Fear and Looting in America: Are We Really Out of Money?More at HuffPo.
"'Well, we are out of money now . . . .' President Obama, May 25, 2009.
* * * * *
"What happened to the $305 billion of 2004 through 2007 bank profits that have since vanished from the banks' balance sheets? About half were paid out in compensation to executives, managers and traders. Yes, amazing as it may seem, when you work for a large financial institution you can be paid massive sums even if your work ends up producing nothing -- not even just nothing, but a negative result. All those autoworkers who are being blamed for the miseries of GM and Chrysler? They actually did make cars that are still transporting people. But the Wall Street players, who took home billions for supposedly making valuable financial instruments, were actually making economic weapons of mass destruction. And you can bet that much of their billions are safely parked in off-shore accounts and other low/no tax investments. In a sane and fair world, we would be thinking about how to get it back to help pay for the costs of cleaning up the toxic financial mess.
* * * * *
"In 1982, the top 400 individuals held an average net worth of $604 million each (in 2008 dollars). By 1995, their average wealth jumped to $1.7 billion. And in 2008, the 400 top winners averaged $3.9 billion each . . . . The total for the 400 high rollers adds up to a cool $1.56 trillion. That's equal to about 10 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the US.
"We certainly could have a heated argument about how much of this wealth derived from the derivative-driven boom that just went bust. A case could be made that much of this money is ill-gotten since it came from artificial financial instruments that were rated improperly, or came from artificially leveraged transactions that now have crashed the system as a whole. An even more contentious fight would break out if we discussed whether there is any justification for allowing that such sums to accumulate in the hands of the few, no matter how worthy any of these individuals may be. And we could have us a row asking whether or not a democracy can really survive with so much wealth in the hands of so few people. But surely we can all agree that those top 400 are sitting on a huge pile of money, while our country is going deeply into debt to fix a financial system that has contributed mightily to their enrichment . . . ."
May 29, 2009
These are frames from animations that are part of Rick's rapidly evolving "blog art" work here (you can enlarge the stills at right by clicking on them, but the work looks much better in the flesh, so I rec. going to the link). All are part of "a landscape/natural phenomena-inspired work that mixes looping video, sound, and images."UPDATE: This work has made the first cut for a Rhizome commission (congrats, Rick!); you can vote it up here.
May 27, 2009
Just came across Sam Slime Life Cycle (2005) (the link is to a page with more stills and an excerpt from the animation), described as
computational cinema [by Grey]The piece will be exhibited by bitforms May 28-30 at Loop in Barcelona. (More on Grey and DuBois in previous posts, here and here, repectively.)
computer [and] custom software designed [by Grey] with
[DuBois], plexiglass case
UPDATE: Grey will have a solo show at PS 1 June 28 - Sept. 14; details here.
May 21, 2009
More info at Makezine.
Lights On is an audio visual performance created for the Ars Electronica museum in Linz, Austria, which has a facade that contains 1085 LED controllable windows. The windows' colors are changed in realtime with music that's broadcasted on speakers surrounding the building.
Visuals coded in openFrameworks by Zachary Lieberman, Joel Gethin Lewis and Damian Stewart (yesyesno). Music by Daito Manabe, with support from Taeji Sawai and Kyoko Koyama.
May 17, 2009
"FBI infiltrated Iowa anti-war group before GOP convention
By WILLIAM PETROSKI • © 2009, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company • May 17, 2009
"An FBI informant and an undercover Minnesota sheriff's deputy spied on political activists in Iowa City last year before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn."
First, if you're not sure what an "insurable interest" is and how it relates to derivatives, please see my earlier post, "Credit Derivatives for Dummies: 'Insurable Interests'."
In order to fix the system, we – YOU AND ME – must understand the main factors in the current economic meltdown. Because from what our leaders have done so far, I'm very worried that either they don't understand it, or they're actually hoping we never will.
It's not as hard as it may seem. I think a lot of the people who helped create the crisis understood perfectly well that they were creating a glorified Ponzi scheme and have been deliberately obfuscating, first in order to pursue their own profits, and later to avoid being called to account for what they've wrought. Explaining it takes some words, but the concepts are simple.
The following is simplified, but I hope it'll make it easier to see the forest for the trees.
Assuming you've already got what an insurable interest is . . . here's another aspect of why the kind of speculation possible though credit derivatives is inherently problematic.
When someone gets a mortgage or an insurance policy on a property they have a vested interest in, say, a house they're buying, there tends to be some kind of proportionality between the amount of the mortgage debt, the insurance, and the value of the property. Typically, there's a mortgage (historically for LESS than the total appraised value of the house, but never for more), and there's an insurance policy on the house for no more than the replacement cost of the house. The mortgage and the insurance are both outstanding obligations, but they are related to one another, in that if the house is destroyed, the insurance will pay off the mortgage.
