Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

Jacob Wick

There are few reasons to watch Alien : Covenant, but one of them is to watch Michael Fassbender have a series of extremely tense, homoerotic, and violent interactions with himself. Fassbender stars twice in the movie, both as genocidal queer psychopath Daniel, lover of poetry and classical music, knowledgeable about the history of Western culture, and as duty-bound closeted do-gooder Walter, who speaks with a comically bro-ey gruff California accent. When we meet Daniel, he has been living by himself high up in foggy, pine-forested mountains. He has built a studio and living quarters within the wreckage of a ship that he piloted to and crashed on this planet in the previous Alien movie. He dramatically diffuses a dangerous situation and leads the bewildered and bewildering cast and crew of the Covenant back to his lair, full of beautifully constructed wooden shelves, walls covered with gorgeous ink drawings on scrolls. He pulls back his well-made, sleek cloak to reveal grimy Thom Yorke–/Iggy Pop–bleached shoulder-length blond hair. After he tells the frightened humans that his clearly unsafe, corpse-littered lair is safe as can be, he walks up to Walter and, in his lilting, fey accent, says, “Welcome, brother.”

In their first scene together, Daniel leads Walter outside and recites Ozymandias, Shelley’s 1818 sonnet that I learned by heart at some point in my life :

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed ;
And on the pedestal, these words appear :
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings ;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair !
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Maybe you learned it, too. Daniel turns around to Walter and says, proudly, mistakenly, “Byron.” In further scenes, Walter and Daniel stand very, very close to each other, gently passing a pennywhistle, one of the more phallic instruments, between each other, as Daniel gently and patronizingly encourages Walter to learn how to play. “You have symphonies within you !” he tells Walter, with a look of love in his eyes. Then he kills him.

The classic Western aesthete lives alone in an isolated place. He—it is always a he—lives and/or works in a structure originally constructed for another purpose, like a barn or a garage. He works tirelessly, relentlessly advancing his research, or his writing, or his music, or his paintings. When he is interrupted, usually by a woman asking if he would like to eat or clean or fuck, he becomes angry. He eats begrudgingly, his studio never gets too clean, he fucks angrily. If he pisses or shits, we don’t know where and we don’t care who cleans it up. The aesthete is more sensitive than the “common” man, but not so sensitive that we worry that he might be queer. Above all, the aesthete distinguishes himself from the “common” man.

In other words, Daniel is the ideal Western aesthete. He lives alone in the forest, toiling in isolation, advancing his work without interruption. He does not appear to need to eat or clean up after himself. His studio, constructed within a structure not designed for humans to live in, is nice, but not extravagantly so : Only a person with a discerning eye would be able to notice how beautifully constructed his simple, minimalist shelves and tables are. He is slightly fey, but not in a threatening way. He also does not appear to have any physical desire. He entertains a severe disdain for what he regards as common folk. He is patronizing, assuming that he knows considerably more about culture than anyone else. Above all, he seeks an expression of purity, not unlike Clement Greenberg or Adolf Hitler, which in his case happens to necessitate the annihilation of all living things. Western aesthetics are white supremacist aesthetics : the search for purity.

Alien Davis
Vaginal Davis. Photograph courtesy Hector.

Declarations queen
A few weeks ago I went to a lecture/performance by Vaginal Davis, presented by Materias Abiertas, a three-week residency in Mexico City that costs US$1500, or about MX$30000, slightly above the typical monthly salary for somebody working in a midlevel position within the Mexico City artworld or about MX$800 above what a person in Mexico City would make working at minimum wage for 365 days straight. She entered the room from the back, walking along the side of the audience, clutching her notes to her chest, blushing in an exaggerated performance of humility. She began with a quote by Audre Lorde about not being ashamed of privilege, but rather acknowledging it to be better able to “spread it around.” On the back of her notecards were photos : James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, the back (and taut backside) of a typical white Adonis in a speedo. She teased the A/V guy as she asked him to put on this slide, that video—“he’s just the manliest man,” she giggled—and told us how she just can’t figure out how to use any modern technology. When she made bold pronouncements, like “that’s why the project of postmodernism has failed,” she would interrupt herself and laugh. “I’m a declarations queen,” she told us. “I just love making bold declarations.” As she left, again walking through the audience, she pointed at or hugged people sitting on the aisle : “You’re so beautiful,” she told an older woman. She pointed to the cute young man sitting next to me, who had been sitting silently and seriously in a fleece and shorts, and yelled, “Yes ! Yes ! Yeeessss !” as he blushed wildly, stammering.

