On one floor, electronic word-lights race along ten parallel tracks. I’m in New York at the Whitney, at American artist Jenny Holzer’s “Protect Protect” exhibit. Elsewhere, her “redaction paintings” remind us the country is still at war. Using declassified government documents with sensitive material redacted, or blacked out, Holzer enlarged these into art-statements of protest. Autopsy reports, handprints of military personnel accused of war crimes, maps that Central Command used to delineate plans for invading Iraq. This artist builds word-art around visual statements, her most famous being “protect me from what I want.” The exhibit is both profoundly disturbing and stunningly gorgeous.
It’s spring break, and I’ve fled the Midwest to head back east. From January to May, I’m a visiting writer at the University of Iowa. 2009 begins the longest continuous residence in my country of citizenship of recent years. In 2009, a mixed-race, dark-skinned man is president, one with connections to Indonesia, Africa, Hawaii, Illinois, specifically Chicago. I ponder this while gazing at Holzer’s running words, her pink, green, yellow, purple LED tracks that transport meaning to new planes, surprising you around corners, in arches, simultaneously assaulting and delighting the senses. Her parallel-track, ground-level display, “For Chicago,” is perhaps a nod to the new president.
Later, when Hong Kong’s daylight dawns, I am on the phone to our realtor about my family’s rental flat. The thing he wants to know: what’s the mood like there? We’re closing in on 10% unemployment, I say, people are nervous, and New York’s real estate has dipped a little but not a lot. He is reassured. It is the same in Hong Kong. The market advantages the buyer or renter, although landlords who won’t drop prices must afford to wait. He’s just doing his job, sales pitching to ensure we price for the market. When I ask about the mood, his reply: there still are lines at yum cha. But he sounds the same nervous note that vibrates in the voices of my American friends. No one quite believes things are all that bad, although everyone thinks things will only get worse before they get better.
In January, I drove into Iowa in a blizzard. My journey west was blessed by the weather gods. I encountered snow and cold but mostly clear skies during the three-day drive, although the radio portended storms. The last two hours were painstakingly slow as snow and wind whipped my small Subaru. I prayed GPS would carry me to my destination, a rental house for which I held the key.
The first night on the road was spent opposite the airport at Buffalo, New York where I consumed Buffalo wings in its birthplace. The second was in Mishawaka, Indiana, a native American name, but I mis-said Mishi-KA-wa, which felt vaguely Japanese, rolling easily off my Asian tongue. When planning my road trip, I decided South Bend, Indiana a likely stopover. For one thing, I had heard of this Midwestern city which is also home to Notre Dame University. Its greater metropolitan area numbers over 300,000 by the last census. Mishawaka was the hotel address, and I assumed it was some ex-urban South Bend overflow, where I’d be lucky to find a restaurant open. More likely, dinner would mean heading down some strip mall to junk.
In Mishawaka, however, its new-ness felt like “The Truman Show.” This “twin city” to South Bend has a curiously post-modern face of suburban chic. At once “Desperate Housewives” and American pie, its architecture recalls small-town America, with a nod to a 21st century greening and clean design lines, beyond calico and frump. The hotel had a decent gym, and was in better condition than the more expensive Buffalo one. The manager said they opened about seven years ago, and that the city was a ten-year old reality.
But how late did restaurants stay open? Experience said nine at most. Go to eat early, my maxim in middle America, except maybe Chicago, the only way to guarantee real food and not processed chemicals. The manager assured that nothing closed before ten, possibly eleven, and suggested Bonefish Grill. They fly in their fish daily, or every other day, he added, in response to my doubtful expression. Foolhardy perhaps, but I took my chances and was rewarded with an exquisite dish at this Florida-based establishment in what appears to be a popular branch. In the middle of nowhere during a recession, this relatively large space was almost full at well past the early American dinner hour. The patrons were maybe 35% African-American, 10% Hispanic. I was not the only Asian face there and the menu featured sushi. For the equivalent in Hong Kong or New York, my bill would have been twice as much. Middle America is still the land of good value.
Mine is not Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America.” In 2009, the country is more global and less American than the rest of the world imagines. By 2009, America has also seeped more fully into our global consciousness than we like to admit. At the recent G-20 conference, the world was mad at Wall Street. This sub-prime mess, enhanced by derivatives and dubious financial instruments, has dumped us knee-deep into a worldwide quicksand. No one feels “comfortable” anymore – our global middle class aspiration – given shrinking portfolios, a crumbling banking structure and careening indexes. The Dow, Hang Seng, FTSE et al have suddenly become illogical mathematical problems, without predictably elegant curves to plot and explain. And here I am, a subway ride away from Wall Street, wondering why we are so mad, why we blame America for causing this crisis, and, as China has recently demanded, that America fix things. Why, above all, do we think America can fix the mess? Isn’t it our problem too?
