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Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris KraussCHRIS KRAUS
The Blessed

Extract from: Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris Krauss. MIT Press, 2004.

 

Dear Chris,

I'm sorry about how I was on the phone the last time we spoke. As you can tell I'm a wreck. I'm loosing it more and more each day. I never know what god is going to do next. As of now I'm six months behind in my rent and even though I owe you five more cleanings on the check-off sheet I can't come back. My t-cells are down below 200 now and I get sick every other week. The car you bought for me is wrecked. This is just one more example of god's evil little tricks. When I had the accident I found my self carving the words "God Is Evil" on the hood. No matter what I do or try god will be right there to take his monumental shit on me, like the weeks I wasted trying to raise those one week old abandoned kittens. God killed seven kittens in one week and at this point I can no longer hide my contempt. I want everyone to know that god is evil.

Look at the day the washer and the dryer at your house went out. That was all planned by god and I don't want to infect you with god's curse. You have been very kind to me and I'm greatful and will not forget but you need someone you rely on. What I'm trying to say is I'm going out of business. I just give up. I just can't clean anymore. Every day I go to work full of such panic and anxiety because I know god will play another trick. I feel like a ghost has wrapped its hands around my neck. My chest feels like some one is kicking there. Look at what happened when I was going to help you with the move. And what about the upholstery guy I overpaid who did those chairs for you? I'm sorry about those last cleanings but there is no way I can pay you back for them right now. I hope you'll let me pay you back another day.

God is an evil fucker and the accident was just his last revenge. I should have known two months ago when he let those kittens die that something else would happen. What kind of cruel and heartless person would leave seven innocent kittens out to die in a cardboard box next to a dumpster? I spent the last money that you gave me taking them to the vet and still I couldn't save them. Do you know what it's like to have a four week old kitten dying, in your hands?

You have been very kind to me over the past three years, but every time you advanced me money, something happens so I go into more debt and I'm behind again. I have tried for years to contain my depression, my anxiety attacks, my post-traumatic stress disorder, my alcoholism and my food binging. All I can control is the food and the booze. That's it. Ten years ago when I got sober and started up my cleaning business I promised god I'd never go on welfare but why should I keep my promises? I'm going to apply for Section 8. I guess you could say I'm filing bankruptcy on my life. God wants everything to die. Myself included.

                Your friend,
                Bo

 

This is a reconstruction of a letter Bo Wilson left for me in June when I was away at Yaddo. When I returned my boyfriend and his teenage son and my husband and his girlfriend's taffy-coloured dog were all living at the place downtown I bought this spring in Westlake.

My clothes and papers had all been boxed and put away and there were Marine recruitment posters hanging in the bedroom. My boyfriend and his son had hunkered down there with a year's supply of Ramen noodles, paper towels and toilet paper, Pepsi. Bo hadn't come to clean for a whole month and everything was dirty. The house was my great hope: a large three-levelled stucco thing, ambling down a slope, with a courtyard and a guest house, built for a female client at the height of the Depression. I bought it at a bankruptcy sale two days before my birthday thinking it would change my life. Now the place is rented out and none of us are living there.

I picked up the letter in the living room while my husband, boyfriend and his son, and the son's best friend from Christian Camp sat talking to each other, nervously. My husband and his girlfriend's dog were living in the little house. My boyfriend and his son were living in the big one. I didn't know where they all expected me to sleep. I remember holding out the letter at arm's length, hoping that the two 14 year old boys did not find anything unusual about this situation. I was thinking: I don't even have a place to stand! I was a stationary object teetering without a station. Meanwhile I felt Bo's letter pulsing in my hand as if it was an amputated finger. And so I put the letter down or threw it out because it was just too painful to absorb. Bo's letter hit me with centrifugal force, and like I say, I probably lost it.

***

I met Bo about three years ago when I was still living in a treehouse in Mt. Washington. He had a stack of business cards for "Bo's Earth-Friendly Cleaning Service" at the hardware store, and I was looking for someone to clean. Preferably, a professional. The housekeeper who'd preceded him was the grand-niece of the Guatemalan day labourer who'd hauled bricks for my patio. She spoke no English, had no car, and refused to use a vacuum. Every week I picked Maria up from her East Hollywood apartment and watched her child while she stole jewellery and dusted. The child, Diana, told me stories about a murdered uncle in their village. Diana'd watched the uncle climb a tree, and when the soldiers came, she pointed. And then she saw his body falling from the tree. Her mother interrupts: She was just a baby...

