14. Some Terrible Paintings

February 2021

For my birthday, C. gave me the most magnificent gift: a small framed reproduction of my favorite painting, Caravaggio's Saint Jerome in His Study, from 1605. Jerome was often depicted in the desert wilderness, forsaking worldly distraction in exchange for salvation. But in Caravaggio's hands, he is hushed and desiccated as he completes the first translation of the Bible into Latin. He stares deep into its pages, hunting for revelation, ignoring the skull on his desk, a memento mori that mocks the vanity of our knowledge in the face of the unknowable. The darkness that envelopes him is heavier, more textured than the red cloth he wears, yet he is determined to write one last word before the night consumes him. John Berger has said Caravaggio's darkness "smells of candles, over-ripe melons, damp washing to be hung out the next day." To me, it feels like the purple-black thoughts that burble within the midnight brain. And in this darkness, Jerome no longer belongs to history or dogma but the silence he sought while crisscrossing the desert in the prime of his life.


It's been a quiet month in Ohio with snow and grey skies. I'm pushing myself to wrap up this book I've been dragging around for years. And there's a faint light on the horizon: an ending is announcing itself as the path narrows, doors close, and the story develops its own logic and needs. Meanwhile, C. tells me that I spend a lot of time sighing.

Here's how writing is going: Yesterday, I was revising a scene that briefly mentions a motorhome. Better to be specific, I thought. Give it a make and model. But the classic aluminum Airstream seemed too trendy, and a Winnebago felt lazy. An hour later, I was drowning in recreational vehicle discourse—the Newmar Dutch Star, the New Horizons Summit—and soon I was cultivating elaborate fantasies about living on the road. Then I half-remembered Carl Sagan’s ode to the nomadic impulse, how it is hard-wired and Darwinian: "For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood." Yes, that was how to live. Get rid of the clutter and hit the road, maybe in a Fleetwood Discovery or a Thor Motor Coach Sprinter. I studied articles about easy financing. I began rehearsing a conversation to convince C. that we should chuck it all and start over. Then I looked at the clock and realized two hours had vanished. I turned off the internet, returned to my manuscript, and wrote: An abandoned motorhome sat in a pool of light. So that's how writing is going.

One thing I hate about my writing is that it often feels bunchy and tight. I want to loosen up and recover a sense of play, so I've decided to find a hobby. An activity I can do just for the hell of it, something that doesn't require a staring contest with a screen. So I bought a sketchbook and some watercolor paints because I have no illusions about being a painter. I haven't drawn anything in years; the last time I painted was twenty-five years ago when I was very high. But what to paint? I opened a random page from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and decided to paint the first phrase that caught my attention. This process has become my new hobby. Here are my first attempts:

Looking at these paintings, it's hard to believe I've been sober for eight years. But it feels good to do something for its own sake, results be damned. And I have a newfound respect for Caravaggio.


Maybe it’s sad that my first impulse when considering a fun activity was to get away from the screen. But the screen feels increasingly heavy, magnetized. In the class I teach, we spend a lot of time discussing the mental effects of attention hijacking, outrage mechanics, etc. Everyone has a lot to say, and the vocabulary is vivid, even violent: onslaught, bombarded, drowning, shredded, etc. More and more, these conversations leave me wondering if it's possible to experience anything along the lines of a "technological sublime," a quality of delight or awe. Or if I can recover my own sense of lightness or play when I’m online.

Despite my best attempts at information hygiene, I’m still buffeted by the digital winds. The other day I caught myself reading an article called "What Yogurt Does to You." Then I lingered over the ambient horror of a New York Times article about mushrooms that referred to "our ruined global moment." Today I received an unsolicited email from a person whose job title is "Editor of Wisdom Content." And so on.

So back to weird painting. Tonight's sentence: "They pelt each other with shells, devour grapes, strangle a goat, and tear Bacchus asunder."