So, suppose the house was purchased for $400,000. The worst-case scenario is that the house is completely destroyed. In that case, the insurer has to pay out $400,000, but the borrower and mortgage lender are protected from loss. If the borrower and lender were deluded about the value of the property to begin with and the purchase price and loan were much bigger than they should have been – say the property was really worth only $100,000 – the borrower or lender's loss may be $300,000, which is very bad; but in any scenario, the total amount of losses that can actually be suffered by all the parties put together is pretty much limited to $400,000.
The more deluded the parties were about the true value of the house, the bigger the potential losses; but while you may be able to pretend the house is worth four times its true value, you can't fool anyone into thinking it's worth hundreds of times its true value. So, so long as the insurance can only be sold to parties owning at least an indirect interest in that specific house, the total potential losses are intrinsically limited to something that bears some kind of proportionality to an at least vaguely plausible notion of the value of the house.
The bad mortgage loans on banks' books now are a big problem, even if there were nothing else to worry about, probably much bigger than what we faced after Pres. Reagan's deregulation of S&L's led to that other debacle back in the 1980's. In the '80's, the S&L's that made the riskiest loans were declared insolvent and were liquidated. Resolving those loans was painful, but it was much less expensive than resolving the current crisis will be, because then, the borrower could re-negotiate the loan with her/his original lender, so many avoidable foreclosures were avoided (which tends to minimize the losses). Now, most borrowers won't easily be able to do that, because we allowed the banks that made the risky loans to "minimize" the risks by rolling them into pools of mortgage-backed securities that were sold to untold numbers of lenders. In fact, rather than minimizing the risks, securitization increased them by reducing banks' incentives to lend only to borrowers who could actually pay, effectively creating a race to the bottom in loan quality. So now, we may have even more bad loans, and, unless the gummint steps in, each borrower, in order to re-negotiate her/his loan, would have to negotiate with untold numbers of lenders, which would cost everyone involved much more than the amount of the loan. So, yeah, the bad mortgage loans are a problem.
But all those bad mortgage loans are nowhere near the biggest factor in our current meltdown, because at least those losses can't exceed what people could persuade themselves or pretend the underlying properties were worth. The magnitude of the total of all the losses incurred by all of the borrowers, lenders, and insurers due to bad mortgage loans may be staggering, but they are not unlimited; they will bear at least some tenuous proportionality to the value of the underlying properties.
The really scary, mind-boggling factor is the credit derivatives. Because, since derivatives were sold to parties who had NO "insurable interest" in the assets on which they were betting (see my similarly-titled previous post), there was NO limit to the quantities of obligations that could be incurred with respect to the same assets. It's as if, instead of there being just one insurance policy with respect to any given house, thousands of insurance policies were sold with respect to the same house, to speculators with no property or other interest in that house but who just had a hunch it might burn down. So there was no proportionality, no inherent limit to the total amount of potential losses that could be incurred with respect to any actual asset. (Not to mention the vastly increased probability that one of the many who bought such insurance might succumb to the temptation to torch the place.)
And now you and I are being bankrupted to pay off on all those "policies."
AIG is one of the companies that sold the most "policies" in the form of credit derivatives.
Theoretically, if AIG had been charging appropriately large "premiums" for the derivatives they sold, and if they had segregated and invested enough of those premiums to cover their potential losses, they could have covered all the obligations they incurred. But insuring companies have little incentive to underwrite their risks responsibly, unless they're regulated; and credit derivatives have not been regulated. And the individuals who run insuring companies have little incentive to make sure their companies act responsibly, so long as those individuals can't be held personally liable for their "mistakes." One of the things government regulators do with respect to ordinary insurance is to regulate insuring companies, including requiring them to disclose their reserves and potential liabilities and to maintain sufficient reserves to pay potential claims.
AIG didn't collect enough premiums, and/or they paid too much of what they did collect to senior management and shareholders. They claim they didn't understand the risks. Well, I'm no economist, but I understand the risks better than AIG apparently did, and (a) it was their job to understand it, and (b) I find it hard to believe that all the people who spent their workdays creating and being the bosses of this mess, day in and day out over several years, were utterly clueless.
And the money did not just all go "poof"; some people made a lot on the bubble before it popped. They finance a lot of political campaigns.
Again, I was and remain strongly in favor of fast action by the gummint to restore confidence in the financially stronger banks and to stimulate the economy, but I do question the details with respect to how the money's being applied and why we know so little about that. E.g., some parties who bought derivatives may have been pension funds trying to hedge risks with respect to an "insurable interest" they actually owned, while others may simply have been extremely wealthy speculators who owned no such interest but simply wanted to place a bet that, say, Company Z was gonna tank.