I'd only been here 18 months and was still a little queasy about embracing the "entitlement" the city's endless pool of indigent undocumented misery provides for folks like me. But still: after 6 months of therapy, it seemed not unreasonable to expect that if you paid someone to do a job, they'd show up alone and do it. Bo, a gay male Virgo, lived to clean. He was a little bit slow-witted: a large man who embraced the retro-culture of a 1950s queen, humming show tunes while he alphabetized my groceries. It was like he'd studied queerness out of the wrong book, but still, this seemed like a big improvement. Bo's shining moment was the time he'd placed the winning bid on a pair of Judy Garland's scuffed-up mules, tenth cousin to the ruby slippers, that she'd worn once in a movie. He retold this story to me later, teary-eyed and sniffling, when things got really bad. By then he'd lost them in a fire.

I used to like to read a lot of books about Buddhism. They all said, If you can't do any good, at least don't do any harm, and this seemed very realistic. At that time I was seeing myself as something like a fulcrum, creating order in a discontinuous grid through a small ecology of kindnesses. Though my husband lived 3000 miles away, we saw each other as the Greater Good. I believe that marriages are sacred. Because we loathed the capitalist system, we aimed to make as much money as we could and give most of it away. Since there was no longer any physical, love, between us, we thought we could create an atmosphere of love by giving things away, by sharing.

In Mt. Washington, I didn't have a lot of friends, and Bo became one. Stories of his life come out in dribs and drabs. He shares two rooms in Silver Lake with seven cats and whatever 'transients' he's placing. When I get home from teaching at the art school, Bo is standing in the living room, chest pumped out, brandishing his feather duster. Often, we talk about his cats. "If I ever catch the bastard who abandoned little Calico in the trash, he'll have to mess with this faggot!"

On Friday nights Bo likes to take a walk to Circus Books around the corner from his house. Circus Books is like the all-night Gem Spa newsstand at the corner of St. Marks Place in New York: a magnet for the lonely. He buys his favourite brand of root beer and browses through the racks of porno mags, looking out for young, ideal exotic bodies. Mixed race is best. There are no social overtones to this. It's just a feeling of perpetual sunset.

Eventually, Bo walks around the parking lot to a row of trash-cans and a dumpster. Vaguely aroused, he listens for the tell-tale mewling sounds of kittens who've been thrown away. These are the good times. When he finds a box of strays he knows that God has placed them in his path, and he is following God's will to save them. And so when Lucy, Bo's favourite fluffy black & white, is diagnosed with a malignant tumour, I loan him several hundred dollars for the vet. The cat is saved. The next week I come home from school to find a heart-shaped ashtray and a note: God Bless and Lucy Thanks You.

When the art school that I'm teaching at moves its studios to downtown Pasadena, I discover that the ASPCA is located right around the corner from the new facility. Sometimes the students don't show up for our one-on-one tutorials, and I spend the hour visiting the lavishly-appointed shelter. The dogs speak straight to my heart. They don't need to mediate with art. Like the students, each dog has his or her own kennel.

Bo, like the dogs, does best when following a routine. Sometimes I forget, and ask him to do some extra task as a pretext for giving him more money. But these concierge-like duties almost always end in some disaster. He can't remember things. He has a short attention span. He attributes this to long spells of sensory-deprivation he experienced in early childhood.

Inspired, perhaps, by National Enquirer exposes of the period, Bo's mother's favourite means of disciplining her fat, unruly child was to lock him in a closet. Bo remembers living with his mother in Canoga Park. His dad was gone, they didn't have a car. He remembers nine gasping months of summer heat, flies buzzing round the kitchen, a rusted Chevy Nova, the transmission shot, sitting in the driveway. Bo remembers his mom's stiletto heels; also the belts and straps and bakelite plastic phone she used to beat him around the head. To this day he is a fan of all things retro. One time the closet-punishment went on too long. When he didn't go to school for several days, the guidance counsellor alerted the Dept. of Child Welfare. A series of foster homes ensued; eventually they dug up a distant uncle, and Bo was sent to live with him outside of Reno.

It was in this place that Bo discovered he could communicate with animals. Slow-witted, fat, 14, and dreaming constantly of being fucked by other boys, Bo found a kitten near a neighbour's trash one day. Forbidden by his uncle to keep pets, he had to hide the stray, and suddenly his life was full of purpose. Two days before his 16th birthday, Bo decided he would run away. He tried to board a Greyhound bus with a duffel bag in one hand, Fluffy in the other and his bitterest regret is that when the driver said, No Cats Allowed, Bo chose freedom. Now he's terrified that any cat might die unloved, uncared for.

