Friday, January 04, 2002

All is Unfair
For North Shore
Media Arts in War

By Douglas McDaniel
Mythville MetaMedia

If the medium is the message, then the date, Sept. 11, is the portal where we pour all of our pain to put it on digital display.

The message is our mantra, our artistic Alamo. And here at the new front of the new war, the bleeding hearts and artists are shaken and stirred like all of the flags waving in the breeze.

“Since Sept. 11,” says Ron DiRito, a teacher at Montserrat College whose specialty is art and media and its context and meaning in society, “I don’t think (people who live elsewhere) understand what it’s like for us.

“I think the rest of the country doesn’t have the same kind of …,” he pauses, looking for ways to explain how it feels to be at the front of this new war, then, completing the thought: “ Everybody in New York understands it better than other people in the rest of the country. The physical distance changes our perception of something. There is this overwhelming sensibility.”

The convergent media’s use of Sept. 11 or the American flag has become nothing short of a patriotic duty for muckrackers of all stripes, for performance artists, for poets (heroic and tragic), for the political satirist who struggles with their his conscience about the very concept of humor, for humorists gone soft on grief, for photographers looking for some outlet, some relief. For artists returning to the simple and beautiful things, if only to remember. For their patrons, who seek out beautiful things, if only to remember.

The date, Sept. 11, flows like water, a shorthand sound byte not heard since getting revenge for Dec. 7, 1941 made vengeance for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a national rallying cry.

Go ahead. Run “Sept. 11” in a search engine. Run through the links, click through the streaming media of shock, horror, and yes, nationalistic fervor bound to (what it believes to be) justice and (unbelievable) vengeance. Expressing oneself in this way, in times of mass hypnotic states of hysteria, war, famine and scary bad TV, well, is as necessary as alcohol at a shotgun wedding.

As they say, the medium (Or, the media) is the message. So is writing the date, Sept. 11. On posters, stamps, newspaper supplements, whatever we, the expressive, can get our hands on.

But is that the most responsible way to express oneself on the big blank page of life during a time of national trauma, and yes, tight security? The convergent media paradigms are all in sync with the Union at War. Why egg it on?

What if you are a dissenter? A starving artist who prefers to recall other dates such as Dec. 13, 2000 (the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled dimpled chads null and void to end the last presidential election), or, Columbus Day, except not as a celebration of the discovery of the New World, but as a Native American directing our psyches toward a day of national shame?

Better think twice before you conjure the image, the number, the symbol, whatever. First figure out if it’s naughty, or, nice. Think twice before you type. Try to understand if your multi-media memento is at the service of vengeance, tragedy, pain, or, worse yet, your very self destruction.


Seth Butler, out of a concern for air pollution on North Shore of Massachusetts and a need to burn film for a photo essay for a class at Montserrat, loaded a roll of film and fired.

He pointed his weapon, a truth-telling device, at the churned and weathered brown spires of the Salem Power Plant. Since photos never lie, or, at least, a picture beats a thousand words, he figured in some small way the images might flesh out of the mystery and wonder of the place. He thought the suspected poisons made possible on a daily basis by the plant might be explicated by his pictorial essay, and through this kind of truth we might all be saved from this inconvenience, or, at least, that we might all enjoy some breathtaking pictures of the alleged poisoning taking place.

Butler intended to document the power plant as an environmental problem, a typical topic for artists. In fact, such satanic mills have been fodder for artists since 18th century William Blake, for overly expressive protestors as far back as the original Luddite, Ned Lud, and perhaps even before. Power plants and factories will always be great targets for interesting photos. Or, just targets, anyway.

Which, for Butler, age 22, became part of the problem.

After Sept. 11, as a he snapped on the lens and took in the fall New England air, he looked at the monumental smokestacks, trying to see what the relationships were between himself, the lens and the world at war----not so much the brother-against-brother battle, but the man-against-nature war.

“I was just struggling with how to deal with it,” he says.


What is the most appropriate way to express oneself on the big blank page of life during a time of national trauma, and yes, tight security? Indeed. Most just shot and fired, and we are still only trying to figure out what the right questions are.

The bombardment of the global media, crashing all day, all night upon the New England shores, lighting up the giant video screens of Times-Square (still standing) and the pubs of London (last time checked), and yes, your living room, is an overwhelming streaming media of war-time news.

Montserrat scrambled to a response with a big blank page, inviting others to scribble on their own.

