Washington hasn’t exactly enthralled me over the years. The first time I went was for a nuclear freeze demonstration in the aftermath of Three Mile Island, in 1979. Crowds, buses, agendas galore. Hair, lots of hair. Since then I’ve been a few times, not that many. A weekend for Amnesty International, a visit with a girl I met in Vermont, two nutty roadtrips in one week with Robin and Marina, and a gentle excursion with Duston’s dad and stepmom a few years ago.
This weekend was different. Way different. Maybe it has to do with the feeling that it’s no longer occupied territory? In any event, it was fascinating, provocative and stimulating.We went down on Duston’s ticket - she’s newly appointed to the board of the Safe Streets Art Foundation, which focuses on art in the prisons.
More than anything, and forgive the banality of the observation, it really IS about power. Somehow everything that we saw and did related back to central questions of authority, domination, and the control of their associated narratives. Exemplary were two exhibits at the Sackler, one a show called Tsars and the East, featuring gifts from Iran and Turkey (mainly) to the Tsars over the ages. The implications were unmistakable - here are the priceless artifacts of other, vanquished civilizations, here, in OUR seat of power. At least that’s how it felt to me. The other notable show was a video installation by Sun Xun, simple ink animations directly on yellowed Chinese newspapers, clearly throwing the “news” catalogued therein into question. Shaky ground, the ironic recontextualization of history.
The Newseum, across the Mall, provided a much more explicit look at our sources of information, with an emphasis on the “official” independent media, that is the big corporate media machines which sometimes do a stunning job of bringing us “the story” but then again sometimes miss it entirely or – worse – tell the wrong one. Hello Judith Miller. Plenty of shrift is given to smaller media outlets as well. Not to quibble: a mighty museum dedicated to the first amendment, and filled with fascinating exhibits asserting the vital importance of independent media - priceless.
The most interesting part of the visit, though, revolved around the reason we were down in DC to begin with, namely the Safe Streets Art Foundation. They had a concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, in one of the antechamber theaters skirting the main hall. The show consisted of a series of short plays, readings and musical numbers, and what struck me forcefully about almost everything was how it was almost all “prisoner” and almost no “art”. I was reminded of a great little novel by Manuel Puig that I read twenty years ago, Heartbreak Tango. In it, an impossibly good looking young man arrives in, and then moves on from, a small rural town in Argentina, leaving a trail of broken hearts. Most of the book takes the form of letters written by the smitten, and what’s fantastic and poignant and sad is that the their yearnings are expressed in lines from tango songs, from radio plays, magazines, and Hollywood films.
The message, I think, has to do with our somehow needing to validate our own experiences of the world by calibrating them against “official” narratives of similar experiences. We all do this - I, most famously, in Bombay in 1984. Semi-dying of amoebic dysentery (30 pounds dropped in eleven days), I was sadly depleted and actually starting to get worried about major implications (22 year olds can be massive idiots about their own well-being). But as miserable and ill as I was, I still had the presence of mind to recognize the “romance” of being sick in a spartan room in a distant land, the balmy zephrys (high tide) and semi-sewer stench (low tide) blowing in off the Arabian Sea outside my window, and - validation of validations - the fact that I was somehow living through something similar to Sebastian, dying in Morocco, in Brideshead Revisited. This last thought cheered me up immeasurably, actually. I soon recovered my appetite, and haven’t lost it once since!
Let’s get back to “prison art” for a moment, though. What reverberated through almost every utterance on that stage was the fact that as prisoners, the “art” becomes almost entirely reflexive. Unlike the Argentinian woman, who could only look to the outside for validity, the prisoners seem to be able only to look to the inside, into the idea of being a prisoner, and the mouthing of the very platitudes and cliches that one would expect in such a show. To me, the tragedy of it is that prisoners, deprived of liberty in the most blatant and obvious ways, nevertheless buy in to the imagery, iconography and overall set of cultural expectations that we on the outside carry. Somehow, to be a prisoner is to become a living stereotype, and nothing I saw on Saturday budged me one iota from that set of preconceptions. In fairness, this was all performing art, and certainly curated for the event, so there was probably a slant towards “prisony” work. The most successful piece was a funny, syncopated song and dance number about hair, and it worked because it talked about the microcosmic obsession of dealing with your hair in prison with limited resources - but in ways that I bet every woman can relate to.
After the show, we went to an “after-party”, at a largely African-American (or maybe entirely African-American) old-age home. We walked from the magnificence of the Kennedy Center, directly past the front entrance of the Watergate, and into the home. Downstairs to a sort of rec room, where four older men were playing a slap’em-down game of cards. The young man who played the “senator” in the play about the just-released prisoner coming home to explain to his family that he’s converted to Islam came over to chat. Friendly, engaging and welcoming. We made some small talk, and he mentioned Van Jones, the Obama appointee who during the course of this single day had apparently gone through a dismal Republican crucifixion - in any event, he wasn’t in the news when we left the hotel at 10 in the morning; he was tried, convicted and had resigned by 10:30pm. Such is the contemporary news cycle. Try THAT one on, Newseum.
The young man, Jahid (anagram of Jihad by any chance?) then said something sort of fascinating - something about Jones having signed a petition which called the causes of the 911 attacks into question. Because as we know, only the CIA could have pulled them off. Say what? I felt the conversation suddenly going pear-shaped. Jahid started down the track of the 911 denier - it couldn’t have been “two Arab guys”, they couldn’t have done it with boxcutters (“my sister could have stopped them”), only CIA-trained operatives could have accomplished this mission, etc etc etc. To his credit, he sensed my profound unease with his chosen direction, and began to back off a little when I started to challenge him. “Just go to YouTube and watch ‘Zeitgeist’ and (I can’t remember the name of the other one); they’ll tell you everything you need to know to make an informed decision.” Hmm... Jahid then went on to talk about the fabrications associated with Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the sinking of the Lusitania...all events that were iron-clad in terms of the veracity of their telling at the time, but which seem to have been legitimately questioned and eroded in recent years. And would I put it past the CIA to have had some sort of involvement in the 911 attacks? Well, yes, actually. I DON’T think they had anything to do with the attacks, other than perhaps being one facet of the sheer incompetence of our government in the days preceeding the event.
Jahid didn’t help his case much by trying to bolster it with quotes from the Kung Fu Panda movie, and from the various Star Wars films. Still, this was an obviously intelligent guy who wasn’t just swallowing some yarn hook, line and sinker, but had thought about it and sought more information and reached certain conclusions. Perhaps because of the freshness of the events and my own proximity to them I was shocked, but not completely. And I’m surprising myself in harboring a desire to continue the conversation with Jahid, to talk this thing out with an open mind. Maybe we’ll both learn something.
The lasting image from this quick trip is a simple one: sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial. The steely repose of Lincoln, the massive solidity of the Memorial itself, and below, the city, the capital of the twentieth century, waking gently as the sun quickly climbed, like the endless line of planes taking off from National across the Potomac. The vastness of the vistas, the formality of the monuments and buildings. It conjures Rome, Mexico City, Buenos Aires... also though, it brings to mind Teotihuacan in Mexico, Fatehpur Sikri in India, and Pagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy in Burma, all mighty in their day, all deserted now, but for the tourists.