Neil Fauerso: These are strange times. The strangest times of my life. I don’t think anything like this (mass quarantines, lockdowns, etc.) has happened on this scale since the flu pandemic of 1918. Whenever I feel bored and cooped up, I imagine being under shelter-in-place in 1919, one’s home or tenement undoubtedly too cold or too hot, reading the same issue of Collier’s over and over and listening to wax cylinders of songs about temperance.
In this isolation, the mind constantly telescopes between feral personal fear (e.g. “I will get Corona and be one of the people who die”; “I won’t be able to make rent”) and mass birds’-eye-zoom dread (millions of people could die, economies will crash, fascism will rise, etc.). It creates a resting state of mania and resignation alternating like the lights of a railroad crossing.
What should we be doing with all these time in isolation? What should we not be doing? What are we actually doing? During the first week I had a solid run of watching serious “Criterion”-level films until I chased the horrifying British nuclear armageddon BBC docudrama Threads (1984) with Todd Haynes surprisingly unsettling Dark Waters (about how DuPont created a synthetic compound that is toxic and is in 98% of all living creatures), and that was a bit much, and I needed some comfort media food (The Sopranos for the ninth or tenth time).
Despite Trump’s brays to open things “soon” (it was the closing of his resorts/hotels), I expect to be in general isolation through the summer. I’m debating major projects — reading Moby-Dick, writing a book proposal — as well as absurd ones (creating a graphical encyclopedia of the failson: both real (Donald Trump, Jr.; Hunter Biden; Chet Hanks) and fictional (AJ Soprano; Tom Hulce’s character in Parenthood).
What about you? What have you been doing?
Christina Rees: Like everyone else, I’ve had a freaky week, and have been in and out of worrying to the point of paralysis to the other end of that spectrum — sort of metaphorically slapping myself, Cher-style in Moonstruck, and yelling “snap out of it!”. Glasstire is not a city paper or national news journal, but we are a 19-year-old online journal, and we report, and we are a resource, and we have a community we care very much about, and, following our own model on how we dealt with Hurricane Harvey, we are actually busier now than… ever? And yet we, as a staff, can’t convene at our office now, and be in one room and share the crucial sense of togetherness even with each other. We are a small staff, but we work together on everything. Videoconferencing is of course the answer.
I also had a my own strange disruption with being essentially kicked out of my furnished apartment in Houston (my landlord, as of six weeks ago and very pre-Corona, wanted to turn it back into an airbnb because it’s more profitable than having me as a tenant, so I did what she asked and left) — and signed a lease on another Houston place, and — long and boring logistical story short (that I’m happy to blame on Covid): I have an empty apartment in Houston with all the utilities turned on and wi-fi. But not one single stick of furniture.
Here’s the thing: I love living alone. I think it’s a luxury of modern life, and one I never take for granted. But “sheltering in place” and being an introvert, while not in the least at odds in physical ways, takes on a whole new shape when the world is falling apart outside your door, and you don’t know when that will end. Being shut in during an ice storm, for instance (there was a doozy back in 2011 in DFW that went on for a week; I was in lock-in, solitude heaven) is one thing. But this situation is all just so frightening because, as you mention, we don’t know what’s coming or how long it will last. We don’t know who we will lose, or whether we can survive it economically. At all. To stay sane I take very long walks outside, and I dream up ways to keep Glasstire helpful and relevant.
You’re watching some dark stuff. I watch a lot of comedy. If I watch the dark stuff I just go dark and can’t sleep. I worry about everyone. Do you believe in the worry gene? I do.
NF: I’m sorry to hear about your housing situation! A lot of greedy airbnb landlords are about to live an O’Henry story of ironic “careful what you wish for.” I also live alone and usually love it, but this a different, uh, atmosphere for living alone. In the past I would blithely spend my time googling things like “what is Danny Devito’s net worth”; now I periodically will do arm curls and stare into the middle distance when the anxiety bubbles over. And I’m one one of the lucky ones. I usually work from home anyway. My various gigs haven’t dried up — not yet, anyway. The people in service/restaurants/bars/retail, the gallery owners, the people who have poured everything into a precarious small business are now in a zone of despair I can scarcely imagine. Likewise, those with families and partners have a completely different quarantine experience — ours is a day too large and drafty; it yawns on in unfurling dread. Trying to work remotely and educating/feeding kids is a mire of exhaustion and never-ending tasks.
That is to say, given the severity of this situation, and the range of experience processing it, obviously people should do whatever they want to keep an even keel. I have been watching dark stuff because it puts things into perspective (it can always get worse) and because I have a naturally pessimistic disposition. If you have the worry gene (I certainly believe in a worry gene) then comedy makes much more sense for viewing. I’m interested if there are media that would universally be salutary during these grim times. You referenced Moonstruck, which is a perfect, absolutely charming movie that would be uplifting for pretty much everyone right now. Can you think of other “universal art” for right now?
