Month of May, 2010

The steel heart of Moravia

Heaven help me, I just went to the National Theater for the first time on Friday. What possesed me to wait so long? I can even get rush tickets! Well, there is too much music to be seen, and it wasn't until a chance confession of the night's activities that I found a willing friend who would go with me (never too late!), so I hope to take in more before leaving. Friday I went with the mom and we saw Janacek's Jenufa.

I'd read the synopsis and was little impressed with the plotline revolving around Jenufa being "ruined" by the twin curses of nature: beauty and unplanned pregnancy. Gah. Well, the story goes something like this: Jenufa is courted by two non-blood relatives in their small Moravian town and falls for the braggard, while the other, Laca, is overtaken by jealousy and cuts her face, deforming her and ending the braggard's shallow love. Meanwhile, she has the braggard's bastard child in secret. Jenufa pines away for her lot in life, finally submitting to marriage to the violent cousin out of fear of the town shame. Sort of.

Zzz. Women's lives are a curse. Zzz. 

But what makes the opera interesting is the mother, Kostelnicka. Jenufa's Czech title is "Její pastorkyna," (her step-daughter) which seems a more accurate description of the 2.5 hour long work, which is more a mother/daughter psychodrama than anything else. Throughout the thing I kept thinking about how the mother was the real powerhouse of the work, but in the end I've come to see Jenufa's ambivalent character as the weirdly modern on in this bizarre and great opera.

Kostelnicka is the churchkeeper's widow, a woman of high ethics dressed in stern black, unsmiling. A true diva, she turns to god to render her word supreme and the town shakes with fear of her. Števa, the cad, calls her a witch during their confontation, which comes at the crucial moment when Kostelnicka tries to get him to acknowledge the child, wed Jenufa, and save her own perfect reputation. Which, he doesn't. So she...drowns the baby! In the winter! It freezes in the ice! No one knows!

In her aria, which was one of those 20th century things with full orchestra that surges beneath and beside rather than stay subdued, she hints at the terrible truth - it is not Jenufa's reputation that she cares about, but her own. She is meddling in fate, playing god with the love, happiness, and life of others and all so she can save her public face. She is blind with rage for some distant wrong done by Števa's father, and with the moral absolute of Jenufa's sin. (It seems so distant to me, and in the moment of her aria I seriously just kept thinking 'Thank you to my feminist foremothers and fathers for rendering this feeling ancient for me' - not so long ago did mothers have the shame-laden prefix "unwed" or "single"). In this way I guess Kostelnicka is something of a witch - she conciously manipulates the world to get her way, without the knowledge or consent of those around her. She uses her power, driven by unquestioned ethics, for evil.

And so the dramatic irony unfolds to the unbearably sad moment of the wedding day (see, Laca would only take her if the baby was dead so Kostelnicka obliged). Jenufa is dressed in simple grey while the town is in folk costume. The bride and groom talk about 'enduring.' They stammer, they look to the back of the stage. It's almost as bad as being at a real wedding.

And then...someone brings in the ice baby, loosened from the spring thaw. A waking horror. Everyone freaks out, and the shit hits the fan in true third act glory. So Kostelnicka confesses to save the Jenufa from the charge of murder, and the opera ends with the couple trudging into the distance. 

So what strikes me about the thing is that Jenufa is really a story about forgiveness, the most difficult of human choices. Jenufa, for better or worse, forgives Laca, who has a dramatic arc big enough to seem like he won't be an abuser again (in real life it doesn't often work this way).They muddle through, their love a burdened, mature, and "real" thing, which is why I guess Janacek was praised for his modern storyline. But Kostelnicka, her heart harbors some deep anger and with this she tries to undo everyone. She sees everyone's injustice, but not her own until the guilt (in true operatic spirit) eats away at her body. It is a hardness that never ends, and it is as difficult to watch as it is thrilling to listen to.The men are rather less complex, really more like small town stereotypes whose old-fashioned morals drive these women to desperate measures.They are the law and the women the subjects of the law.