Friday mornings I taught a diary-writing class at the art school. Attendance in it was the kiss of death for anyone expecting to succeed there. The diary-writing class attracted mostly girls, of course, who'd drifted foolishly into art, thinking art might be a medium for change, or self-expression. Girls who'd slit their wrists and been hospitalised for mental illness. Unlike the girls who'd go on to good careers making videotapes of lawn-sprinklers, the diary-writers wondered why there were no senior female faculty at the school and why the Institution's only black employees were security guards and secretaries. The diary-writers wondered why the institution's only class on "feminism" was perennially taught by men. They wondered why the works of major 20th century black writers were referred to at the school as "crappy."

Still, in Los Angeles, it was possible to make a lot of money. Neo-conceptual art-school art was flourishing around the world: it was a blue-sky opportunity. LA artists rightly saw themselves as trained professionals: like doctors, lawyers, and other lapdogs of the ruling class, they referred to what went on inside their studios as their "practice." Once inside the loop, there was very little competition so long as you abided by the rules: 25% percent of institution graduates obtained major representation within their first year out of school. Meanwhile in New York, artists who'd worked for twenty years languished without galleries.

At that moment in LA, it was also possible to make a lot of money buying real estate. Since this required a certain curiosity about neighbourhoods and human nature, it interested me much more than artistic practice. And so I bought and sold. Meanwhile colleagues who'd arrived here from New York were establishing great careers as curators and critics. Anyone from a decent northeast college willing to work a New York 60 hour week could become a leader in their field. You didn't have to be that smart, or rich, or lucky. In Los Angeles, anything was possible.

There wasn't much in this environment that interested me and I was lonely. Did I mention there were honeysuckle bushes all around the house? The trees here seemed to have no roots, or was it that the roots grew horizontally along the dusty surface of the ground in order to absorb the dew that settled in the morning? At any rate the leaves were hard and rubbery. There were old wooden cupboards in the kitchen, cottage windows painted 1930s green. The house was both strange and familiar, like a New Zealand bungalow that'd been airlifted from that odd premodern world of social levelling into the Tijuana hills.

In New York City, performance artists were still biting heads off rats and splattering HIV-infected blood on paying audiences, but here the discourse was more contemporary and more apt: the celebration of a state of active blankness. It was as if the LA artworld had willed itself into the Orwellian position of identifying "what" without the "why." There was "a continuity between outsides predicated on the idea of the surface, the plane and the point, as opposed to the form, the shape and its interior ... the substitution of becoming-electronic for becoming-animal, conceivably as a logical consequence of modernism's transparent humanism." How this logic worked no one could say, but in this context drug use triumphed over sex because it left fewer messy humanistic traces.

At first I used a South Bay escort service. Fucked up beyond my comprehension, the escorts inhabited a hustle-world that made them generally more interesting than the artists. But when one of them showed up on crystal meth at 4 a.m. ranting about decapitated heads and graveyard worms, I switched to the LA Telepersonals. At night in bed I used the telephone to reach out across the 50 miles of city.

I met a New Age Dom who made me promise to comply with all his orders. Jeigh was a graduate of EST, now active in Agape, Self-Empowerment, and the Pussy Busters, a Santa Monica offshoot of the Justin Sterling Men's Movement. Jeigh's training surpassed any normal S/m protocol. He saw me as an agent and a victim of the "negative evil culture" that in his mind, originated in New York circa the late 1970s, and vowed to save me. Towards this end, words like "luck" and "chance" and "fate" were to be eliminated because reality is self-created. Since poverty and sickness are created solely through the negative thought-patterns of the individual, adjectives like "depressing" clearly had to go. Also, my clothes (too mannish), tastes in film (elitist), queer friends (whose aberrant sexualities violated God's plan) and sense of humour would be rehabilitated. Since my job required reading, he didn't outright forbid the printed word, but suggested I curtail it.

I stand in the centre of the room while Jeigh instructs me on the phone. Exploding. There is this softness now, that threatens to take over, and I wonder if it's God. Or else it is belief, same thing. I don't know anything about this person except for what he tells me, but when he says "Your training is the only thing in my life right now that's clean and pure," I melt. The top draws out the bottom's sexuality and hands it back to her, a gift. It occurs to me belief is a technology, a mental trick for softening the landscape. When all value has become exchangeable, stupidity emerges as a new topic of investigation. If the world becomes more sensuous and beautiful when God is there, why not believe? "The extreme mobility of the contemporary sublime erodes autonomy because it calls for movement through the heteronymous which is itself heteronymous, provisional singularity taking the place of the irreducible, movement being the basis of the indeterminacy of what is erased and represented in it." California is a chance to rethink everything.

That Fall, the night my book came out, the diary-writing girls were gathered in the living room of my treehouse for a party. I escaped downstairs and let the New Age Dom cane me once for every cigarette I'd smoked. I didn't want to be a role model.

