Thursday, October 11, 2012

Courage, lies and the art of the horizontal conference in our brave new world

The brave new world of "Fish Story" in Memphis, TN

This evening, I'm heading to a reception for the weekend Creative Time (CT) conference instead of listening to the Ryan- Biden debate. I expect it will help me think about my new project, "Fish Story." 

There is a lot of talk in the circles I'm in about Romney as a liar. Sean Capone, for example, on Jerry Saltz' FB page, has taken on a Republican at great length for the past couple days, itemizing not just Romney's lies, but how even Newt Gingrich was confounded by how to debate with a bald-faced liar. Here's Clinton on Romney's performance: 

What is the evil power of a lie? I think the reason people lie is fear. Compare the trajectory that the radical right that Romney & Ryan represent, to the Taliban in Pakistan who tried to murder Malala Yousafzaia for being progressive, bright and wanting an education.

They are all afraid. And they are willing to lie to themselves as well as others rather than be courageous about scary realities. Every bully is someone who is scared inside, scared by their own fear. I think what these people are scared of is our present. I think any reasonable person is scared of our present, where nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of crazies, where corporations have taken over global governance, where new, essential expensive tech toys come out every week, our food is tainted, our waters are disappearing under the weight of over-population and fracking, and climate change, cross-dressing and uppity women are the new norm.

We are all scared by and initially inadequate to change. But when terrifying people who are so terrified of real life, that they act on their yearning for a delusionally unchanging world where they might feel safe, secure and in control, are willing to murder, debase, destroy whatever stands in their way to go back to that imagined Eden, that's when they endanger themselves and their own children as much as they threaten the rest of us.

My take on the people who would have murdered Malala is that they are like the Neo-Nazis around the world or the retro bullies in the USA, who egg on Romney and cheer for Ryan when they declare on the stump that they will cut access to good public education, social services for the poor and deport immigrants. 

The right, whether in the USA or Pakistan, seems to confuse economic prudence with depriving the future of the tools to think clearly. In the case of the USA and Europe scarcity as replaced planning. In too many places, gender freedom is threatened by those who can't accept difference. I have to label this cowardice about the dangerous present and the scary future. The cowards are those who want to return to an imagined past, running from what we all fear rather than facing the present and difficult options. 

Since 2009, the corporate right seems to have figured out that they need to fight back and have responded on the same horizontal globalized level, countering a grass roots movement with big oil money, seeding sufficient doubt, particularly in the USA, where leadership on climate change is so critical, to arrest critical change and dig in with ever-more aggressive extractive fossil fuel industries and repressive social policies.

Just saying no to the present isn't an option. We must parse real options to survive. Real options include understanding the history of the kinds of choices we need to make, socially, economically and environmentally. That is an interdisciplinary process.

I've been going to interdisciplinary conferences since the early nineties. Many artists, including myself, are used to the College Art Association conferences, where thousands of artists compete for attention to get jobs. But in the early nineties, I started attending and presenting at science conferences, starting with the Island Institute and the Society for Ecological Restoration. And then in 2009, I was at the IPCC conference on climate change in Copenhagen and realized that for that historical moment, the whole world became what I labeled a "horizontal conference," and wrote about for James Brady in the UK and the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA). 

Difficult parsing is why I'm going to a CT art conference tonight. Art is where we think big, broad and courageously- albeit, not fearlessly. Being fearless in the face of real danger is stupid. The reason I'm going to a reception for a conference where I'll see my art colleagues instead of listening to tonight's Vice-presidental debate (which will no doubt will be rerun to my heat's content later), is my faith in the horizontal conference, which is not just about CT. It is in the conversations I read and engage on FB. It is on NPR and even on Rush Limbaugh because Limbaugh is countered on FB and NPR, as is the Taliban and the Republican right. The horizontal conference is something artists are really, really good at. It is, in fact, a discursive performance of democracy.

In this performance, there is no golden man at the center, no superstar, no perfect hero. Yes, of course some people stand out. But at it's best, the horizontal performance of democracy gathers collective intelligence. It is not a mob led by a bully. Artists, as many have pointed out, are as easy to corral and lead as a herd of wet cats. We are too iconoclastic, too broody, too egocentric and self-centered, too freedom loving and rebellious to conform to anything or anyone very easily. And we are very bad liars. These failures are, in fact, the very strengths I suspect we need right now to deal with our very complex, brave new world.

In the next weeks, as the election looms and my thoughts and plans take greater shape, I will write more about applying these skills to "Fish Story," for Memphis, TN and Social Memphis.

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