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The US Puts Its Best Foot Forward

Watermill at Gdansk

by ISHMAEL REED

The August 20th press release came from Jorn Weisbrodt, Executive Director of Robert Wilson Works:

“Over a year ago Robert Wilson was asked to participate as artistic director for the event celebrating the 30th anniversary of Solidarnosc, the freedom movement that started the fall of the iron curtain. It will be on August 31th in the historic shipyards in Gdansk and is free to the public. I hope that you can join and spread the news”.

The other press release came from the European Solidarity Centre:

“On behalf of Polish President Lech Walesa and the European Solidarity Centre in Poland I would like to invite you to participate in a unique initiative.

“This year on August 31st we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Solidarity movement which fought for freedom, dignity and human rights. In 2005 the European Parliament decided that 31 August is to be celebrated as the Day of Freedom and Solidarity. That is why we have launched an extraordinary initiative – before and on that day we would like some most important people in Poland and around the world to wear the historic "Solidarnosc" badge as a symbol of our solidarity with people from all over the world who are still deprived of freedom, peace and prosperity.

“Please also accept our warm invitation to the spectacular show prepared by world famous American artist Robert Wilson which will take place on August 31st in Poland at the Gdansk Shipyard- the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement. If you wish to participate in this event please click HERE for more information. As the event will be attended by government officials including the President of Poland, there are serious security measures.

Yours sincerely,
Lech Walesa
European Solidarity Centre

I was artist in residence in the summer of 2009, when this 2010 event was being planned. I was able to observe some of the goings-on at this hub of artistic global activity. At a time when Anti-Muslim Neo-Nativists are embarrassing the United States by exhibiting their ignorant behinds, American artists once again show our country at its best, its noblest, its highest spirit.–IR

Though some of the Senators who grilled Supreme Court Justice Sotomeyer and the American media, up to its old tricks by raising lynch mobs against misunderstood groups, might have problems with diversity, white European and American artists, regardless of their motives, have drawn materials from a variety of cultures for at least one hundred years. Like those Senators, many art critics and academics lack the intellectual curiosity of the artist and refuse to acknowledge the contributions of the world cultures to western art.

The kind of people who call Picasso’s work “Cubist” as a way of denying its African influences.

The private art collections of Picasso and surrealist Andre Breton are filled with art from Africa and the Pacific Islands. So is Robert Wilson’s. Louis Aragon said of Wilson that he was continuing Surrealism’s traditions.
 The art that was once labeled “primitive” is located in the basement of the main building of Watermill, a community of artists directed by Robert Wilson. Other parts of the collection are dispersed throughout the building and unlike the way that museums might distance their exhibits from the presence of the viewer, the art –chairs, tables, bowls, etc.– are blended into the day’s routine. Precious lamps or chairs might be part of the office furniture.
         
Among pieces in the collection are footwear that once belonged to Rudolph Nureyev and Marlene Dietrich. Jerome Robbins’ cool sneakers are on display.
        
I wore mine. Unlike some of the tourists that my daughter, Tennessee and I spotted in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel, who were freezing in their light summer clothing, I was prepared for New York’s hot and muggy August weather. I spent six years during New York Augusts like the 2009 August. I arrived packed with Hawaiian shirts, two of which were sewn by a reader who lives in Hilo.  Me and Truman.
       
Wilson’s art collection is located at the Watermill Center, founded in 1992 by Wilson. It is described as an international, multi-disciplinary center for studies in the arts and humanities. Wilson is best known for large scale multimedia works, the most famous of which are “Einstein on the Beach” and “the CIVIL WarS.” One of his most recent works is “KOOL, Dancing in my Mind,” based upon collaborations between Wilson, my partner, Oakland choreographer and author Carla Blank and the great Japanese dancer and choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi.      

Most of the “KOOL “background music is provided by David Byrne. It is a multimedia work in which six dancers perform, two of whom are Merce Cunningham alumni. Blank also did the research and dramaturge for the work that premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in April, 2009, and was reworked and performed on August 8, and 9th of that year at Guild Hall in East Hampton, a town in which there are buildings that date to the 1600s. The Huffington Post called the work “sublime.”    “

KOOL,” is in part a tribute to Ms. Hanayagi, now living in a Tokyo nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

I suggestedthe title “Kool” based upon my study of Japanese. I found
that Suzushii meant cool, which certainly describes Suzushi’s temperament. I’d known her since the 1960s, and never did I see her raise her voice or go hot.
  