The scene was not unlike a typical experimental music performance. The room did not appear to have been designed specifically for performance. Although there was a stage, it seemed like there was probably an actual auditorium somewhere else in the building. The room reached back in a long rectangle, with the inevitable folding chairs arranged to set the performer in front of the audience, performing at them. The audience had self-selected, identifying themselves as people interested in Vaginal Davis : mostly foreigners comfortable with an hourlong presentation in English, like me, and the sort of Mexican person who would like to be associated with them—of course without talking about race or class, Vaginal Davis’s main talking points are taboo subjects in Mexico, especially among the mostly white, landowning class. We can assume that if an audience hadn’t show up, the male presenter would have sighed to Davis something dramatic about the uncultured nature of his city ; and that the female presenters would have blamed it on themselves.

There was no cover, though. At an experimental music performance, the audience has usually paid between US$5 and US$15 to be there, or, if they know the performer or presenter, has subjected themselves to the potentially humiliating process of asking to be on the guest list. Once at the performance, they will probably spend a further US$10 on drinks. In countries where the economy is arranged to impoverish its citizens, such as the United States (stagnant wages and rising living costs encouraging impossible debt loads) or Mexico (an up to 35% income tax on artificially lowered salaries), these can be significant expenses. If an audience member cannot pay one or the other of these costs, they will be shamed by the presenter, or, worse, by the performer, especially if the presenter or the performer is male. “They spend money on drinks and food,” he will say, “but they can’t support the music !” As if self-medication wasn’t a necessary part of surviving depression, as if eating were an unimaginable luxury, as if “the music” was a sort of sucking abyss monster that needed to be fed money in order to survive.

The presenter had negotiated, probably over the course of a great deal of time, the use of somebody else’s space. These negotiations may or may not have involved a formal contract of any kind, and if one party disagrees with the other on anything later, there may not be any document to fall back on, only hearsay. The presenter had reached out to his personal and professional community to acquire the equipment needs of Ms. Davis : a projector, a screen, a chair, a microphone, a laptop, a young man to playfully abuse and to change slides and videos. If these needs had not been met, it is safe to assume that Ms. Davis would have been irritated, but, given that her work directly addresses questions of intersectionality and privilege, I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she would have understood, and made a joke about it, rather than the typical experimental music performer, who would fume as if there has been a formal contract between performer and presenter, or as if the presenter is being properly compensated for the work that they do. If Ms. Davis had not, in the presenter’s mind, done a good job, it is safe to assume that the presenter would be angry with the performer, as if, again, there has been a formal contract, and as if, again, the performer were being compensated beyond basic travel costs.

The space of experimental performance is always politically fraught. Ms. Davis’s performance was happening at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)’s House of Books, a gorgeous library building in the trendy Roma neighborhood, next to Covadonga—a now-expensive cantina famous around the Mexico City artworld for being the place where the Kurimanzutto generation hung out—and about an hour and a half’s bus ride from the university’s main campus in the south of the city. The tuition at UNAM is the equivalent to about US$5 a year ; that a conference costing something like 5,000 times that was hosted by the university is already mind-boggling. Ms. Davis, who at one point mentioned to us that she frequently travels to expensive conferences or private universities to give talks to privileged students, acknowledged this with her opening citation : “One should not be ashamed of one’s privilege,” I think it began. “To acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use.” Acknowledging one’s privilege makes the person taking care of you in your distant cabin appear, or the person in whose garage or whose barn you toil in, appear. As Shannon Jackson writes in her mandatory 2011 book Social Works : Performing Art, Supporting Publics, “Freedom and expression are not opposed to obligation and care, but in fact depend on each other.” (14) Imagine how much richer our cultural life would be if we knew who Immanuel Kant’s maid was, what she looked like, what she thought, if she was ever able to enjoy the free play of her sensibilities, and if so, what it felt like and how it happened. The disappearance of the body from Western cultural practices is directly related to the necessity of slavery within Western economic practices. I’m a declarations queen, too.

