Saturday, January 16, 2010
Is this Working?
This is a picture of me, just before going onstage at the Great Boston Burlesque Expo, a very long and shockingly brief three years ago. This was my least obviously, and most problematically, political piece of burlesque. To most, it probably just looked silly. But to people who know the history of burlesque, my dancing to Beyonce's "Work it Out" from the Austin Powers soundtrack in a platinum afro wig was absolutely un-PC, even tasteless. I'll say it was patently irreverent to the fact that neo-burlesque is often conservatively crammed with identity politics. I was trying to do real work, to rustle up some awareness of the relationship between racial prejudice and hierarchical aesthetics in burlesque. Using a song from a parodic, pseudo-retro movie was supposed to underscore this. The hip crowd of neo-burlesque in Boston was predominantly white a few years ago, just like the middle-class crowd supporting old-school burlesque was white, and that's stupid and boring, and it should make people feel bad when they think about it. They don't have to read a lot of sociology or Marxist theory to understand that the social relations that determine who gets to be considered sexy, and how they are considered so on stage (demure Asian, raunchy German, etc.), haven't changed much in sixty years, that there's a prejudice inherent to and unchallenged by the system of retro-aesthetics, and that that's a problem. My work was simple: to make this bubble up from the group unconscious by breaking a few rules. My work that night just so happened to also be very, very fun for us all.
The first CD I owned was Dire Straits "Brothers in Arms." I'll explain that some other day, maybe. But I will never forget the confusion I felt when I realized (as a seven-year-old) that the song "Money for Nothing" was actually making fun of the industry of pop music, and that Dire Straits were looking in on their own lifestyle--"oh, that ain't workin', that's the way you do it, get your money for nothing and your chicks for free"--through the voice of a warehouse laborer who had to "install microwave ovens, make custom kitchen delivere-e-e-e-eeees." The guy who installed microwave ovens wanted to be a rock star. It seems obvious why, and yet, everyone knows that making music, touring, etc., is also a job. A job that some people have hated enough to die about.
One of the great American prejudices about work itself, it seems, is that work must, does, suck. SARK has been trying to combat this notion for many years by helping people, through her writing and workshops, to choose creative jobs, start creative companies, finish their masterpieces. She has, in fact, an almost zero-tolerance policy for not liking one's choice of work. The way I think of this is: all work will have problems, but if we're lucky, we get to choose the work that has problems we are more able or amenable to dealing with. This is like choosing a life partner--you do not expect their perfection, only that their flaws are the kind you can live with, understand, maybe even help. Of course, the ability to choose one type of work over another is a luxury that was not afforded blacks, women, poor whites, Native Americans, gays, etc., over the course of our history, so now, for anyone who does have at least a grasping glimpse of that kind of choice, it does seem ridiculous to choose work one doesn't like at least a little. Of course, because American capitalism fails so miserably, the volume of people trapped by lack of options, who do not have the choice to do something they don't hate, is huge, insane, and embarrassing.
Yet somehow we are not as curious about this problem as we might be. At the Getty, I stared at a series of photographs documenting the rural poor from the 1930s which had been commissioned by the Farm Securities Administration. There were photos documenting life in temporary work camps, which had also been paid for by the government. This seemed like a very important character change, from a depression-era government sending photojournalists out into the dark spaces of the country and starting the movements for social change, to what I see now as a government desperately involved in image-maintenance and secrecy. I got confused when thinking about the "honesty" of the photographs--seemed like faster shutter speeds led to less "posing" as photography got more sophisticated and common, but then, more photography has lead to a culture of people who are posing at all times? We think we're closer to the the "truth" of something like an oil cap explosion out in Kuwait, because a telephoto lens can get us there, but actually, we'd be dead if we were as close as the picture seems. So the truth in the photos is as problematic as the truth of language--we are always in some way removed from the object we're trying to discover/reveal. The "uncovering" of work conditions through photojournalism, while important and necessary, is also a kind of fiction. That we are not even pursuing that problematic level of truth and transparency in our current media scares me.
A few weeks ago, at a tiny nonprofit in Korea Town, the Street Sweeper Social Club and the Nightwatchman played rebel music for us. (If you never go to any of my other links, go to those. Boots Riley and Tom Morello are heroically fighting the good fight.) We yelled and pumped our fists and donated money in solidarity with CORT guitar workers from South Korea, who have been the victims of many unfair labor practices. At the end of the night, a large group of workers who had flown from Korea to be a rallying presence at the NAMM convention sang their own song, and I was struck again by the removal I felt: I felt the TRUTH of injustice, and the truth of solidarity, and the truth of urgency, but I couldn't even understand the language of the song, and I'd never heard of CORT guitars until that week. I hated myself for being uninformed. I found out that many CORT guitar workers consider themselves artisans, not just laborers, and that the rhetoric of the evening had been all jumbled: a fight for worker's rights slamming up against demands for recognition of their work as art. One musician even apologized for buying the CORT guitar he was playing, just before he praised the craftsmanship. At the end of the night, when we all had been singing "Rebel Song" together, Tom Morello yelled to us, "Take it easy, guys, but TAKE IT." And he offered some grace in all this confusion: the grace of bashing on.
When I'm writing, I call it working. When I'm dancing, I call it working. When I'm listening to Street Sweeper Social Club, I call it working. When I work out, I meditate on how my body can better guide my work, and when I sit in the Dollhouse drinking tea and reading, I'm still working. When I edit someone else's manuscript I'm working. When I wear a T-shirt I bought at a Critical Resistance event instead of the mall, I'm working. Some of this working brings in money, some of it not. Some work is more pleasurable than other work. Some work makes more obvious change in the world around me. Some work is constantly undone, redone, and undone again.
The other night, a man I'd just met asked me what I "do for fun." I actually laughed at him--first, for asking such a question. Then, I thought of that Dire Straits song, and how I don't feel some sad need to separate "fun" from "work" anymore. "I read a lot," I said. He was predictably disappointed. I wish I'd told him I installed microwave ovens for fun. Our conversation was over before it began, so I might as well have left him with the image of an activity everyone considers boring (and absurdly anachronistic!) labor appealing to a cute young thing like me as a hobby.
Here's what will happen next time:
Man: So what do you do for fun?
Me: It's been a long time since someone asked me that question. I like to install microwave ovens, you know, like, make custom kitchen deliveries.
Man: Did you say microwaves?
Me: Microwave ovens. They cook food faster than regular ovens?
Me: But, most people know how to install them on their own now, so my hobby's become kind of a niche, underground thing, you know?
Man: Okay, well, you have a good night.
Me: Oh, I intend to.
at 7:54 PM