But...just as that ice thaws, there is some hint of what comes for women in Janacek's work: the mill wheels turn, the wedding dress stands sharp against custom, and there is a moment of tenderness in one of Jenufa's aria that suggests she is actually happier with the baby than she was with either man. And mother, she is playing, and ruined, by some rules that are about to be antiquated.


spacing out on the bus

It was an unusually cold and rainy day, but since it was early May the busride was a kind of dreary pleasure, full of this spring's melancholia (Black Heart Procession, Benji Hughes, and even a bit of Yellow Swans). From steamy windows I saw daffodils and lilacs  in front of the panalak and the endless parade of grandmothers getting and off the bus with thei little cloth-wheel carts, much more age appropriate somehow than the wire ones the ladies push in NYC. Everything else was wild green or grey, May explosion or same old sky.

My mom missed her connection in Germany and it ended up becoming some kind of modern existential nightmare for me, to and from and waiting and texts, cellphones, emails, calling friends and family in America, calling the airport, Skyping, and in the end just sitting on the stupid bus again until I got past the suburbs, the hypermarkets, the flight school, and to Terminal 2, Schengen Zone, to pick her up in the fake Starbucks, where she had made friends with all the English speaking folks in the off-time where she sat waiting for me. She refused to admit that it could have been in any way her fault - not calling, not having my address written down - and we got on the bus only to an awkward silence. "Are you really going to pout?" I asked. "Yes," she said. So I got up and went to the back of the bus and put my iPod back on.

Wow. The worst.

art walks, pedestrian politics

Today was all about Czech graffiti and street art. Spent a lot of the day thinking about Point's recent work and the work of Epos 257, and the general Banksy-ish world of street art as gentrification wallpaper/meta-marketing/institutionalized institutional critique and all the stuff that seems like some weird Tom Frank 2.0 chit chat. I do like Banksy's argument that aesthetics should have no play in whether a piece or a scribble are illegal - they should just be the same damn thing. But the reality is one gets buffed and the other gets galleries, and maybe some part of Banksy's ideology is the reason he's the one in. But hell, his work is good, and so is Point's, and Point doesn't just do the works but is an advocate, organizer, and writer for the scene and uses his work as a platform to talk about publics, art, and space in general. It's like a full bore public intellectual, though I can't say autodidact because he, like lot of Czech street artists, comes from art school.

I really love Epos's work - it forms a continuous line from conceptual art, social sculpture, and a kind of performance-of-the-art-criminal with so much humor, creativity, and inexhausible innovation. (He just had a book out in January, I have to get it). However much this work gets documented, gallerized, hailed - commoditized, historicized, frozen - it also exists as this quotidian engagement that  makes life on the streets of Prague so much more a pleasure that it already is. The streets here are full of riddles and puzzles and connections, shocks and bizarre colors, potentially not accidental scenarios that engage, startle, and sometimes even disturb. I like to think of these pieces as gifts to the pedestrian, my chance to have an exchange with the city, the artist, the moment. It is, to me, what art should do.

I know I should have a more sophisticated engagement with street art, having been in a band with a dude who worked at Alleged and having haunted Deitch Projects through the 2000s. But I do think there's something qualitatively different about the work I see here - more cut outs, more 3D, less stencil work, stickering, and wheatpasting (generally more figurtative over lettering) - and something shocking to me about it in the daily space of a city with such a deep historical building fabric.

Maybe it's because graffiti only came to being in the '90s here, or because the hip hop culture here is so different than the one in the U.S., or because art schools are thriving like mad with the newest two generations, or because of the proximity of Berlin, or because of the way cops do or don't crack down, or because of the way city and state buildings understand their surfaces as "public," or because of public walls, or because of private walls. I don't know. But I'm thinking about it.

