Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day Part #1

Workers wear red on May Day. The name of the organization that is sponsoring my stay in Gent is called, “Vooruit.” The word “vooruit” was the rallying cry of the socialist labor movement and it means “forward!” as in “charge!” or referring to a progression towards a noble future (pronounced: “voor-et”.) In German the word is: “vorwarts” and is pronounced “for-warts” which sounds almost sounds exactly like “forwards” in English. Almost all the stores in the city were closed to celebrate the holiday. In the main town square there was a beer garden and stage for music. Many people were dressed in red to celebrate the holiday in solidarity. Also there was a parade with marching bands along with various organizations such as their equivalent to the boys and girls scouts. When I asked people about what to expect on May Day many shrugged it off as not that big of a deal. One even said it is not like the 4th of July. For most of the citizens of Gent it seemed like simply a day off. It made me think of "Labor Day" in the United States.

As I experience May Day I can’t help but think about my own experiences as a “worker.” When people ask me the question: what kind of art do you make? I usually respond, “I make art about how I earn my living.” Much of my artwork uses ideas of labor, social roles, and working with one’s hands. I have always shy-ed away from conversations regarding the proletariat posturing of my artwork. I often use the excuse that I am not one to meddle too heavily in politics. However, there are other reasons. My life has afforded me the opportunity to see the world from both sides of coin when it comes to the class struggle that Marx and Engels outlined. I grew up in a relatively affluent place that was quiet, rural, homogeneous, and isolated. As I got older it was difficult to get anywhere because I didn’t always have access to a car. The closest shopping center was about a 15-minute drive away and closest malls were about a half hour. These distances left me feeling pretty cut off at times. I bear no ill will towards the place. I got a really good public school education and it was a very safe place to be a kid. However, being raised in this community there were clear expectations for me to grow up and work with my head and not with my hands. I was expected to on go to college, get married, buy a house and breed more capitalists (to use the Marxist paradigm). Almost all the 188 people that I graduated high school with went on to college. But, I chose not to (though, I eventually got a BFA.) I moved to Boston and worked with kids for two years and then in a small cabinet factory. I say factory because usually when I tell people that I used to work as a cabinet-maker they immediately equate this notion with ideas of fine craftsmanship, rare wood and complicated, old-world joinery. This was not the kind of place that I worked in. Though I can make pretty nice one of kind pieces of furniture what I am really good at is making, for instance, 20 of the same piece of furniture in a simple and efficient style. In fact what I best at is sorting and organizing lumber; choosing which of the thousands of boards is best suited to used for the different parts of the furniture. Straightest and cleanest for doors most warped and damaged for backs and bottoms...etc. My time in these loud shops was spent wearing large ear protection and often breathing through a respirator. The owner of the first shop that I ever worked at refused to let his workers listened to music because he said it was too distracting. Being distracted in a woodshop is dangerous thing and my hands have the scars to prove it. So, I would spend my days isolated from my co-workers by loud machines, facemasks and ear protection. As the years went by I often lived in loud places. As I would study for my night classes or work on my drawings I often found myself retreating to the silence of my ear protection so I could concentrate.

As I strolled around on May Day in search of quiet places I realized that when I think about labor, socialism and the “worker”, my thoughts often gravitate towards ideas of isolation. I suppose these feelings partly stem from the physical isolation that I experienced growing up. But at the same time, on May Day, I wonder if there is more to it. I was raised, borrowing again from Marx and Engles, to become part of the bourgeoisie but wound up a sort-of-proletariat worker. And, being in between the two I have never felt a connection to either. And it seems these ideas of physical and mental isolation fuse together every time I put on my ear protection in search of solitude.

As I prepare for my performance all these ideas come bubbling to the surface. I constructed six matching coffins, because making quality multiples is what I have been trained as a worker to do. As I perform I will strip down the lower half my body to be vulnerable and completely protect my head with a tinted, full-face shield and respirator while I wear ear protection. Covered in this way the majority of my senses will be cut off from on-lookers and the world. I could have chosen a latex mask like a dominatrix might use or perhaps a hood like a torture victim might be forced to wear, but I instead choose to isolate myself as a worker would. I am not attempting to shock or awe people in anyway as I bury one of the coffins in this fashion. I have choosen a place in the city that is cut off from the main thorough fares, in a small park, on a dead end street lined with vacant buildings and houses being renovated. I will be, like the citizens of Gent, attempting to have a private moment in a public space. My art projects are beginning to change. It seems that I no longer, "make art about how I earn my living." Instead, I think I am now just making art about being an artist.

Anyways, I wandered and eventually came upon the center of town. There were a fair amount of people, but not a massive crowd. Towards the edges of the gathering there were different tables set up. One was selling tee-shirts of Ché Guevara and offering Cuban drinks made with Havana Club (a rum made in Cuba that is still unavailable in the U.S. because of the embargo.) Another table offering used books about Socialism. And, another selling tee-shirts of Malcolm X and pamphlets. Next to them there was a group of anarchist-looking-kids gathered around a radio listening and singing along to Rage Against the Machine. The whole scene became terribly unnerving and I left in a hurry to find the quiet places.

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