Category: Interviews

Interviews

Pepper Spray and Politics

by Ami Sommariva and Louis Warren

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

An interview with radical student activist Ian Lee

While protecting a tent encampment of student protesters on 18 November 2011, UC Davis freshman Ian Lee was pepper-sprayed by campus police. Boom assistant editor Ami Sommariva and Boom executive editor Louis Warren sat down with Lee to talk about his experience with the Occupy movement, his radicalization, and the relationship between activism and education.

Ami Sommariva: Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?

Ian Lee: I’m from Temple City, which is a suburb of LA, a really small suburb east of LA. I was born and raised there, went through the whole school system. A quiet Asian kid growing up in a suburb … that was me. When applying for colleges, I really wanted to do environmental work. I don’t know if I still want to do that, but that’s why I chose UCD. Both of my parents are from Hong Kong. They came to the US near the end of the Vietnam War. My dad was part of seventies community organizing after the war. He entertained ideas of becoming an artist.

Sommariva: How did you get involved with the Occupy movement? Where did it all begin for you, and how did you end up on the Quad that day?

Lee: At that time, I saw myself as a standard Democrat, a regular little sort of person. Then this Occupy movement started happening and I started to hear about it from classes, from certain professors and friends, and so I decided I should probably check this out. I was involved with the original campus marches; not as an organizer or anything, but participating in part of it. I was involved because it’s something that interested me and that’s not because I understood anything. I didn’t live at the camp in the beginning.

Louis Warren: Did you help set up the Occupation on the Quad?

Lee: Yes, but I didn’t sleep there because I wasn’t serious about anything at the time. Then, on November 18th, I heard through Facebook that cops had shown up on the campus. That was really disconcerting to me, and so I just rushed over from the dorms. And that’s when I started to really get into it and really understand. People were getting arrested. I linked arms with the people forming a protective block around the tents. Eventually, I found myself in the front row.

Sommariva: You said that before all this happened you started hearing about the Occupy movement from professors and friends, and it interested you. What interested you about it?

Lee: Well, you should understand that at the time, a guy who’s just been in college a couple of days … he doesn’t really understand what’s happening. I was just this sort-of-Democrat, and apparently there’s this liberal—or what’s perceived to be liberal—huge movement going on. I think: Oh, I should probably get involved with this and try to find out what’s going on. And that was my perspective. At the time—and I have different views now—but at the time, it seemed to me to be a sort of symbolic protesting as to what happened at Berkeley when the students were trying to defend their encampment there. And also sort of symbolic protests against tuition increases.

Sommariva: Those were the factors that motivated you to rush right out from the dorms?

Lee: Well, yeah. But also, I didn’t and still don’t understand about why riot cops should be called down to a tent encampment. It didn’t make sense to me, and so I wanted to protect that camp.

Warren: So, you guys linked arms to protect the tents. What did you see then?

Lee: Students were screaming. People were being thrown around. Just a lot of chaos caused by, of course, the presence of riot cops.

Sommariva: They were being thrown?

Lee: Or pushed aside.

Warren: And the cops were in full riot gear?

Lee: Right. They had different sorts of guns, batons, those plastic handcuff things, fully dressed in black and helmets.

I couldn’t really see from my perspective, but what I assume happened was that the cops went through the protestors and took down certain tents. There was a lot of screaming and hectic chaos. The circle of students kept on tripping and tripping and tripping, so we think it’s a good idea to sit down. That’s a common way to de-escalate a potentially violent situation, so we sit down.

And Lieutenant Pike [the officer in charge] says we should know we shouldn’t move. He stepped over us and pepper-sprayed us. I’m really angry about that. I mean, I was furious. I just got assaulted by riot cops for no reason. Before the pepper-spray incident happened, it was my understanding that we would maybe be shot with rubber bullets and that was really scary to me. My heart was just shaking like crazy.

Warren: Why was that your understanding? Did somebody threaten to shoot you?


PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN NGUYEN

Lee: Lieutenant Pike came over to the person sitting next to me and said, we are going to shoot you—or something to the effect of that—if you don’t leave. And so that’s why I thought that we were going to be shot with rubber bullets. You can’t really think when you’re that afraid.

Warren: So then they pepper-sprayed you. What happened?

Lee: There were shouts from the crowd that we should close our eyes, so I closed my eyes and there was this intense burning and it’s like fire on my face and in my eyes. Then I was actually pulled out of the chain and …

Warren: Who pulled you out?

Lee: Well, I didn’t know at the time, but in looking at videos, it was Lieutenant Pike. He pulled me out first and he pinned me to the ground for a while. But I didn’t resist.

Warren: Face-down?

Lee: Face-down. Like, while I was totally incapacitated, which doesn’t make sense to me.

Warren: The degree of violence in the story you’re telling, it’s just so astonishing.

Lee: Yeah. The entire last couple of months are totally absurd on so many levels. So, since I’m pinned on the ground, I don’t resist. He decides after a while, hey, I’m not gonna pin this kid down; I’m gonna pin that guy down, and that guy ended up actually being arrested. And he was pepper-sprayed. Like, why are you trying to arrest this kid who is not really resisting and is totally incapacitated? And to my understanding he apparently wasn’t even treated in the police car.

Warren: In the video of the events on YouTube, one of the most astonishing things is that you guys don’t appear to move after being coated with pepper spray. You do not budge. I noticed some of you begin to slump, but you didn’t move until people come over and start pulling you apart. Why didn’t you move?

Lee: I might not call it meditation, but I was concentrating really hard to try to slow my heartbeat. Also, we were committed to maintaining our ground. Someone who eventually would become a good friend led me to a firefighter who cleaned out my eyes. I went back to the dorm. I took a shower and my face got on fire again. I went to the Student Health and Wellness Center, and got treated, and that was the extent of my day.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Sommariva: Then the huge rally on Monday [21 November] happened. How did that come about? I mean, it was a huge event that seemed very well organized. There must have been work involved in putting that together.

Lee: Well, at the time, I didn’t know anybody, but incidentally I sort of suspected that a huge rally would happen and so I prepared a speech. What happened on Monday with the rally was that the people who were pepper-sprayed gave presentations and speeches. I actually made the first speech. It’s a speech I somewhat regret now… . But then we reestablished the tent encampment.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Warren: Why do you regret the speech now?

Lee: The way I framed the speech was that the incident was some sort of horrific and totally unexpected breach of our First Amendment rights. But now I realize that this is common. This is part of a chain of events of UC brutality that stems from privatization and all that other jazz.

Warren: All that other jazz?

Lee: Privatization and militarization are inherently linked. Whenever oppressive economic forces are created, a military force is needed in order to maintain that.

Warren: Do you see this as part of a broader trend?

Lee: There have been attacks at UCLA, UC Irvine … There’s this pervading theme among the Occupy movement: “Make no demands.” I think the reason for this is that there is nothing the systems that we are living in can do for us. It is the existence of those systems, in the first place, that is our contention.

Sommariva: What does it feel like, at this point, to be on campus after the pepper-spraying and after all of the direct action that you’ve been involved in? Has that changed your experience of being on campus?

Lee: It’s gotten me to think more about my function as a student on a UC campus. I perceive my position differently and that has caused me to be involved with discussions and organizing. It’s become a core part of being a student for me. Without watching and participating in direct action, I would never have started the thinking process—I would have never experienced a truly painful existential crisis, I would have never realized all the contradictions that exist in our systems, I would have never started reading and thinking and reading and talking with others and reading and thinking and reading—that led to my radicalization.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Warren: And before you got to UC, you’d never thought of these things in this way? You had actually not thought of being a student in those terms before you came here?

Lee: Right. So if we’re framing this as a before and after … before, I was a student who performed in the narrative of being a student, and now, I realize that there’s something wrong with that narrative and that I need to highlight the contradictions within it. I think confrontation is a really good thing in terms of getting radical ideas out there. An example: UC Davis had a contract with US Bank that gave them a monopoly on banking services on our campus. Our student IDs, which can be used as debit cards, have the US Bank logo on them, and the bank has a lot of other advertising on campus. There was only one bank on UC Davis property, and it was a US Bank at the Memorial Union, which is the central meeting place of our campus. What some involved in Occupy UC Davis have done is to protest the bank-university partnership in front of the US Bank on campus. This protest, which became well known and led to the arrest of several protesters, spurred a lot of debate about the contradictions between the missions of public universities and private corporations. So radical tactics and direct action are useful.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Sommariva: Do you think that kind of confrontation and debate can be brought into the university classroom as a pedagogical tool?

Lee: Well, here’s the thing about direct action: when protesting the US Bank, we’re directly fighting the forces of privatization within the university. The classroom isn’t built for that.

Sommariva: What would the ideal university look like to you?

Lee: It’s a question I think about quite a lot. I’m still in my first year of college, and I’ve got a lot of research and learning ahead of me. So I can’t really answer the question of what the ideal university looks like. I can say some broad things, such as I would like to see, at the very least, radically less privatization of the university. I would like to see the university return to being a public good. Ideally, at least from my perspective right now, I would like to see all capital off campus. I don’t know what this means in terms of how universities would function in that sort of world.

Warren: What do your parents think of your work here at UC Davis, what you’ve been through, and the work you’re doing with Occupy?

Lee: Like I said, my dad was involved with seventies community organizing as a teenager. I think I’ve suddenly exceeded radicalism in terms of what my dad thought. My definition of the word “radical” is vastly different from my dad’s definition of it. I think my mom’s really uncomfortable with a lot of the things I’m doing.

I want to emphasize the complete absurdity of my narrative. This quiet Asian kid grows up in the suburbs and then goes to college for a couple of weeks and becomes part of an international news story and he’s making passionate political speeches in front of thousands of people. I mean, everything does seem absurd. I think it was in my junior year in high school that I was the treasurer for a school club called the Future Business Leaders of America. And now, I would look at this high school kid who is the treasurer of a business club and say, that guy is evil.

Warren: Is he really evil, or is he just young? It sounds like you’re saying your perspective shifted pretty remarkably after the incident on the Quad.

Lee: I am sort of skeptical of narratives where a person’s one way before some profound event, then the profound event happens and then after that he’s totally different. I’m really skeptical.