The non-political group at May Day

Around 6pm I was standing in the middle-third of the audience for BPM at May Day Festival, the day long free festival of music, workshop, galleries, and films put together by the Antifascist Action (AFA). The festival is now in its third season and exists to show that Antifastist Action is not simply an "extremist" group, but a non-governmental collective using a variety of methods to combat the active elements of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Czech Republic. Because it is not a non-violent, but rather physically engages hate groups and also the police, the state has set them as "extremists."  Czech media has historically represented AFA and various hate groups as this generic term "extremists," part of the same group of violent hooligans with no respect for law and order. The May Day Festival is an action to redirect the attention away from the "anti-" of antifascism, and towards the larger promotion of progressive and tolerant pluralist culture while raising awareness about the social problems in our midst. It's part of a larger project called "Good Night White Pride," which started in Germany as a way to signal that a hardcore concert/action was to be racist-free, and has spread quickly through the hardcore scene here, and is now taking root in other subcultures like hip hop and skateboarding.

BPM had just launched into their third song, one in which they bring out their saxophone player for some groove. Which is funny, sort of, because BPM is a hip hop group whose name (básníci pred mikrofonem) means "poets before the microphone." There is some kind of standing joke about how every rock band in this country is ruined by a saxophone player, and I seeing BPM for the first time I was struck that maybe the joke is not genre specific. The group just won the Andel (Czech Grammy) for best hip hop album, and the crowd watching them was significantly younger, more colorfully dressed, more clearly hip hop than the rest of the May Day crowd. Of course at that time the second stage had the Slovak hardcore band Abhorrence, and all the kids in black shirts and full tattoo sleeves were over there, but still there was a seriously different vibe to the BPM set than there was the rest of the day. It was, for lack of a better term, a pretty normal Czech festival crowd. People danced, talked to each other, stood and bobbed their heads, drank - and I too bobbed my head sort of listlessly, gently annoyed at the two MC's attempts to get the crowd more enthused but generally enjoying a rest from the dense chaos of hardcore that seems to make so much less sense on green lawns and in sunshine. 

And in one of the awkward breaks where they were trying to engage the audience they broke the hip hop stage show and began to talk about the day. There was strictly no photography and I didn't record, so my memory is all I have, but it was something like "Our music isn't political, and we're not a political group, but we're here today to support anti-racism."

I was shocked into attention, watching a thin round of applause but general lack of register among the crowd. I looked around, I asked my friend. "What did you think of that?" But she's not really the kind of person who would think about this kind of thing I guess, because it just passed over her. It seemed to pass over everyone. But for me, it was pivotal. I don't really know what to make of it, actually. 

I guess I could see it as May Day's ultimate achievement - the mainstreaming of AFA's values into larger elements of culture, to make them normal, "unmarked." In becoming a large, well-run, safe and successful event that now has a history of quality it is possible to get a group outside of the scene but with potential sympathies to its values, like BPM, who clearly value the roots of hip hop as a music of black American culture, to sign on to the May Day project. In turn, the group brings a new audience in contact with AFA's ideas. What this audience and BPM found - a crowd estimated at 10,000 who were mostly coming from old school punk, metal, and hardcore backgrounds - must have been a bit intimidating, but they hung, they mixed, and it was cool. I mean, there were a lot of punks standing there too with the hip hop kids, but not nearly as many as had been for the more rock-oriented group The Pack A.D. Were they won over, was there a moment of conciousness either from the fans or from the punks, a sense of engagement and potential?


One other thing. I am struck by the incredibly successful use of graphic design by Good Night White Pride and the Antifa community. A lot of it comes from the culturejamming and skate-design appropriations of the 1990s, and because there is a significant crossover between Antifa and the Czech anarchist movement, the appropriation of copyrighted logos for "selling" anti-fascism has a double valience (see the WB logo for example). The shirts are not meant to be tricky or clever - they are clear and direct address: "good night white pride" is a kind of command, however politely framed. The fascists have responded with their own appropriations: "good night left side" has points for linguistic parallelism but fails to summarize their political program since their enemies are two-fold, "the other" and also the Antifa. All the concerns about the failure for a culture jam to be understood or how it might be watered down when circulating in the larger culture seem unfounded in this case, with the possible exception of the fact that so many punks sew the logo on their coats and where hoodies where the "good night" is obscured.

I want to respect Antifa's wishes so if you want to see pictures of all of this, follow this link to their site.

In the seventh picture down, on the left edge midway up, I am the blob to the right of the orange blob. I would say I was wearing a black t-shirt but that would be a dumb joke.