Friday, March 24, 2006

Scientology Inc.

My girlfriend and I were on our way to see the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Met the other day, because we're those kind of people. Unlike me, she was on a busy schedule, having to teach some people French later that afternoon. The sun was out, and we walked toward Central Park through the Upper East Side. I was getting mildly excited at all the perverse modern art I was to see, and then a sign, shimmering in the sunlight, distracted me:


And underneath the heading, more fantastic still:


Surely Tom Cruise had to be here. And John Travolta. Squinting in the sunlight, I lumbered around the front of the building, knowing the gates to this palace would forever be barred to me. But what note was tacked to a velvet board, propped by the front door. Yes,


I turned to my girlfriend. Her eyes already wore a look of resignation. I opened the door. She let herself be ushered in. The receptionist glanced up. The reception was a perculiar mix of the ornate and tacky, with marbles stairwells and numerous books that would resolve your life lining the walls, DVDs also. The receptionist appeared to wink. This was just like "Eyes Wide Shut": Tom couldn't be far. What does one say in such situations? The only thing one can:

"We would like a free personality test. Both of us."

The receptionist nodded. Phew! We had not disgraced ourselves or acted foolishly in a Scientology Center. We were bade sit down on the plush velvet couch, and five minutes later a woman wearing velvet and an intense stair glided down the stairwell. she beckoned us follow with supple gestures, and we were led into an expansive room with a full view of central park. On a table beside us was advertised a river cruise with added scientology, retailing at a cool ten thousand dollars for the full week. "Scriptwriters" would be there, to tell you how to get your life in order. Our helper lady fetched us two pink slips, on which were written many multiple choice questions. It would take half an hour, we were told, "and then we will feed the results into a computer, revealing all the details of your particular personality, and discovering how we can go forward from this point."

I looked at the sheet. Some questions tried to confuse you with the negatives. Like:

"Would you rarely attempt not to dissaude a small number of persons for sabotaging not your private space, but the private space of another?"

Yes, no or maybe?

Some were even trickier:

"Do you like to spend time with children."

Obviously here you want to come over a nice fellow, while somehow not a paedophile.

I jotted down my responses somewhat arbitrarily. My girlfriend had a furrowed expression. I was racing clear! This was just like school! I complete my pink slip in record time. "These questions are foolish, and ungrammatical", my girlfriend told me. I showed her how to finish them--that is, how to answer them arbitrarily. The helper lady returned just as we were finishing off, and looked cross, as if we were trying to cheat the system.

"She speaks French", I reassured her. This seemed to make the immediate situation better, but the larger one worse.

We were marched down backstairs, where we waited nervously while our answers were fed into a machine. I'm adopting a light tone here, but really I was very nervous to hear what the computer would say; there was a lot resting on it. My girlfriend was called to the evaluation suite first. Occasionally the sound of her laughter echoed down the corridoor. Was it her laughter?

A man came into the reception. "You deal with celebrities?" he asked. The receptionist nodded. "You help them stay underground." A nod again. "That's good" the man said. "That's useful to know."

"You know", he said after a moment's silence, "I used to be a Mormon missionary." the receptionist nodded. "I have my own Off-Broadway production. It's called Confessions of a Mormon Boy. It's all about my individuality breaking free from the restraints--fetters--of the church. Look at the internet. Just shoot up 'Mormon Boy Productions.'"

The receptionist seemed a bit more excited at this news. They exchanged advertising leaflets. "So this is all about diagenics?" said the Mormon boy. I knew the answer to this! I had been reading all about the foundation of scientology, and how the founder was able to divine a nuclear explosion in Russia, and all kinds of shit. But I kept my knowledge to myself. And then I was called into the room.

Even though I was expecting to learn some dire news that only an expensive Sceintology course could reverse, I was unprepared for the verdict that hit me. I still have the graph indicating my mental state. It rates me on several categories, such as balance, creativity, etc. It looks like the line on the heart-monitor at the sad point in the movies. My mental graph was awful. I was unstable and morbidly depressed. The only category I scored highly on was aggression. "Are you overly critical", the helper lady asked.

