Greetings from LA

Chris Kraus
Catalog Essay 2006

 

 

The United States is a prison.

It’s easy enough to forget this when you’re at a party for George Porcari’s stunning exhibit of photographs, I See Through You, at Chinatown’s Mandarin Gallery. The show was up here during June and July. Drawn from two bodies of work made during two decades, the images carry a resolute chill that the hippie-esque title belies. Taken in summer, 2005 the more recent work depicts urban landscape in various cities in Europe reflected against generically modern plate-glass windows and doors. The colors are thick, and deep shifting shadows of architectural foliage fill the transparent void. There is a great deal of visual information in each of these frames, and the photos suggest that it’s through a reflective surface that we can best see the disjoined jumble of what’s going on. In her catalogue essay, the writer Veronica Gonzales likens the experience of viewing this work to walking around a strange city: 

There is no me any longer, I’ve been shattered and re-arranged, de-centered and thrown into process, my eye not able to light for more than a few seconds on anything, and yet I send you these greetings, these images proclaim, with my shifting questioning eye. (Now and Then, Mandarin Press: 2006).

The earlier series of images, Greetings From L.A., dates from 1979. Having arrived with his family from Lima, Peru in the mid-1960s, Porcari, as a young man, looks around his new home with disheartened wonder: the mid-rise rectangular offices flanked by low stucco storefronts, the space-age novelty diners, the wide asphalt boulevards, the old men and women in powder-blue leisure suits crossing the street like animals lost from their herd. As Gonzales notes drily, “LA in the 70s was not such an interesting place,” but it’s through this very lack of visual interest that we sense the estrangement of one who has come from a faraway place and knows they can’t return. Such displacement requires one to look sideways, and not straight on. Gonzales, also an immigrant, locates this kind of lateral view as extreme sensitivity. Speaking with George Porcari, who she’s known for many years, Gonazles recalls:

We were sitting at a bar and I’m not sure what we were talking about, sensitivity, both of our sense of sensitivity, our shyness and there was a series of bottles lined up in front of us as there are in any bar, with a mirror behind them with a lot of reflections and a lot of light and you told me that when you were young and you would go to bars with all the other guys after loading trucks they would all be engaged, drunk or hooking up or whatever it is that these young guys would be doing and you would be focused on these bottles at the bar because the rest of it was somehow too much for you. So you would find this side element, that was still a part of where you were, but was the edges of of where you were, and I’ve thought about that often when we’ve spoken about edges and fragments … in your photography … and somehow that’s stuck with me, the level of sensitivity in the work. (Conversation June 17, 2006: Mandarin Press catalogue)

The party took place on (another) warm Los Angeles evening, and people spilled out on the second-floor walkway of Mandarin Plaza. There were a large number of people from Europe and Latin America. Tom Watson handed me cigarettes, Luis Bauz was back from Mexico City.  Denise Spanupinar talked about Juan Goytisdo. Linda Pollack had just returned from the Midwest where she’s preparing a series of public discussions about constitutional rights in the wake of the Patriot Act. (It is a strange new phenomenon when artists collaborate with constitutional lawyers, and one that is likely, given the present conditions, to happen more often.) After awhile, George screened one of his ambient films from the Los Angeles 70s, and everyone went in, and sat on the floor.

Still, it had been a banner week (June 22-29) for domestic repression in the US, if anyone’s still keeping track, and I doubt that they are. Appalled in 2004 by the swift normalization of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, the writer Wallace Shawn wrote in Final Edition that trying to keep track of the Bush administration’s deliberate lies and suspensions of constitutional law was “like trying to sort scraps of paper in piles in front of a very large fan.” But yesterday’s outrage becomes today’s very old news.  Shawn’s essay was written before the normalization of the Hadditha massacres (“battle stress and fatigue,” New York Sunday Times, June 17, 2006) and the characterization of the Guantanamo suicides as “acts of asymmetrical warfare.” (Dick Cheney, widely reported, 6/19/06). Or the docile and neutral reportage (June 22, 2006) of the Pentagon’s decision to suspend all military tribunals and hearings and close the Guantanamo base to all journalists and human rights monitors in the wake of the “controversy.” 

The day of the Mandarin Gallery party, I had just come back to LA from Arizona. That very week, 600 National Guardsmen had been dispatched by President Bush to augment the work of the Border Patrol in the southern part of the state. The same week (June 23, 2006) Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater described his plan to build forced labor camps for the internment of apprehended illegals to a journalist from the Spanish news agency EFE. Goldwater suggested housing these people in tents behind barbed wire fences and putting them out to work building a wall between Mexico and the US, a wall that would span 2000 miles. “Build that wall, Mr. President,” Goldwater stumped, riffing around the immortal pronouncement of Ronald Reagan (“Mr. President, take down that wall,”) during his visit to the former East Germany. The EFE reporter described this imagined facility as a “concentration camp,” and a media controversy over the use of the word “concentration camp” then ensued.  This slippage of language – not unlike the “abuse” vs. “torture” linguistic debate that took place in the wake of Abu Ghraib – then ensued. After being predictably censured by more moderate Arizona Republicans, Goldwater played his trump card: this ‘forced labor’ camp notion was nothing new.  In fact, it was “tried and tested, effective and accepted” by in Phoenix, Arizona by the lunatic ultra-right cowboy Sheriff Joe Arpaio at his Maricopa County Jail, a facility I was soon to learn more of. Meanwhile, Spanish press agency issued a formal apology for their use of the word “concentration.” ‘Internment’ was probably more like it.