  • Midnight writing music: Roy Montgomery's Island of Lost Souls, which I immediately purchased after reading Boomkat’s description of it as a blend of Slowdive and Vangelis. And it is.

  • I'm also rediscovering the pleasures of Shogun Kunitoki, the Finnish quartet that soundtracked a fair chunk of my life in Helsinki twelve years ago. Built from organs, vintage synthesizers, and live percussion, this is the sound of the future crashing into a wood-paneled rec room circa 1973. Their declared mission was to help electronic music "regress back to a more human state, the time of the tube organ and the ring modulator, the spring reverb, and the test oscillator." And their music is very human: it's the stuff of dreams and occasional nightmares.

13. God Knows Where

January 2021

For eight years, I kept a nightly journal. Each night I would write a few hundred words that cataloged my regrets, dreams, and memories alongside the day's headlines and outrages. Last year, I made a fair chunk of this public. I believed this habit would help me keep track of my life, these notes for my future self. But it gradually became a journal of compulsion, an exercise in keeping a streak for 2,921 days. Strange, these blinkered rules I create: do something every day or not at all. So this year I'm giving up the nightly journal. Perhaps it’s more fruitful to think in scales of months rather than days; maybe this will help me avoid having my thoughts chewed up by the two-minute hates that each hour of online living seems to bring.

On the first day of the year, I stood before the humming pencil grids of an Agnes Martin canvas at the Columbus Museum of Art. The ancient Greeks believed God was a geometer, but I think she was closer to the mark: “Geometry has nothing to do with it,” said Martin. “It’s all about finding perfection, and perfection can’t be found in something as rigid as geometry. You have to find it elsewhere, in between the lines.” This seems like a good philosophy for an extreme season.

On the second day of the year, C. and I took down our Christmas tree while the television talked about the vandalized homes of Congress. A pig's head, misspelled demands, etc. It felt like an echo of the man who drove through Nashville on Christmas morning, playing Petula Clark’s “Downtown” before detonating himself. American violence was getting weirder, more dramatic flourishes for the people watching at home. Then came January 6. The scene was unthinkable yet oddly familiar: shaky footage of zealots in the thrall of a cult religion; desecration performed for cameraphones, the toppling of hallowed symbols, and the berserker's delight in smashing things. The Bush years were defined by an awful mantra: We will fight them over there. But now…

This was the last gasp, some said. No, this was the start of something worse, said others. They're like another species to me, these people who believe they know what's going on and what will happen next.


Here in Ohio, downtown Columbus was boarded up several days before the inauguration. Plywood and yellow tape covered the capitol building, the courthouse, and the library—a windowless city of cops and joggers. As we walked along the river, a terse email arrived from the art museum "urging visitors to stay away from downtown in the interest of public safety. All ticket holders will be contacted with any payments automatically refunded." A few days later, pundits on cable news said the right-wing mobs "failed to appear." What happens when the hunger for spectacle goes unfulfilled?

Meanwhile, I still haven't absorbed the happy fact of our new president, whereas the shock of the last one remains clear. Maybe it's like getting punched in the face; the blow comes quickly, but the pain takes time to fade.

I'm still writing each night, focusing on fiction. Sometimes it feels like carving concrete with a fingernail, and I have to remind myself that if I’m not having fun, I’m taking myself too seriously; I’m certainly not writing for the money. But making up stories can feel like such a foolish errand when a chyron somewhere says Arizona man identified as horned, shirtless Capitol rioter. If faith in fiction is good for anything, maybe it’s the stock market.

I’m learning a new winter grammar of spike proteins and variants named after nations, sudden stratospheric warming and unbalanced polar vortexes, meme stocks and diamond hands. I scroll through a story about cryptocurrency investors who lost the passwords to their digital wallets. They stand in gardens and empty parking lots, looking pensive.

Everything feels true and false at the same time. Only now am I beginning to appreciate how much work it takes to keep my brains away from the buzzsaw of instant reactions and trending topics. And I'm failing. I worry about my sense of the world, my murky politics and little opinions, how they're probably programmed by algorithms coming from god only knows.