“When all of this happened,” says Jo Lennox, publicist for Montserrat College of Art, “we put a huge piece of paper on the wall and called it ‘The Wall of Expression.’ ”

Most people just planted on flag on everything they could see and thus, found their grief and anger and patriotic duty satisfied.

Others saw all of those flags and wondered, what is the message in this medium? We were shaken and stirred, yes, but were we really in touch with the way the symbols were connecting to our psyches?

“I went up to the police officer out front of the plant, gave them three IDs, and warned them that I was shooting photos for a project,” Butler says.

Butler isn’t stupid. He thought he’d received permission, at that point, since he was on public property. So he just started firing away with his telephoto lens. After all, the guard at the gate said sure, whatever.

“But then this guy pulls up,” another security guard, Butler says. “I just wanted to do my work. They told me I had to leave.

“They watched me leave and get back into my car.”

As he moved on into an intersection, at a speed of 15 miles per hour, the legal limit, a white unmarked van sped in front of Butler’s vehicle and slammed on the brakes. “He must of have going thirty five when he went by me and stopped,” he says.

“These serious looking cop gets out and says, ‘Some people want to talk to you.’ ”

Another police car pulled up, and then another. The local arm of the North Shore committee of public safety at war was coming down on Butler like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel.

“A large black SUV with tinted windows pulled up next. I kept my hands in clear view,” he says. “I had the film …,” he laughed nervously, visibly shaken, as he spread photos of American flag imagery upon a table in the media lab basement at Montserrat.

“I was in possession,” he admits, “of concealed film.”

We have more question than answers now. Other than a feeling that Cold War-style sentiments have returned, it has become impossible to gauge what’s happening to artistic expression since Sept. 11. All that we know is something that’s a close kin to post-traumatic stress disorder is being transmitted through all media, from the political satire of David Letterman to the mega-bombastic sequel to the classic post-apocalyptic thriller coming to any theater near you.

To the episodes of “Survivor.”

To every creative impulse that every tried to be a light in the darkness; to all those media images that are flowing through us now.

How do we respond?

How do we deal creatively with our own struggle to find the appropriate voice?

How do we know the right thing to say, when we see death, so much death?

He do we contend with what David Byrne of the Talking Heads once anticipated in “Life During War-time”:

“Ain’t got no speakers
Ain’t got no headphones,
Ain’t got no music to play.”

For all practical intents, seemingly, the latest CD by Madonna is rendered not so much obscene but most certainly oblique. On the surface level (which really the only level you can really make money in the entertainment business) it’s a commercial question. What are audiences looking for?

As John Kimball, director of the North Shore Music Theater, remarked shortly after Sept. 11: “We will be more focused on what’s important and be more patriotic.”


After his 45-minute roust, Seth Butler, spurned photojournalist, put aside his Greenpeace passions over the Salem power plant, and started taking photographs of American flags.

But rather than puffing up his frames with a patriotic fervor, his eye seemed to be finding something else. An irony. A horror. A beauty. A terror. And more than anything else, a sense of alienation.

“For the first time in my life, I was feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he says. “They basically insulted me. They asked me why I wasn’t in Vermont (where he used to live). I was being very open about the whole thing. I was being very civil about the whole thing.

“I’m trying to deal with an event, a problem, over air quality, carcinogens, a serious matter. I ended up being shut down. I tried to work from farther away, and ended up trying to look at it in different contexts.

“But never did I think that I was going to run into the FBI as a college student.”


As Boston political satirist Jimmy Tingle put it, in a post Sept. 11 performance at the Wingate Street Micro Theater in Haverhill, “everything has changed.”

As part of a performance, serious even for a satirist in less apocalyptic climes, he read from a poem he had written in reaction to Sept. 11, “911: Prayer for America.”

There’s a hole in the tip of Manhattan
A hole in the soul of America
A hole in the center of our psyche
A hole in the foundation of our confidence
There’s a hole in the faith of our country
That fills churches in search of our God

In the time since Tingle wrote poem, several months after Sept. 11, there’s a shaky sense of assurance. After an alleged victory over the Taliban, citizens have crawled out of the foxholes and sleepwalk right back into the malls. Sunday’s gladiatorial epic, otherwise known as the NFL, is storming into the playoffs, and the media-flat map of the Stars and Stripes is becoming less ubiquitous.

Also, this: Anything that strays from a patriotic vision is likely to be, with the force of a fully diligent flight crew, wrestled to the ground and whisked away. At least until things quiet down.