Warren: The speed and degree of change that you experienced in yourself makes you skeptical of the whole thing?

Lee: It’s something that I think about quite a lot. Sometimes you read particular stories and you’re like, this is bullshit. That’s become my life.

Sommariva: You feel as if you are a story that has already been told? A cliché?

Lee: A story that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it feels like I’m a character in a melodramatic novel: beforehand, being this quiet Asian kid and afterwards, being someone who is really sympathetic towards anarchists and radical socialist ideas after becoming an international news story. Like, that doesn’t really happen. It’s just absurd, and that’s who I am.

Interviews

From Ghost World to Your World

by Spring Warren

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

An Interview with Daniel Clowes

Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago. He launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent. In April the Oakland Museum of California opened the exhibition Daniel Clowes: A First Survey, on view through 12 August of this year.

Spring Warren: You were born in Chicago, but you’ve been in California now for going on twenty years. What brought you here?

Daniel Clowes: I came to Berkeley for a reading on a particularly nice day in February. It was 80 degrees and I wound up meeting my future wife at a signing.

Warren: Wow. Love and weather.

Clowes: Yeah. We had a long-distance relationship and then she said why don’t you come out to Berkeley and I couldn’t think of any reason not to, you know? The first time I went back to Chicago, there was freezing rain and I had to walk to a bookstore to do a signing where I knew nobody would be because it was the worst weather in the world. I just wondered how people ever settled there.

Warren: Now you’re living in paradise.

Clowes: That’s right.

Warren: You once said that when you close your eyes, you see Chicago. Not California?

Clowes: I saw Chicago for a very long time. I’m not usually dealing directly from experience in my work, but dealing with my own inner life. My stories tend to be based in emotions that have been with me for a long time. But now I feel like California is seeping in or some version of California is multiplying with images of Chicago, so there are palm trees mixed in with the urban blight and my vision of the landscape is now much more Oakland than Chicago.

It took a very long time to tap into the California thing, a self-satisfaction that we have in California—and I’m as guilty of it as anyone—that comes from living in a place like this where the weather is nice and there’s a certain beauty to the landscape that you don’t have anywhere else. I found that sort of off-putting at first and then came to see California, like the East Coast, as one of the two places that you go in America to be as far away from where you come from as possible.

Warren: Which might contribute to a certain colorful eccentricity of characters that show up in your work?

Clowes: I feel like that’s certainly true in this area. I spent many years living right in Berkeley and they’re almost intolerant of non-eccentrics. . . . Like you wouldn’t be welcome if you wanted to sell insurance. But even though I live in a real pocket here where the values are really liberal and you know, everything is very sort of progressive and artsy, all you have to do is drive through the Caldecott Tunnel into the suburbs and then immediately you’ll start seeing Romney stickers and stuff like that.

Warren: Do you sketch in Oakland public spaces—for instance, are the coffee houses in Wilson actual places?

Clowes: All of the locations in Wilson and Mr. Wonderful are based on actual places in and around Oakland, but rather than draw them accurately, taking photos, or doing location sketches, I’m more interested in drawing my memories or impressions of those places, expressing how it feels for me to be in those spaces rather than to transcribe their exact particulars.

Warren: Is there anything about Wilson, the character, that is particular to California? That is, if Wilson the book was set in New York, would he still be the same guy or was there something about Oakland or California that spawned him?

Clowes: He strikes me as uniquely Californian in some way. In New York, for instance, his personality would be easily explained by the anxiety of living in such a dense high-pressure environment, but in the context of Oakland, his peculiarities seem much more self-generated.

Warren: Does the current, rather dismal state of the State of California show up in your narrative line? Like the Bush era being reflected in Death Ray?

Clowes: I am certainly very interested in what’s going in California but I’m not consciously trying to deal with that in my work, though I think anything you immerse yourself in will come out in your fiction; I am sure you know.

Warren: It would seem so with the art world here—your work seems in keeping with the experimentation in narrative form that California is known for.

Clowes: Maybe in a general, zeitgeisty kind of sense, because I really have no connection at all to that world here. I feel kind of purposely out of touch with that stuff.

Warren: Certainly the zeitgeist of comics changed in the nineties—they became more about social commentary than ever before, and graphic novels shifted to being okay for grownups to read. What was going on in the Bay Area then, and were there particular artists in California you were influenced by?

Clowes: Certainly Robert Crumb and some of the other Underground Cartoonists of the sixties were based in the Bay Area, and they had a great impact on what we were and are doing. Among California artists, my favorites are the architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and above all, Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo, The Birds, and Shadow of a Doubt are three of the greatest Northern California films, along with Coppola’s The Conversation.

Warren: I heard from one of the curators that there was great excitement over your upcoming show at the Oakland Museum of California. That artists like Alicia McCarthy and Barry McGee and Ruby Neri are all great admirers of your work. Do you interact with these artists?


© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: I don’t know them personally. I actually know who those three artists are, but that’s because they’re like the biggest of the big.

Warren: Maybe at this moment they’re having a conversation along the lines of “I’ve never met Daniel Clowes but I know who he is, ’cause he’s one of the greats.”

Clowes: No, I doubt it. I doubt it extremely.

Warren: You lived in Berkeley for a while. Were you relieved to move to Oakland because of a certain second-tierism you’ve mentioned?

Clowes: Yeah. Oakland feels like the weak sister to San Francisco, and you know, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is really the neglected half of the city compared to the north side. When I lived in New York, I lived in Brooklyn, which at that time, was not cool. And it was certainly the lesser part of the city when compared to Manhattan, so I’ve always found myself in those sorts of neighborhoods and I often wonder if I actually feel more comfortable there and that’s why I wind up there, or if it’s just sheer coincidence.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: You also worked for Cracked magazine.

Clowes: Yeah. The sad little brother of Mad.

Warren: I saw a photograph of you, perhaps around that time, posing with some fans in a comic shop, and you wrote about how uncomfortable it was, that you didn’t really know these people and they had your comics in a box in the adult section.

Clowes: Always. Even as a teenager I was interested in comics and wound up being sort of pen pals with some other guys who did comics in that area. You know, you see somebody’s address who’d written a letter to a comic and you’d write them a letter. That’s how you’d meet people back before the Internet days. And you wind up going over to their house for some party or something. We’d all like comics, but I had nothing else at all in common, you know. Even the stuff they liked about comics was the stuff that I actively disliked about it, and it made me even more alienated. You can talk to somebody for a few minutes, however, and the way they respond to the work, you can surmise a lot about them. You see the parts of the work that they respond to and you do feel connected to them in a way that’s much more profound that you’d imagine.

Warren: In all the interviews and public appearances that I’ve read and seen, you’re just fantastically popular, scads of people in the audience, very erudite, self-possessed. I imagine you being put up in the poshest digs with chocolates on the pillow. That hasn’t always been the case?

Clowes: Back before there were graphic novels, when they were just comic books, I would be invited to a comic store in another city and I’d drive fifteen hours to get there and wind up staying on the guy’s floor. Then you’d go to the signing, and you’d realize it’s just the comic shop owner and his five friends. When you’d go out to dinner afterward, you’re like held hostage until three in the morning. I remember one time staying at somebody’s house, sleeping on their couch, and to get to the bathroom, they said you have to go through this door and our roommate’s asleep in there. So I enter this room where this guy was asleep and he woke up yelling, “Who the hell are you?!”

Warren: That’s all changed?

Clowes: Even recently I agreed to do a little slide show for one of my books, and at every single venue they didn’t have the right adapter for my computer and the audience had to just look at my back while we’re trying to figure out the computer. I figured they hated me by the time I could do anything. It rarely goes well.

Warren: You said at readings that people are sometimes disappointed that you are not Enid from Ghost World?

Clowes: Yeah. I mean, I’ve certainly had that feeling of meeting an artist of some kind and you feel like you’re going to connect with some character that you really respond to and you realize it’s just a guy who made that up and spent hours and hours revising it to get it to feel the way it did and it didn’t just spring straight from their id onto the page. It’s something that takes a lot of effort and solitude to come up with.

Warren: Speaking of solitude—when you were thirteen, you idolized Wally Wood [one of Mad magazine’s founding artists] and said at that age you wanted to be a cartoonist even more than you wanted to draw cartoons. That you loved the idea of obsessively drawing all night when no one else was awake, with a cigarette dangling from your lip and a jar of pencils at hand.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Do you now like being a cartoonist more than you like to draw?

Clowes: Back when I was sort of looking to be like Wally Wood, the actual act of sitting down and drawing was often a struggle. I was really trying to learn how to do this stuff and had a vision of how I wanted it to look, a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then to achieve that was much more difficult than I ever imagined it, so I was just constantly frustrated and I was always throwing my pencils on the ground and storming off. I never would finish the day feeling like I did a great job. I would always think Goddammit, I’ve gotta fix this tomorrow. It really was very unsatisfying. It’s only been in the last ten or fifteen years that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do or what I set out to do, or at least I don’t put the pressure on myself to do something that I know is impossible. I kind of know what I’m capable of and so it’s much more fun. Your brain gets acclimated to doing this thing and now I feel utterly at ease when I sit down to draw. It’s tremendously challenging still and there’s still frustrations, but it’s something I can’t not do at this point.

Warren: You’ve talked about how a lot of your projects took off when you thought that your career was over. For instance, Eightball happened because you couldn’t bear to do any more Lloyd Llewellyn, and Wilson came at a time when you were struggling with this weighty tome of a book and really didn’t want to keep waking up in the morning to work on it.


© Daniel Clowes

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: So now that you are a celebrity, maybe even a commodity in some way, does this create expectations that could interfere with your work—like you’re being asked to create the millionth Deborah Butterfield horse?

Clowes: (laughs) You know, I certainly don’t, there’s nothing of that in my daily life. Nobody ever calls me and nobody ever recognizes me on the street, so that there’s no sense of that at all. I mean, really, I feel more anonymous than I ever did. Back when people actually wrote letters and stuff, I used to get thirty–forty letters a week from people and anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night. Now there’s no response at all. So while I’m very self-conscious in many ways, I’m not at all in terms of the work I do. I don’t really think about how anybody’s going to receive it until it’s basically done and it’s too late, and then I start to agonize over it. When I’m working, it’s a very personal thing, not for anybody else, and I’m only thinking about myself. I mean, the one exception to that would have been Mr. Wonderful, that I was doing for the New York Times Magazine. I was actually thinking about an audience, but that very quickly changed.