It wouldn't give me any heartburn at all if the gummint simply said, you know what, we can't afford to pay speculators big winnings we never guaranteed in the first place.
The current chaos and continuing lack of transparency is a continuing looting opportunity. Credit derivatives are still unregulated and still continue to be sold (UPDATE: see Geithner essentially confirmed this 3 mos. later here, while also failing to deny that derivatives sold today might be bailed out tomorrow), relating to mortgage-backed securities and lots of other things – only issuers like AIG could tell us what, but as far as I know, the gummint still hasn't required them to tell.
Where the people lead, the leaders will follow – I have a vintage button that says that, from back when the people successfully forced an end to the Viet Nam War.
For more details about the bailout and derivatives, see Dean Baker's piece at CommonDreams.
FURTHER UPDATE: Vanity Fair has a great excerpt from The Big Short by Michael Lewis, on the guy who was probably the first to figure out how to make a fortune betting against bad mortgage loans, Michael Burry.
FURTHER FURTHER UPDATE: Another good discussion of this subject at Charles Hugh Smith's oftwominds, with a description of the current state of looming, derivatives-driven disaster as of Feb., 2012: "[a]ccording to the Bank of International Settlements, as of June, 2011 total over-the-counter derivatives contracts have an outstanding notional value of 707.57 trillion dollars, (32.4 trillion dollars in CDS’s alone). Where does this kind of money come from, and what does it refer to? We don’t really know, because over-the-counter derivatives are [still] not transparent or regulated."
I believe he does most if not all of the music and video himself, although he's got to have a little help with some of the video, e.g., when there are two people on screen. He writes, "[f]eel free to drag [the] slider bar to the next video. This is an album's worth of material, 45 minutes or so - 14 songs."
May 16, 2009
make any text speed it up slow it down run it backwards inch it and you will hear words that were not in the original recording new words made by the machine different people will scan out different words of course but some of the words are quite clearly there and anyone can hear them words which were not in the original tape but which are in many cases relevant to the original text as if the words themselves had been interrogated and forced to reveal their hidden meanings(Attributed to William S. Burroughs, The Invisible Generation.) More info about the exhibition here.
May 15, 2009
Heard a discussion of credit derivatives on PBS last night by their business "expert," Paul Solman, and was disappointed that he totally ignored what I consider to be the WORST thing about derivatives.
As Solman explained, credit derivatives are like insurance. If you hold debt of a company, e.g., the company issued bonds or other securities that you bought, and you're nervous about the company's ability to make the agreed payments, you can buy a credit derivative to insure that if the company does go bankrupt, you'll still collect the amount they owe you.
But back up for a moment. With respect to other, regular kinds of insurance, you can buy insurance for your own house or other property to cover your losses in case of fire, flood, etc. But you canNOT buy insurance on a house in which you have no ownership interest, because you're deemed not to have a sufficient interest in its NOT burning down. In fact, your owning insurance on a house in which you have no ownership interest gives you a positive incentive to commit arson. That's a big conflict of interests.
Owning the house, or whatever you're buying insurance for, is called "having an insurable interest." You actually have a vested interest in the property, or the life, or whatever it is that's insured -- you have a vested interest in its NOT being destroyed, so you're unlikely to abuse the insurance system to, say, merely gamble speculatively on its destruction, let alone actually commit arson or whatever.
Now, because credit derivatives are unregulated, not only do we have no clear idea of what's out there (although the commonly agreed estimate as of this writing is $62 TRILLION, which is several times the US's gross national product). But the worst part, which I've yet to hear anyone on the traditional media outlets including NPR explain, is that we have no idea whether most of the parties who bought and are still buying credit derivatives are doing so in order to protect the value of assets they actually own, or if they're just making speculative bets.
In other words, while some credit derivatives may have been bought by owners of bonds, mortgage-backed securities, or other securities to hedge the risks of owning those assets, large amounts of derivatives may well have been bought by people who were NOT purchasing insurance to protect any insurable interest, but who merely felt like betting that certain securities would crater.
In fact, they could have been purchased by people who not only felt like betting that certain securities would fail, but who had enough inside info, if not power, to know that such failure was likely to happen, or even to help cause it to happen.
SO. The BIGGEST outrage about the bailout is that the gigantic wads of taxpayer money given to Wall St. may well be being used to pay off bets made by speculators with no insurable interest -- i.e., no real need for the money -- and who may even have helped bring about the failure of the companies they bet against.
(By comparison, the losses on the underlying "insured" assets – the home mortgages, etc. – are small potatoes; and even the bonuses bankers have been allowed to pay themselves, are trivial.)
Before we give any money to derivatives issuers like AIG, we should find out what their obligations are, including which of them are to counterparties with "insurable interests" and which are to mere speculators. Then we'd be in a position to make informed choices about how best to allocate taxpayer money.