Bo charges 40 dollars for a weekly cleaning. His clients are spread out between Mt. Washington and Silver Lake, and the San Fernando Valley. On good weeks - that is, the weeks when no one cancels - he nets $400, and with that he has to pay his rent and bills, and pay for cat food, kitty litter, the vet, and various cleaning products. Needless to say, he has no medical insurance, no vacation pay, no unemployment coverage. On the "anniversary" of our first cleaning, Bo brings me a bouquet of flowers. Meanwhile I fly around the northern hemisphere on tickets paid for the Institution. Though every word I've spoken challenges the Institution's values, my opinions matter less to them than my husband's art-world stature. When it occurs to me, I pick up the phone and sell the frequent flyer miles to a Florida developer for another thousand bucks. The absurdity of this does not escape me.
     I love myself the way I am
     There's nothing I need to change
     I'll always be the perfect me
     There's nothing to re-arrange.
     I'm beautiful and capable
     Of being the best me I can -

were the lyrics of a Self Empowerment anthem Jeigh liked to play while he was beating me.

That Fall (if you could call it that, the temperature always hovered around 80), I didn't see Bo for awhile, because he was home sick with pneumonia. But one Friday in November, he came up the 72 concrete steps, hysterical and breathless. He'd finally gone to get some antibiotics at a clinic and tested positive with full-blown AIDS. Not knowing where to turn, he'd immediately called his eleven other clients. Five of them expressed regrets, then cancelled. "It isn't personal," they said. "But we must protect the safety of our homes/our animals/our children." I begged whatever artworld friends I had to hire him, and then two weeks later the front end of his '93 Chevette got hit in the parking lot on Sunset Blvd. Like him, the driver of the other car had no insurance and the Chevette was written off.

To reach Mt. Washington from Silverlake, it is necessary to catch three different busses. Because I found the image of him standing with his vacuum cleaner in the blazing sun on Figueroa Blvd. personally offensive, I gave him money for a car. Bo called me his Fairy Godmother, told me more about his life, and we got closer.

The New Age Dom believes that poverty, like a virus, is contagious. He believes that money is a symbol of God's love. Therefore, he imagines his house in Santa Monica to be more "spiritual" than mine, adjacent to the slums of Highland Park. (In fact, my house is chic-er than the Dom's and I have considerably more money.) "Look at your self-created misery!" he rails. "The clothes you wear, the books you read, your AIDS-ridden housekeeper ..." At that time, I was trying to understand the nature of compassion by following an emotive logic-chain as far as it would go. I thought that emptiness could be offset by acts of kindness -
    I love the world the way it is
    'Cause I can clearly see,
    That all the things I judge
    Are done by people just like me

Bo took, as the New Agers say, personal responsibility for his wellness, but he continued getting sicker. He changed his diet, took the clinic drugs, but soon his face and chest were covered with exotic sores. He couldn't climb the steps up to the treehouse without wheezing.

Where does luck begin and self-determination end? In LA it's possible to achieve a measure of success, providing you respect the process. No one cares enough to ask too many questions. The airport's close. Freeways make everything accessible. You get up at 7 to do business in New York. You talk and write, you buy and sell. And yet: the luck of the rich and of the poor are very different. Bo's cousin Kevin has leukaemia and is just finishing his second round of chemo. Together they tow the wrecked Chevette to Kevin's yard, and a homeless woman and her three-year-old move into it. Bo's thrilled by this, the idea of being someone else's benefactor. Like me, he is seeing himself as something like a fulcrum. Still, I wonder: what kind of country is this, where sleeping in a wrecked Chevette could be construed as a step upward? When Kevin's married sister in the Valley buys a new Ford Windstar and the dealer won't take her old subcompact Hyundai as a trade, she sells it to Kevin to sell to Bo with my money. What kind of country is this, where a person sells a worthless Hyundai Accent to a relative, who is terminally ill, for $1800?

There is a certain pre-emptive emptiness that pervades the artwork that is produced within the Institution. Conceptually coherent and well-made, the greatest triumph of this art work is elusion: the way it references so much, content dancing on the surface like a million heated molecules until you can't exactly pin it down to any given meaning. As such, it is an embodiment of corporate practice: Never put into writing what can be mumbled on the phone. It's better to be everywhere than somewhere; to manifest a certain surface edge of elasticity, in which authority might see itself reflected: a quality that's come to be defined as "beauty."