Warren: You’ve been very free in terms of shifting styles. Wilson, in particular, is noteworthy, as within the comic itself the work goes from more naturalistic illustrations to highly stylized ones in the turn of a page. It seems a sort of lens in which one views the exact same things happening to the same characters in a totally different way. And even when you sort of go more, maybe, classically cartoony, it reads even more tragically, you know, in a really intriguing way.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: How did you arrive at this collection of styles?

Clowes: When I first started, I did all these little strips while I was with my dad in the hospital, stick figures. The work was all just about the writing and the rhythm of the comic strips that had nothing to do with the drawing. When I got home and it finally dawned on me that I was gonna have to do this as a book, I set out to come up with a style that would work for all of these strips. And I found that a certain style would work well for some of them and not for others, and vice versa. I was getting very frustrated by that and I just couldn’t figure out if I was just gonna do some sort of middle-ground style that worked fairly well for everything. . . . Finally, I started looking at all my drawings and trying to figure out what style I was gonna pick, and I realized that all of them together were what I needed to do and that my brain had kind of solved the problem already and I just hadn’t noticed it.

You know, the result was really what the book was about and what I was trying to get across. [It] was something you can really only do in comics, where you can shift a style like that and all of a sudden it shifts the perceptions of the reader, but not to the degree that they get lost. They still follow the story, and after a few of these shifts, they’re used to that and it’s not jarring at all. The shifts become a way that colors the events that are going on. I found you could play with emotion to such subtle degrees by shifting the style; it was endlessly enthralling to work on that every day.

Warren: Wilson, the character, didn’t occur to you first as an image, is that right?

Clowes: With Wilson, the character just emerged without me even knowing what he looked like. He just existed as this stick figure that had a fully formed personality from the very first couple of little thumb-nail drawings I did of him, and it was just a matter of note-taking, just like writing down everything he said. He became one of those very rare characters that can lead you rather than you leading them, and so I just let him go. I would give him a situation and think, what would he do with this? And then, next thing I knew, I’d have a six-panel strip. That was a very different experience from most projects, which are much more of a struggle to get it all to work and for the character to come alive.

Warren: Is starting out with stick figures a pretty typical way for you to work?

Clowes: No. No. I work differently every time.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: When people have asked is Wilson really you, you said something along the lines of being more the person that would be victimized by Wilson.

Clowes: Yeah. I don’t think it was conscious, certainly, but if you look at the guys that Wilson victimizes throughout the course of the story, they’re all basically versions of me.

Warren: All tall, lanky guys.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren:Wilson follows a man through his middle years. Ghost World is about teenagers. I love the way that your work bounces back and forth between these two age categories and it seems there are a lot of similarities between them—facing big changes in your life that might be exciting and might be terrifying—and you’ve got all these big questions about why am I here and what should I be doing, and also some huge feelings of hating the rules of the world, just rejecting them. Is this just my imagination that you’re working back and forth between these two places?

Clowes: I think they’re both really interesting times. When you’re a late teenager it’s kind of your one opportunity to define yourself and so the pressure is on. And I think that’s a really interesting dilemma to have to face. Then in middle age, I feel like it’s very different than what I imagined it was gonna be. You think of yourself as not being so plagued with self-doubt when you hit a certain age.

Warren: That’s for sure.

Clowes: And if anything, if anything, it’s certainly, possibly, worse.

Warren: I have noticed that at two in the morning.

Clowes: Yeah.

Warren: Wondering if that story line is going to work or not . . . Do you agonize over narrative? I mean, when people think of comics, they think about the visuals carrying the story.

Clowes: In comics, really, the writing is the drawing in a lot of ways.

Warren: But it’s not like the words don’t matter, that if you can draw a picture you can necessarily make a strip.

Clowes: Yet, when I’m writing I would never think in terms of blocks of text or, you know, in terms of dialogue or anything like that. I think in terms of how the images are going to go together and tell the story. And I would hope that in any of my books, if you couldn’t read English, you could still figure out what’s going on in the story. The visual component would let you know the basics of what’s happening. And that’s what’s really interesting to me.

Warren: You do all of your work from top to bottom, your own inking and coloring and lettering?

Clowes: Yeah, absolutely.

Warren: That’s unusual. Do you ever think, gosh, I just hate lettering. I’m sending it out to have it done.

Clowes: I love the lettering, but I hate, I hate doing the computer coloring. That’s the one thing that I think at some point, I could at least hire somebody else to do all the computer files and I could pick the colors, but I haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. I have, like, separation anxiety. It’s hard to let go.


© Daniel Clowes

Warren: There’s something about seeing the forms and colors in place to know if it’s really right.

Clowes: Yeah. That’s true and you know, there’s something about getting a book back from a printer and knowing I did every mark on the page. There’s nothing at all that’s not mine except for the UPC code on the back—which if I could do it by hand, I would.

Warren: It must be interesting, then, to relinquish your work to a museum to present it to the public. How did the exhibit for the Oakland Museum come about and what’s it like to go from comic book to museum wall?

Clowes: A curator named Susan Miller first approached me around five years ago with the idea of putting together a museum show, and through her tireless efforts and some luck it wound up going to my favorite local museum. I’m very curious how it will feel to see people experiencing the work in such a different way. My hope, of course, is that they will see the original pages as artifacts of the process of making comics and will seek out the books, which are the actual final works.

Interviews

Stewart Brand

by Stuart Kendall

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

On Governments, Guilds, and Getting Things Done

The Whole Earth Catalog, Fall 1968

Stewart Brand is arguably best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, but he’s been an activist for environmental and related causes for over forty years. His book How Buildings Learn addressed architectural reuse and longevity, something he’s also explored in his work with the Long Now Foundation. His latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, explores the science and the social science behind the challenges of climate change. Stuart Kendall recently spoke with Brand for Boom.

SK: You are well known for your advocacy of amateur innovations and personal technologies, but in Whole Earth Discipline, you aren’t as distrustful of the government or of large-scale, multinational corporations as many of your fellow environmental activists might like. Was there a change in your thinking at some point? Why are you willing to work with government agencies and corporations when so many of your colleagues in the environmental movement are not?

Brand: I’ve done work for the government, a fair amount through Global Business Network, primarily with national security and intelligence people. I like very much working with them because they are serious people who take the long term seriously. They study to learn things about any event that they are a part of, and they often apply the lessons they learn, and I enjoy that.

I think I’m useful to them because partly I’m outside the beltway. The Global Business Network is intentionally based on the West Coast where we can draw upon the whole gamut of creative stuff going on here. That’s one of the things that we’re valued for by companies all over the world and other governments, like Singapore, as well as our own government in Washington and indeed here in Sacramento.

Stewart Brand. PHOTO BY TED/MARIA AUFMUTH.

But personally, I prefer a bottom up solution to problems because I think it is much more appropriate to the situation since it is close to it. In Whole Earth Discipline, I pay a good deal of attention to squatter cities and slums where people are bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. I guess it’s no accident that I live in a former squatter community in Sausalito, in the houseboat area, where again a bunch of relatively impoverished maritime artisans and artists and riffraff got themselves a place to live and defended it until it got gentrified and became a legal part of the town. That’s happening all over the world to people by the billion.

SK: You write that most innovation comes from amateurs, since enthusiastic amateurs who aren’t bound by institutional limitations often have a great deal of freedom.

Brand: Yes, that’s exactly right. Hackers have always interested me. In another part of Whole Earth Discipline, I try to encourage bio-hacking. I would like to see the same thing in biotech that happened with computer hackers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and on to this day with cell phone or smartphone hacking or web hacking.

More broadly, there is now set in motion, partly by Tim O’Reilly, this whole Maker phenomenon, Maker Faires, Maker magazine, etc. Some of the same thing is going on in science from iGEM gatherings [International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition], which are MIT-based and the FIRST robotic competitions that Dean Kamen set in motion, he’s also East Coast-based. Tim O’Reilly though is very Californian in orientation and his publications are coder empowering with Whole Earth Catalog-like access to tools kind of stuff, access to techniques in most cases there. Grassroots is abounding.

Of course, that’s not the only story. There’s lots of stuff that is done by proper well-paid engineers in proper profitable corporations and I think the combination is part of what makes everything go forward.

SK: Many of your projects over the years have involved working with groups of close friends or collaborators, several of whom have been consistent even as the projects have changed.

Brand: [Laughs] Yeah.

SK: One the one hand, from a managerial standpoint, a lesson in teambuilding might be gleaned from those experiences, but on the other hand, they might just evidence the importance of friendship in community-building, in life and in work. Have you been trying to balance friendship and work or maybe familiarity and reliability of insight with a diversity of opinions in these groups?

Brand: I put my theory of guilds up on John Brockman’s theedge.org World Question Center. I said that the most effective people I know have a close cadre of people whose work and thoughts they pay close attention to and who pay close attention to them. I got to looking around and indeed discovered that there were six or seven people whose thoughts I always want to know.

And sometimes we publically collaborate on projects. Kevin Kelly and I have started several things, starting back with the Hackers Conference and the WELL [the Whole Earth Electronic Link, several things with the Long Now Foundation where he is very thickly involved. A while ago we did an All Species Inventory project. My wife was also involved with that one, as she had been with the Hackers Conference. As you point out these are very different subjects but we knew how to work together and there is no greater shortcut to getting things done than a few people who know how to work together.

There are other people I pay attention to all the time. One of whom I seldom see physically is Brian Eno. We exchange email practically daily and have been for twelve years or so. Peter Schwartz is a formal co-founder at Global Business Network. Alexander Rose and Danny Hillis are in the thick of the Long Now Foundation, as I am. And I’m married to one of my guild, Ryan Phelan, so we’re basically conspiring all of the time.

