order to enact unjust laws? Maybe, but that was not my impetus.
Many of the works that I’ve selected for this theme are hand-rendered or painted text pieces. I began creating hand-painted text drawings in the fall of 2008 prior to the presidential election. At that time, it seemed as though Barack Obama had a good chance of being elected and I sensed a ratcheting up of conspiracy culture.
My text works explore truths or lies by examining the various sources where they reside. For me this matters. If the language, text, or statement comes from law books, then it has power to determine limitations on human activities. If it comes from the ranting of an online demagogue, then it could be a reflection of deep-seated prejudices. The question of whether there are truths or lies is infinitely elusive, and for me as an artist, is situated within the experience between the viewer and the art. The act of considering the concepts of truths and lies often relies heavily on the interpretation of language. Presenting language as art opens up a myriad of ways to experience context and content outside of the form from which the expression originated. Truths or lies can be relative or absolute. Determining which one it is can be political. As art, these determinations become part of the experience.
For me, seeking out “truth” as both an activist and an artist has meant seeking out/using cultural devices I can work with. The two devices that an artist can access readily are symbols and language. These weigh heavily on our sense of identity. Thus when we seek out truth we consistently fall back into the realm that we identify with in order to argue for our own particular version of the truth, one that we feel best protects us or nourishes us. Over the years I’ve created various bodies of work using or referencing language and symbols to try and discover who we humans are.
For the hand-rendered text pieces I have often used texts that exist or that I create. Text is not necessarily art, but for me it is an interesting device that has a direct kind of accessibility. When you go looking for the truth, you probably will engage with text. Inversely, lies, fabrications, propaganda, pitches, delusions, dogma, and self-serving prattle all find great service through the use of text.
My goal is not so much to find truth, as it is to explore myth. I believe that myths are likely created to serve as interim placeholders on the road to helping us understand what it means to be human. Myths are sticky and problematic in that we tend to hang on to them for too long, as they tend to provide convenient answers in the absence of full understanding. Myths, I think, exist top to bottom in everything humans manifest. With this philosophy in hand I can theoretically create art from anything written, spoken, or expressed.
Manifestos was an attempt to use my own mind and subsequent text to tackle subjects that I may or may not have a full understanding of. No one knows everything and we commonly find ourselves having to deal with or react to things that we don’t fully understand. More often than not, we fall back on what partial knowledge we possess and then construct from that as sensible a position, opinion, or response as we are able. With this series I painted my words formatted to fit within the rectangle of watercolor paper I would be working on. These were my own thoughts, gathered in a way that sounded as confident and self-assured as I could muster, without real regard for accuracy. Each piece was built around a particularly socially-charged word like God, Guns, or Gold, to name three pieces.
Using other’s words I’ve created several bodies of work, some of which sourced texts that I’ve sought out, or other texts that I’ve chanced upon.
Flood was generated for me from a random Yahoo News item that caught my attention. The article was about the vanishing Moken sea nomads of Thailand/Myanmar. The piece consists of around 450 small gouache drawings that transcribe the 30,000-word comment stream following the article. Within this text I have circled out, in word search fashion, the story of Noah and beyond, from the Bible. The comment stream expresses the typical gamut of truth, lies, and flawed belief systems.
In pursuing information about weapon systems I came to consider a genre of texts that are technical or legalese. Such texts have the power to establish rules, that in turn can be enforced, or provide explanations that express technological advances without necessarily discussing adverse negative consequences. On their own, these texts are lost safely within the institutions that formed them and require them, in order to prosecute their industrial activities. For me, placing them within the container of art allows a viewer to contemplate their essence outside of their functionality. The Hellfire Story, Drone Legislation, and Prison Papers are three bodies of work that express legalese and technological facts as art. Each one of these bodies of work simply transcribes the texts, though two have secondary words circled out from them.
Drone Legislation transcribes the laws that have been produced in each state regulating the use of drones. As we struggle heartily to keep in step with technological advances, our legislative formulations are where the rubber meets the road and are constructs that attempt to codify structure and guidance. These words are not conversations or philosophical musings; rather, they are both codes and a foundation from which control manifests.
The Hellfire Story transcribes the chronology of the development of the Hellfire missile system as told on an Army website (no longer accessible). It begins in 1966, continues into the 1990s, and is told as a series of short one-or-two-sentence developmental milestones. My intention with this piece was to associate the chronology of weapons development with one’s personal timeline.
Other kinds of text are things that people say or write, good and bad things, compelling and droll things.
Darfur at Our Doorstep, Letter From the Grave, Relief for the Portland Sufferers, and Parabellum all fall into this category of text that was written or created by an individual as a story, expression, or warning. Each one has a relationship to the idea of “truth” or what is believed to be true. Additionally, two of these bodies of work are aesthetically created as false artifacts, in order to open a dialogue about perennial myths that persist and perpetuate violence and injustice.
