Vieques is a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico that was used for decades by the US military as training ground. For 200 days out of the year war games were played in Vieques with live ammunition much to the consternation of the over 10,000 Puerto Ricans who call Vieques home. In 1998 the NYC based Puerto Rican Hardcore Punk Band RICANSTRUCTION was invited to play a Kick The US Navy Festival Out in Vieques, Puerto Rico. i decided to bring a camera along to document the trip but had no inclination to make a documentary.
When we got back from Vieques we found that many people really didn’t know what was happening in regard to the destruction of the environment, the pollution, the depleted uranium shells, the unexploded ordnance, the high cancer rates, or any of the other long list of abuses by the US military in Vieques. So we decided to look at some of the footage i’d shot to see if a documentary could be put together. At the end of March 1999 we finished a short 25 minute punkumentary and decided to call it RICANSTRUCTING VIEQUES. A few days later on April 19th David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian Puerto Rican guard was killed in an accidental bombing. A F18 fighter jet dropped a 500 lb. bomb too close to his guard post. His death sparked a global movement to end war games on the island of Vieques.
The people of Vieques led a protest in which they occupied the bombing ranges of the US military effectively becoming human shields. International media began to pay attention to the plight of Vieques and semi-permanent encampments began to spring up in the bombing zones. Celebrities and politicians began to take notice of the struggle and began to lend not only their voices but their bodies to the movement. Famous Puerto Rican singers Danny Rivera, Robi Draco Rosa and Ricky Martin, lent their support, Puerto Rican boxer Félix “Tito” Trinidad, writers Ana Lydia Vega and Giannina Braschi, actor Edward James Olmos and Guatemala’s Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú supported the cause, as did Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Al Sharpton, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Even Pope John Paul II mentioned that he wanted peace for Vieques.
After many years of protests, occupations of the bombing zones and violent skirmishes with law enforcement, the US military relented and pulled out of Vieques on May 1st of 2003. Today marks ten years since the US military pulled out of Vieques but the struggle is far from over. The unexploded ordnance and depleted uranium and other environmental damage has yet to be cleaned up and the land that was once used by the US military is still off-limits to the people of Vieques.
This May Day is the ten-year anniversary of the US military leaving Vieques. In honor and remembrance of that struggle i’m re-releasing RICANSTRUCTING VIEQUES on the internet so people can begin to have an understanding of how destructive the US military was in Vieques and how it continues to be with the lack of clean up. As i write this i’m back in Puerto Rico and heading out to Vieques this May Day once again to try to document the ongoing struggle to get the US government and the US military to clean up the mess it left behind, so stay tuned for the follow up and in the meantime check out the punkumentary RICANSTRUCTING VIEQUES…
John Penley is an Anarcho Yippie is a new web series that i’m launching today with a new episode coming each week for the next few weeks. The story of how John became an Anarcho Yippie and what an Anarcho Yippie is, has everything to do with NYC in the 1980’s… John first moved to the Lower East Side of New York City in 1985 and became a freelance photojournalist. His photos were featured in all the daily newspapers like the The Daily News, The NY Post, The New York Times and many other publications. His archive of some 30,000 images was recently acquired by the Tamimnet Library at NYU.
At the end of the summer of 2011 John became homeless. Since then he’s been a part of various Occupy movements in New York, Washington DC, and Asheville NC. In March of 2013 John returned to New York to work on his archive in the library. In true Anarcho Yippie fashion John is also holding a protest against NYU by sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the library that houses his archive to bring attention to NYU’s contribution to the rapid gentrification to the Lower East Side and it’s planned expansion into Greenwich Village. In this episode John talks about his days as a photojournalist and how he came to NYC after serving a federal prison term for jumping bail to join the Yippies on Bleecker Street.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of John Penley Anarcho Yippie…
threats become promises
you still have time
to lay down your greed
and raise your hands
and assume the position
of the guilty
your last warning
your final notice
you were duly warned
when we marched and screamed
no justice without peace
but you believe too much
in your hubris
and now slogans
must become threats
must become promises
that fill the nostrils
with gasoline and smoke
to be laid out
like victory wreaths
on the smoldering ruins
of the foundations
where your excess once stood
Yesterday was Melvin Van Peebles birthday. It was the 41st anniversary of his 39th birthday. His birthday was celebrated at a special event at the Film Forum in NYC. The Film Forum honored Melvin by christening the lobby of the Film Forum in his name. His film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaaasssss Song was a huge influence on my award-winning film MACHETERO. In the above photo Melvin is holding his latest vinyl album ‘Nahh… Nahh Mofo’ from his band Melvin Van Peebles Wid Laxative that i just had to cop and he signed it for me with a single word… ‘HONEST’…
i managed to give Melvin a copy of MACHETERO and let him know how much of an inspiration he was to me. i was overwhelmed with admiration and inspiration after the event @ the Film Forum. When i got home i found this quote from Melvin that was really just the icing on the cake…
“The very first thing we must do is reconquer our own minds. The biggest obstacle to the Black revolution in America is our conditional susceptibility to the white man’s program. In short, the fact is that the white man has colonized our minds. We’ve been violated, confused and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide. The most effective and vicious racism has grown, and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.” – Melvin Van Peebles
Jean-Michel as ignition.