Next stops for “KOOL” are the Akademie der Kunste, in Berlin, September 12, 2010. Richard Rutkowski’s twenty- six minute film based on the work will also be shown there August 25th. “KOOL “will happen on December 9th at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City.
        
Rutkowski’s projections, which are part of this multi media work, were made in 2008 when Wilson, Blank, and Rutkowski traveled to Osaka, where they visited Ms. Hanayagi.  As a result, her powerful and poignant presence looms over the six dancers.
       
“KOOL” is just one of the projects that were undertaken by Watermill in 2009. The Watermill Center is a hub of creativity for artists from Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. Among them are up to 75 participants from over 22 countries, ranging from Israel, Taiwan, Indonesia, to Germany, Denmark, and Mexico.

According to Sue Jane Stoker, the Summer Program Director:

“ABOUT 45 – 50 YOUNG ARTISTS NOT ATTACHED TO A SPECIFIC PROJECT AND ABOUT 20 – 25 MORE MATURE ARTISTS THAT COME FOR A SPECIFIC PROJECT OR PROJECTS”

Among the projects, according to Sue Jane, are the

“STAGING OF IL RITORNO D’ULISSE IN PATRIA (FOR LA SCALA, MILAN),  THE MAKROPOLOUS CASE (FOR NATIONAL THEATER OF PRAGUE),  A VERY DARK MATTER (NEW THEATER PIECE WITH MUSIC BY TOM WAITS, BASED ON THE LIFE OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSON),  HAKAME; FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND (THEATER WORK, MAYBE FILM),  DON JUAN TENORIO (THEATER WORK FOR VALLADOLID, SPAIN),  GDANSK POLAND, 30TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION OF BEGINNING OF SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT, THE WANDERER (FILM BASED ON THE LIVES OF 3 GENERATIONS OF WYETH PAINTERS), CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT FOR AN EXHIBITION OF THE WATERMILL COLLECTION, CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT AND STAGING FOR LIGHT LEAVES (THEATER PIECE FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA)”

As soon as one group departs another flies in to work on projects with Wilson and his co-workers. I overheard chatter about the projects while standing in the buffet line, where guests were fed with meals designed by Malaysians Zowita Mustapha and Julie Tan. The menu for two days:

On August 8th:  Malaysian chicken satay and beef satay served with a spicy peanut sauce and ketupat (steamed compressed rice cakes that go well with the peanut sauce). There was also some deep-fried tofu for the vegetarians and that was served with the peanut sauce as well as another spicy chili sauce.

The Aug. 9 Sunday Brunch was smoked salmon with capers and red onions, platters of assorted cheeses, assorted fruit boats, scrambled eggs, vegetable frittata, assorted sausages,  roasted potatoes, bread baskets, and mixed greens with a balsamic mustard and honey vinaigrette. 

During the daily meetings, the participants sat on the floor on four sides of a long room. Before Wilson entered, his assistant Sue Jane Stoker, who besides being the Summer Program Director is also the Assistant Director and Stage Manager for “KOOL,” went over some housekeeping duties for the participants. I asked Sue Jane about some of the issues covered the day that I attended a meeting.

“ON THE 9TH AS IT WAS A SUNDAY WE WOULD HAVE REMINDED PEOPLE THAT THERE IS NO DINNER PROVIDED THAT EVENING AND THEY GET A $15 MEAL STIPEND, WE TALK ABOUT WHO ARE THE GUESTS WHO WILL BE AT LUNCH (THAT DAY IT WAS A COUPLE OF PEOPLE FROM THE ORIGINAL SCHOOL OF BYRDS, BOB’S ORIGINAL GROUP BACK IN THE 60’S), GO OVER WHO WILL HELP IN THE KITCHEN, IN THE GARDEN, IF THERE ARE CARPENTRY PROJECTS OR ART COLLECTION PROJECTS THAT NEED HELP, WHO WILL DO THE RECYCYLING (ALWAYS SHANG!), AND BECAUSE THERE WERE PEOPLE LEAVING THAT DAY WE REMIND PEOPLE THAT WHEN THEY LEAVE, THEY SHOULD MAKE SURE THAT THEY CHANGE THE SHEETS ON THEIR BED AND LEAVE CLEAN SHEETS AND TOWELS FOR THE NEXT PERSON COMING IN.