And there's no good reason we can't find that out. We don't even need AIG's cooperation. All the government has to do is announce to the world, if you bought a derivative from AIG and you think AIG owes or could in the future owe you money on it, tell us who you are, the amount of the payment to be made, and some other info like what if any "insurable interest" it's intended to cover. And if you don't file your claim, your claim will be wiped out.
This is what happens if you or I become insolvent. It's called bankruptcy. Another thing about regular bankruptcy is, if the total of all the claims filed against you are bigger than all you've got to pay them with, then generally, the court just divides whatever you've got left among your creditors, and the remainder of your obligations is wiped out. The creditors take cents on the dollar, and eat the remainder as a loss. And they don't get reimbursed by taxpayers. This is fair because your creditors and investors had the opportunity to investigate what kind of credit risk you were before deciding to extend any credit to you; the taxpayers didn't.
Because the banks and AIG are so big, we're told, we can't afford to make their counterparty/creditors/investors eat the loss. That may be true in some cases. In others, not so much.
Yes, regulating this activity would be complicated; so is your phone, but we don't throw up our hands and say it's too hard.
You and me are sacrificing our retirements, kids' educations, etc., to make good on bets we never agreed to, placed by parties who not only stood to lose little if the catastrophes they bought insurance against weren't covered, but who in some cases actually had the power to CAUSE the catastrophes they were buying insurance against.
Nouriel Roubini, the NYU professor who predicted the current crisis, mentioned in a recent talk that throughout recorded history, there's been a more or less regular cycle of economic bubble-and-bust every ten years, with only one exception during which we managed to prevent such crises from arising for a solid fifty years: the fifty years while Glass-Steagall and other post-depression securities regulation remained in effect. Then we allowed Republicans and "New" Dems, financed by Free Marketeers, to dismantle it; and now we've got the biggest economic meltdown in history.
We need effective government to regulate markets and protect those of us who don't have the time or expertise to figure it all out. We've had effective regulation in the past, and we can have it again. It's not, really, a matter of brain-power; it's a matter of balls.
UPDATE: If you found this post worthwhile, you may want to check out my next post on this subect, More "Derivatives for Dummies": Proportionality.
FURTHER UPDATE: Vanity Fair has a great excerpt from The Big Short by Michael Lewis, on the guy who was probably the first to figure out how to make a fortune betting against bad mortgage loans, Michael Burry.
FURTHER FURTHER UPDATE: Another helpful, more recent article at Peak Watch, noting, among other things, "So far the auto industry – GM and Chrysler – have received $17.4 billion in U.S. funds after much gnashing of Congressional teeth. Meanwhile, [AIG] snapped its fingers and over the weekend Treasury officials gave it another $30 billion – bringing its total to $180 billion." The funds to AIG amount to a "nontransparent, opaque and shady bailout of [its] counter-parties: Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and other domestic and foreign financial institutions." (quoting other sources).
May 13, 2009
May 12, 2009
is moving to NYC. He's made a huge contribution to the art scene in N. TX and beyond as a working artist (more at Dunn and Brown), musician (myspace page here), and gallerist (and/or gallery was, I think? the first in N. TX to show JODI, Paper Rad, Cory Arcangel, Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, Kristin Lucas, Marisa Olson, Artificiel, Michael Bell-Smith, Kevin Bewersdorf, and many more, while also providing a venue for many worthy locals). And we're so going to miss Paul's hair (tamer than usual in this video).
UPDATE: Follow-up questions:
c: Do you expect to do music gigs in NY?He'll never find the quantity/quality of mex food we've got here in NY, so I'm hopeful he will be back.
PS: Yes, I will probably be focusing on my music for a while after I move.
c: Any comments about how you view the relationship between work you make as a musician and work you produce as a visual artist -- present and future?
PS: I focused on music and performance for years before I got into visual art, so many of my ideas grow out of music. The general concepts are similar, but the base aesthetics require the building of different "chops." Video and music are both time-based mediums, so they have more commonalities with each other than they would with static mediums.
c: Re- discussions among your artist friends in NYC you've been missing . . . any examples of particular subjects/issues/developments?
PS: Recently, Guthrie Lonergan spoke at Light Industry, which attracted most of the best new media artists in NY, followed by everyone meeting up at a mexican restaurant to hang out and talk shop. I like both mexican food and new media.
May 11, 2009
May 9, 2009
. . . might be deleted at any moment: relational art pretty much begs to be compared to a game of Twister? It gives you an excuse to get close to people you're not sure you want to get close to, in ways you might never try otherwise; and afterward you can walk away, or not?
I'm not saying that's all it is; but even that's not so little, after most of us have been working in cubicles for decades . . .