I recorded an interview with genocide survivor El Fadel Arbab about what it was like to grow up in the Darfur region of Sudan. El Fadel had to flee his village at age twelve after his home was attacked and burned. He survived on his own for four years and eventually made his way to the US with his mother and some siblings. In 2010 he became a US citizen. El Fadel now speaks around the country about the plight of his people. For this series of drawings I began by looking up the word “Sudan” in the dictionary. I soon started to discover many other words on the same page as “Sudan” that seemed to fit into this story. I then decided to make each word into an acronym of my own design to further guide the word’s meaning toward my purpose. I then wove parts of my interview with El Fadel into the acronym’s words. Additionally I included the history of Chevron, which was the first company to discover oil in Sudan and which has since left; a speech given by the late John Garang upon the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan in 2005; text from the Darfur Peace Agreement; and finally statistics on weapons used by the Sudan military.
These drawings have as their motif simply two combined texts, Lasantha Wickramatunge’s “Letter from the Grave” and excerpts from the book of Job. One text is written/drawn from the left in one color and the other from the right in another color. Who was Lasantha Wickramatunge? He was a journalist and newspaper editor from Sri Lanka who was gunned down execution-style on his way to work in January 2009. He had many warning signs that he was marked for execution and thus wrote a letter, to be published upon his death, which implicated his government in his murder. He refused to take action to arm or protect himself against this threat, as it would only make him equal to those who choose weapons over discourse, the latter being his profession.
The inspiration for Relief for the Portland Sufferers came from the collection of hundreds of letters saved after the great fire of 1866 in Portland, Maine, which I discovered via the Portland Public Library’s Digital Commons. Further research online of the description of the day of the fire began to reveal strange coincidences and symbolic overtones to me; the fire occurred on the Fourth of July, the first Fourth after the end of the Civil War and the cry of “fire” was made by William Wilberforce Ruby, a local merchant who would eventually become one of the first African-American officers in the Portland Fire Department. Then after perusing the list and descriptions of hundreds of letters, written in sympathy towards those suffering loss of home and livelihood, I found a scathing, bitter note from the south, expressing contempt and just deserts towards this northern city, against the destruction and loss of life endured within the writer’s home state of Alabama during the war. With this, I had my touchstone from which to “reconfigure” an artifact from the Portland Public Library’s collection, as each artist was tasked to do for the exhibition. Who were the contemporary “Portland Sufferers,” I thought, and who were their detractors? The parallels between the current phenomenon of African immigration to the Portland region since the early 2000s, the understory of African slavery as one of the narratives of our national division, civil war, and a fire occurring on the most important celebratory day in our nation, guided me to explore contemporary hate speech and the problems of patriotism and ex-patriotism all reconfigured as old, worn, singed artifacts. Again: flawed belief systems undergirding misconstrued, hateful untruths.
For Parabellum, I created a false artifact based on the following imagined contemporary scenario:
The eighty-two canvases on display here were created at the turn of the century, by an aging Civil War veteran named Bains Revere. They were discovered moldering in an abandoned Sangerville, Maine home slated for demolition and rescued before they would be destroyed along with the home. Careful research since their recovery has revealed that Revere was a childhood friend of Hiram Maxim, inventor of the automatic machine gun. Both Revere and Maxim were born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840. Revere died there in 1902, Maxim died in London in 1916.
Revere had always held his friend Maxim in high esteem for his brilliantly inventive mind and immense accomplishments. In learning of Maxim’s shift to weapons development, Revere became contemplative and agitated and it was around this time that he is believed to have begun crafting his Parabellum canvases. Though Revere had served as a soldier in the Civil War, he had been a straggler, fearfully shirking duty and shunned as a coward and a traitor, during and after the war. That this response to the violence of war might be considered normal and healthy today is better understood. It is believed that the creation of these canvases might have helped to mitigate what we now fully understand as clinical post-traumatic stress disorder. Curiously, Maxim did not serve in the American Civil War and there remains to this day questions as to why and how he was able to avoid service and whether the lack of exposure to the trauma of the battle might have had an enabling effect on his ability to pursue the development of advanced weaponry.
As citizens and humans we find it almost impossible to untangle ourselves from divisions and definitions that play upon fear, and we continue to succumb to the arrogance of weapons technology’s promise of power through violence as a solution to conflict. Thus the main thrust for this piece was to imagine how my fictional persona might react, as an artist, to his past war experiences while simultaneously considering a future world with ever-evolving weapons technology.
When expressions such as journalism are considered a threat to larger power structures and individuals become targets for annihilation, as happened in the case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and so many other journalists around the world, one’s sense of how information is distributed, controlled, and digested is deeply undermined. Our ability to get information and determine for ourselves what is truth or lies has been curtailed through an act of immediate, calculated violence. In this respect it is a unique form of repression, not based on general prejudices or political affiliations, but rather on the analysis of words written. Here the individual is held responsible and designated as a legitimate target.
My journey, then, has been to observe the divisions and definitions that we find ourselves attached to and to depict them in a creative fashion. My experience has been that in doing this, people are able to step aside and recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of these alignments or attachments. At the core of social activism is the recognition that violence and power structures that serve one group to control another are problematic.
For me, the brilliance of engaging art in the service of cultural awakening or exposing the truths and lies of our behavior, if you will, is its ability to sidestep any and all alignments. Art making and art appeal to sensitivities that are sensual, cerebral, and individual. Social activism is confrontational in order to upset unjust structures. Within the realm of art making there is a great freedom to explore these structures outside of the context, codes of conduct, and societal frameworks that we all participate in.
Image at top: Kenny Cole, Hysteria Drawing #1, ink on paper, 11 x 8.5 in., 2008.