Whether this is common or in any way Californian, I don’t know. But I think it is more common than has been noticed and it is probably something worth drawing out when you talk to people about their design life: who are the non-direct reports that they work with?

There are a lot us who are not interested in a lot of people’s opinions but rather in a few people’s opinions.

Storm system in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: In that sense, you would describe yourself as an elitist?

Brand: Oh yeah, absolutely. My feeling is that elite is how things used to get done in the world and it’s all over the place. Hackers were an elite. Beat poets were an elite. An elite is a kind of self-selecting meritocracy that gets a sense of itself as a group, a flock or something, birds of a feather of some sort. The individuals within the group give each other permission to be better than they already are and sometimes they rise to amazing heights. So I’m all in favor of elites.

SK: The subtitle of Whole Earth Discipline, in its hardcover edition, was an eco-pragmatist manifesto. What is eco-pragmatism?

Brand: Desperation. I had more trouble subtitling that book … in fact, I changed the subtitle for the paperback edition because the book was not doing all that well. The publisher and the agent expected the book to be a huge bestseller and they were shocked that it wasn’t, so we made adjustments in the paperback.

With the term eco-pragmatism, I was trying to do something similar to what I did with the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a counter-counter-culture publication. I was immersed enough in the counter-culture to see that there were some things that I thought were not being perceived properly, mainly just practical, how to do things. So the Whole Earth Catalog was technology friendly, and technique friendly, and had no politics at all. I was partly following Buckminster Fuller’s lead in that respect.

Whole Earth Discipline was me trying to bring environmentalists to a problem-solving mode rather than a mode of endless complaint, of slowing everything down, to get them away from the Romantic notions that we had gotten into partly from the successes that we’d had in the 70s and 80s, and the moral leadership that we elected to follow, and so on. All of that was proving to be completely inadequate to thinking about or actually dealing with things like climate change. So Whole Earth Discipline was in a sense a counter-environmental publication trying to bring practicality and pragmatism to a movement that had let itself become non-, even anti-pragmatic, almost.

There’s been some success in that direction. I’ve heard the leadership of the Nature Conservancy has adopted the book as a guide and I see it surfacing in funny places in funny ways. But it has not sold quite as well as Silent Spring.

Saharan dust crosses Western Europe. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: [Laughs] Give it time.

Brand: We’ll see. There are other books coming along in the same vein. Mark Lynas’ book The God Species is very much in the same frame and better in some respects. Both books are intended to be green programs for this century.

SK: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline presents the notion of geo-engineering, effecting large-scale positive change to the earth over long periods of time.

Brand: The basic environmental project really is managing the commons. The commons is the oceans and the atmosphere and biodiversity and so on, all that was here before us. We can bang on it pretty hard, a lot of it is extremely robust but it goes better if we back off half a turn and don’t hit natural systems quite as hard, quite as often. But some of this stuff has been bashed on so long that it is headed over a cliff. Greenhouse gases and global temperature are one area. Acidification of the oceans may be another. In those cases, it is not just a matter of protecting but of repairing.

When the damage is at a global atmospheric scale and you want to repair it, your actions need to be at a global atmospheric scale. To the extent that you can do that by just cutting back on greenhouse gases, on carbon, bio-char, whatever, those solutions are best, but if that is not enough, then you need to think about taking action to undo the previous action.

We’ve been terra-forming Earth badly. We don’t have the choice of stopping. We only have the choice of doing it well. And we’re in the process of learning what that means. Just because we don’t know enough now doesn’t mean that we won’t know enough soon. And the only way to get there is to do the research.

SK: It’s less a question of backing off or setting protection as our limit and more of thinking in terms of repairing and indeed building something that can flourish.

Brand: Also, in terms of protection, here I’m following Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy, protection becomes a little illusory when you tell yourself that what you are protecting is pristine, pristine forest, pristine tundra or whatever. Telling yourself that you have to protect it very assiduously because it is very fragile. Both of those things are wrong. Nothing is pristine and it hasn’t been for a long time. And few things are fragile.

Alien invasive species, for example, which I have developed the aesthetic of being against … I used to be against eucalyptus trees, in California, but time went by, and by and by, I saw what the wind does to the leaves and that they are green all year long, which is rather nice, and full moonlight on a eucalyptus tree is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and they seem to be prospering here and they aren’t really doing that much harm. It’s time they got their green card.

But there are forms of alien invasives that are tremendously harmful. One of them, especially on remote islands, is any new kind of predator, like the brown tree snake in Guam, which can wreak total havoc. Goats and rats on islands. Take the goats off and a lot of biodiversity comes back.

So nothing is across the board.

Nothing is quite pristine, so don’t bother to protect that. And alien invasives are not the spawn of the devil, so don’t get too worked up about that. And then basically it’s gardening and negotiating. Neither of those things is particularly romantic, but it’s the reality. Our impact on natural systems is increasingly a gardener’s role. And we’ve got to negotiate with each other on how to make that go forward in a way that gets better over time rather than worse over time.

Dust storm in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA.

SK: It seems like friendship matters here as well, in the role of the gardener, who needs to know the garden best, what to trust and what not to.

Brand: One of the things gardeners learn is distrust. Plants never do quite what you had in mind. You can hammer on them until they do, then you wind up with bonsai. But by and large it’s a comic dialogue between species that goes on in the garden. Michael Pollan said that and he’s right.

In terms of design, and this is maybe a design aesthetic that we are talking about here, the total design approach is that one is going to dominate every single aspect of the designed entity. I suppose that is one of the things that I was inveighing against in my book How Buildings Learn. When that happens you have an unlivable building. To make it livable, the occupants and remodelers are going to have to undermine the purity that the signature architect wrought. The architect will go away all pissed off and that’s just too bad. Hopefully the building is forgiving enough that the people who are living and working there find it to be a place they can feel pretty good about. A theme that is emerging here is suspicion of purity in all its forms.

SK: And along with that, a more measured approach: there you have the eco-pragmatist.

Brand: Yeah, the eco-pragmatist is aware of theories and agendas but is really an engineer who is just looking for what works.

SK: Rather than seeing things in black and white, us and them, as was fairly common in the 1960s, the approach that you’ve taken more recently has been more synthetic, appropriately suspicious but not absolutely against anything, not ruling anything out too quickly, but not accepting anything too quickly either. Being willing to change your mind.

Brand: Yeah, I expect that’s right. There are two heuristics going on there. One I quoted in Whole Earth Discipline: I wonder how many things I’m dead wrong about. And then, the opposite version of that: you never know who is going to be right. For all I know, there’s some Tea Partier out there, who I generally disapprove of, who has actually got something right. We gotta keep an eye out for that.

Interviews

The Art of Crossing Borders: Migrant Rights and Academic Freedom

by Louis Warren
Photography by Spring Warren

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

An interview with Ricardo Dominguez

Ricardo Dominguez, Professor of New Media, Performance Art, and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2 at the University of California, San Diego, specializes in electronic civil disobedience as an art form. In January, 2010, he was placed under university investigation for misuse of research funds, a charge that could have resulted in his termination. At issue was the work of his research organizations, b.a.n.g. lab (for “bits, atoms, neurons, genes”) and his Electronic Disturbance Theater. Dominguez directed these organizations in creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an application that could allow immigrants to use GPS technology in cheap cell phones to find water caches in the desert between Mexico and Southern California and to access poems, which Dominguez calls “survival poetry.” Before the investigation was completed, several congressmen demanded punitive action and anti-immigrant pundits on cable news networks demanded Dominguez be fired. Louis Warren sat down with Ricardo Dominguez to find out what happened.

Louis Warren: When was it that you realized that the university might actually fire you for your research?

Ricardo Dominguez: Well, that was on January 11, 2010. I received an email from Accounting and Auditing at UC San Diego saying that they were going to initiate an investigation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project.

Warren: Was this a surprise?

Dominguez: I had had no indication up to that point that there was institutional concern about the project. Up to that point, I had received funding from UCSD. I had received letters of commendation for my teaching in these areas of electronic civil disobedience and border disturbance technology.

Warren: You had been involved in this kind of work for years, in New York and in Florida, before you got hired at UC San Diego. So, it’s not like the people at UCSD who hired you didn’t know what they were getting, right?

Dominguez: Indeed, it was the track record that initiated the conversation for me getting hired.

Warren: How did you develop the idea of electronic civil disobedience prior to coming to UC San Diego?

Dominguez: The original theory that we had in the 1990s was that electronic civil disobedience could only be really developed by those who had a coherent understanding of digital bodies, and those would be hackers. And that it would have to be a secret cell of hackers who had an intimate knowledge of code to initiate electronic civil disobedience. We felt that activists who were bound to the question of the streets would never initiate electronic civil disobedience because they had a history of Luddite quality, for good reason. But we felt, and we made a very harsh rhetorical statement, the streets are dead capital.

Warren: The streets are … .?

Dominguez: Dead capital. We felt that cybercapitalism was lifting off from the streets—that electronic civil disobedience would be, really, the only way to disturb the conditions of cybercapitalism, because the streets were now no longer bound to the flows of capital. But we also felt that hackers didn’t have a politics. They were only really bound to a question of politics of code qua code. The politics of the street, of the meat space, were something they wouldn’t really care about. So, we found then that activists would not create electronic civil disobedience and really, hackers wouldn’t do it ’cause it wasn’t in their particular frame, right? So it had to be artists.

Warren: So where is the “performance” in this performance art?

Dominguez: I think it is interesting to try to imagine the conditions of data bodies and real bodies interacting within each other as a performance.

Warren: You were uniting activists and hackers to create “hacktivists,” hackers with a political goal? Is that it?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: How is electronic civil disobedience related to the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: Well, as I was saying, one of the problems that we had conceptually with the original idea of electronic civil disobedience was that it was dependent on a cadre of hackers [and] on a certain knowledge of technology. Which is a similar assumption to what the RAND Corporation had done in their definitions of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime. You needed infrastructure. You needed instant tactical knowledge of code. You needed a semantic awareness of how to transfer that information between code builders and machines.

Warren: So you’ve got the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the purpose of which is to get real bodies, real bodies to cross the border, cross these desert spaces without dying of thirst, for example. How is this performance art?