"I'm not overly critical", I shouted. "It's this graph. It's the method it uses."

"Ah-ha" said the woman, nodding her head sagely.

Apparently even though I was a basket-case things could still be improved to bring life to a tolerable pitch. All I needed to do was enroll on a course called "Personal Integrity", and purchase two books, "which didn't even require that much reading." I had learnt my lesson: I purchased one book for $5, and placed it in a shadowy corner of my apartment, concealing my graph of shame, while it accumulates dust until I am strong enough to face my demons and "score some wins." I can't afford the Personal Integrity, so if anyone could help out, I'd be much applied.

Later that night, I saw an advert for an Off-Broadway production, called "COnfessions of a Mormon Boy."

Shoot it up on the internet.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Cloisters

If you’ll allow me a piece of shameless cultural stereotyping, British people are generally not comfortable being conspicuous. The problem of being in America, therefore, is that it’s possible to be conspicuous by virtue simply of being British. As a representative Brit myself, I’ve frequently been embarrassed by the prominence of my nationality, to the extent that I have complied in whatever prejudices and inaccuracies have been inflicted upon my country. One of the many presumptions about Britain that I have had to swallow without making a scene, is that ours is a nation with a lot of history, and hence that British people in general are obsessed with their past.

These kind of cultural claims are actually pretty difficult to refute. But it seems to be almost impossible for any country, however recent its origins, not to be obsessed with history in some form or another. And America’s particular historical obsession, which in contrast to numerous claims certainly does exist, is noticeable in countless ways. Only this week, I visited an offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right on the edges of New York City proper, at 191st Street. The exhibit in question was entitled “The Cloisters”, and comprises of a number of sacred objects, tapestries and architectural features broken off from their European mediaeval origin, and carried wholesale across the Atlantic, to be reassembled on a hill overlooking New York City. Ah, what some people will do for authenticity.

The project was executed in 1938, and, like so many projects of the time, was the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Upon your arrival, the most immediately striking thing about The Cloisters, is the strange sense of unity imposed upon a whole heap of disparate objects. The light cast in through fourteenth-century French stained-glass windows illuminates thirteenth-century Italian paintings; elsewhere, sculpture and altarpieces from Segovia, Burgundy, the Auvergne and the Rhineland compete for attention. Weirder yet, these sacred relics compete for space with a number of features that are irreducibly American: the medieval arches and supporting columns are plainly not sufficient to support the building itself, and so around these worthy objects an appropriately neo-Gothic design has been constructed. Throughout the cloisters, it is possible to see the joins, where thirteenth-century stone meets twentieth century concrete. The cloister garden may contain wild flowers appropriate to a medieval sanctuary, but visitors can only view them through thick, double glazed windows. For anyone that has viewed a monastery in its original, organic form, there is something distinctly odd about witnessing these crumbling, petrified relics, while the air conditioning pipes into the room constantly.

Sitting on a bench, deep in apparently intense conversation, were a sad-looking man and a Japanese woman.

All of this demonstrates that Americans most certainly do care about history: the question as to precisely what form that interest takes is harder to answer. Is the desire to raid and reassemble ancient European sites the product of simple historical curiosity? Is it the desire to understand something of an age unknown to this young nation? Or is it, like the British colonialists that raided Greece for its ancient monuments, a demonstration of power, of the defeat of historical grandeur through possession? Do the thousands of Americans that pack into these reconstructed cloisters each year fool themselves into thinking that the exhibit somehow represents an organic whole, a faithful reproduction of European models. Or are they aware of the forcible way in which the elements are brought together, but still marvel at the ingenuity of it all? Might they even think, perish the thought, that the American variant of the cloisters represents a functional improvement, a necessary modernization, of the outdated European model?

But leave all these questions. When I went to leave, before I turned into the sacred gift store, I passed the same couple. The man was crying, and the Japanese woman looked aloof. History. Who needs it?

On a lighter note, here is my radio show for this week. I talk about Canada and the State of the Union. Yes, how innovative. But come on you pussies, where are the music suggestions?