At first the consensus among local arts folk was that, perhaps, everyone had seen enough violence in the media. That was at least the sentiment immediately after the attacks exploded so cinematically onto the real world’s stage. But while it was hard to know what to feel, the natural inclination toward unity, even for writers, artists, musicians and other performers, even they seemed to join up and salute to the brave new paradigm: grieve now, but kick ass later.

Oh sure, there was that initial sense that pyrotechnic violence on theater and television screens was a thing of the past.

“A lot of people had the same impression, that (the World Trade Center attacks) seemed like Hollywood, not the real thing,” says David Goss, director of fine arts at Gordon College.

Prior to the terrible events of that day, and the subsequent season of terror that followed and continues, he says the main concern for the planners of fall concerts might be quality, recognition, publicity, recognition, ticket sales, recognition, who might get top billing, and oh yeah, recognition.

But now, everything has changed.

“People are feeling uneasy about what they once considered to be so exciting,” he says.

But is Hollywood really ready to fess up, since Osama-style violence is only the copycat caricature of three, hmmm, maybe four late ’80s get-the-terrorist films, two of those starring Bruce Willis. Are post-Sept. 11 tastes no longer able to stomach the video violence?

Yeah, right.

You only need to consider the many years of conditioning that enabled us to stomach a totalitarian storm of escapes into Star Wars, hobbits at the gates of doom and pre-teenage detective wizards, the sinister but delightful Monsters, Inc., The Sopranos and on into the phantasm we go. All of those things were planned months, years before Sept. 11. Mass media culture is only starting to catch up. The masses still eat it up.

In this global mythic village, the plastic monsters and war toys are as real, within the own scale, as anything you can find in the jumbled up world. Just another mask for our national fascination with violence, which is still, quite surely, anything but satiated.

And it’s only beginning: Coming to a theater near you ---- a lock-step, achy breaky heart sort of thing, with the marketing strategy already set for a plastic neo-Bill Murray doll, a necessary evil to promote a generic pull-up-your-bootstraps-at-the-boot-camp sorta flick. With real napalm, and, real renegades to storm the unsafe gates of the Republic.
Our sense of freedom and free expression, in every aspect of our daily lives, from Paris to Portsmouth, is dizzy. Especially so for those of us in the curious position of being at the seacoast front of a new kind of war when the media buzzword, “terror,” is the message, and the enemy could be just about anyone.

“We have learned to tolerate each other better,” DiRito says. “But on the other hand, there is that thing going on, you don’t know who to suspect. This is still relatively trying to be understood. I don’t think we have processed it culturally and socially.”

Surely, self-expression is a window, but to what? Not much has been improved upon Plato’s belief that art is an imitation of life. Surely, self-expression is a window, but to what? Yeah, Aristotle could follow it up with improvements in classification, thus giving birth to criticism. But even after Sept. 11 artistic expression on the front of the North Shore, or within the deepest safe bunkers of Middle Earth, the response will be as varied as those who interpret life and throw it onto the “Wall of Expression.”

North shore music theatre is lame-o and, as a result, such pandering will continue to draw a larger audience than say, the performance artist who waves a pirate flag on his front lawn to protest the war. Jimmy Tingle will continue to walk a tightrope. Seth Butler will be daring until he no longer grieves.

As the times call out for artists with an eye for hypocrisy and the erosion of our civil liberties, extreme times such as these bring out the best of what we are, and also the worst.

Until we get our answers, we might all look back to Easter Sunday in 1916, when a small contingent of Irish patriots (today we might call them terrorists), took over a post office and ended up dying in a martyrdom of British bullets and fire. The poet, W.B. Yeats, reflecting on the shock waves the event created in Irish society, wrote the following: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

America is that terrible beauty now.

One other thing is likely as we fly, trying still to latch our windy emtions to the solid earth, into the New Year: Artists, when suppressed, will either whither and cease, or, if they have any gumption at all, will try even harder to break through the wall. Which means we are about to experience a wave of strident expression that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.

“This was history. I didn’t want to give up,” Butler says, his hands still shaking, tears welling up in his eyes, as he tried to explain how it feels to be rousted by the Man while taking photos. “Somebody needs to be working, recording. The war and hypocrisy doesn’t stop, and I’m not going to either.”

Of the flag photo project, a follow up to his season of hope, terror, frustration, whatever, Butler has decided to call the series “Tattered.”

A terrible beauty is born.

Douglas McDaniel is the publisher of Mythville MetaMedia , based in Haverhill. His has a new book of poetry, “The Road to Mythville,” is available online at and He can be e-mailed at