Government stimulus packages, in the U.S., Hong Kong, China and elsewhere, might work. I am not an economist and have no crystal ball for such things. It’s our cultural problem that engages me, this “value” that insists: but of course you must consume! The world sells and we will consume. Ringtones, apps, blogs, chatrooms, words that barely pass spell check. And hardware too, often purchased virtually, for travel, restaurants, designer wear.
My Chelsea neighborhood in New York that formerly housed the meat-packing industry, a transvestite hooker trade and a working class Hispanic population, transformed completely in the last decade, the same period that transformed tiny Mishawaka. The long-time diner at the end of my block has been through two “café cum bistro” versions, serving the same breakfast and coffee of the old place for double the price and half the service. The new staff and clientele are young, beautiful, hip, indifferent. Meanwhile, Café Riazor, our favorite Spanish place on sixteenth street dating back several decades, that served tapas before it was hip, now worries about quiet weekends. Good value, friendly service and consistently excellent fare matter less than being new.
Galleries and clubs converge west towards the water. Designer shops line fourteenth street. Rents rise insanely for the same, lousy tenements that once housed the poor, these dwellings that are now for the newly rich and “comfortably” aspiring. Old buildings are razed; new hotels, condominiums, offices rise up instead. Today, a shiny Frank Gehry graces the waterfront where dockworkers and sailors once roamed.
Our appetite is large and attention deficit. We consume, not because of need, as gigagazilion images, texts, ideas zip by, exhorting us to buy, to want, to aspire to rich and famous lives, consuming at godly heights. Yi, sik, ju, haang: clothing, food, home, transport are the basics for life. But who insisted we “need” designer wear, gourmet fare, luxury flats and Porsches instead of the bus? Did America? Perhaps Hollywood and the standard of living that evolved in post-Depression America led the way, but do we blame a culture because we too want more than we need? Beijing disappeared like an illusion and nip-tucked its face for the Olympics and beyond. Hong Kong is Prada-proud while devils steal away historic structures, open spaces, the city itself and perhaps even our soul, all for the sake of the marketplace.
Do we shoot the messenger or rewrite the message instead?
Protect us from what we want should be our global protest, echoing Holzer. Hundreds of jobless former Wall Streeters currently haunt New York’s charities, heeding Obama’s call for volunteerism because overachievers must stay busy. How long will that last, wonder the directors of such organizations, overwhelmed by this surge of volunteers their staff can barely cope with. But perhaps when the economy rebounds, they hope, donations will pour in from these enlightened “consumers.”
If consumer debt helped to sink our world, perhaps it’s time to rewrite the meaning of consumption. Is there too much “aspiration” and not enough dream? To paraphrase American writer Delmore Schwartz, in dreams we learn responsibility. In aspiration, all we do is value the object or goal, without ever questioning why we aspire, because advertising tells us that we should aspire to all that is beautiful, hip, shiny, new.
Living in middle America, I catch up on television, the cheapest form of entertainment besides the library. “Trust Me” is a new series about two ad men, here in this country that gave birth to advertising, the creative craft of consumption. The art director is an overachieving, workaholic, family man who places trust in brands, and the family he never sees. The copywriter is the single guy, an irresponsible Peter Pan who will not grow up because being creative is about placing trust in a childlike sense of wonder, regardless of consequence. In 2009, advertising is as much in our DNA as is Confucius. Google “Confucius” and he appears over 4 million times because we consume his thoughts and what he represents the way we consume everything else on the Web. That advertising is an industry dating back only one, mostly American century, is irrelevant; search “advertising” and you pull up over 500 million sites. In Google world, we place greater trust in the new. The etymology of “advertise” dates back to Middle English; its obsolete meaning is to warn or admonish.
Artists dream, aspiring to remembrance and responsibility, not wealth for its own sake. Protect! warns Holzer in March, Woman’s Month. Is this admonishment as well? February celebrated Black History. Will this Black president raise global consciousness about American culture other than consumption and advertising? Martin Luther King dreamed his country would judge people not on skin color but on “the content of our character.” The world too needs this message. Instead of blaming America for the mess, or expecting a lifeline, we should examine the content of our character and ask where responsibility lies for this mess we’re in. This quicksand world where we all now find ourselves.