SAMO as alternative to art.
Basquiat as anti-artist.
Every once in a while a soul comes into the universe with a heightened sensitivity to the hypocrisy and bullshit of the world and is compelled to do something about it; is driven to be the antithesis of present day preconceived notions and constraints; is determined to turn the world inside out and reflect it back. Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of those souls. Born in the Peoples Republic of Brooknam in the then Puerto Rican barrio of Park Slope, to a Puerto Rican mother and Haitian father Jean-Michel couldn’t help but see the world through his own eyes. His mother introduced Jean-Michel and his sister Lisane to art when they were young. Taking them to museums and drawing together at the kitchen table as a family.
Basquiat had a mind of his own. He owned his own mind. He owned it wholly. The New York City Board of Miseducation did what it could to try and bring him to conformity but failed in getting Basquiat to graduate high school. It did however succeed in bringing together Al Diaz and Basquiat, who then created a cryptic graffiti character by the name of SAMO. SAMO was the first salvo in a battle to be that antithesis of preconceived notions and constraints.
“SAMO is all, all is SAMO.”
“SAMO the guilt-free religion… and beyond.”
“SAMO as an alternative to mindwash.”
A homeless high school drop out living in downtown parks like Tompkins Square and Washington Square. Living on street smarts, postcard collages and painted t-shirts. Living on the fumes of dreams of fame all young graffiti artists inhale.
“Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had romantic feelings of how people get famous.”
SAMO became infamous and Basquiat got famous. And like the heroes he idolized, struggled with his fame. Charlie Parker changed the world with his horn and was attacked by the critics for his contribution then died of an overdose at the tender age 35. Jimi Hendrix changed the way an electric guitar could be played and was ridiculed by the critics, then died of an overdose at 27. Basquiat changed the way art would be viewed and then died of an overdose at the same age as Jimi.
“Did you know that you were going to stop doing stuff on walls and start putting stuff on canvas… did you have any idea that you wanted to hit the gallery circuit?”
No, I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at the time. I just thought about making fun of the paintings that were in there more than about making paintings. The art world was mostly Minimal when I came up. I thought it alienated people from art.”
Basquiat was an anti-artist. He challenged the traditional definitions and ideas of what it was to be an artist and of what art should be. He attacked the canvas in a way that didn’t allow external forces to get in the way of expressing the way he felt internally. That internal energy poured out of him uninhibited and unencumbered in a well thought out stream of consciousness. He captured the exuberant energy of a child in his paintings and mixed it with fierce social and political commentary. He painted and repainted paintings in layers, editing and refining images, using symbols and text and letters and numerals as tactics to create a new way of looking at the world. He gave birth to a personal vocabulary and then forged it into a new language. In the early 80’s the art world needed change, but like anything that needs changing it feared any change it couldn’t control. Basquiat saw the opportunity to be the change that the art world needed. And he saw the way the art world wanted to control him. So he went out of his way to be everything they loved and hated and he that put it in his work.
“I think the two similarities that Jean and graffiti in general had in common was that people wanted to harness a wild animal. They couldn’t control him and they couldn’t control graffiti. The art world was bland and they wanted something on their walls. Jean-Michel’s work is very anti-art world, you know. It’s almost like a curse. And people still love that. They love being cursed at.” – Lee Quiñones
Basquiat came from the world of hip-hop and be-bop and salsa and punk. He was the quintessential Puerto Punk. A fusion of clashing cultures and intersecting ideologies. He straddled the uptown hip-hop b-boy scene with the downtown art punk no wave scene. He was a graffiti artist and a DJ at the same time that he was in the no wave punk band Gray. He produced and created the artwork for the most sought after hip-hop vinyl record (Beat Bop by Rammelzee vs. K-Rob) and recorded with fellow Puerto Punk Coati Mundi (of Kid Creole and the Coconuts). His roots in the hip-hop and punk scene imbued him with a healthy sense of disdain for the art world and he took every opportunity to take a shot at it. Even going so far as to create paintings that were outright attacks on the idea of buying and selling art. One painting entitled “Obnoxious Liberals” has the words “Not For Sale” incorporated into it. Another painting called “Five Thousand Dollars” that consisted solely of blocks of color with the words “Five Thousand Dollars” painted across the canvas demonstrated a clear awareness of the way in which the art world made not just his art but he himself into nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.
Basquiat’s outrage was not solely confined to the art world. He held a radical social and political dialogue in his work aimed at the ills of a racist society that exploited people of color in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Africa. Works such as “Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes” spoke of the way black talent was used in the interest of white business. “Undiscovered Genius” was a statement on the black experience in america from slavery to the blues. “Origin Of Cotton” was another piece that was done both in the streets and on paper that spoke of the exploitation of life and labor. “Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari” illustrated the way in which Europeans colonized people of color.