With regards to big projects, lots of people are mentioning that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in isolation for an outbreak of the Black Plague. This is certainly an inspiring achievement (akin to Isaac Newton creating Newtonian Physics and Calculus during another Black Plague outbreak some years later), but I find that level of resolve so distant. Fucking around seems like a triumph right now. I wonder if artists and other creatives are beginning to lock in and work on something grand. I hope so, it would be wonderful to emerge from this crisis with a bounty of epic works, but the psychic weight is so great right now.
CR: What I think is happening, in these early days, is artists are making small but responsive things: drawings, cartoons, sketches, short videos that are sweet and therapeutic, that they can share online. Or grand, singular gestures like the Pandemic Faire that is, at heart, collaborative. But it can be hard to do the Grand Gesture when you really are meant to stay away from people. So many wonderful projects are, at their foundations, collaborations, even when just one person takes the credit.
While I haven’t had much time to catch up on streaming or books (and I can be extremely compulsive about both) (and also, I am really not complaining about being busy), what I crave is familiarity. You mention rewatching The Sopranos. I don’t tend to re-read or re-watch anything, and yet, right before I go to sleep this past week, I watch another episode or two of Big Mouth. I have seen every episode at least three times. This is therapy. Something about having such clever and funny people out in the world making something like that, just for the hell of it, brings me joy. The show is not for kids. It’s like it’s by us, for us. It’s personal. High Maintenance feels that way, too, even when it made the jump to HBO. I’m also rewatching a bunch of Marc Maron’s…. anything. His narrative self-named show; his stand-up; Glow. Not to mention his podcast. He brings me tremendous comfort, like a family member, or one of the better parts of my own brain — the part I can trust to be honest. I think a lot of people are rewatching things. Since everything going on out in the world is so new, we are scrambling to hold on to what we know.
Even sitting down to edit something for the site can bring my blood pressure down, because it’s something I’ve been doing for years, and it’s evidence of people truly communicating with people. I assume many, many artists are in their studios, messing around with the materials they know and love.
How do we keep ourselves open to new content when things are so unstable?
NF: I’ve also found Marc Maron comforting in these times. His new special on Netflix is quite good — funny, and also very no bullshit. Maron’s conversational genius, his fusion of wry secular Judaism and sincere 12-step recovery presentness make him a welcome voice. He’s not a black-pilled nihilist, but he also isn’t afraid to be real and unsentimental. I think everyone is in comfort mode, re-watching old favorites, and if they are creating work it makes sense it’s small gestures — the whimsical and reassuring.
I imagine as this rolls on (like I said expect this to go on for the rest of summer at least), people will settle in, hopefully receive some financial relief from the government, and find some sense of routine. One interesting side-effect of all this is the redemption of social media. Before Corona, I would have erased all social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) from the world if I could have. Whatever benefits of keeping up with people was greatly outweighed by the deluge of conspiracy theories, vanity, and creepy corporate surveillance. However, now I’m glad we have it. And I’m genuinely looking forward to the novel ways artist use such tools of communication to present their work. Glasstire is doing the virtual tours of exhibitions, which is great. What else do you think we’ll see in terms of new forms of communication/exhibition etc?
CR: I also think folks are about to get folkier! So not just making things for screens and online and streaming, but also things to enjoy in person, on the ground, in small groups. But by that I don’t mean old-school/trad necessarily (i.e. the banjo player on the front porch, though there is that, too); I mean people will present more art in their own neighborhoods for their own neighbors in all sorts of ways. Cells of art. It can be anything.
I write this because just now, at 3 in the afternoon on a Friday, I’ve walked back from an impromptu music performance by a very good artist — he performed some great ambient stuff sitting at an old school-desk in the empty lot next to his house, not 50 yards from where I’m staying now. His audience — all standing well apart, and a few staying in their cars with the windows rolled down — was seven strong. And that’s how he meant it to be. (This, by the way, is the artist we know as M. I’m up in Fort Worth now as I write. M would be considered, in this region, a VIP Most-wanted Free Agent artist and music guy — and this performance, given its context, split the difference.) I think Texas has actually always been good at this sort of thing: house galleries, unexpected outdoor venues, resourceful ways of showing outside institutions, etc.
But yes, we’re all online now nearly all the time with Covid. When I urged artists to “feel free to get off Instagram” back in 2018, I meant it. I’m not eating those words. I’m just adjusting my attitude for new circumstances. And that’s what Glasstire’s Five-Minute Tours initiative is all about. Getting stuff up online. I keep hearing myself saying to people: “Glasstire is doing fine because it’s always been online, and we know how to do this,” and then I always add “as long as the internet doesn’t completely crash,” and then I finish with “though if that happens the whole world has much bigger problems than it has even now.”