Maybe it's common knowledge now, but I just learned that Netflix has a thumbnail algorithm, some proprietary bit of robot-logic that tailors the promotional images for movies and television shows to each person's taste. This explains why my library is a bizarre collection of peculiar still-shots and peripheral actors. Will I be more likely to watch Casino Royale because there's a poster with Judi Dench talking on the telephone? Probably. But I have no idea what you're seeing; a helicopter with guns blazing, maybe, or a close-up of Daniel Craig's jaw.

Hopefully someday soon we'll have algorithm-free zones, spaces that are clearly labeled like a product without pesticides.


I’m thinking about my father's notebooks again. How he coped with grief by wandering through discount department stores, fixated on tracking down the correct size, exact model, or shade of color for something he thought he needed for his little apartment. Non-slip adhesives for the bathtub, the ones shaped like starfish. A particular brand of mechanical pencils, the ones with little white erasers. He always carried a small notepad in the back pocket of his khakis, and after he died, I found stacks of them, their pages jammed with his tiny scrawl: Lampshade repair. Talk to neighbor. Screen for bathroom faucet. Eggs are good for protein.

More and more, his notebooks feel like a balm against these digital winds, a climate ripe for faith dealers and dogma. He didn't understand how the world had become so interlinked, how its information could live on a screen. It felt like an optical illusion, a cheap bit of sleight-of-hand. Information was supposed to be earned through experience, through a combination of effort, luck, and scribbling into your notepad. Information required action, and my father craved the human contact needed to get it. The sales clerks would check their stock and make calls to other locations for a linen drum lampshade or a pair of loafers with tassels. He'd eventually find the item, but he would not purchase it, deciding he didn't need it after all.


  • Perhaps somewhat related to the above rumination on attention: I’m attempting to read Gustav Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, his novelization of the saint’s struggle with vice and distraction while searching for salvation in the desert.

  • Flaubert’s account inspired one of my favorite artists, Odilon Redon, whose eerie etchings sought to capture the "unfettered, immaterial world of the psyche." The titles alone conjure worlds reminiscent of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album: Then There Appears a Singular Being, Having the Head of a Man on the Body of a Fish, Everywhere Eyeballs Are Aflame, and Different Peoples Inhabit the Countries of the Ocean. (And now you can buy a Temptation of Saint Anthony face mask because we’ve built ourselves a fine little hell.)

  • Current hobby: Driving around Ohio at night, listening to Vatican Shadow.

  • Panthea Lee’s monthly essays have given me much to consider, and I admire her willingness to steer into the skid.

  • Eighty minutes of gorgeous fuzz and drone via Black Swan’s Repetition Hymns. Perfect winter music.

  • Light the Barricades, the series of electrified shrines that Candy Chang and I created in Los Angeles in 2019, is slated to be exhibited at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month—if plague conditions permit, etc. We also made a book about the project.

  • My most worthwhile purchase: a three-dollar screensaver of a Koi pond that I find tremendously relaxing. (I recommend the Night Water option.)

12. Clearing the Decks

December 2020

This is the last installment of my monthly digest that collects a few entries from the nightly journal I kept in 2020. Next year this newsletter might continue in a different form.

On the first day of this year, I sat in the pews of a medieval cathedral in Turku, Finland, and tried to pray, which is alien to me. I tried to pray because my thoughts were gummed up with so much chatter and junk, the outrage and opinions of digital living, the residue of too much time spent behind screens. I wanted to know if it was possible to develop any type of faith these days. And underneath this desire, I had buried too many memories of grief. I had also stalled in my writing. I found myself trapped in an idiotic loop of procrastination and perfectionism, stuck with a mind that deleted each word before the first keystroke. So I decided to dust off my blog and commit to writing something each night for one year. Perhaps a few ideas about art, faith, and loss. Maybe some notes about each day's events for my future self.