Dominguez: Performance art is about the body and transgression. It’s about the relationship of the body to space, right? For instance, with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, we are taking a technology, the GPS system and a cell phone system, which, again, are very attuned, at this moment in time, to attachment to the body. And so the Transborder Immigrant Tool does continue the history of electronic civil disobedience in creating a code that basically performs the belief that there is a higher law that needs to be brought to the foreground: a universal common law of the rights of safe passage. And so the tool calls forth this sense that there is a community of artists who are willing to foreground the higher law. We connect to the histories of higher law within the US, from civil disobedience to the underground railroad. So, the performative matrix that b.a.n.g. lab and Electronic Disturbance Theater has always tried to establish is indeed a deep connection between code and the body—a deep connection between code and those bodies that are outside of the regime of concern in terms of rights, in terms of consideration, in terms of being a community worthy of some sense of universal rights.

Warren: Do you want to abolish the border?

Dominguez: I do feel that whatever rights commodities have, individuals should have those same rights. A Coca-Cola can has more rights of protection in the flow across borders than the people who make the can, who fill the can, and pack the cans. And often they are devastated enough in that process that they feel they have to go elsewhere. And NAFTA seems to indicate that these commodities have [rights] and a right of flow. So, to me, transborders, trans-California, would be about an equation wherein the equality of the commodities would have a direct impact on the equality of the individuals who are the very flows of production there.

Warren: Have immigrants actually used the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: No. The investigation that started really slowed us down because our lawyers felt that to move forward would’ve put us in some jeopardy in terms of the investigation. But what we did do is, we continued to work with the NGOs and communities that leave water caches because they are a very important part of the project. And so we’ve been very lucky in that they’ve been very supportive and see the tool function. So what was supposed to be like a month long investigation turned out to be about ten months. And we accidentally discovered that we had been cleared. They never sent us the final “you’re cleared” statement. It was only by sheer accident that I discovered that we had been cleared of misuse of funds.

Warren: What triggered the investigation?

Dominguez: I did an interview with a magazine called Vice. This was picked up by Boing Boing [the online magazine], which is a major hub for exchange, and then it was picked up by NPR. This was in September/October of 2009; the project started in 2007. Before that, we had been funded, awards, all that sort of stuff, but it was internal. So this Vice interview went viral, and the nativists started getting involved. Every time there was a story on Fox News, we’d get slammed by hate mail. [In] most of it, they wanted to kill us in one way or another. We were accused of creating a cadre rebel army within the UC system. And that’s what started the university investigation.

Warren: How did Congress get involved?

Dominguez: It was midway through that investigation that three Republican Congressmen sent this letter requesting that the university investigate us about misuse of funds. Now, the irony is that Congressman Hunter [one of the three who sent the letter] is the nephew of John Hunter, and he is the person who started Water Station, Inc. about ten years ago. And he’s a hardcore Republican guy.

Warren: Water Station, Inc.—they cache water in the desert for immigrants?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: But they come from the political right?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: Why do they do this?

Dominguez: Well, I guess some of them might actually believe the New Testament. And they don’t want people to die unnecessarily. They want to help their brothers and sisters.

Warren: What’s the disposition of the university investigation of your lab?

Dominguez: Nothing was discovered in the investigation. No misuse of funds.

Warren: When some people think of art, they’re looking for a painting that will match their sofa. You seem to operate from the premise that art should make us uncomfortable with our assumptions—that there is something profoundly discomforting and political about true art. Is that right?

Dominguez: An artwork should create a sense that there is something that is occurring, something is happening. It should disturb the normal ontology of things. It seems to be unframing rather than framing. And it initiates a deeper currency of conversation beyond the museum or gallery. It forces art onto the front pages as opposed to the leisure page or the technology page or the art page, or somewhere in the back of the newspaper. It initiates a dialogue about art with congressmen. The truth of painting I would say is around the question of the frame. And for us, artwork is about unbinding that frame and letting it spill out into the conditions of the social space.

Warren: How do you see yourself in relation to artists in times past, say the Impressionists or anyone else? Were they disturbing the political world in parallel or analogous ways to what you’re doing?

Dominguez: Our work is more in the minor key. We are outside of the landscape of the major important work. But for us, the minor condition is much more important.

Warren: You mean minor as in dissonant, not minor as in less important?

Dominguez: No, no. I mean, for people who support the most conservative definition of art, Kafka is minor literature. Because that’s what Kafka called it. And certainly we saw during the cultural wars that performance art by women—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, art that deals with questions of women’s bodies or lesbianism—were not part of what is considered the frame of art. The National Endowment for the Arts was attacked for funding it. Tim Miller’s performances of being a gay man were not considered something that should be funded, either. Mapplethorpe’s imagery—not to be funded, right? And so we fall much more along the minor literature, the minor art of the Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, perhaps to some kinship with Mapplethorpe and others along that particular line. We are concerned more about the qualities not of the exterior presentation, but with the internal mechanism of what is being produced and its intent.

Warren: In a sense, museums are ways of containing art. The art that you do is radically uncontained. It bursts not just the boundaries of the building but of the nation—thus, the Transborder Immigrant Tool … .

Dominguez: Right, but at the same time, we insist we are artists. We do want to have a conversation with art. So, we have no anxiety about [speaking] in a loud way. Everybody in this research team are all out-of-the-closet artists: Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand. We’re not activists, we are artists. Our interest is not GPS global positioning systems but global poetic systems.

Warren: Is the Transborder Immigrant Tool being used or are similar things being devised for other borders around the world?

Dominguez: Well, we hope. The code can be used by other communities of artists to deal with their own poetics and aesthetics around their borders, to create transborders.

Warren: Are transborders places of crossing? Are they spaces between nations? What are they?

Dominguez: If you count all the folks who are crossing borders across the arcs of the world, it’s a pretty large population—larger than some countries. So the concept of the “transborder” as undocumented bodies moving between states is a way of imagining them as a flowing nation state that perhaps should have their own transborder rights, transborder rights to health, education, labor rights—in the not too distant future we may all be stateless undocumented bodies whose only rights will be transborder rights.

Interviews

Interview with Yolanda Cruz

by Miroslava Chávez-García
From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

boom_beyondborders

A filmmaker documents depopulation in Mexico

I recently sat down with Yolanda Cruz, a filmmaker, graduate of UCLA’s film school, and 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow, to talk about filmmaking, her indigenous origins as a Chatino (one of sixteen indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico), and her views of indigenous peoples in California and, more broadly, across the globe. Cruz has produced seven films, including her latest, “2501 Migrants,” which depicts the unique work of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist from Oaxaca. The film examines how Santiago uses his artwork to bring attention to the migrants who have left the region and inadvertently created what has been called “a landscape of cultural and domestic abandonment.” In our conversation, she mused about the power of filmmaking, organizing indigenous communities, dispelling myths about indigenous people, immigration and globalization, perseverance, and education.

What inspired you to go into filmmaking?
When I came to the US in the 1990s, I came with the intention of learning English and returning to Mexico to get a degree in law or teaching. But because I come from a very active community in Oaxaca, I was very active in Olympia, Washington, where I lived and went to college. I studied photography and creative writing. Then I took some media classes and realized that media was a very effective tool for organizing. That led me to study other forms of filmmaking around the world. I was so amazed with what film could do that I wanted to do one on the revolutions of Latin America. I think that because the idea was pretty crazy, I got the attention of the Selection Committee at UCLA. And, to my surprise, I was accepted to film school.

I had to fight to find a place for my voice. When I got there, to UCLA, it was difficult to adapt because it was like going back to my years in Mexico. We were told what to do. I became a part of a group of Oaxacans living in LA, more so as an individual than a filmmaker. For my thesis, I chose to do a documentary about a community activist from Oaxaca, a man who was so passionate for his community that he spent five years of his personal savings to return to his village and make an offering. I submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing how competitive it was, and it was accepted. When I learned that, I was like, oh my God. The entire experience was overwhelming too because it was my first festival and I got a lot of attention I didn’t want. I realized that my film was different from what I had originally wanted to do in film school, which was to organize the Oaxacan community.

In many ways, it is possible to argue that your films relay messages about what it means to be a global citizen living in a global society.
I think so. But I also think that my films dispel the myth that indigenous people do not contribute to the global society. They do more than just maintain the traditions and history. I don’t just go around asking them to tell me about their old stories. Indigenous people are concerned with what is happening around the world and I want to give them a chance to express their opinion.

What do you think about the formation of Oaxacan communities—with intimate ties to Oaxaca— in places like California and the United States, more broadly?
I think it’s important to study these communities because Mexico and the United States are neighbors and they need to collaborate more on slowing the process of immigration. I think this involves improving the life of a particular community. But I think it’s more difficult to slow the process [now] and we need to find new ways of working together.

In “2501 Migrants,” you tell the story of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist based in Oaxaca. What inspired you to tell his story?
Most of my films are about organizing the Oaxacan community in Mexico and the United States. I learned of Santiago’s story a few years back. I thought his project to create hundreds of clay statutes representing the migrants who had left the region was a little crazy. But then I understood that as an artist, his dream was to populate his village because he felt emptiness. Santiago himself left Oaxaca and later returned. He and I have a lot in common. We both immigrated when we were really young and now we’re both trying to do something for our community even though the community never asked. We all want to be the voice of our communities, [have a say] about how things should be, but then we leave. Unlike the locals, we are immigrants who have the privilege of going back and forth to the United States. In the film, I started exploring this idea and I think it gives the film a very honest perspective. It is not about how once Santiago creates a statue, everybody’s happy.

Are you satisfied with the reception that “2501 Migrants” has received?
I don’t know how satisfied I am, but I am overwhelmed and grateful. Initially I thought, who in their right mind is going to follow this kind of story? I thought that like my other films, it was going to have a very select group of universities and museums screening it and that’s it. But no, it’s had wider appeal. I think it is because people see art as neutral ground, not political, and it allows for a conversation to begin about the larger issues. Plus, when people hear about this eccentric guy, the statues, and the immensity of the project, they become interested.