Six days before, on June 22, I’d been relaxing on a Baja, Mexico beach with my friend Eileen Myles when I got a call that my boyfriend had been arrested in Clifton, Arizona, en route to LA.  He was being held without bail for extradition to Maricopa on a ten year old warrant he’d been told was ‘inactive.’ He phoned from the Clifton County Correctional Facility. Phoenix (the nearest airport) was four hours away. 

Eileen and I threw some clothes in a bag, jumped in her truck, and drove through the night.  I remember the red desert of Mexico, driving north on the two-lane national highway to Mexicali.  I remember the strange shapes of organ pipe cactuses, and feeling the night close like the lid of a very large box as the sun slowly went down. Driving on highway 3 is a collaborative art, with drivers signaling each other when to pass, speed up and slow down. Thirty miles south of Mexicali, we stopped at a roadside café, where everyone sat out together at picnic tables in the diesel-y night. By 4 a.m. we were in Phoenix, where the landscape was fast food chain stores and pavement. We crashed at a scummy West Phoenix hotel ($105), turned on the broken a/c, killed a few roaches. And then Eileen flew home the next day and I drove on to Clifton, a strange dying town in the easternmost part of the state, whose last civic hope was the County Correctional Facility, built with Federal funds in 1978. 

The jail was to Clifton what Target is to a derelict mall: a commercial anchor, expected to draw visitors, money and jobs. I checked into the Rode Inn motel (built around the same year as the jail) and tried to be a good tourist, but there was little to buy. The town’s only café (dehydrated eggs, frozen potatoes) closed at 2. My boyfriend and I were allowed to visit twice a day during the weekend through a plexiglass screen, speaking through faulty handsets which were nevertheless (as everyone knows) recorded and monitored. The jailers in Clifton were pretty nice, in a smug, revenge-of-the-dumb-kids-in-high school type way. 

In between visits, I drove 40 miles out to Safford and tried to order a salad at the town’s only “good” restaurant. It was 115 degrees, and I wanted to sit in the shade outside on the patio, but the hostess and waitress had a hard time with this.  Because the patio door was locked, and the idea that they could unlock the door was an alien notion, as if someone could just do what she wants. “I just work here,” the waitress explained, when I asked what it would take to unlock the door.  I noticed her noting the out-of-state plates on my truck. Finally, the chef-owner came out to elaborate: the patio was locked so the waitress could serve other customers, and no, she couldn’t unlock the door and let me bring the salad outside and return the plate. Her plump face was channeling meanness through a jubilant smile. Two sheriff’s patrol cars were parked right outside, and the owner remarked how she’d seen me enjoying a drink from the bar last night on her patio, so it seemed best to leave and I did.

That same day (June 24), the Arizona Republic reported the arrest of 7 Haitian men in Miami by Homeland Security. According to FBI Deputy Director John Pistole, their plot was “more aspirational than operational.” The raid signified his department’s commitment to “nipping homegrown terror plots in the bud.” The men’s families were bereft and bewildered.  They claimed that the men met twice a week in a warehouse for religious and martial arts studies, discussing their readings of the Bible and the Koran. Pistole noted a “list of shoe sizes” as a key piece of evidence, from which the men planned to “purchase military boots.” In Safford, I lost my blue notebook. The arrest of the seven Haitians seemed vaguely familiar, and I recalled a similar round-up of Muslim construction workers and shopkeepers last spring in Chicago, and another in upstate New York, and what’s become of these suspects?, nobody knows. A slow symbolic feed of menace/security, depending on which side of the fence you are sitting, enacted on those alien enough not to matter completely. On June 25, President Bush censured the New York Times for “aiding the terrorists” by disclosing Homeland Security’s routine monitoring of virtually all international banking activity, and my friend was woken and shackled in Clifton at 2:30 a.m., and driven to Maricopa by the same ‘friendly’ guards who’d hinted at his release the next day. 

After arriving at Maricopa County Jail, he was issued a regulation black-and-white striped prison uniform and the (supposedly humiliating) pink socks and boxer shorts devised by Sheriff Joe.  It’s important to note that the black-and-white stripes are horizontal (as in an old Keystone Cops movie) rather than vertical, as in a — oops, here goes that word again — concentration camp uniform. Arpaio is famous for saving the County $4 million a year by cutting down prisoner rations to two meals of green bologna a day, although the County’s already spent twice that amount defending human rights lawsuits. 7,453 prisoners are housed in a jail built for 5,000, spilling out of the structure into a makeshift tent city where temperatures reach 138 degrees at the heat of the day. Arpaio has reintroduced chain gangs, where prisoners shackled together dig pauper’s graves for the County.  One inmate’s family received $8.5 million damages when he died in a restraining chair (a device used in Abu Ghraib) while being held for a driving infraction. 

 “This call is recorded and monitored,” a robot voice said while asking me to “Press Five to accept collect charges from an inmate,” and it struck me that the voice was no different than the voices I hear when calling Citibank, Mastercard and Verizon except they’ve left out the words “for quality assurance,” and the tone’s a bit sterner, and I realize we’ve been in training for this now for some time. The point has been lost, or we no longer expect there to be any point, we no longer ask why routine calls should be recorded and monitored, or why any of the ‘customer service associates’ we “speak” with for hours a day are forbidden to speak off a script, or why there is so little difference between a human voice and a robot’s. We no longer notice that every new act of repression reported gets lost in the wake of procedural debate that claims five times more media space than the event that provoked it. Torture, abuse, forced labor, supervised work. Once we consent to be addressed via script, we no longer expect words to have any particular meaning. Quality, terror, security. 

Driving home on Interstate 10 after my friend was released, billboards announced God Bless America Report All Suspicious Activity To Homeland Security and there were Border Patrol trucks swarming everywhere, just like Animal Control except instead of a row of cages, they have one tiny door, and I watched them flush a terrified man out from behind desert rocks.