“NOT JUST THE YOUNG ARTISTS, EVERYONE WHO PARTICIPATES (INCLUDING ME) – EACH PERSON IS PART OF A GROUP, AND ONCE A WEEK EACH GROUP DOES THE FOLLOWING:  BREAKFAST CLEAN UP, VAN CLEAN UP, TOILET CLEAN UP, LUNCH CLEAN UP, OFFICE CLEAN UP, DINNER CLEAN UP.”

In Rutkowski’s film about the making of “KOOL,” there appears a scene of Wilson on a Tokyo train. Slim, suited up and bespectacled, he could be a banker or math teacher. This older fuller Wilson, who enters the room at the conclusion of Ms. Stoker’s remarks, is wearing a black T shirt and pants.
         
I’ve been brought here to read from my poetry and to discuss my work with vocalists including Cassandra Wilson and Taj Mahal. In Rutkowski’s film, I’m the one who is singing. Toward the end of her career, Suzushi Hanayagi, as part of a Tokyo solo concert, performed to music from Conjure, the CD produced by Kip Hanrahan on which musicians set my words to music. As a gag, I sang “Minnie the Moocher,” a song made famous by Cab Calloway. The portion of her concert in which she used the song is part of the film.

After introducing me, Wilson asked me to sing it but it had been so long that I didn’t remember anything beyond the first few lines and so Sue Jane had to fill in. I thanked her and she said, “No problem, I’ve been listening to the song every night.”  Wilson began the session with a silence which invited the assembled artists to engage in meditation. He then rose and selected four people from the group, including Blank. They began an impromptu movement piece. He bade farewell to a group that had been working on “The Makropolous Case.” They had to catch a plane to Prague. Two people, whose project was “A Very Dark Matter,” were leaving for Germany. 

Wilson saluted another dancer from Greece for her work during the summer. Her name is Mariana. She was applauded and responded with tears.  After the meeting, he took us to a room whose floor is covered with stones taken from riverbeds. He discussed his philosophy of architecture, one based upon simplicity. Simplicity is the approach here. Artists at Watermill make do with what is available. They live in dorm-like cubicles or share space in rented houses.
        
Later, during a tour of the Watermill’s art collection, Sherry Dobbin, Watermill Center’s program director, pointed to an installation located among the trees done by a Japanese artist using only rope. The rope cost $50.00. After the tour, we’re told that if we’re silent we could watch a rehearsal of Claudio Monteverdi’s ”Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.” It was presided over by the stern eye of Ellen Hammer, the dramaturgist. Wilson instructed the dancers. She was assisted by two young men who followed the dance notations. Wilson requested that I sit in a throne like chair. It consisted of red and black blocks. Later I learned that it was designed by an Italian Futurist.

While I followed the rehearsal of a work that is to be performed in Milan, two years from now, I glanced across the path to what remains of a forest where on a deck, Yuki Kawahisa,  a “KOOL” dancer was doing her warm ups. The small forest is dotted with stone monoliths brought from Indonesia. Performances seemed to constantly spring up on the grounds– grounds that are generously landscaped with pastures of grasses, ferns, pines.

At lunch, Meg Harper, one of the “KOOL” dancers, introduced me to Ritty Burchfield who was with Wilson in the early days. The days before “Einstein On The Beach,” the opera with music composed by Phil Glass. This was the work that established Wilson’s reputation in the United States. Burchfield says that it had been established earlier in Europe with “Deaf Man Glance,” which was influenced by an autistic black youngster named Raymond Andrew. Burchfield performed in some of Wilson’s works including “Life and Times of Joe Stalin.”
 
Another autistic collaborator is Christopher Knowles, who influenced “Einstein on the Beach.” I was standing next to him in the chow line. I asked him “What is your role here?”