May 8, 2009
May 7, 2009
by Amy Goodman:
Ok, arguably massively violating copyright here; but check out this segment:
NOAM CHOMSKY: Like Larry Summers, for example, who is now [Obama's] chief economic adviser. I mean, he was Secretary of Treasury under Bill Clinton. His great achievement was to prevent Congress from regulating derivatives, exotic financial instruments. Well, that’s one of the main factors that led to the crisis.
His kind of senior adviser, one of the first, was Robert Rubin, who was Secretary of Treasury right before Summers. His main achievement—many achievements, like what he did to Indonesia and the third world, but here, his main achievement was to lead the way to revoke the Glass-Steagall legislation from the New Deal, which protected commercial banks from risky investments. It broke down those barriers. Immediately after having done this, he left the government, joined Citigroup as a director, and they began to make huge profits, including him, from picking up insurance companies and so on and making very risky loans, relying on the “too big to fail” doctrine, meaning if we get in trouble, the taxpayer will bail us out, which is just what’s happening, taxpayers now pouring tens of billions of dollars into rescuing Citigroup.
Well, these are the advisers who were supposed to fix up the system. Tim Geithner was right in the middle of this. He was head of the New York Federal Reserve, so, yes, he was supervising these actions. Now, you know, you can argue about whether they’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing, but are these the people who should be fixing up the system?
Actually, the business press just had some interesting things to say about this. Bloomberg News, you know, main business press, had an article in which they reviewed the records of the people who Obama invited to his economic summit. I think it must have been last November or December. They just reviewed the record. I think there were a couple dozen of them. People on the—you know, people like, say, Stiglitz, Krugman, they were never even allowed close to it, let alone anyone from the left or labor and so on, given token representation. So they went through the records, and they concluded that these people should not be invited to fix up the economy. Most of them should be getting subpoenas because of their record of accounting fraud, malpractice and so on, and helping bring about the current crisis.
* * * * *
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Obama chose to surround himself [with people like Summers]?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Because those are his beliefs. I mean, his support comes from the—his constituency is basically the financial institutions. Just take a look at the funding for his campaign. I mean, the final figures haven’t come out, but we have preliminary figures, and it seems to be mostly financial institutions. I mean, the financial institutions preferred him to McCain. They are the main funders for both—you know, I mean, core funders for both parties, but considerably more to Obama than McCain.You can learn a lot from campaign contributions. In fact, one of the best predictors of policy around is Thomas Ferguson’s investment theory of politics, as he calls it—very outstanding political economist—which essentially—I mean, to say it in a sentence, he describes elections as occasions in which groups of investors coalesce and invest to control the state. And he takes a look at the formation of campaign contributors, and it gives you a surprisingly good prediction of what policies are going to be. It goes back a century, New Deal and so on. So, yeah, it can predict pretty well what Obama is going to do. There’s nothing surprising about this. It’s the norm in what’s called political democracy.
So much more here; please read the whole dam' thing.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, healthcare is a dramatic case. I mean, for decades, the healthcare issue has been right at the top of domestic concerns, for very good reasons. The US has the most dysfunctional healthcare system in the industrial world, has about twice the per capita costs and some of the worst outcomes. It’s also the only privatized system. And if you look closely, those two things are related. And the privatized system is highly inefficient: a huge amount of administration, bureaucracy, supervision, you know, all kinds of things. It’s been studied pretty carefully.
Now, the public has had an opinion about this for decades. A considerable majority want a national healthcare system, like other industrial countries have. They usually say a Canadian-style system, not because Canada is the best, but at least you know that Canada exists. Nobody says an Australian-style system, which is much better, because who knows anything about that? But something like what’s sometimes called Medicare Plus, like extend Medicare to the population.
Well, up until—it’s interesting. Up until the year 2004, that idea was described, for example, by the New York Times as politically impossible and lacking political support. So, maybe the public wants it, but that’s not what counts as political support. The financial institutions are opposed, the pharmaceutical institutions are opposed, so it’s not—no political support. Well, in 2008, for the first time, the Democratic candidates—first Edwards, then the others—began to move in the direction of what the public has wanted, not there, but in that direction.
So what happened between 2004 and 2008? Well, public opinion didn’t change. It’s been this way for decades. What changed is that manufacturing industry, a big sector of the economy, has recognized that it’s being severely harmed by the highly inefficient privatized health system. So, General Motors said that it costs them over a thousand dollars more to produce a car in Detroit than across the border in Windsor, Canada. And, you know, when manufacturing industry becomes concerned, then things become politically possible, and they begin to have political support. So, yes, in 2008, there’s some discussion of it.Now, you know, this is very revealing insight into how American democracy functions and what is meant by the term “political support” and “politically possible.” Again, this should be headlines. Will a proposal come that approaches what the public wants? Well, we’re already getting the backlash, strong backlash. And what private healthcare systems are claiming is that this is unfair. The government is so much more efficient that they’ll be driven—there’s no level playing field if the government gets into it, which is true.
