Into the Zone [yet to be released] is directed by John Alloway.
This interview took place in Oakland, CA, November 20, 2016 with John Law, Carrie Galbraith, David Cox, and Molly Hankwitz at John Law’s studio in downtown Oakland, CA.
In the days leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration and taking office as President, Molly and I visited with John Law and Carrie Galbraith in Oakland. From the neon-bedecked heights of Law’s studio in the Tribune Tower, the prospect of a Trump-led USA seemed like a rapidly approaching distant horizon-wide storm-cloud of dread and menace. Yet, within this cloud, fingers of lightening indicated a few growing threads of bright resistance; the imagination of the population which was refusing to be dominated was snapping back already with brilliant and sporadic gestures of bold and furious defiance.
These streaks of lightning would take the form of entirely new ways of being in the world. A new playfulness was perhaps emerging, a new secret of utopian dreaming, and along with that, entirely exciting methods of engaging with the cities and the less populated regions of the country–the rural landscapes–the mind and the world itself. The “shit show” would be giving rise to new Cacophonies. Against the underwhelming turnouts which the POTUS received for his banal hate, an answer was being heard in the broader USA.
“They live, we sleep and “we are in the Zone” and what we have to do is really clear now…”–Carrie Galbraith
John Law compares our Humpty Trumpty epoch to “living in a bad Philip K. Dick novel”. The Man in the High Castle might do, or even We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, or perhaps, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Memory is bought and sold on the high market; whole identities trade hands for cash like cars or livestock. Entire lives that have been lived, cherished and remembered in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was adapted into the film Blade Runner in 1982) and are revealed to be as singular and as objectified and as abstracted as any other product. The right-wing killer-cop Deckard (Harrison Ford)whose job it is to hunt down errant, busted androids (or, in the movie, ‘replicants’) says cynically, “Replicants are like any other machine, if they work, it’s not my problem”. The irony, of course, is that he himself turns out to be a replicant.
In John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live the white working class hero John Nada uses hidden, but found, truth glasses to see the world around him as a sea of thinly written, masked admonitions to get married, consume, and worship money. Under Trump we don’t need the Augmented Reality glasses. The signs are explicit and the cynicism they lay bare to does not even try to mask itself under a technology of concealment. It seeks to draw its power from the audacity of its status as direct, rude confrontation. John Law’s business has been sign making for years, with neon his specialty. Lighting up the sky with meaning and redirecting a sign here and there has been at the forefront of his work both professional and activist.
Meanings are mutable. As Adam Curtis’ most recent cut-up film Hypernormalization argues, the crazy make-it-up-as-you-go-along logic of the movie Stalker would eventually inform the senior policy wonks in the Kremlin, who arrived there by way of performance art. Shaping the narrative, bending the meaning, jamming the signal is thus a tactical disruption that can benefit whomever deploys it; gives the timing and audacity to match the gesture.
Who can forget Kellyanne Conway’s mind-bending notion of “alternative facts” which was a big “Fuck You” to the entire news culture; a war on truth if ever there was one. The Other Zone, the Twilight Zone, where up is down, left is right and facts might be facts, or their alternative…lies.
John Law phrases a narrative that, if I have it right, goes like this:
The powerful had grown stronger, but had become fearful of the brittleness of their position. Global movements demonstrated increasing instability. A buffoon, a loud, arrogant, exhibitionist orange clown was promoted to the status of media manipulator, to do a national shell game, a psychological shock event, a psy-ops, mass mind-redirection, trick.
David Cox later thinks to himself while leafing through the Cacophony Society book, how similar “Operation-Install-Trump” is in many ways to the SantaCon events of the early days–obnoxiousness as vulgar protest in and of itself–populist unrest expressed as a multiplied, inverted signifier. The welcomed jolly Elf-man-with-presents becomes a dreaded, abusive drunken uncle, or even worse, both at the same time, and in double, triple, multiple vision; not one, but hundreds at a time. Barry Humphries’ characterization of the foul-mouthed, Chardonnay-drinking “loose cannon” sleaze-bag Australian politician Sir Les Patterson also comes to mind.
The result was two-fold: the white working class of the USA felt they had a champion in the populist, nativist, nationalist billionaire Trump, literally a wrecking ball who would destroy old Washington and its despised Wall Street-aligned power elites. The educated classes would then blame the uneducated provincial population for the colossal disaster of a Trump presidency [and conflict would rage.] Racist, sexist, fascist populism as the new normal could then serve as cultural and political shield for the über-elite–billionaires at the center of the storm–now free to steal as much as possible from the public coffers in plain daylight. The 1% were about to make a killing.
Over dinner, Law told us he’d been reading David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard on the original CIA director Alan Dulles. Dulles, a Svengali-like backroom manipulator managed to stay in power even after having been deposed by the then, and soon-to-be assassinated, JFK. Humiliated at having been manipulated by the CIA into almost starting a land war with Cuba (which would probably have escalated into a nuclear missile war), JFK swore to break up the entire agency. But, Dulles, despite having been fired by JFK, continued to be active. His ability to steer US foreign and domestic policy secretly from the backroom corners of the security establishment was profound but, nothing new. Dulles had enjoyed special trade deals with the Nazi party elite before, during, and after WWII, even helping some top Nazis resettle themselves around the world. The military-industrial-entertainment-security forces have steered much US policy for decades and apparently, in many people’s minds, still do. Dulles was this malevolent, cult-like prime mover in the early days of the formation of the military-industrial-entertainment-security complex and among his allies, at that time, were Richard Nixon and George Bush, the senior.
John Law relegates the rise of the ‘orange clown’ Trump to an act of behind-the-scenes, pre-arranged manipulation designed to mask a deeper anxiety of the power elite.
We are Entering the Zone
Recalling her inspiration for the original “Zone Trips” or mystery tours to the Nevada desert that would one day become part of the phenomenon of “Burning Man”, Carrie Galbraith reflected on the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker on her own thinking, as well as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
In these artworks, the protagonists wander into randomly placed regions they don’t understand and are then confronted with the challenge to face, not only this new terrain, but their own willingness to deal, or not, with the experience itself. Upon exiting the “Zone” the characters have been transformed, and it is the very substance, reality and substantive materiality of the realm from which they emerge which forms the praxis of their transformation. In a world without religion, you can still be modded and upgraded in terms of ethics, standards, and a general sense of decency and what’s right.
The “Zone” then is threefold. It is:
a) the newly generated reality we must confront in a dynamic and unstable global economic maelstrom
b) the new world that emerges from this, along with
c) our sense of responsibility in having brought it into being.
The discussion covered a lot of ground, much like a Cacophony Society “Zone” trek into the unknown. John Law’s observation, shared by many on the Left, is that contempt for the alienated white working class in the USA expressed by the centrist, liberal professional classes has all but guaranteed Trump his support base. To his mind, this group has been waiting a long time to install a wrecking ball to dismantle the enablers of a polite, measured and corrupt status-quo long established in Washington, D.C. politics.
Lenin’s phrase “What is to be done?” has lost none of its pressing urgency as the world edges closer toward an orange-tinged tyranny of fossil-fueled destruction.
To resist may well mean, “Cacophonies now!”
Hypernormalization by Adam Curtis
Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (Author), Frank Miller (Illustrator)
They Live dir. by John Carpenter, 1988.