“My role,” he answered. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m an artist,” which really put me in my place. Knowles was consultant for the movie “Rain Man.”  Later Wilson showed me some of Knowles’s prose that your average Language poet would give their eyeteeth to write.  (Wilson was born with learning disabilities. The son of a mayor of Waco, Texas, he didn’t speak until he was five.)

Burchfield was John Cage’s “roadie.” She says that the possibilities of American dance have been expanded as more players participate. She watches popular dance shows like “So You Think That You Can Dance.” She says that Hip Hop dancers are doing moves like triple flips that ballet dancers would envy.

As an example of how everybody pitched in, whether it be cleaning toilets or driving visitors to and fro from their houses, Carla and I were transported to our guest house in the woods by Aram Hausi-Rahbari, who collaborated on several operas including” Mary Queen of Scots” and “The Makropulos Case.” Driving these roads at night reminded me of the final scene in “Pollack” when Jackson Pollack, an early Hampton resident and his terrified passengers are headed for a crash.

Among those who were passengers on our return trip to the center was Illenk Gentille, who also performed in “KOOL.” A dancer from Sulawesi, Indonesia, he gave us an impromptu lecture on Indonesian court dance as we returned to the Center where brain storming was taking place at different locations.

I even found myself pitching in. Though I was invited to discuss my poetry and my work with musicians, it was requested that I stay longer. Wilson wanted me to participate in a session about a huge spectacular multimedia show that will take place in Gdansk on August 31, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Poland’s Solidarity Movement. The estimated audience for this show will be 100,000. The plans for the show were presented on laptops and by a huge board covered with pictures.

Examining this display was Father Macie Jzieba, a Catholic priest, and former physicist, who recommended Wilson- -“They wanted Madonna,” he said. He presented a ten minute video which showed Polish history from the Russian and Nazi occupations to the General Strike. On a sheet of paper, Wilson sketched the grounds where performances would be held. I recommended that Polish poets be used, including the work of Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz. Someone suggested two famous Rock musicians to be part of the spectacular show.  After I left, I sent a note suggesting the most famous Polish musician since Chopin. Lawrence Welk.

Jorn Weisbrodt, Wilson’s Creative Director and Wilson troubleshooter and budget hawk, chimed in from time to time about costs. “KOOL” dancer Jonah Bokaer had drawn a sketch for possible sky writing.

Recommendations were flying throughout the meeting while Wilson sketched ideas for the fireworks which I thought were the perfect image for what goes on at this productive multicultural community of artists. Thought fireworks from minds shooting off at every possible direction. Lighting up brains. During the 1930s there was a similar meeting of multicultural minds.

The right was responsible for closing down the Works Progress Administration, a program that put writers, dancers and actors on salary, some of whom would become our leading artists.

During one red-baiting session before a Congressional committee, a congressman wanted to know, “Who is this Christopher Marlowe fellow?” Now a conservative group called Media Morality is objecting to Stimulus Funds being used to support the arts. The basis for this attitude seems to be that the arts have no value.

A comparatively low budget project like “KOOL,” a masterpiece, whose start-up budget was not more than $30,000, and which requires not much beyond its six performers, stage lighting, a floor to ceiling projection screen and a few sticks and a large ball, making it ready to travel throughout the world in these low budget times, drew full houses at both the Guggenheim and Guild Hall. I’m sure that the fledging restaurant businesses and other local businesses that benefited from the crowds drawn by this work would disagree with this group. Ralph Ellison was one of those writers who was on the WPA payroll. Publishing corporations have made millions over the years from his work, written during his time on a WPA payroll. His book, Invisible Man, is still in print.

Thousands of  artists from all over the world have flocked to New York as a result of its becoming a world center for art, boosting the economy of the city as a result of the works by artists like Jackson Pollack, a recipient of a WPA salary. One of those who came to New York as a result of this artistic firmament was a young dancer named Suzushi Hanayagi.

ISHMAEL REED is the publisher of Konch, which will publish next week an exclusive interview with Lou Gossett Jr. about Jim Crow patterns in
liberal Hollywood. Reed’s latest book is Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media. He can be reached at: Uncleish@aol.com.