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


As some of you may know, each week I present a radio show commenting on American life, in a slightly less sardonic tone than that reserved for this blog. It too is called "Swearing to the Flag." It is broadcast on London station Resonance FM, hence the link at the side. Some of you may be in for a surprise if you hear it. But that is the risk I am poised to take, as I have belatedly worked out how to put each show on-line, for you to download at your convenience, or perhaps inconvenience given the size of the file. In this week's show, I visit a strange monastery, laugh at James Frey, and speculate on whether, erm, new media is any good.

Hmm...perhaps you'd just better download it and take a listen.

I also play music, which this week comes from the Art Ensemble of Chicago and The Spinto Band. Suggestions welcome for tracks in the future. They have to be...American. So that only leaves a few. Nat King Cole? Anal Cunt?

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Impatient Tribes of Man

A very happy new year to each and every one of you.

In the past months I've received a fair few death threats and one request for intercourse, so something must be going right.

I've attended performance art festivals and parties in warehouses in Brooklyn, and sometimes it's been difficult to work out which is which. I've been on the receiving end of two strikes. All the while, buried in the middle of nowhere in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, I've been praying for this "gentrification" I read so much in the papers about. Every now and then, a good-looking woman passes by wearing a hip coat and thick-rimmed spectacles, and I think the prayed-for wave is upon me. But then five or six crazy people pass by, and ask me if I want to pay them to sing, just like usual.

My dear mother and sister came to visit over the festive period: I recommend anyone to juxtapose their mother with the impossibly camp East Village. As families do, we managed on Christmas Eve to have a blazing row about little in particular (Alison, Mum, if you're reading this, we were all in the wrong.) Rage spurred me to catch the subway to Manhattan, where I had little to do other then militantly pace the near-deserted streets, while my anger slowly faded, to the point where I was even conciliatory. To demonstrate my regret, I purchased a New York edition of Monopoly (the Statue of Liberty allegedly "is" Mayfair) and rented a copy of Stanley Kubrick's psycho-erotic final work, "Eyes Wide Shut."

After a brief flare-up of hostilities upon my return. we were happy families by the end of the evening.

The strikes, since you ask, concern the university I attend (the dispute in question being far too lengthy to unravel here) and secondly the entire public trasnport system, which was put out of action for three days recently, as a show of union strength. Of all the impatient tribes of man, New Yorkers are perhaps the most impatient. Monuments to New York restlessness can be grand, as in the contours of the Manhattan skyline, or petty, as in the bustling, seething crowds disgorged from the subway each morning, and this grandness and pettiness defines the city. So perhaps no other community on earth would be less equipped to withstand a temporary paralysis of their daily routine; and that, of course, is exactly what New Yorkers faced. As September 11 proved, New Yorkers can handle colossal disruption, so long as they can mobilize a response, be the response practical aid of grief. But the one thing that they cannot tolerate is a disruption that renders them idle.

On the morning of December 22, impatient New Yorkers were faced with no means of getting to work and, equally bad, no means of getting to play. Subway stops were taped off. Streets that were formerly deserted back-alleys groaned with traffic. The three bridges leading into Manhattan, Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, filled with commuters marching to a near-military pace and step. In Brooklyn, the traffic crawled; in Manhattan, you were fortunate to see it move at all. Despite the evident standstill, desperate or deluded commuters stood at the roadside, flagging yellow cabs already full to bursting. Internet sites filled with postings from people prepared to trade a lift for a blowjob. As decimations of a city go, this was obviously nothing to rival the scale of Hurricane Katrina; but from the despairing looks on the faces of some of those hailing individuals, you would hardly have noticed.

Once the general air of disbelief had subsided, however, the residents of New York surprised onlookers from within and without the city, by the small acts of kindness which began to pile up. Drivers with available room pulled over to give commuters straggling on foot a lift. Red Cross ambulances parked by the foot of the major bridges, dispensing hot chocolate and fig newtons to weary walkers. During the brief transport hiatus, swindlers and con-artists doubtless emerged, and more than one morally dubious buck was made. But the sight of New York drivers, notorious for clinging to their lane as if it were a birthright, actually moving over to let vehicles past, will live long in my memory.