May 6, 2009
"Every year, Fordham University Professor Joel Reidenberg teaches a class on Information Privacy Law. As a demonstration of the widespread availability of information on the Web, he usually asks his students to use free, publicly available tools to find out everything they can about him and compile a fact sheet.
"But this year, Reidenberg decided to do something different, and give his students a new challenge:
"This year, after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made public comments that seemingly may have questioned the need for more protection of private information, Reidenberg assigned the same project. Except this time Scalia was the subject, the prof explains to the ABA Journal in a telephone interview.
"His class turned in a 15-page dossier that included not only Scalia's home address, home phone number and home value, but his food and movie preferences, his wife's personal e-mail address and photos of his grandchildren, reports Above the Law.
"And, as Scalia himself made clear in a statement to Above the Law, he isn't happy about the invasion of his privacy.
"The last sentence above completely understates the nature of Scalia's anger. It was absolute rage -- in other words, after finding out that what the class had on him, he FLIPPED OUT and immediately issued a pissy statement attacking the good professor."
More at Daily Kos.
Conceived and directed by Pavol Liška and Kelly Copper.
It's more an activity to be engaged in, starting out with ordering your free sandwich, than a performance to be observed.
I love the ideas in the script, the humor of the acting and costumes, etc., of course; but a key part of what makes this piece one of the most exciting things I've experienced in a long time is that it invites the audience to notice there's a dance/game going on concurrently with the actors' conversations, and successfully lures them to engage in the dance/game of trying to figure it out and how it relates to various levels of "reality." Our experience as audience was kind of like a continuation of the same processes the company used in creating and performing No Dice, starting with paying close attention to seemingly mundane conversations and then conversing with one another about what we think is going on.
I can't resist mentioning something my fave prof. in college (Alarik Skarstrom), pointed out, that the roots of the word, "conversation," mean "'to live with, keep company with, literally 'turn about with' . . . ." (see etymology here). In conversations repeated to the point of ritual, the actors in No Dice suggest something similar: "I think you're on the right track; I think things are starting to turn around . . ." [emphasis supplied].
Maybe the game we're lured into trying to figure out, taken by itself, is kind of dumb. Maybe it's just a trick to get us to renew our attention to eternal truths. Maybe it's just something to give us a pretext for connecting in ways or to people we hadn't planned on.
"Only connect." This advice is often attributed to Marshall McLuhan, who used the phrase well; but apparently it originated with E.M. Forster, with a somewhat different sense: "Only connect! . . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."
No Dice reminds us it's the intent that counts, and the actions you're sufficiently inspired to undertake, not just the words; that connection is an activity, in which we continuously choose to try – or not – to hear what the other was trying to say, not just a passive state; that art and life are continuous, except for those artificial distinctions we create for our own use, or fail to question.
It was a very fun journey, and as they say, it's the journey that matters.
So, I haven't come up with a better way to describe this piece further than to share my notes, below, mostly taken during the first 2 hours of this nearly 4-hour tour de force. SPOILER ALERT: since part of the joy and, I think, the meaning of No Dice is having the experience of figuring it out for yourself, if you haven't already seen it and think you may have the chance, stop reading now! (There's a tour schedule on the company's website at oktheater.org.)
A lot of these notes are shortened versions of what the actors were saying. My notes got more detailed as I became more convinced something worth noting was going on; then slacked off once I felt I'd figured out enough to relax and enjoy:
We're in a conference room with risers for the audience. There's a rather elaborate, obviously "theatrical" curtain/frame for the front of the "stage" area; other than that and a few office chairs, almost no set.Not sure it's clear from the notes above, but there's a lot of very energetic dancing in the course of this production, as well as laughs.
Catman, one-eyed, and a cowboy, working in an (invisible) factory. Slavic accents w/ French twist (or Bosnian)?
Gal in red wig and fishnets: Are you working?
I'm coding cars [?] – for a Walmart in Oklahoma.
Do you get compliments?
[Not cars; it's TARs: Time Adjustment Request forms.] Employees if punch-in; want to go on vacation.
Work 9 - 6, no pay for lunch break.
Can steal soda and pens. No stickies. But paperclips.
Work is good. Because I get bored here.
Redhead (who just encouraged him to steal sodas and pens): My job is to perk you up, make people more productive. To make what they're doing into art.
Cowboy: I'm supposed to be in a film.
Next on: Pirate with Hasidic curls and big beads.
[They're all wearing earpieces.]
"Dinner theater." It's fun because the costumes are goofy and it's like community theater and they try so hard, you have to love them. Food is part of the experience.
I'm just trying to find what makes us feel alive and gets us through the day.
What gets me through the day is seeing the cosmic dance.
