January 11, 2002
'There Is No Metaphor'
TheHiddenCity.com's Norman Kee and Bryan Thomas met with WAMC's Susan Arbetter and Joe Donahue in January 2002 to talk about the role of the artist post 9-11.
BRYAN: I had actually been working on the new HiddenCity site just before September 11. We were all set to celebrate our one year anniversary, in conjunction with Lark Fest that Saturday. But when it all went down... I wasn't thinking of any of that. There's just no words, there's nothing you can say, there's no response. As an artist, I feel I always need distance from something to create art about it and that was just --- um -- um -- there's nothing you can really do.
SUSAN: Would you say it kind of knocked the wind out of the creative juices there for a while?
BRYAN: Yeah, and -- it just -- uh -- well, Norman will have a piece on the site when we launch the next edition, where he talks about how - uh - you just can't -- the art itself just doesn't compare to the magnitude of what happened. I mean -- I have no words now! I'm just getting all emotional thinking about those events and that's - uh -
SUSAN: Norman, what about you?
NORMAN: For me I kept thinking of, as a precedent, "Guernica," the Picasso painting, which is just amazing. I don't want to sound like I'm demeaning Guernica and the slaughter there, but I'm thinking, "Really all I need to do is create something as great as 'Guernica' and I can get by." And as an artist, you know, that's just an impossible task. It makes anything that you're going to create irrelevant. In comparison, you can't create something that's going to mean nearly as much, or anything. It seems to make a lot of things seem not nearly as important as they were. But at the same time, in fact, it's probably more important than ever. People are turning to poetry and a lot of things that they hadn't in the past.
JOE: How does it change the actual work? Does it mark what you do? Can you see a difference?
NORMAN: Well, for me, the difference was there just wasn't any work.
SUSAN: That's a big difference!
NORMAN: Bryan mentioned I have a piece coming up, which took me months and months and I probably rewrote it a thousand times. Literally. And it still doesn't seem to be something that I can call "good," but at some point you have to close the door and move on from there. But as an inspiration, you start to take nothing for granted. Including artistically.
SUSAN: Bryan, earlier this week we had some folks on from the New York State Museum, and they were talking about how post World War II sculpture was really changed by the war, the unstable world, and a nuclear age. And I would think that something like the terrorist attacks would impact what you're producing, as the age we live in now is clearly less stable than it was prior to September 11.
BRYAN: I was talking with another songwriter friend of mine who is working on a new record, and there's just a sense that what you do - even apart from September 11 - there's always this feeling where you ask yourself, "Is what I'm doing self-indulgent and unimportant? Is what I'm doing more about me than about sharing it?" And it's weird - it's definitely both, therapeutic for you and it's about presenting it and sharing it with others. But especially after September 11, it's tough for me to find the importance in some of the things that I used to find important and worthy of writing a song about. Like a simple little thing and before you'd be like, "Wow, that'll make a great song." But now you're like: "Why am I bothering? Why don't I just get on with my life and deal and do what I have to do? Is it a waste of time? Is it self-indulgent?
NORMAN: At the same time, I know that just as architecture changed and was impacted by World War II - I'm sure that painters and some other artists may not agree with me - but I think in some way it would be easier to be a visual artist after the 11th because it was such a visual event. You know, you saw it, and maybe -
SUSAN: Words can't describe.
NORMAN: There ya go.
SUSAN: Absolutely. And what Bryan said about, I think that's a universal reaction: "What I'm doing is not important in this time." I think everyone had that feeling except for, maybe, firefighters. That's not just a reaction that artists could have. Tim Cahill of the Times Union came out with an article on artists in the community after the September 11 attacks, and you have it linked on TheHiddenCity.com., and he spoke to a number of artists, and one of them said, "This makes you a citizen of the world first, and an artist second." Did you find that to be the case? Or did you hide in your studio, or with your typewriter, or with your instruments, and immerse yourself afterwards?
NORMAN: I don't think I felt like a citizen of the world any more than I did before, but it made me feel more vulnerable as a center of the world. But it certainly put the sense of self as an artist down a few notches.
BRYAN: I think you mention in the piece - that will be online as soon as I find the time to put it up there - how a lot of art is to make something that's based on the individual and then try to make it universal, so people can relate to the experience, share. And so many people saw that event in real time and were shocked and effected by it, it's already universal. The art is already there. That's it. Just standing and watching it happen. That was the art. I just don't know how anything can compare.
SUSAN: There really is no metaphor.
NORMAN: One of the other paradigms of creating things is to take the universal and make it personal. And that's obviously universal, but who doesn't already have their own personal reaction? How can I dictate that somehow mine is better or worse?
JOE: And in the creation of the art post 9-11, do you find yourself caring more or less about the audience? Not caring, but thinking more about the effect?
NORMAN: I guess for me, I felt much more concerned about what I was thinking and what my reaction to it - not to sound arrogant - obviously you create things and hope other people will like them - but for me I think I was much more concerned with something that would satisfy me. And maybe that's what Bryan was saying about writing songs: you could write a catchy song that people would like, but in some sense it wouldn't feel the same as it did before.
SUSAN: Let's talk about Lark Fest. It was supposed to take place three days after September 11, and Bryan, you have a series of photographs that you took on that day of Albany. Of course, Lark Fest was cancelled, and the streets of Albany were pretty much barren. That's what the photographs are about. Why was there such heated emotion about the cancellation of Lark Fest?
BRYAN: I think that was where I first started to hear words to the effect of, "If we don't go on with our lives, that's what the terrorists want to do, they want to disrupt our lives." And by canceling Lark Fest -
SUSAN: Which is the artists festival in Albany, I should add -
BRYAN: Yeah, and by canceling it, you're kind of giving in. They win, so to speak. I personally, I couldn't even imagine playing, cuz I was like, here's my silly little songs that were great a week ago, but I personally was kind of relieved in my own selfish way, because I just didn't want to get up on a stage and perform, I just thought it would feel really weird for me, personally.
SUSAN: Is that the general feeling among the artistic community in Albany, or not?
BRYAN: That's just me. I can't speak for anyone else.
NORMAN: For me, the reaction was, I can understand people being concerned about security, whether or not it would be in good taste or not, but it was also, from the opposite point of view, there's a certain value to people coming together as a community. And for people in Albany in general, and for musicians and performers, Lark Fest is one of those days where people come back to the area if they've moved away, you see people you don't get to see all of the time. And that has a value that was missed out on.
NORMAN: Who is really good, and actually she is featured in Metroland this week, their cover story is on poets talking about the "last pure art form." And she has an outstanding piece there about why she is a poet. It says a lot of what you need to know.
SUSAN: There are some other writings by the likes of Cheryl A. Rice, and Amy Abdou has a poem in there, and there's also a song and a video that you did called "Fallen," and I think this is from the upcoming album. Tell us about it.
BRYAN: It's a hodgepodge of words, it's a Flash animation, so there's cartoony images of things like me falling naked to Earth.
SUSAN: People are gonna tune in now!
BRYAN: I don't think so.
SUSAN: You can see it all at TheHiddenCity.com online now, and I just want to thank Bryan and Norman for joining us here today.
NORMAN: And I just want to say there's a lot of people involved: Amy Abdou, Mary Panza, a lot of people making contributions.
SUSAN: Thank you so much for coming in.
NORMAN: Thanks for having us.