Although the scenario was not so different than a typical experimental music performance, the performance was. First of all, Vaginal Davis is a drag queen, bringing to the stage a bodily awareness that she is being watched as much as, or more than, listened to. With each notecard photo, each flirty aside, each personal admission—that she couldn’t figure out how to use computers, that it is a nightmare to have a giant lady like her in your house, that she is a declarations queen—she poked holes in the fourth wall, brought us—or at least some of us, those of us who were queer, who spoke English, who recognized and/or were willing to accept her references—up there with her, or brought herself down to our level. Although in this case, the fourth wall was reinforced by a stage, which literally lifts the performer above the audience, she entered the room from where the audience was seated, rather than backstage, implying that we, too, could walk on stage if we wanted to. When things got serious, which they did often, Davis deftly deflected the mood back to one of fun, dedicated the entire way to defusing, rather than re-enforcing or pretending not to notice, the inherently hierarchical Western performance space.

Xina Xurner, Poppers

I’m lost / But still you’re here with me
I put Xina Xurner on my parents’ stereo system because my headphones stopped working. Immediately the sounds of the lawn crew outside become subsumed by the pulsating beat. The riding lawnmower passing from left to right becomes a panned noise sample. I don’t notice the teapot screaming in the kitchen until the alarm goes off on my phone, cutting off the music and reminding me to take my pill. As I walk upstairs, I listen to the roar of the lawn crew and think of the implicit violence in describing the suburbs as quiet. Every suburb I have ever been in is filled with the sound of lawn crews, groups of itinerant, immigrant workers assembled at the beginning of every day. It is unlikely that they are documented ; it is unlikely that they make minimum wage. If they did, their potential employers would balk at the cost. I remember, vaguely, a conversation with my mom, where she described the prices of various lawn crews, while I thought, you know, there’s a reason. It’s not dissimilar from the artificially low cost of cellphones, shrimp, automobiles, whatever. The low cost of a cellphone depends on slave labor in the cobalt mines of the DRC ; the low cost of shrimp depends on slave labor in shrimp farms in Thailand and Chile ; the low cost of a Chevrolet depends on grossly underpaid Mexican day laborers in the north of Mexico, the most spectacularly violent part of the country. 

Alienation is the engine of neoliberalism. It is only through making people into something else—aliens—that we can forget or ignore that they are being exploited. Since the so-called “Civil Rights” era, young black men have been thrown in public, and later private, jails, for whatever reason. Real estate laws and marketing reacted to the Civil Rights era by asking if you want to live near them, ensuring that families of color did not move into white neighborhoods, building—by chance !—massive highways through the middle of nonwhite neighborhoods, and so on. After fifty years of that, it is easy to shrug off the continuing abductions of Latinx people and their placement into concentration camps along the border with Mexico.

Xina Xurner performing at Situations, Chicago, Illinois (2012)

My favorite performance video of Xina Xurner, the, oh I don’t know, industrial electro-terror-drag duo of Young Joon Kwak and Marvin Astorga, was filmed in 2012 at Situations, a now-
shuttered basement venue on the north side of Chicago. I remember driving there to see Wishgift, the hardcore band that Marc Riordan was in with John Paul Glover and Davey Hart. I remember Wishgift tearing it up, I remember parking being difficult, I remember everyone being hot and sexy and sweaty. Everyone in the performance video is hot, too. At first, the audience stands awkwardly at the proscenium of the stage, moving their legs without conviction, sipping their beers for courage. Even a house show has a stage, a division between performer and audience, a feature of any performance in or derived from the Western—that is to say, classist, racist, hierarchical—tradition. As the video progresses, the front row of the audience, at first awkwardly swinging their legs and sipping their beers, not looking at anything, begins to cross the proscenium of the implied stage, eventually doubling back on itself so that Young Joon is wrapped up in them, screaming at them as they dance together. 

This sort of mutual alienation acts as a converse to what Gordon Hall has called “mutual objectification,” a sort of intentional desiring that happens in queer spaces, especially at queer dance parties, a decision to reject Western narratives of beauty and belonging—she’s the one, he is mine—in order to broaden intimate community and trouble strongly felt, but ultimately arbitrary, inherited boundaries. In contrast to the stuffy, classed opposition of the serious, unmoving performer on the traditional Western stage, Xina Xurner invokes an unruly desiring that crosses the proscenium and incites a feeling of disparate belonging. “It’s best when there’s both friction and connection with the audience,” Xina Xurner wrote me in a recent email. “By inciting this connection with an audience, it connects them with that ‘alien’ part of themselves that shakes people from basic-ass lives.” This shuddering, frictive connection is not to be confused with nor recuperated as the sublime, an individual sensation often associated with the overwhelming sensation some European classical music or visual art delivers, but is rather a distinct sensation that one feels with others, a feeling of, as Xina Xurner sings in the first track of their most recent recording Queens of the Night, being “lost / But you’re still here with me.”