Like many, I was forced to make the ten-mile round trip on foot to Manhattan, and like resourceful New Yorkers, I managed somehow to extract a moral from the proceedings, to wit, that I was "exploring the city in a way I never had before." This meant largely traipsing through East Williamsburg, an area famous for its concentrated Hasidic Jewish community. My prior contact with the Hasidic community extended only as far as my landlord Moses, who had a perennial stutter, and took his religiously-mandated clothing very seriously. Walking through East Williamsburg, I realised that everyone here was Moses, or a little Moses, or an ancient Moses, with hair grown long at the sides, ruffled dungarees, all-black clothing, and carefully-shined black shoes. For a ten minute stretch you meet nobody who is not a Hasidic Jew, and begin to feel conspicuous in the off-black Carhart jeans slung around your hips. The writing is no longer in English. To all intents, you are in another world.

I was enjoying a late lunch with my girlfriend the other day, when into the apartment burst Moses, along with three other people, none of whom I had ever seen. Moses had a grin on his face.

'I have sold your apartment!" he declared.

We were stupefied over our baguette. Had we lost our property?

"These are your new owners!"

And that was all we heard from Moses; all, except from his desperate attempt to escape with half of my $2,400 deposit.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intercourse News

Here then is my belated account of Thanksgiving with a religious community in Pennsylvania.

I was transported on a coach out of New York with fifty-odd foreign students from various nationalities. We were told that we would be separated into two groups: mine, alas, was bound not for the wonderfully-named town Mount Joy, but prosaic Lititz. There, we were told, devout families would earnestly await our arrival. For six in the morning, there was too much enthusiasm in the coach. It's a problem I often encounter: I'm not an enthusiastic person, but occassionally, a curious one, and often in life the two feelings are so confused as to lead to the same situation. Anyhow, there I sat, with enthusiasts, who always hasten time with photographs and card tricks, until we pulled into Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, where a horde of persons more enthusiastic still clustered, they were almost rabidly enthusiastic, and waving placards.

On the placards were all our names.

One by one the names were announced, and the foreing students led off, the understanding on their faces fitting for persons facing the firing squad. But, of course, the enthusiasm. A Taiwenese girl was mobbed by a family with six heads, and bundled into the black range-rover waiting. There a frail Japanese boy was smothered in an embrance that became a transporting clinch to the nearby car. It was one of the single most sinister sights of my life. I cringed below window-level in the overly-conditioned bus, shouts from outside, anticipatory cooing inside, and the deep gnawing fear that my language would be nowhere near exotic enough. In the melee, I made out my name, scrawled loosely onto cardboard, thrust aloft my three young boys with identical fringes, whose strength was clearly already beginning to flag. I had disappointed them. I had disappointed them already in my slowness. Finally my name was announced, and with a face I tried to push as far from hangdog-gallows as possible, I descended the coach into a restrained hug with the three fringes.

I would like to tell you, of course, that the family, three-fringes and all, belonged to a strange religious cabal. (Curiosity once again that compensation for want of enthusaism.) But the truth as often proved plain, hospitable and generous. If it helps fuel American steroetyping somewhat, two of the three children were home schooled. But the four days I stayed seemed designed to offer an object lesson in community, to a poor atomized individual like myself. No sooner had I arrived, then the mother of the family took me on a tour of the neighbouring area, which took in a children's playground carved from wood. As the firing squad reference from earlier might imply, I'm no military strategist, but I'd say this imposing structure was larger and harder to scale than Alcatraz. My host mother informed me that it had been planned, financed and constructed by the local community.

I knew that any melancholic furrowing of my brow would be badly taken, but I could not but recall the rusting imitatition tractor-frame, clambering upon which so many of my own childhood hours had been half-enjoyable whiled away. Three spots of snow drifted down. We clambered into the all-purpose-terrain car.