One night, Bo's lower wisdom tooth becomes impacted. He's too sick to drive to LA County Hospital, too poor to take a cab, and Medi-Cal doesn't cover ambulances unless you are unconscious. So Bo calls Aston, who he's met at AIDS Project LA, and asks him to drive him to the hospital. Since Aston doesn't have a car, they take the Bo's Hyundai, but they don't have money for the LA County parking lot. Meanwhile, Bo's clutching at his tooth and howling, and when they finally find a parking spot, Aston forgets to lock the car. While Bo's tooth is being pulled, someone pops the hatch and steals his waxer, which he'd been too sick that evening to unload. The whole adventure left him feeling better, but he lost $200 in cancelled cleaning jobs, and then he had to borrow $50 to buy another waxer.

At the Institution, I watch a video installation featuring an exercise machine suspended by a rope and pulley from the ceiling. The art-practitioner has placed it in the middle of a makeshift set, consisting of a disco-ball, some astro-turf, and sheets of mylar. A stationary camera is positioned centre-frame of this environment. For thirty minutes, fellow students (known as "colleagues") walk in and out of frame. Some of them try hanging from the pulley. One boy wears a dress, and three cute girls are dressed as cheerleaders, though they seem ambivalent with this persona. They shake their pompoms, shrug and leave. Colleagues approach the exercise machine, but no one can figure out the pulley. The videomaker is 36 years old. I can't help wondering what he's doing here: why he isn't making Volvo ads, or late-night infomercials. "Mmmm," I say, hedging for time. "Amazing. Uhh, what is it about?" Then I remember how a work of art is not about anything, it just is, the student catches this and smirks. "It's about video," he says helpfully, "the colour. It's pure video green. The astro-turf is the same shade of green as the green on videotape colour bars." And yes, he's right, the green is kind of smeary.

And then I pick it up, remembering the Institution's discourse about how colour saturation can dissolve the boundaries of the pixels, haemorrhaging across the surface of the screen. This, of course is paradox, because video defines a surface without depth, a geo-entologic fourth dimension. Still, the videomaker adds, there is a great deal more to say about it. The work enacts the reductive nature of performance, because the astro-turf defines a play-space, to which the colleague-actors (given no direction) enter in a self-conscious way. I wonder if this underlines the difference between being 5 years old and 30.

Bo's father disappeared when he was 3. He and Bo's mom had moved from Oklahoma to LA in the 1950s, when Route 66 ran all the way to Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena. Bo's father was a country & western singer. At that time, there were all these little record labels in offices along the boulevard and Bo's dad got signed by one of them. He cut a record, Dusty Roads, and then the company went out of business. He went back to Oklahoma, drank, died sometime in the 70s.

In between his first and second round of chemo, Bo's cousin Kevin was browsing through the bargain bins at Final Vinyl. There was a promo copy of the Dusty Roads LP, obviously never played 'cause it was still wrapped in the original cellophane. Kevin bought it and presented it to Bo, who keeps it underneath his bed, his most valuable possession. There is a photo of his father sitting on a stool with his guitar. His dad looks like the young Merle Haggard, his face frozen under klieg lights in a mask of bitterness and aspiration. Bo's never listened to the songs, because he's vowed to never break the cellophane. He believes the sleeve contains the spirit of his dad. If he never breaks the seal, he can preserve it.

The orphan Heidi carries a small snow-globe with her to the city when her parents die and she is banished from their cottage in the mountains. Each time she shakes it, she remembers home. It is the only thing she owns. When Heidi holds the snow globe, she is transported backwards to a world of hollyhocks and cowbells, her mother's face, featherbeds and cocoa. It is her talisman. But then one night, tired of the orphan's homesick snivelling, her wicked guardian wrests it from her tiny hands and smashes it. The glass globe breaks, and water spills. The object is destroyed. Why is it, some people are born to act as magnets for the cruelty of others?

Driving back from Santa Barbara to LA, the body of a man dropped from the Fairview Avenue overpass onto the car in front of me. The body was transported from the scene to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and pronounced dead 20 minutes later. "It was a deliberate act," said Sgt. Michael Burridge. "He wasn't hit, nor did he fall off his bike. He stepped calmly over the guardrail and dove forward." I was driving back to see a conceptual sculpture show by an artist critics hail for successfully isolating the idea of form from surface.

***

Three years later, the word "blessed" remains in vogue in Southern California. "Blessed" has dribbled down from self-empowerment literature and videocassettes into conversation and institutional correspondence. "We are blessed," began a form letter from the art school, "to have retained the services of Ms. XYZ as our new IT consultant." If we are "blessed," then who are the Unblessed? And do we celebrate our blessedness at their expense?

I am now living by myself in a cabin in the central California hills. I don't know where Bo is. I imagine he'll die soon. I am no longer taking comfort from the small ecology of kindnesses.