I’ve Been Reading John Ashbery Again
We sit in your living room and talk about our parents. Your mother is suffering from brain cancer. The doctor has removed a quarter of her brain and still has not been able to get all of it. She now suffers from dementia and blinding migraines and spends most of her days in bed at the aid of your arthritic father. My father wrapped his car around an oak tree on his way back from the bar. He lost control and hit a ditch. The car rolled five times before striking the seventy-year-old oak. They had to cut down the tree in order to get him out. My retired mother cares for him now as best she can. She got West Nile in 2007.
— The goddamned bills, man. I’m trying to help Dad make sense of them, but the shit just doesn’t add up. Half the time they haven’t even run them through insurance first. A fucking disaster, the man is almost eighty years old!
— Dad’s life insurance company fights Ma at every turn for every little thing. He qualifies for home care, but they keep telling her she can’t access the money until she pays out of pocket first, almost like three grand, and then it has to be out of a pool of caretaker facilities they approve, many of which Ma’s already reached out to and they say they can’t help because where Mom and Dad live is “out-of-area.” Well if it’s out-of-area, according to the life insurance company, technically she qualifies to hire whomever she desires, provided they have some kind of medical bonafides, nursing assistant-type license shit. But most of these workers are tied up with the facilities, which have harsh penalties against them if they take freelance jobs, and it’s illegal in the state to work over forty hours a week as a freelancer for “insurance purposes” so most people who qualify are at the facilities because it ain’t cheap to get the medical license to be a fucking baseline medical worker and they need the money! Mind you, Mom’s not classically trained in the art of medicine, she’s just learning all this shit as she goes. She didn’t go to school to learn how to cath him or clean him up after he shits all over himself or how to maintenance a feeding tube when it gets clogged with Sustenance Shakes. But she’s expected to hire a professional medical worker from the approved health facility in order to get a fucking 75% discount from the life insurance company… after she’s already paid three grand out-of-pocket. Fuck. She couldn’t even get access to his information at first to even start this nightmare because she hadn’t “processed the necessary paperwork” that they hadn’t even sent her to begin with.
Peach and mint scent the air from your hookah. The anarcho-folk singer, Adam Forbes, plays from the smart-home speaker you won at a company raffle and we’re watching the famous work of Helda Stipp on mute from the 75-inch HDTV your wife purchased last Cyber Monday. It is the 1987 classic: “die Geschichte des Kapitalismus: ein sich selbst Scheißefress Schwein” (Capitalism’s History: A Shit-Eating Pig Eating Itself). Helda was one of those good ole Eastern German gals, though she escaped and lived in West Berlin starting in the 70s.
— Eric Hobsbawm once called her Marxism “historically immature” and herself “intellectually exhausting” at a cocktail party Brian Eno was throwing. This was when he was working on Lodger with Bowie.
— I didn’t know about this.
— She told him to suck her dick. So the apocryphal story goes.
The hookah smoke rises obscuring portions of the screen, which only adds to the disorienting sensation of the short animated artwork.
— I think the hash is finally taking hold.
Helda’s work is a never-ending maelstrom of images in constant conflict with each other or themselves. The characters in “Schweingeschicte” (its accepted shorthand) are these hyper-pleasant Disney-esque creatures and peoples who are doing unspeakable things; horrible images that can only be conveyed through the lens of cartoon animation. The more gruesome they are, the more wholesome the images. They are constantly tumbling, rolling, falling over, wrestling, killing, eating, fucking in this spiraling fashion. All the moments inspired by historical events or personal moments of Stipp. If the sound was on, we would hear this droning of machinery and what sounds like cash registers mixed in with white noise and a marching drum beat pounding off somewhere. Every now and again, a heavily distorted sound comes through while you watch. At first, you don’t understand what it is, just some other obscure bit to add to the cacophony. But as you get to the end of the nearly twenty-minute piece, you understand it is a cry for help. It is in Spanish. It is the voice of a woman, shouting out in terror and pain, from a recorded assassination of Bolivian socialist, Marco DeLaViva, in the early 80s. He was an ardent critic of Pinochet and openly trying to arm leftists in Chile for revolution. He wanted to be President of Bolivia. He was giving a street interview when a man steps behind him and cooly lifts a pistol to his neck and pulls the trigger. His wife is the woman who cries out: “won’t someone help us?” over and over again in the film. Marco and Helda were good friends. She holds back nothing in Schweingeschicte. The images and sounds build the impression of this indefatigable cycle being powered by some unseeable yet still felt evil that attaches itself to us and in doing so creates this sense of dread and inseparability that only compounds our complicity and shame. We’re watching it on YouTube. We have it on Repeat for deeper effect.
A five-second ad break interrupts to encourage us to buy a program that will teach us to code and whatnot. So we may then create our own websites and advance our own platforms with ads such as these.
Adam Forbes is also on loop. We’re listening to his latest album: I’m Sad Too, OK? It is an entire collection of songs that have no real lyrics. He merely mumbles melodies in a mewling voice above well-constructed musical arrangements. He said Schweingeschicte was on his mind a lot while making the album.
— It’s funny. I actually remember Adam Forbes interviewing Helda once, back in like 2007.
— Oh yeah?
— Right. It was this seminar/Q&A-type thing at John Hopkins.
— Yeah, well, they had just commissioned her to do some mural or something for them. In the end, I think she just made a bunch of erections coming out of pill bottles and poor people dying of AIDs, so they scrapped it–but anyway, it was a pretty good session. There was this student or whatever at the end that asked Helda something about art. You know, it was one of those annoying “duty of the artist” kind of questions, especially in the political realm. But she had this brilliant answer. I’m not going to do it justice, but it was something along the lines of: It’s impossible to separate the artist from the art, or the viewer from themselves when interpreting the art. The art affects the person who then affects the next art and that in turn affects the next people, and so on. And a collective will, or truth, forms over time in this cycle. That interwovenness is perpetual and works all over the place. And the same is true for the person and politics. You can’t separate one from the other and each feed into one another and so changes cannot come from the individual but from the collective. So in a sense, the artist has no more duty or call than the next person: I’m not doing a great job of it. It’s on YouTube. Maybe I’ll find it to watch next.