What do you see as the film’s message for people in Oaxaca or in Mexico in general?
If you look at Alejandro Santiago, he didn’t have a formal education; in Oaxaca, it’s a privilege to have that. He went to high school and trained himself to be an artist even though there is no art school in Oaxaca. For a year, he would go to the library everyday. He’d do that as a job. He’d go from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and he would take a lunch break, and then he would go back at two and stay until eight. There are a lot challenges indigenous artists have to endure. That’s something I always say to young people—we have to motivate ourselves. If you want things to change and to improve the quality of life, you need education and self-motivation. When I started out, I did not think about the competitiveness of filmmaking. I thought, I want to do this and I’m going to push myself to do it. Migrants face a lot of obstacles; they have to take action on their own to achieve their dreams.

Given that you’re originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, a Chatino, and you speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Chatino, how do you identify yourself?
When I moved to the city of Oaxaca, I was indigenous. Then, when I came to the US, I was Latina, a Mexican. And, now, when I go back to Mexico, I’m Chatino, and when I go to Europe, I’m an immigrant. I embrace all the labels. I think it’s very important to recognize that people have fought really hard for their identities. But more than anything, I would consider myself an indigenous filmmaker.

What kind of advice would you give to young Latinos or Latinas who are interested in going into film?
If they have a story they’re dying to tell, they should pursue it in school or with someone in the industry who can teach them. In order to succeed in this business, you have to be unique and I think we all have unique stories. We are all special. But sometimes it can be discouraging when people don’t respond well.

Can you talk about your next project?
It’s about a boy who lives in a town [where] all the grown men have left, and the boy wants to do the same. But he’s waiting to grow up a bit, since he’s eleven-years-old. Then one day he finds a refrigerator and he decides to sell it, thinking it’s his ticket to the United States. Yet the refrigerator keeps breaking down and giving him a lot of headaches and he can’t sell it. Essentially, it’s a comedy about survival.

Interviews

Place, Poetry, and the Sunset Western Garden Book

by Louis Warren and Spring Warren
photographs by Spring Warren

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

An interview with Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder’s poetry has explored Zen, nature, and labor for over fifty years, and in that time has profoundly shaped life and letters on the West Coast, in the United States, and even in Asia. Louis and Spring Warren recently sat down with Snyder at his house, Kitkiddizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to talk about how he became a Californian and what the future holds for West Coast poetry.

LW: What does it mean to be a “California poet”?

Snyder: Well, that’s the question. It’s very difficult to talk about. Actually, there are four Californias, or five Californias even. You know, there is a split between the south and the north. And when I am traveling in the rest of the world, Europe or Asia, people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Northern California. I don’t say California, I say Northern California. They know right away what I mean.

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LW: You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Now you consider yourself a Northern Californian. Why did you choose California? What made you decide to work from here rather than Oregon or Washington?

Snyder: Well, I was born in San Francisco, actually, but spent my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, near Seattle. My paternal grandparents were well settled into the Northwest from the time it was still a territory in Kitsap County on the west side of Puget Sound. Anyway, I don’t recall ever thinking there was a serious division between British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, or even Northern California. And to begin with, weather patterns and a lot of the ecology extend well south of the California-Oregon border. In fact, there’s a lot here in California that belongs to the Northwest. The gardening zone for this area here, for the whole Sierra Nevada foothills actually, is gardening zone number seven in the Sunset Garden Book, which is the same zone as the Rogue River Valley.

LW: In Oregon?

Gary: Yes—zone 7 goes up as far as Roseburg in southern Oregon.

SW: So maybe when you go overseas and people ask where you’re from, you should say zone 7.

Snyder: You know, I could say that in California, and most people don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to be a gardener to know the zones in the Sunset Garden Book. But they’re very good. They’re very subtle, too. I have fun arguing and talking about these things. I say California’s borders are extremely misdrawn and the two desert zones really belong with their own area… . There’s an idea I take from Kroeber’s work in California Indian anthropology. He uses the term “heartland” or “core California” for California Indian culture as based in the Great Central Valley and radiating south and north a certain distance and over to the coast.

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SW: So to your mind, “core California” is the Central Valley?

Snyder: Based in the Central Valley. Along the rivers. And over along the rivers all the way to the Bay. But of course, the Central Valley was a big marsh and it was full of waterfowl. Back before European contact, Indians didn’t really live in the Central Valley; they lived on the edges on the west side and on the edges of the east side. And if they lived on the west side, they made trips regularly over to the coast because they liked the taste of oysters. And if they lived on the edge of the foothills, they would come up higher to get away from the hot weather in the summer and also they could get yew wood for yew bows which were great trade items. So there’s all sorts of reasons to work these things out.

LW: How does the radicalism of San Francisco and Northern California fit in all this?

Snyder: The west side of the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia south to Big Sur, and possibly farther south, has had, for example, since the very early twentieth century, a number of Utopian socialist communities, has had a number of visionary and often left wing writers. It has had a number of very strong women writers.

LW: You’ve mentioned borders being misdrawn. It sounds like you feel they don’t match the complexities of land and culture?

Snyder: Oh yeah, straight lines with a ruler.

LW: What about the border with Mexico?

Snyder: That’s another one. The history of that tells you how clearly arbitrary it was… . And the same with the Canadian border. Because the west was occupied, settled, and began to be exploited far too rapidly for people to get much sense of where they were or what was going on or what were the right places to put things. And that’s why I would argue 400 to 500 years from now it will all be different. It won’t look the way it looks now. People will finally get around to trying to straighten it out.

SW: So what drew you to California? Was it San Francisco?

Snyder: The first visit I recall, I was down here staying with my aunt when I was nine years old for a month so that they could take me to see the World’s Fair.

LW: In San Francisco?

Snyder: On Treasure Island. I remember seeing the Chinese dive through burning hoops. They had the Chinese jugglers and acrobats that were quite memorable.

SW: So, after your childhood visit to San Francisco, when did you come to live there?

Snyder: My mother and father split when I was still in high school. He came down here sort of tentatively. He worked for the Veterans Administration. So he came down to try that job out and as it happened, he and my mother never got back together again. So he was living down here and then he remarried. She remained in Portland some years longer. But that gave me a foothold to come down here. And I think the first time I did that was when I was seventeen hitchhiking on my way back from New York to Portland, I curved around to go through San Francisco to see my father. I found it kind of a bizarre place.

SW: How so?

Snyder: [Laughs] Well, it is kind of bizarre, don’t you think? I touched base here, then I was going back to Indiana University to go to graduate school. I made my final decision there to quit graduate school in anthropology and linguistics and come down to Berkeley for graduate school, so then I made the trip back west. But I didn’t start at Berkeley for a year and a half. So, I got an apartment in North Beach and I worked on the docks. And while living and working in San Francisco at that time, right in North Beach, it was on Telegraph Lane, I met all kinds of people. I was writing some poetry already then, and thought that this is where I should make connections and figure out what’s going on in poetry. The Zen world was already getting started there. Alan Watts was giving talks on Zen out in Pacific Heights. It was 1952, ’53. It was a very lively place.

SW: What are you working on now?

Snyder: I’m working on an East West Transpacific Buddhist Memoir with a lot of, a certain amount of criticism and a certain amount of gossip in it. And then the other book I’m working on with a friend of mine who helped build this house in the summer of 1970, and he’s an architect now and he is also a neighbor, he and I are going to do a book together here on the building of this house.

SW: That sounds like a fantastic project. You built this house in 1970. How?

Snyder: We all camped out down in the meadow, had no electricity and no power tools… . It was like nineteenth century. Old Jimmy Coughlin, who died when he was 96, came over here one time and he watched us working and he looked at our tools and he said I’ve never seen anything like this in eighty years.

. . . .

LW: How would I know a West Coast poem?

Snyder: It’s not exactly loose, but the lines don’t all line up as much as they do on the East Coast. A lot of [writers] are women. Of course, they’ve got a lot of women on the East Coast, too. But it’s the content and the aesthetic approach to experience things different than it is, as Philip Whalen described his poetry, a graph of the mind moving. If you read, which you could easily do, especially if I Xeroxed it and mailed it to you, Leslie Scalapino’s introduction to Philip Whalen’s collected poetry… is a very good description of something that is basic to most West Coast poetry.

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LW: It’s not the same as Beat poetry?

Snyder: It’s different from Beat poetry, which I am constantly trying to explain to people because I am often still categorized as a beat writer. And I try to make the distinction between Beat as a historical phenomenon, which I was involved in, and as an aesthetic and a source of a kind of writing, which I am not involved in. Once I point that out, most people with half a brain see it. And so it’s simple in that light. Leslie Scalapino just recently died of pancreatic cancer. She was sixty-two. And we all feel very bad about that cause she still had a lot to do. She lived in Berkeley and was the author of six or seven books. And was not publicly famous anywhere except on the West Coast. But what a smart woman.

I would say that West Coast poetic aesthetics is more defined by a kind of empiricism, a presence in the moment, concreteness, physicality often, and does not rely on wit or fancy so much as East Coast poetry, which is characterized often by what I would call intellectual fancy, as distinct from imagination. Fancy and imagination are not the same thing, as T.S. Eliot said in one of his literary essays years ago. East Coast poetry is more internal or personal, more about me and my feelings and what is happening in my complex life, and human-centered. There’s an enormous amount of openness to the landscape and openness to the physical world in West Coast poetry, and it has been expanding itself that way. One of the first people, the first person that you could call a real West Coast poet is Robinson Jeffers. The second one is Kenneth Rexroth.

SW: And to your mind, what are the other influences in West Coast poetry?

Snyder: There’s a big influence from East Asia, too. I’m not the only one who reads classical Chinese, but a lot of people read it in translation and took it on, and it became a significant influence. Robert Sund is a very good example. Jane Hirshfield, now there’s a good example: a woman living in Marin County who wrote a book called Nine Gates, about poetry—prose book, prose essays—that is all derived from basically Japanese aesthetics. There’s a lot of very interesting people that are doing these things.

SW: Do you think that East Coast publishers take California seriously enough?

Snyder: Well, you know, that’s another thing that I’ve gotten over being surprised by, but there is an ignorant dismissal of the West Coast in a lot of the East Coast intelligentsia. There is an identification of it with materialism and sort of trivial attitudes. And then it’s almost as if they’re saying, “Oh yeah, and you’ve got a lot of brown people there, too. A lot of Asians.”