Other pieces like “The Death Of Michael Stewart” (a graffiti artist killed by the police in 1983) and “Untitled Sheriff” focused on police brutality. While pieces like “Irony Of A Negro Policeman” are a reflection of societies complex contradictions. Much of Basquiat’s work held a level of consciousness that assaulted the comfortably held beliefs of a racist, capitalist society, particularly focusing on the way the lives and talent of black and brown people were used and continue to be used to this day. A perfect example of this is “Per Capita” with an image of a black statue of liberty and the Latin word “E. Pluribus” found on money written above it’s head. His art contained a justified anger that railed against the way things are in a capitalist, white supremacist world.
His sensitivity and his ability to maintain his vision in the face of the odds he was up against as a dark skinned Puerto Rican – Haitian artist in an all white controlled art world, could only be rooted in his connection to the early hip-hop and punk subcultures. In the early days of hip-hop and punk the aesthetic was D.I.Y. and anti-commercial. Punk’s doctrine dictated that you didn’t need to sound like the radio to express yourself. Put a band together and find your own voice. Record you own music, make your own records, and book your own gigs. Hip-hop’s manifesto was to create something out of next to nothing. Turntables became instruments, cardboard became dance floors, trains became mobile museums. Basquiat mixed the ideologies of both of these subcultures and turned the art world inside out. His meteoric rise to fame and the art world’s desire to accept him on terms they wanted to dictate and Basquiat’s awareness of their manipulation of him and his – art always left him feeling ill at ease with his own fame.
“My paintings are about royalty and the streets.”
But this contradiction of fame and infamy: artist or anti-artist, art or anti art took its toll on Basquiat. He was conflicted, caught in the gears of his own contradictions. His love – hate relationship with the art world really ate away at him. These contradictions showed up in his work with pieces dedicated to the negative attributes of fame, in paintings that referenced Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Jack Johnson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson as well as other “Famous Negro Athletes” and jazz musicians. Towards the end of his short life he wanted to give up painting and talked about moving to Hawaii and writing poetry and making music. Yet at the same time Basquiat used his fame and fortune to return to his roots. He traveled to Puerto Rico to paint, and traveled to Africa creating friendships with other African artists and having exhibitions of his work in Africa.
“Believe it or not, i can actually draw.”
He created a huge prolific body of work in the 8 to 9 years of painting he did as a young man. He pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be an artist by becoming an anti-artist and still remains a controversial icon in the art world and beyond. He stepped outside of the definitions of artist and managed to be one, he stood outside of what was considered art and still created it. And like his boxing idols Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, he held his own, he went toe to toe with an art world that wanted to beat him into submission and came away with the crown.
This essay was first published in the ‘zine SALVO. The full issue can be downloaded here.
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
– Edward Abbey
On February 1st, of 1968 Associated Press photojournalist Eddie Adams took a disturbing photo of an execution in the streets of Saigon, that would go on to become an iconic image of the horrors of the Vietnam War. It’s a photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. When i was thinking about trying to create an image about the dynamics of Capitalism this photo came to mind.
Capitalism is ubiquitous. It can’t be escaped, everyone is forced to participate. There’s not a single aspect of our life that goes untouched. It affects the fundamental aspects of survival, where we live, what we eat, access to medical care, the ability to educate ourselves. It affects our relationships with family, friends, life partners. It limits our ability, constrains our creativity and dictates our potential. It’s inescapable, if you don’t cooperate with it you die. Capitalism is a gun to the head. The dollars coming out of the gun of the executor are multiplied as they come out of the head executed. Killing or dying it’s all profit for capitalism.
The fact that this photo came from the Vietnam era was also something that fit perfectly into what I was trying to do. The Vietnam War was framed as an ideological battle between democracy (dressed as capitalism) and communism. (As a side note communism is actually a democracy, but i digress.) The idea was to frame this gruesome image into an advertisement for Capitalism.
Advertising is the creation of seduction for the purposes of profit. Seduction is the emotional mortar that hold the building blocks of possibility in place long enough to promise some kind of fulfillment. So i flipped the dynamics of advertisement to soften the mortar to bring down the structure of a promise that can never be kept.
Coca-Cola is an avatar for Capitalism. Using the Coca-Cola typeface to advertise Capitalism made sense since everywhere you go in the world you can find Coca-Cola. Since the only rule in Capitalism is profit at any cost… mixing that up with the phrase “By Any Means Necessary” made infamous by Malcolm X completed my visual critique of Capitalism.
If you like this image and want to spread this critique of Capitalism around check out Audio Visual Terrorism… i designed it as a t-shirt and as a 1″ button… And no that doesn’t make me a capitalist… The definition of capitalism is here… i’m still the same struggling artist i always was and like everyone else i’m stuck in the shitstem of capitalism… Until capitalism is gone i’ll be forced to use capitalism against itself…
What if the corporations and the politicians threw a war and no one showed up? What if there was no military… because there were no soldiers? If the ceo’s and the politicians who benefit so richly from our bloodshed had to risk their own lives for the bullshit they pass off as the viable reasons for war, there might be a long and lasting peace… Without us to fight there is no war… And without war the benefits enjoyed by the corporations and the politicians from war can be starved while our lives will invariably be enriched…