Things go unrecorded, the creativity that we use – We take it for granted. We don't make anything out of it. How do we transform that cosmic murmur so we can see it. So we can hear the cosmic murmur constantly. [Punky blond is playing keyboard.]
Pirate's working on a story: he's been working on it 25 years.
Love quadrangle [but there are 5 on stage.]
People expect a story. But is it really necessary to have a story in order to tell people stuff?? Some people can't tell stories, so they need someone who can do it for them, because people need that in their lives.
[Directed acting? They all have earpieces.]
Catman starts singing wordlessly.
Reference to Moscow Cat Theater. Russian accents?
Before that, pirate told a story about a magicians' library or archive, which was in "complete disarray."
[Script v. peripatetic – no real story. Timing often off; emotions frequently inappropriate.]
And you, you are having second thoughts about your life's mission?
I wish I would have some solid first thoughts so I could have some second thoughts.
Next, discussion of alcoholism.
I'm not eating, I'm not smoking, and I'm not drinking, because I'm talking. But at least I'm not watching tv. Discussion of all the tv she does watch.
Characters have a certain repertory of hand gestures they repeat, whether appropriate or not:
They're using these throughout the performance.
- gripping bicep of other arm
- one hand swooping in a curve w/ 2 fingers pointing
- one hand twisting near head as if turning off hearing
- hands swooping back and forth in parallel
- hands forming a loose globe in front of one
- hands pointing/jabbing in divergent directions
- stroking an imaginary, waist-height fat-roll
- tapping one's stomach or solar plexus
- one hand gesturing as if pulling something out of one's *ss
- one hand petting the other
Close-together scene: I think you're on the right track, I think things are turning around, getting better, although real estate may never be good for us.
Note all characters sound like struggling actors in NYC.
Back to the factory. Cowboy may be sick. Discussion of Emergen-C and Claritin D. Can't afford to get sick, too much to do.
Has an audition.
You should act like a celebrity.
Ritualistic conversation closing: I think you're on the right track. Series of cliches about things turning around, "Even though real estate may not be the most generous to us." Words not exactly the same each time. "I think we're working our way towards each other."
Scene changes to dark, dramatic light: a gal in green gown and feathered headdress wants to be a diva. Her emotion is very sad even while laughing – very appropriately inappropriate.
Back to normal, daylight scene. Cowboy's friend got fired. Competition among remaining employees to process TARs quickly.
Tell me a story.
I came up with a great idea for a commercial for m&ms. People eat the m&ms and they make them dance in different ways, depending on the color. m&ms' or other sponsorships for the actors' company, to make more money. Cigarette commercials during breaks from their epic theater production.
[Talk about this production: short version would be 4 hours.] This idea would be completely original with us. So, like, don't tell ANYONE.
[The actors start dancing one by one, in different ways. Then they start overlapping, and it speeds up. The dances incorporate the hand gestures, in fact they're composed of them, at least upper-body. Then all in unison doing the exact same dance; maybe they were, all along, just with different styles?]
Discussion of various male actors including Mel Gibson.
[They're definitely re-playing scenes – still not sure the words are exact, but very close – but the roles are shuffled. Also, the scenes are in a different order.]
"Everything needs to be seen as a sign."
What makes me feel alive is being connected to the cosmic dance. It's like seeing your world from a distance. Imagine if you could hear the cosmic murmur. We don't hear ourselves, we just talk. The creativity that we use to talk right now, it all goes unnoticed and unrecorded. We take it for granted; we don't make anything out of it. How can we transform this cosmic murmur into something we can notice, to feel that connection? How can you go through your day hearing music constantly?
I could do this: my favorite scene from Celine and Julie Go Boating [what is this?]
[Meanwhile, Catman has apparently shaved his head and grown a mustache; NO, it's a different guy, dressed the same.]
Redhead dancing and singing with thick French accent now, You're a bunch of voyeurs, cosmic voyeur pimps! She "accidentally" knocks off her hat and red wig.
The punky blond speaks for the first time: We don't like to say when we go out or come in because we prefer to be here, I think. The question is, how do we enjoy ourselves while we're here with one another?
Fifty years ago, conversations were much shorter and much higher quality. Conversation was a form of enjoyment. One might even describe a civilization in terms of conversation.
[Room darkened; long, scrolling video projection of script, with original audio recording, of real conversation between Pavol and maybe his mom, who is confined to a wheelchair but has five younger male friends who take her dancing nonetheless. Apparently much of the script for No Dice was taken from such conversations.]
At the end, the actors all take off their wigs, etc., and address the closing conversation to individual members of the audience: "I think you're on the right track . . . ."