And now, on the last day of this year, the memory of sitting in a church in a different country feels as though it belongs to some lost golden age, like telling your kids about the days when airports did not have x-ray machines or you could smoke in supermarkets. The end of the year leaves me feeling as if I'm supposed to be reflective; I find myself hunting for insights and revelations that never arrive. And as this nightly exercise winds down, I feel compelled to make sense of it. My first thoughts are: 1) I do not recommend such a needlessly compulsive approach, and 2) I wish I'd picked any other year. (From February 26: "New infections are being reported. How far will this thing go? Will history record this as a blip, or is this the start of something bigger?")

But this practice helped me develop a steady writing routine. No matter what was happening, I managed to carve out an hour around midnight to write, and I'm eager to point this habit towards books and stories. Posting something each night also helped me reckon with my precious bullshit. I often found myself wrestling with some murky idea or failing to make a sentence behave the way I wanted—then I'd see it was two o'clock in the morning. Good enough. There would be something new to write tomorrow.

Most of all, I appreciated the need for people I do not know. I've always preferred writing in museums, hotel lobbies, and train stations because these places remind me that I am a stranger. At home, I become too familiar, and my perspective narrows. In a year without the babble, mess, and wonder of people on sidewalks and subway cars, or the small adventures and chance encounters that come with simply moving through the world, I found myself plumbing my memories and dreams and revisiting moments of loss. So in the end, this exercise felt like walking away from something, a way of clearing the decks before trying something new. Which I hope is how this year feels for all of us one day when we look back in the rearview.


When I think about my relationship with art, I often remember the day I took my father to the museum shortly before he died. How I watched him drag his oxygen tank through curtains of plastic string that dangled from the ceiling of an empty room. We diligently consulted the explanation on the wall, which described how these “multi-sensory penetrables rendered our passage through space fully palpable.” I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he said, “I guess this stuff is over my head.” How tragic to enter a museum hoping to feel dignified and ennobled, only to walk away feeling like a fool.


Two years ago on a Saturday night in rural Pennsylvania, I saw a vision of the future that I cannot shake. I visited an elaborate recreation of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in a French grotto in 1858. A narrow footpath led through a forest to a candlelit statue of the Virgin in a shallow cave. The scene was illuminated by dozens of telephone screens that floated in the gloom like devotional candles.

Hanging back, I watched a strange ritual unfold among the men attending a weekend Catholic retreat. They formed a line in front of the statue, and when the first man knelt to pray, he handed his telephone to the man behind him, who would photograph him praying. After the man finished his prayer, he retrieved his phone and reviewed the image. The next man repeated this process as he knelt before the statue. The photo had become the meaning, the reason for this pilgrimage to kneel before a simulation of the appearance of a ghost.

I took a photo of the statue, too. Our technologies have taught us to document every activity, no matter how personal or sacred; our screens are becoming the way we see the world and ourselves, and it looks like they’re even more potent than religion.


One of my short stories has been published at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. It’s about an elderly couple in a Walgreen’s parking lot, and they’ve been haunting my dreams for a few years now. It’s called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and here’s how it begins:

There’s this old couple that gets around. Maybe you’ve seen them. They’ve been touring the country for years, long before America elected a game show host for president. They started off doing decent business at casinos and conventions until their tantrums began causing problems.


Light snow fell last night in Ohio. I cheer like a child whenever flurries fall. Maybe it has to do with the silence it brings, how it tranquilizes the world for a while. Or because a snowstorm is one of the few remaining shared events that cannot be misinterpreted or denied. Perhaps my attraction is more symbolic: the blank slate, everything buried and clean. Maybe I savor this weather because it’s becoming rarer as the world overheats. My hunger for snow grows each year, and I’ve been nurturing increasingly elaborate fantasies about Greenland’s snowfields and the Siberian Express. And in this spirit, I’ve been enjoying the first chapters of The Terror, Dan Simmons’s haunted variation on Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated quest across the Arctic where it gets so cold your teeth can explode.