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LW: What new contributions are Asians making to West Coast Poetry?

Snyder: Right now I’m reading an anthology of Hmong poetry produced by the Hmong Writer’s Circle based in Fresno and Merced.

SW: How is it?

Snyder: It’s not like other West Coast poetry.

LW: But it is West Coast poetry, in a way?

Snyder: Yes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. It is, well, it’s much more like Hispanic poetry. Which is to say it’s about their experience of trying to be in America and it’s about—a lot of it’s about things in Hmong culture that they’re still trying to connect with, and a lot of it is about their mother and father and grandmother, and a lot of it is personal pain about making the wrong communications, and a lot of it is very, very interesting because it’s like one poem, I was just reading this, it says well everybody in my neighborhood is a Hmong. And there’s a couple of shaman down the street that we can get but then there’s also some Christian Hmongs so we don’t know which to go to. And then my mother gets sick and she wants both. And a lot of sexism that they’re trying to fight, you know, find their way out of. And you know, many Hmong girls marry at thirteen or fourteen and some have their first babies and drop out of high school to start having babies. And so all of that is very much up there and in there. And so like it belongs to Central Valley culture, it really does.

LW: So is this a new strand in West Coast poetry then?

Snyder: Yeah, it’s going to be a book from Heyday Press. And I’m writing one of the back cover blurbs for it. It’s already in the works, you know? Pos Moua, who was a student at Davis, he is one of the editors of it. He was a student of mine, gosh, fifteen years ago now. The only Hmong I know who graduated from UC Davis in Creative Writing.

LW: Does this give you hope for California? Is this an optimistic story?

Snyder: You know, I don’t know. I mean, it’s all froth on the beach in a way. What will the next generation and the next generation of Hmong be writing like? It’s like the generations of Japanese Americans. Nisei [the first generation born in the US] don’t write poetry. Sansei [the children of the Nisei] write poetry about I’m Japanese and nobody likes me. Yonsei [the children of the Sansei] write about anything they damn please and [their children] the Gosei, they don’t write probably because they’re too little still. But, you know, my answer to all of that is, Guys, it’s okay to keep some recipes and know a few songs, but you better get used to where you are. And it isn’t the red, white, and blue. It’s California.

LW: And how should people get used to where they are? What are the kinds of things people need to know to inhabit a place?

Snyder: They need to know where the creek is and which direction it flows. They have to know their water. I mean, they can start with some kind of a sense of place and it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of the watershed as the sense of place that you connect with. It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or what. And it helps, well first of all … it helps to know that you are in a Mediterranean climate. And that it’s normal for it to have six months of drought in the summer here. It’s not weird. And that it causes California to have a number of plants that are adapted to being wet in winter but can also survive drought in summer. Understanding that there is an ecological component and a climatic component here and that you should probably not try to have a watered lawn.

Listen to Gary Snyder read “Things to do around San Francisco”

The poem is an excerpt from Mountains and Rivers Without End. The voices on the recording are Gary Snyder, Louis Warren, and Spring Warren.

Things to do around San Francisco

Catch eels in the rocks below the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Four in the morning—congee at Sam Wo.

Walk up and down Market, upstairs playing pool,

Turn on at Aquatic park—seagulls steal bait sardine

Going clear out to Oh’s to buy bulghur.

Howard Street Goodwill.

Not paying traffic tickets; stopping the phone.

Merry-go-round at the beach, the walk up to the cliff house, sea lions and tourists—the old washed-out road that goes on—

Play chess at Mechanics’

Dress up and go looking for work.

Seek out the Wu-t’ung trees at the park arboretum.

Suck in the sea air and hold it—miles of white walls—

sunset shoots back from somebody’s window high in the Piedmont hills

Get drunk all the time. Go someplace and score.

Walk in and walk out of the Asp

Hike up Tam

Keep quitting and starting at Berkeley

Watch the pike in the Steinhart Aquarium: he doesn’t move.

Sleeping with strangers

Keeping up on the news

Chanting sutras after sitting

Practice yr frailing on guitar

Get dropped off in the fog in the night

Fall in love 20 times

Get divorced

Keep moving—move out to the Sunset

Get lost—or

Get found.

Gary Snyder

Interviews

Talking with Tenants Together

by Sasha Abramsky
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

The journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to Gabe Treves, one of the organizers of Tenants Together, the San Francisco-based advocacy group, about the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rental tenants.

California has always been defined by its bubbles—and almost as much by its busts.

The state was birthed in the Gold Rush as tens of thousands of Americans stampeded west in search of a quick fortune. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, dreamers seeking to reinvent themselves and carve out new destinies have flocked into the state by the millions and California has floated on Hollywood money, defense contracts, technology booms, and real-estate speculation.

The corollary of the outlandish boom is the crippling bust. In the 1870s, following a devastating financial crisis, unemployment soared, political discontent escalated, and eventually a constitutional convention was called to rewrite the state’s fundamental operating procedures. California’s “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War was a mixture of unemployment, social-service cutbacks, and rage, resulting in a populace increasingly hostile to government and unwilling to part with tax dollars to fund social infrastructure. When tech stocks crashed a few years later, the effects ricocheted through Silicon Valley—some of the wealthiest counties in all America. Today, in the wake of the housing collapse that began in 2006 and the financial meltdown that followed in 2008, one in eight Californian workers is unemployed; a similar number are underemployed (working part-time, despite wanting and needing full employment); and property owners by the thousands have gone into foreclosure or simply walked away from underwater mortgages, sometimes devastating whole communities.

Long defined by an anything-is-possible mindset, Californians are having to adjust to the realities of hard times. For generations, real estate in California has offered a route to prosperity; now, for millions of Californians it is an albatross. Five of the ten cities with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in California: Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Bakersfield.

And the damage is not limited to homeowners. Increasingly, California’s renters are being hammered. Landlords default on their mortgages and disappear with their tenants’ security deposits; banks reclaim delinquent homes and become absentee landlords; investors buy these properties at auction; and all illegally evict the old tenants. Tenants who have spent years carefully building up good credit find that they have an eviction on their credit report and their ability to borrow money—for example, to buy a home for themselves—disappears.

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Gabe Treves at work (photograph © Sasha Abramsky)

At Tenants Together in San Francisco, fielding calls from desperate renters being evicted as a consequence of a landlord going into foreclosure has become a full-time occupation for the staff.

Sasha Abramsky: Can you tell readers who you are?

Gabe Treves: I’m the program coordinator at Tenants Together. Among the many things I do is manage the foreclosure hotline, which we launched early in 2009. While a lot of attention is given to the plight of homeowners facing foreclosure, for the most part tenants are forgotten victims. However, it turns out that one out of every three foreclosed properties in California is a rental. In 2008, over 200,000 tenants were in foreclosed properties and were facing displacement. We haven’t yet run the numbers for 2009. But we assume it’s right around the same level.

Unfortunately, the reality for most tenants is that once the house they’re living in is foreclosed and the property is acquired by a bank or private investors, they want the tenants out as soon as possible—really by any means necessary. They contact real-estate agents whose job is to get rid of these tenants. They knock on their doors, misinform them, harass them, and bully them into leaving as soon as possible. They succeed in many cases. But the tenants are actually entitled to certain protections under federal law, state law, or in some cases city-level ordinances. Our counselors explain to them what their rights are and how to go about asserting them. The idea is that if tenants know their rights they will be able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and can use that time to find another suitable living situation—or in some cases actually stay in their houses.

SA: How many tenants do you work with?

GT: Since we launched in March 2009 we have counseled over 3,000 tenants.

SA: Where are most of them from?

GT: Well, you know, we get a lot of our calls from San Diego, a lot from Los Angeles—just because it’s such a big county—from parts of the Central Valley being very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, from the San Jose area. Really from all over the state.

SA: Didn’t Tenants Together work with many people in the desert town of Ridgecrest? What happened in that community?

GT: It’s a great example of how our hotline can help tenants in foreclosure situations. In 2009 we started getting a lot of calls from tenants in Ridgecrest, most living in a handful of apartment complexes in the same couple of streets, all telling the same story. Suddenly, despite paying their rent on time, they learned their home was being foreclosed and they were facing eviction. Ridgecrest is a small city in Kern County, one of the most conservative counties in California. We decided to go down there, talk to the tenants, and find out what was going on. Onsite we were able to identify a few great tenant leaders and help them pressure their city government, the board of supervisors, to pass an ordinance protecting renters. With a lot of hard work and organizing they succeeded; the Ridgecrest City Council passed the Central Valley’s first Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in September 2009. It lists all of the reasons for which tenants can be evicted: if they don’t pay their rent, if they are disruptive, if they do anything illegal on or with the premises. Of course, it does not list foreclosure. This meant that when those properties were acquired by a new owner, the new owner could not evict the tenants. As a result, a huge number of tenants in Ridgecrest are now able to stay in their homes—the new owner has to serve as their landlord.

SA: But many cities in California don’t have these protections.

GT: Unfortunately, only sixteen cities in California have Just-Cause ordinances. That means in most of the state tenants have limited protections. Most are protected by the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a federal law passed in May 2009. It was a major victory, but it’s still not as good as the city-level ordinances. It just extends the amount of time tenants can stay in their home after it is foreclosed. In some cases, if the tenants have a long-term lease, then it gives them the right to stay in their homes through the term of the lease.

SA: How has the foreclosure crisis changed California?

GT: What it changes is the way people perceive their sense of stability. A lot of tenants thought they had earned the right to claim that stability, that because they always paid their rent on time and did everything by the book they effectively had the right to their home. The foreclosure crisis has been a really harsh lesson about the illusory nature of that sense of stability. It’s been very demoralizing for a lot of people.

SA: How has it changed people’s behavior?