Driving home, a man was bent almost double by the side of the highway, wearing nothing over a lumberjack shirt, pushing his bony thumb out at the traffic. That, said my host mother, is Norm. Norm, it transpired, was severely handicapped, showing signs of celebral palsy, and lived on his own. The church took care of him. My host mother stopped the car, and for once I felt useful, opening my door and offering the seat to Norm, who wished to get to K-Mart. My host mother asked him when there if he wished us to wait. No, replied Norm, jerking his lumberjack shirt into the masses of K-Mart.

That night I fell asleep early, and woke in a young boy's bedroomm, with Lego on the floor. I was beginning to lose the last sixteen years of my life, which had proved so crucial in forming value-judgments.

I went to a chocolate factory, which began to assume a strangley appealing air. The factory was built by Charles Hershey, the world's first chocolate baron. Hershey deemed that not only should his workers receive a decent wage, health insurance and the like, but they also required - that universal American right - a playground ride. Not only this, Hershey constructed an entire town in which to house these factory workers. At the intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues, my host family informed me, tourists could often be seen scratching their heads in wonderment. We returned home. I began to play a promiment part in the grace said by my family before mealtimes. As in:

"Lord, thank You for bringing Ewan to our homes, to educate us in many things."

Or, the next day:

"Lord, may Ewan have a good day, with many good conversations."

The whole while grace was said, the hyperactive family dog yelped uncontrollably. I felt like the yelping dog.

The final full day in Pennsylvania was spent chasing Amish, the resident religious community notorious for spurning such technological innovations as electricity and modern hairstyles. Photography is to the AMish "graven images." The women wear their hair tightly slicked-back. This and about three other facts I learned in a trip through AMish country, or what purported to be it, yet seemed suspiciously like tourist bric-a-brac. An Amish horse-drawn carriage (such is their form of transport) moulded into a keyring! Amish jam! A vendor dressed as a real Amish! More fun was had in the towns through which we travelled, which seemed purposefully constructed around the industry. Each building looked like a residential unit, until you entered and found someone trying to flog you a stick of rock. One town, my favourite, was called Intercourse. There were bumper stickers procaliming I LOVE INTERCOURSE. I picked up six copies of the local rag, "Intercourse News" - those who ask first, are elcome to them...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Billy, it's performance art"

As the last installment of my shambling coverage of Performa05, the performance arts biennial, I now present an account of Marina Abramovic's performance at the Guggenheim. Sadly, Marina is no relation, though there was a strong Russian theme to the evening. You could barely miss it, what with the irritatingly-punctuated "Russia!" exhibition showing at the Guggenheim. For those of you who don't move in the right circles, Abramovic is a performance artiste who rose to prominence through nearly dying for her art. Twice.

On the first occassion, the artwork in question involved Marina lying down in the centre of a flaming crescent. As the rows of fire burned beside her, the oxygen supply dwindled so rapidly that an audience member had to plunge in and save her. Her most famous work, Rhythm 0, refined this idea further. Abramovic gathered together seventy-two objects of various destructiveness (knitting needles, razor blades, a loaded gun) and told the audience to manipulate them in any way they pleased. The crowd had already slashed away her clothes, and made cuts on her body, when one man commanded her to hold the gun to her head - which she did - and to fire. At this point, the audience once more intervened, turning against this man who would push the frontiers of art.

Over the last week, Abramovic has been performing "cover versions" of famous pieces of performance art (you know, the one where the artist is nailed to the Volskwagen, the one where she crushes the wine glass and, yes, yes.) So if any of you are feeling at all queasy, console yourself with the idea that what she's doing is really akin to that nice band UB40.

I went to see her second performance. It was my first time to the Guggenheim, which is a sleekly beautiful building. A large crowd had gathered outside. A printed legend on the curved white walls informed us that the patron for the "Russia!" exhibition was none other than Vladimir Putin. How things change, eh? But the most striking thing, was that as people wandered along the curved balustrades of this space-age structure, moving between the dulcitly-lit Orthodox iconography, and flattering portraiture of seventeenth century Russian noblemen, there on an elevated platform was a woman with tight leather trousers with the crotch missing, cradling an automatic rifle in her hands.