Towering . . .
On the first track on their 2017 release Lucky Names, cars, automobiles, and chattering women walk by as Cristián Alvear and Makoto Oshiro awkwardly stumble through a narration in English. A metronome beats along at a standard tempo, maybe like 120. Every once in a while, a tone, Cristián wrote me “probably 440,” sounds, usually signaling the beginning of a spoken moment. In this recording of Shinjiro Yamaguchi’s composition Repeat and Memory, the two friends recite a brief text in English, first from a reference, then from memory, using their joint memory and the trust of friendship to remember together the words. At the end of the recording, Oshiro, switching to Japanese, tells Alvear what he has read ; Alvear stutteringly repeats his phrases. As they read, we hear them clear their throats, lick their lips. It is an intimate, sweet recording, all the sweeter to me because I know Cristián and I know Makoto, because I feel like I can see the look on Cristián’s face when he recites one too many words : “Long ago, when people spoke languages quite different from our own, many find big cities already existed in the many lands of the world. Towering . . .”

It is, of course, true: Long ago, big cities already existed in the many lands of the world. It is now rote to point out that Western conquerors did not discover anything, that those lands, those people, had already been there, they had already discovered the land, settled on it, developed highly advanced, often sustainable civilizations upon it, to whom the savage invaders of the West brought, and continue to bring, devastation, degradation, and despair. It is worth adding on to this, however, that Western culture developed hand-in-hand with Western expansion and mercantilism, which we now are happy to call globalized capitalism. It is not for nothing that the Dutch East India Company was born out of the Renaissance. The West, as an idea, has developed so closely with capitalism, as an idea, that the two are essentially inseparable. When we talk about capitalism, we are talking about the West ; when we talk about Western culture, we are talking about capitalist culture. Capitalist culture has not been good for the world.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, as Palestrina laid the framework for what would become counterpoint, Spanish conquerors arrived in what is now the state of Zacatecas, in central Mexico. The Spanish quickly noticed that there was a significant amount of silver in the state and set about enslaving the indigenous population in order to mine it, as well as gold, zinc, lead, and copper. These so-called precious metals were shipped around the world, eventually lining the Rococo cathedrals in which a Baroque sophisticate might have heard the fugues of Bach. In so doing, the Spanish, and later the United States and Canada, nearly annihilated the indigenous population and poisoned forever the land and the water.

Much of the work at the XIII FEMSA Biennial, held this year in Zacatecas, dealt in some way with the state’s historic and continued extraction at the hands of alien powers. Even work outside of the biennial, like the sculptures of exhausted, miserable, dying slave miners at the tour of the now-shuttered city mine, spoke of the human, economic, and ecological cost of Western eccentricities. In Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s three-channel, six-part video installation Sangre Pesada (2019), we follow the Lady with Copper Teeth, a sort of anti-superhero who speaks as the wasted lands of Zacatecas. The outstanding Mexican performer Bárbara Lázara plays the Lady with a similar kind of winking, malicious blandness as Fassbender plays Daniel. In an opening scene, the Lady does aerobics and gruff vocal warmups, her garish red lipstick gleaming out from her greened face, while chewing gum and regarding the camera with a look that says, “I know I’m fucked, I’ll fuck you too.”

Excerpt from Naomi Rincón Gallardo's Sangre Pesada.

Towards the end of the video, she lays in the desert, sipping red liquid from an absurdly complicated plastic contraption. She is wearing green breasts made out of what seems like clay, with bright red nipples, over a green leopard-print vest and a bright green blouse. Her silver skirt is pulled up to her waist, revealing sand-colored pants underneath. A traditional mask covers half of her face. Between sips, her copper teeth leer through her bright red parted lips. She is listening to a tape recording of herself talking, telling the history of the ruined land : “They call my veins strategic resources / In return they give me bottled water.”