Here’s a list of my favorite albums this year, mostly in the vein of slow-motion gloom, reverberated ballads, and conspiratorial synthesizers.


Thank you for reading, and here’s to a more sensible year.

11. Fake Blue Spruce

November 2020

Another long month in a very long year with an extra day. During the first week of November, the sound of televisions bled through the walls and filled the hallways, the babble of news anchors telling us there were no new votes from Alleghany county. When the networks called the race for president at 11:26 on Saturday morning, the city erupted in cheers. Horns beeped, voices hollered, and pots banged. We went to our windows and screamed with sweet relief. It was a beautiful inversion of the evening cheer during the pandemic's early days—a collective exhale. We filled the streets, strangers needing to look at one another to confirm that, yes, this was real. For a day, the cities finally got to have their say.

I wept as Harris and Biden delivered their acceptance speeches. Politics aside, I wept with the relief of seeing recognizable humans with faces capable of joy and concern.

Misty-eyed for Joe Biden. 2020 has been filled with so many disorienting moments.

He spoke to us from a parking lot with a Planet Fitness in the background. Instead of applause, cars honked. “It sounds like he's talking to the world’s worst traffic jam,” said C. The optics did look apocalyptic, a reminder that America is not okay as the pandemic claims more of us each day. If I’d tuned into this scene a year ago, I would have thought we were building a provisional government after a terrible explosion or invasion.

During the seventeen hours I spent in a gymnasium on Election Day, I was overwhelmed by the chaos of the voting process. Nearly one hundred strangers had gathered at a middle school to work the polls. Some of us had challenging personalities. Some of us had tantrums. Some of us made mistakes that needed to be corrected. We bumped into one another and got in each other's way. It was ugly and unruly, but at the end of the night, thousands of people had voted and the numbers tallied up correctly. I'm trying to hang onto this moment as a metaphor.


Last week C. and I returned to Ohio to hunker down for the winter. We bought an artificial Christmas tree, another unexpected development in 2020. We haven’t celebrated the holidays in years. This wasn't a conscious decision, more of a gradual drift as the hassle of storing ornaments and trying to guess what to buy each other faded into a preference for end-of-year travel or logging time in dim sum parlors and movie theaters. But these options are no longer available, and we need something to anticipate, so we bought a fake frosted blue spruce from the superstore, twenty-five percent off and fully loaded with faux pinecones and prewired lights. We even bought some Christmas tree perfume, a remarkably specific product that makes it smell like a real tree.

I admire the artifice of our tree, from its polyvinyl chloride leaves to its pine-scented cologne. It makes me feel very modern, simulating an ancient ritual with murky origins that can be traced to the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia or perhaps the Viking worship of trees. Yes, let’s recreate outdoor scenery indoors and push it to the brink of flames.

Domestic rituals of all kinds will be critical during this long winter.


This year has been a hard lesson in the inability to predict anything. There was a time when people believed the stomach's gurgles and rumbles belonged to the voices of the dead. Ventriloquism began as a religious practice; the term is Latin for “speaking from the stomach”: venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The ventriloquist would decipher the belly's sounds and predict the future.

Lately I've been riffling through my collection of stray factoids that never found a home: Evolution is fastest in body parts used to attract mates or frighten rivals. Or words that haunt the unconscious: Trilobites, moonfish, and gorgons. I scan the liturgical names of geological epochs like the Time of the Great Dying and scribbled phrases that I can no longer place: Light echoes from red supergiants. Eyes on stalks. How the word static implies fixture as well as chaotic noise.

In the beginning, God was only “a permanently existing ghost.” The philosopher Herbert Spencer believed the first gods appeared in our dreams. These visions gradually became ghosts that haunted our stories; the word spirit applies to ghosts as well as gods. Or take the word disaster, the inversion of astro, a term which means a negative star, a kink in the heavens that leads to catastrophe.