Was it to be expected, that the audience showed almost no sign of consternation at Marina Abramovic's crotch? At times, the lack of reverence bordered on the sloppy, as when punters accidentally wandered over the cordon, (very performance art) to be shouted back by the burly security guards, whose moral world must I presume have been slightly disturbed, though they showed no sign of it. Childred careered freely around the foot of Marina's platform without incurring similar censure. In the obliviousness of children, arms flailing, was either the final validation of performance art, and its conviction in participation, or else it's death knell - I couldn't be sure.

Some of the children looked up at their mother's with puzzlement, pointed at the lady's crotch and asked "Mother, what's that?" And the mother's every one of them, looked back sternly, and replied "Billy, it's performance art", or at least so I imagine.

On a note so entirely unrelated as to pose linking problems for even a children's television presenter, I am going away to Pennsylvania for an extended Thanksgiving weekend. While I am away, I ask you in true holiday style, to submit me the most vulgar and terrifying death threats you can produce. I have a friend, who when I moved to America promised to send me genuine death-threats, with the crazy lettering and all. They're yet to arrive, and she knows who she is. Though you don't get the benefit of crazy lettering, you can use the handy comments feature to behave like a psychopath, annonymously - and I, I receive the substantiation that only a victim can understand...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Guide to Kultur

You have to work for your culture in New York. The other day, my girlfriend somehow twisted my arm to go to a Japanese death-metal group in Brooklyn. When we arrived at the venue, a notice on the door read:


Repelled with such vagueness, I turned to the bouncer and asked what was the tragedy? It transpired that the Japenese death-metal group had been involved in a car-crash that day, were in intensive care, and that the drummer was dead. Of course, you cynics snigger, it had to be the drummer. Perhaps it was due to my infrequent patronage of death-metal clubs, that left me a lingering, foolish sense of culpability for the rest of the evening.

Nonetheless, I made another stab at being a cultured person, by visiting Chelsea the following day. Chelsea, for those undernourished souls not acquanited with either cutting-edge installations or champagne, is a place in West Side Manhattan, where the rich hang out and purchase art at exorbitent prices. Like all good aristocrats, they have the sense to let mortals lesser than themselves gather at a hygenic distance from them. To facilitate this, they have set up rows galleries lining 23rd Street, 24th Street, 25th Street, all free to the public; and impecunious shameless people like me are happy to turn up in droves, and give them the validation they need.

The whole area of Chelsea has a peculiar feel, because it is the most perfect coincidence of art and capitalism. I suffer terrific anxiety trying to distinguish the white-washed ultra-minimalist offices, from the white-washed ultra-minimimalist exhibition spaces. I am relieved when some giveaway sign appears: a video screen showing naked people swimming (that's Bill Viola!); an artist biog; a mature couple circulating, the kerchiefed male tush-tushing, "Nah! S'more like a Jacko-Metti!" One with the art punters thronging the pavements, my eyes gaze into rooms that are never paritioned with a wall, always by windows of pure crystal, as if to say, in an act of superior transparency, "Look at me. You can see everyhting there is to see. I am wealth." Sometimes my eyes meet a fresco, sometimes a receptionist. When in one of the buildings, I see a Japanese woman with an asymmetric fringe before a laptop, letting one finger slowly fall with a kind of suspended brutality upon the keypad, I do not know which category her action falls into.

You feel a modern voodoo reigns, when you are in Chelsea, and the trick is never to react to anything, however untoward. I strolled into one of the galleries, which was showing some new work by Tracy Emin, and there was the woman herself, dressed in cheap leopardprint, and with her letterbox mouth working.

"It's dead simple. I just - put myself into the work. It's just honesty. I put the honesty down", the mouth was saying.

I thought that perhaps Tracy was part of this exhibition, along with the three or four American men standing entraced beside her, and wondered briefly if I kissed her full passionately on the lips, would I be part of the exhibition too? But it turned out she was just Tracy Emin, as regular as she would be drunk on Newsnight Review; she was quickly ushered into the rear of the gallery, and I practiced my measured walk around the juvelinia she was exhibiting, as if nothing had happened at all.