The real force of performance
Alienation is the engine of neoliberalism and language is its oil. A vein of silver becomes a strategic resource, torture becomes enhanced interrogation, an immigrant becomes an alien or an ex-pat, depending on the color of their skin. Convinced of our individual genius and its universal appeal, we disappear the people, places, histories, and institutions that support us from our narratives and our desires. When Audre Lorde, and later Vaginal Davis, exhort us to acknowledge our privilege—and let’s face it, any person with the money to buy this journal or the time to read it enjoys a level of privilege that most people in the world never will—they do not mean for us to hide behind elaborate displays of guilt and handwringing. Acknowledging privilege means bringing into light that which has been disappeared. Acknowledging privilege means thinking critically about what frames our actions, and if that frame is one that is patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic, racist—that is to say, Western—to take it upon ourselves to break it and find another. Western culture is death culture. The world burns under the weight of its ignominy. It is time to find something else. Oh I warned you, honey: I’m a declarations queen.

At time of writing, there are over seventy million people in refugee camps around the world, including in de facto concentration camps along the U.S. border and in Xinjian province in China. It is very likely that, as you are reading this journal about sound, there are humans languishing in cages along the Texas border; that the Amazon still burns under the gleeful eye of Jair Bolsonaro, a white supremacist with a particular distaste for the indigenous peoples of the forest; that, recently, a crowd of people going about their day has been mowed down by a lone white man with an assault rifle. Although every situation is complicated, although there is always more than one reason for every event, all of these situations are aided by the ease afforded by capitalist culture to alienate, and later disappear, people. 

We have a unique opportunity, as experimental artists or as improvising musicians, to perform some kind of reverse alienation. We sit in a room with people, usually between fifteen and forty people. These fifteen to forty people are often doing the same thing, together. Listening to you. They are listening with their ears and they are watching with their eyes. They are watching the way you breathe, the tension in your face, how your arm dives or your leg twitches involuntarily. Your movements remind them of their own movements. The sounds you make remind them of sounds they have heard : buzzing lights in the office, trucks in the street, the rattle of a coffee machine, a song playing across the street. Being in the room reminds them of the last time they were in a room like that. Through screams, swoons, and capacious beats, Xina Xurner makes space for alienated people in the audience to recognize each other; through audience-facing photographs and teasing, Vaginal Davis flattens the traditional performer-to-audience hierarchy.

Taking advantage of this opportunity means shifting frames of reference. It requires us, as Western artists, to disavow Western culture. In so doing, we are able to relieve ourselves of the particularly Western, astonishingly arrogant idea that we, as individuals, are capable of curing the great ills of the world. In return, we are able to see, as José Esteban Muñoz saw, that the “real force of performance is its ability to generate a modality of knowing and recognition,” a modality that might allow for something else to emerge, however fleeting, however tentative, however fraught—or that, equally validly, might not. It could be a relief : Instead of searching for a purity of expression that will lift your dumb audience onto the same plane of privileged knowing and free-play of sensibilities as you—a necessary engagement with several violences, a fruitless search for a purity that does not and should not exist—you can instead wonder how your work might simply allow one or two people in the audience to recognize each other. It could be fun: read only books by people of color, or women, or queer people for a year. It could be relaxing: If you can’t find enough people who aren’t straight, white men to fill out your band for a night, don’t play. Eat dinner at home instead. It could even be a piece: Record the sound of yourself throwing your copies of Thoreau in the trash; record the sound of yourself throwing your copies of Kant in the trash; record the sound of everything you have that was produced by a white man sitting by himself in a cabin or in a barn or in a garage thudding into the trash. Call it Baby Steps (2019).

Alvear, Cristián. “Re : repeat and memory.” Received by Jacob Wick, 5 Sept. 2019.

Astorga, Marvin and Young Joon Kwak. “Re : preguntitas.” Received by Jacob Wick, 23 Aug. 2019.

Hall, Gordon. “Reading Things.” Sightlines : Artist Op-Eds, 8 Aug. 2016, walkerart.org/magazine/gordon-hall-transgender-hb2-bathroom-bill. Accessed 16 Oct. 2016.

Jackson, Shannon. Social Works : Performing Art, Supporting Publics. Routledge, 2011.

Lourde, Audre. A Burst of Light and Other Essays. Ixia Press, 2017.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia : The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!