I need a word for the slightly hungover sensation after a mindless bout of clicking and scrolling—a term for shaking off the digital residue. I must remember the screen is a tool, not an environment. Sometimes it feels like a sense of obligation, the way I keep clicking and scrolling, as if I’m abandoning my post if I press the off button. The otherwise decent urge to bear witness has been hijacked.

I sympathize with the sleeping figure in Valentin de Boulogne's Dream of Saint Joseph, a portrait of a weary man unaware of the angel tugging at his sleeve. The description that accompanies this painting has been on my mind these day: "Incapable of rising to the truths of the spirit, exhausted by the effort, mankind falls back into his torpor." How many times have I glimpsed a better, more spiritualized way to live—and retreated? Sometimes I fantasize about chucking my gadgets into the river, retreating into the pages of the classics, and living a solitary life in the gloom like Magdalene or Francis with their skulls and candles to remind them time is short. Yet even as I write this, I find myself still scrolling, refreshing, and clicking yes, I am still watching.

But it's reassuring to know that saints wrestled with distraction, too.

In the year 375, Saint Jerome was determined to escape the world’s clamor and find salvation in the desert. In a letter to a student, he described the difficulty of removing himself from the ones he loved and “harder still, from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed.” Although he managed to leave these comforts behind, he could not bear to abandon his books. So he carried his copies of Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid through the Syrian wilderness, books that were considered profane by his religion. “And so, miserable man that I was," he wrote, “I would fast only that I might afterward read Cicero.” It lingers in the mind, the image of a man dragging his library through the desert, only to punish himself for reading.


Input

  • Teju Cole on Caravaggio.

  • Started reading P.D. James’s The Children of Men, and I’m only a third of the way through, but it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in a while; I didn’t realize it was so substantially different from the film or how deeply it engages with questions of faith. It’s filled with so many eerie details that are impossible to shake.

  • A wonderful reflection on Crash by Joanne McNeil: “Ballard’s voice is distinctive—like he’s writing in the cool and lucid moments of shock after a disaster, before the anger, despair or resignation has set in.”

  • Autechre released two new albums this year, which led me back to 1995’s Garbage. It might be one of my all-time favorite records: industrial-grade symphonies that fuse emotional melodies with machine grit. The last track is neon ambiance perfected.

  • A thing I wrote last year about grief and the holidays.

10. Enemies of Sleep

October 2020

Three more days until the election, and it feels like holding your breath until you’re dizzy. I try to do my work, but I’m mostly wandering in the weeds of polling websites, studying color-coded maps that look like half the nation is burning and the other half is freezing. I compulsively refresh the numbers from Pennsylvania and Arizona, hunting for revelation. The data looks encouraging. Maybe we'll put an end to this sorry chapter when we let a vicious clown take the wheel. It’s an awful feeling, being afraid to hope. But I’ve relied on pessimism as a protective measure for too long.

On Election Day, I’ll report to a middle school at five o’clock in the morning to help set up the machines. I’ve been trying to reverse my night owl nature. It's not going well. But I managed to see the sunrise the other day. For a moment, I briefly understood the pluck of morning people, the wholesome quality they achieve when they advertise waking up at dawn. Then I took a nap. I’m no longer kidding myself. Accepting that I’m nocturnal in my bones brings the same relief as walking away from a bad party. I’ll probably pull an all-nighter.


So this is dedicated to the nighthawks and enemies of sleep. Strange, how staying awake past midnight feels like rejecting the premise of wholesome citizenship. Thought leaders and self-improvers love to crow about waking up at six o'clock in the morning; nobody brags about waking up at ten. There's a moral dimension here that must be destroyed. Recent sleep studies suggest our circadian rhythms are deeply ingrained, that the “night owl gene” plays a critical role in the survival of animals that live in groups. These species fare better when some members watch over the others at night, protecting them from predators, a trait that has persisted from the ice and stone ages through these days of neon and sodium lights. I think of the “sentinel hypothesis” as a love poem to the long-haul truckers and security guards, the swing-shift nurses and factory workers, the insomniac writers and music-makers. We are proud descendants of the honorable night watchman.