GT: People are more cautious, less trusting. It’s changed the relationship of many people with their landlords. The crisis, which has displaced so many people, makes a lot of people reflect on their communities. When they get suddenly displaced and are forced to move away, they have to reassess all the things they used to take for granted—the value of living near their jobs, near their schools, things like that. I’ve noticed that poor, working-class tenants have dealt with the situation differently from well-to-do tenants. A lot of poor tenants are resigned to this kind of thing; the foreclosure crisis just reinforces that they don’t have a lot of control and even when they pay their rent on time that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to secure the stability that their families need. A lot of them tell me, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” They understand that security, stability, well-being are not in their domain, because they’re the working poor.

But a lot of well-to-do tenants, who felt they had earned that right and were entitled to some protections, are learning that they’re not. And that’s been very hard for a lot of people. It creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental stress. When that sense of security is violated and the sense of home is damaged or destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to ever really reclaim it.

SA: Are you seeing towns where people are just leaving?

GT: There are whole towns, whole neighborhoods that have been blighted. They’re vacant. When people think about the foreclosure crisis they think about the individual occupant, but it can affect entire communities, businesses. If all the tenants in a community leave, it affects the businesses in that community, the schools, the social services. I’ve gotten calls from tenants: “The house to the left and the house to the right of me have been vacant for months.” They’re getting pushed out too, and they know their home will just join all the other vacant houses sitting on the block.

SA: If you compare what’s happening in California to what’s happening nationally, it looks like California’s bubble was bigger and now the bust is bigger. How is this changing the psyche of California?

GT: It comes back to Californian exceptionalism. I think Californians have always held a belief that if they work hard, do things by the book, they can claim that sense of stability, security, well-being. And now that sense is being deflated for a lot of people. They start feeling like the rest of the country—that they’re not exceptional, that they can just as easily fall victim to these massive national trends and institutions. I hope it helps people realize that their best chance to achieve real security is to pressure their city governments and the state and federal governments to pass more sensible legislation to protect tenants. And I hope that tenants will start holding the banks accountable for what they do and will pressure them to adopt more sensible policies and more humane policies. Because otherwise everyone loses. B

Interviews

Interview with Randall Grahm

by Carolyn de la Peña
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

boom-2011-1-1-20-ufigure-1Carolyn de la Peña of Boom recently sat down with Randall Grahm, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard, to ask him about biodynamic winemaking, his views on California wines and their aficionados, and the past and present of his vineyard. Grahm is author of Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology, winner of the James Beard Award and the Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book award. He describes organic winemaking as a wabi-sabi approach to the craft, an approach that embraces imperfection as an essential element of the beautiful and the natural. It is through their flaws, he argues, that wines become haunting, revelatory, and capable of directing our attention to new places and ideas. Bonny Doon’s first biodynamic vintages, grown in San Juan Bautista, will debut in two or three years.

Carolyn de la Peña: When and where did your fixation with wine begin?

Randall Grahm: I grew up in Southern California, in West Los Angeles. When I was twenty years old I had the great fortune to accidentally wander into a wine shop two blocks from my parents’ house. The first thing they asked me was, “Would you like to open a charge account?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes, thank you very much.” My calculation was that I would never be able to afford to drink great wines on a regular basis and if I wanted to experience those kinds of wines pretty much all the time, I would have to learn how to make them myself.

CDLP: What do you think of California wines?

RG: In the New World and anywhere else where wine is studied as a science, what we study is how to control the process, and we’re very much in the realm of “wines of effort,” stylized wines. This has been the strength of the New World, our consistency, our reliability. We don’t have clunker vintages; we don’t have clunker wines. That’s the upside. The downside, however, is that because everything we do is so controlled, we also don’t have the radical, revelatory surprises. We seldom astonish ourselves.

CDLP: You sound like you’re bored with California wines—were they ever astonishing?

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Randall Grahm swirls the wine at Bonny Doon (photograph © Louis Warren)

RG: I don’t know if California wines were ever astonishing, but at one point they were certainly more soulful, more impressive, but perhaps in a quieter way. Right now the wine business is deformed by financial considerations, everything is so corporate; everything is business, everything has to work financially, so that there is an enormous self-consciousness about what one does and this leads to a great conservatism in winemaking style, real aversion to risk-taking. In the old days no one had the expectation of making tons of money in the wine business. You did it just because you loved it. Land was not crazy expensive, and if you didn’t sell your wine one year you’d sell it the next. Winemakers would say back then, “If nobody buys the wine, fuck ’em; I’ll drink it myself.” Nobody says that anymore. Nobody dares do anything without talking to a consultant, and the consultants have consultants. There’s really no room for mistakes or even for experimentation. I think that leads to a sort of homogeneity of product and not to real breathtaking originality.

I don’t think you can make great wine and also do it as a business. I think it has to be a kind of calling, or a subsidized activity.

CDLP: What do you mean when you say that California wines have a “meaning deficit”?

RG: They don’t come from a place; they’re Stepford wines, if you will. They’re technically perfect but there’s nobody home, in the sense that they’re not coming from somewhere discernible.

I think the more personally connected a winemaker is to his or her wine, the more interesting it is. I’m not the only person who’s said this, but God save us from technically perfect wines. I do sincerely prefer slightly flawed wines. Not grossly flawed wines, but wines that are not quite perfect.

Most California wines you can like but not love. They’re not what I would call haunting; they don’t have this deep, infinitely changing, infinitely multifaceted aspect, which I think only comes from the intelligence of nature. If everything is controlled, there’s no room for nature to insert her qualities.

CDLP: Doesn’t nature, in California, just want to give us bad wine? Why should we trust her?

RG: The paradox is that in California staying within the realm of the safe, staying within the realm of the controlled, generally gives you excellent results. So it’s a little bit irrational to try to pursue more “natural” wines. As much as you esteem them—and I do—the path is fraught with danger because the supposition is that you’re going to have the wit to discover an appropriate terroir and you’re going to have the further wit to discover what are the appropriate grapes and root stocks and spacing and trellis system and irrigation strategy and vine orientation and that you’re going to discover this all within a relatively short lifetime, which is dwindling away even as we speak. Are unadorned wines going to be greater? I don’t know. I’ve just reached a point in my life where I don’t have the same need to please people that I once had. But I do have to please myself absolutely.

CDLP: Is it possible to produce good California wine in a way that is ecologically sustainable?

RG: It’d be nice if there were a little more rainfall in the summer; that would really go a long way. As a biodynamic practitioner you really don’t want to import anything from off the site if you can avoid it. Sometimes you have to bring in some specialized biodynamic preps that are just too hard or too tedious to make yourself. But you don’t want to be importing fertilizers or soil amendments in any substantive way. If you’re making any changes to the soil you want it to be done in this very gentle, gradual way, and you’re really doing that through the compost. So your initial choice of a site is very important if you want it to be self-sustaining. And there aren’t that many places in California where everything’s pretty much balanced to start with.

CDLP: What do you mean by saying we need “revelatory” wines in California—and why do they have to be biodynamic?

RG: Well, we always need revelation—about all things. I don’t think biodynamic practice will necessarily lead to the production of wines expressive of terroir—everything else, from the selection of the site to farming practice, has to conduce to that. But it is a powerful methodology that explicitly addresses the question of the individuation or originality of a particular site. When I say “revelatory” wines, I’m talking about wines that will begin to change our vocabulary, the language that we use about quality in wine. I want the language to move in the direction of a discussion of the life force of the wine, the vitality of the wine, not simply in the current parlance: the wine’s voluptuousness or its hedonistic aspects. Rather, does the wine have the ability to age? Does the wine have the ability to change and evolve? Is it going to live for twenty or thirty years? And is the wine wholesome? This is a really dicey area, but wine should not only taste good, it should make you feel good. It should make you feel good while you’re tasting it, and it should make you feel good the next day after you’ve drunk it.

CDLP: Even if you can produce these new wines, the price tag will be well beyond what most typical consumers are used to paying now. Why will they buy Bonny Doon?

RG: Many wine consumers think wine comes out of a wine store and food comes out of a grocery store. When you visit the place where the wine is made or food is grown, you understand it in a different way. I think Napa Valley’s reputation kind of trivializes that. People think, “Oh, yeah, wine country, the place where they’ve got all those spas and restaurants, that’s where wine comes from.” I would love to see a consumer who comes out to look at my vineyard and says, “How come there aren’t any pipes out here for irrigation? And those vines—they look a little different from those other vines. They’re head-trained and they’re kind of close to the ground and they’re kind of small and they’re kind of scraggly. I wonder if that has any relation to how the wine tastes?” Just going into a cave and feeling the physical presence of a cave and how friggin’ cold it is and looking at how the wine is made—this makes an impression that you could never learn from a book or a magazine article. If I could educate people onsite as to what makes my wine different from 98 percent of the wines in California, that would go a long way toward their understanding why it might cost fifty or sixty bucks. Just simply tasting it I don’t think is quite enough to get why it’s distinctive.

Ultimately, you want the vinous equivalent of farmers’ markets; you want to reach people who go to them and who also love wine. The problem is that normally these are two different populations. You’ve got people who buy organic because they’re ideologically committed to organic produce and then you’ve got people who buy stuff just because they like the way it tastes. And these two have not yet merged. If you tell the average wine consumer that the wine is organic or biodynamic, they’ll generally run top speed in the opposite direction. They don’t want wines that are organic; they don’t want wines that are biodynamic. That means funky. That means weird. They want wines that are perfect, or at least wines that won’t embarrass them when guests come to dinner.

CDLP: But didn’t you help create this consumer aversion to biodynamic, slightly flawed and “revelatory” wines in the first place?

RG: I’ve always tried to make wines that were “pleasing,” fruity, maybe not so obviously challenging. And maybe I’ve been more focused on the exterior of the package—the clever labels and marketing. I’m not exactly ashamed, but slightly chagrined by having been such a slick marketer, producing wines that were essentially commodity wines. They were confectionary wines. I’m not saying that they were better or worse than anything else in California, but I wish I hadn’t done it for quite as long as I did. These were perfectly reasonable wines but there was nothing original about them, there was nothing natural about them, and there was nothing necessary about them. The world didn’t need any of these wines. I truly think that original wines—wines that scratch the sense of place—make the world richer. I think they add to the ecological complexity of the world and are therefore worthwhile. It’s like a new species, a new bird or butterfly. The world is better for it. B