After the show, one of the actors confirmed they'd used the exact same gestures throughout the performance, in the exact same order, and explained that all the gestures came from three sources: (1) 13 gestures from a magician's act, (2) a video of disco dancing, and (3) Pavol's mom (a different mom than the one whose conversations were used in the script). The earpieces were to iPod-type devices which, if I understood correctly, were each playing the same script; but as the hours went by, gradually got a bit out of sync with each other (presumably as intended). Which role was played by which actor depended on where that actor chose to place her- or himself onstage in that scene – so each performance is at least slightly different.
There's a good video about the company by Cast Your Art here, in which the artists explain they used playing cards to determine the sequence of the gestures. The script was culled from over 100 hours of recorded conversations.
There's a helpful discussion of the movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), directed by Jacques Rivette (which was referred to in No Dice but which I still haven't seen), at Combustible Celluloid, in which the author, Jefferey M. Anderson, explains,
Many critics have read many things into this movie, but the key thing to remember is that Rivette was a member of the "Cahiers du Cinema" team . . . . These . . . directors all learned movies by watching movies. Therefore, the drama that takes place inside the haunted house--in which the characters repeat the same lines over and over and do the same things over and over--is in effect like watching a movie. Celine and Julie at first become characters in the movie as well, unable to break out of their routine. It's not until Celine and Julie have been in the house several times that Rivette even shows us different camera angles of the action.Nature Theater of Oklahoma's website is here. Additional reviews or articles covering the piece well can be found at The NYT here and here and at Time Out and Variety.
One possible explanation is that Celine and Julie Go Boating is a fantasy where Rivette and the audience can enter into a movie filled with ghosts and change things around. . . . The other important thing to point out is that Celine and Julie Go Boating seems primarily focused on the joy of cinema. Truffaut once said that a movie should represent either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema--anything in between did not interest him. Celine and Julie Go Boating has magic, poetry, singing, lots of laughter (the actresses seem to have giggle fits every time the camera is on them), as well as the ghost and murder story.
A third explanation for the movie is that it seems like we're watching realism; the long takes and natural sound. When in reality the whole creation is one of pure cinema. There is no reality in this movie. In a perfect world, there would be an old movie palace somewhere that plays Celine and Julie Go Boating over and over.
By the way, the company's name comes from Franz Kafka's first, unfinished novel, Amerika:
Personnel is being hired by the theater in Oklahoma! The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It's calling today only! If you miss this opportunity there will never be another! Anyone thinking of his future, your place is with us! All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theater that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place! If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, be sure not to miss the midnight deadline! We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who doesn't believe us!
May 5, 2009
Grub, by tEEth, was terrific, and Way Out West, the Sea Whispered Me, by Cupola Bobber, was magical. The Practice Practice Practice show at Lora Reynolds Gallery, curated by Michael Smith and Jay Sanders, includes nearly three hours of video plus lots of other work. A performance by the multi-talented Reggie Watts was hilarious and musically amazing (plus he has the best hair since Sideshow Bob). And I'm still excited about No Dice by Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
During 7 days, I attended 27 productions (some more than once, and some distinctly participatory), averaging close to 5 per day, plus did fair amounts of partying and inter-city driving. But those who created and organized what I saw worked a heck of a lot harder, overcoming many last-minute challenges, full details of which may never be generally known. Many thanks to all of them, especially Artistic Director Ron Berry, for a fabulous festival and for making it possible for me to be there! It was a tremendous learning experience for me on many levels, and I had a fantastic time.
If you participated in Rotozaza's GuruGuru, you'll remember "Dicky."
Money and God just happened to be standing around in my room at testsite, which, by the way, also housed a truly fascinating exhibit by Justin Boyd and Nick Tosches – another fave.
I may write more about No Dice, GuruGuru, and/or Kalup Linzy's Keys to Our Heart (see also my previous posts on Fusebox).
Here are the pics and vidis (with audio). The first 4 are from PVC Surround, including one complete, brilliant Graham Reynolds piece/performance, here. "The world premiere of the latest musical adventure from composers Peter Stopschinski and Graham Reynolds! In the soaring lobby of a downtown office building, an unorthodox trio of piano, cello and violin, augmented with digital effects and beats, will be mixed live in surround sound to create a swirling aural experiment." The Austin Chronicle recently profiled Stopschinski and Reynolds in the article here.
The next 5 visuals, starting here, are from DUKE!, the Golden Arm Trio playing Duke Ellington. If you like music, hang in there for Reynolds' solo during the last vidi.
I also threw in a few bonus visuals from in or near Austin.
(This post replaces a previous post that covered PVC Surround only.)
May 4, 2009
May 2, 2009
by Nature Theater of Oklahoma. I'll try to explain further, or something, pretty soon; but it's a tour de force. Who would have thought nearly four hours of talky, partly-improvisational theater could be so riveting (actually, I would; I happen to like talk). Through tomorrow and, hopefully, elsewhere later. Fusebox info here.
I'm concerned that billions of humans will never see this show.