Here in New York, it's been damp and gloomy. Deep autumn is finally here. I went for a rainy run, pausing on an empty street to admire how the skyscrapers vanished in the fog. The grey light and spectral towers reminded me of an afternoon in Michigan, maybe ten years ago. It was the last time I saw my grandfather. I picked him up from the nursing home to see the old sights, the family plot at the cemetery and the little harbor where the Reeves once had a fishery. We drove through the flat soybean fields that stretched toward Saginaw Bay, a blank line of road I'd known since childhood. But now wind turbines straddled the fields, alien sculptures that left me feeling futuristic and a little uneasy. “Sometimes I think they are graceful like ballerinas,” he said as we drove. “Other times, I think they are wicked.”

This unexpected moment of lyricism from my grandfather has been looping in my head lately. How wildly our perception can change depending on our mood or maybe just a shift in the light.


C. and I rode the train to Green-Wood Cemetery, where we’re planning a project in its beautiful Gothic chapel that was designed by the architects who built Grand Central Station. We switched off the chandelier and watched the pools of stained glass light that glittered on the limestone floor. For a moment, I felt as if I was standing outside of time. Because it's such a rare quality these days: silence.


  • C. and I finished our book about Light the Barricades, a public installation that spanned four sites across Los Angeles in 2019. These electrified shrines served as spaces for contemplating the psychological barriers in our lives and collected over 3,000 handwritten reflections from visitors. This book collects hundreds of these responses, and it also includes the fables that appeared on the installations, an introduction to the I Ching, and notes on ritual in public life.

  • Light the Barricades was recently featured in Forward, a new publication by Forecast Public Art about the psychosocial possibilities of public art.

  • A friend sent me an article about a helmet you can buy that creates its own microclimate of filtered, customized air. It reminded me to rewatch Safe, Todd Haynes's 1995 film about a woman who becomes allergic to the modern world and maybe her life. She develops nosebleeds and has seizures. She blames the polluted air and the chemicals in the carpet. After joining a hermetic community in a "toxin-free zone" somewhere in New Mexico, she listens to their charismatic leader give speeches about cultural illness. They stop reading the papers and watching the news—not to protect their minds, but their immune systems. Everything is poison. She lives in a spare room like a prison cell, safe at last. Strange how the desire to flee the world is so deeply associated with cult logic; it's difficult to tell which way of living is more irrational. (It’s also oddly reassuring to remember that 1995 believed the modern world was poisonous. So did 1895. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things," said the designer William Morris, “the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”)

  • “The television screen has become the retina of the mind's eye,” says Professor O'Blivion in Videodrome. “Therefore, the television is part of the physical structure in the brain.” David Cronenberg's 1983 film is a fever dream that's tough to shake, and it's impossible to watch without mapping it onto today's internet. How it has colonized our minds, steadily rewiring the real world until every snapshot, thought, and interaction conforms to its logic. Would it be possible to update Videodrome for the digital age? Television is unidirectional and, in the end, it's an object in the room. But how do you make art out of something as omnipresent as air? It feels like trying to critique the sky.

  • C. and I returned to the museum the other day. The pilgrimage to inspect a painting or ancient relic is inherently ritualistic, and it felt even more so as we stood before statues, scrolls, and gelatin prints in hushed galleries with masks covering our mouths. I'm always captivated by Louise Nevelson's monuments built from pieces of furniture painted black. They remind me of childhood, conjuring dim memories of playing among the legs of tables and dressers, of my first intimations of death. It's a specific feeling that I cannot quite connect to words, and perhaps this is why her work moves and reassures me. More and more, I admire this quote from her: “I have made my world, and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside.”

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