NF: It’s funny in these times; one of the things required is a bit of a governor on letting the mind unspool and game out possibilities. At a certain point you come to “and then the internet completely crashes,” and after that is simply an open ellipses like dust mites over a chasm. A couple times a day I seize up and think that I’m woefully unprepared and should secure a rifle and several bags of rice at the bare minimum. But honestly if things get super dire, if we enter 12 Monkeys world, my only chance is to become the court jester for a ranch warlord and amuse them with tales of George Jones’ and Dennis Hopper’s exploits.
I think you’re right — we are in store for a massive resurgence of folksiness, cells of community. In the underrated Todd Haynes movie from last year, Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo plays a lawyer who takes on DuPont Chemicals’ knowing poisoning of literally everything, with a synthetic compound used in Teflon. At one point he finally realizes that the courts, the enforcement arm of the state, and all other levels of justice will fail, and shouts in desperation but also resilience: “We protect us, that’s it!” I think that’s somewhat applicable in this situation — which has revealed that America on a federal level is basically a failed state unable to address a pandemic or provide economic relief to its struggling citizens. It is on the local level that we are responding to this across the board, from the heroism of healthcare workers to the flexibility and gumption of restaurants retooling their businesses on the fly (on a walk today, I got a painkiller to go from a tiki bar I passed). I hope we remember these things when we come out of this and treat a house concert or small gallery opening as the gift and tiny miracle that it is.
CR: And as I write this, I’m also listening to a the recorded version of a live performance by an Austin artist I like: I got the invite to watch three minutes before he started last night, but was actually away from my phone when it came in so I missed the live stream. But that’s a hybrid of the small in-person art gesture versus the online gesture: it’s the folk gesture online. There will likely be a lot more of this, too: invite-only live art events, and the recording of it goes up a day or two later, for those who were not invited or who missed it.
It’s the tier system, like Patreon, continuing its proliferation during shelter-in-place life. But after reading a reviews this morning of the timely scary movies Platform and Vivarium, my mind instantly goes to massive corruption of systems, even these esoteric ones that are grounded in a sense of sharing. Who gets the invite? Who will pay for it? Are there cliques, like Lord of the Flies middle-school mindgames? Who are the cool artists, and who gets to see their stuff? Will collectors start to hammer at the gates if they’re feeling left out, and will artists enjoy that? Will rich people get to buy artists, still — and how can they manipulate this system to their own ends, to make more money?
Yow. It’s only Monday morning. I just got off a lovely Zoom meeting with the rest of GT, and while that may have helped me feel more grounded for a minute, I’m still worried about the long-term effects of this on various communities’ mental health. I made a lot of phone calls this last week, and I’m doing it every day. PHONE CALLS. I receive phone calls. People are phone calling. This may be a Gen-X (or older) thing. Who are you visiting with and how? And how often? What’s enough?
NF: I’ve definitely been talking on the phone more to family and friends. There’s an app called House Party that people are pretty into, but I despise seeing my face as I talk so I prefer to stick with the analog. It’s a cliché to say this, but times like this certainly cast into clear relief what matters — family, friends, and community. I miss seeing my family, my friends, going to movie theaters, art museums, and galleries. And that’s about it.
It’s very likely that things will be irrevocably different whenever this ends. The majority of independently owned restaurants, bars, galleries, book stores, record stores, and event venues will have closed, and most of them won’t come back. Many people will have lost someone close, or had their livelihoods destroyed or their lives derailed. This will be the second time this century life has been foundationally altered. The first was 9/11 and the way we (specifically Americans) responded, and made the world demonstrably worse — a series of endless, ruinous wars, increased bigotry and paranoia, and a general thickening of culture that destroyed ambiguity in favor of treacly platitudes. There is a chance after this we could do the opposite, emerge less pretentious, less rapaciously obsessed with money and status, and instead be more grateful, humorous, and appreciative of the transcendence of creativity.
CR: There is that chance. I’d be more specific and think that some people will come out the other end of this with some appreciation and gratitide, and some will not. How the scales tip in terms of how the world feels in the aftermath is anyone’s guess. I mean, in the middle of 1999, I never would have predicted the protectionist, paranoid bent of our post-9/11 world, and in 2015, I never predicted that Fox News would end up setting the agenda for the entire planet.
And in some ways I’m still thinking pretty small. I could certainly use an attitude adjustment. I’m with my mom now, and this morning when I walked into the kitchen, she was watching this video of Robbie Robertson and a lot of other musicians worldwide performing, remotely but together, the song The Weight. It took two years to make, but it’s recirculating now because it looks and feels like a high-end version of the kind of “all together now” video that people are releasing like crazy during these pandemic days (especially orchestras and choirs) — and my mom was seriously choked up, and saying: “See, this is the good that people can get out of this mess; maybe when this is over everyone can remember how this feels, that we’re all just people, and we’re all in this together.”
And I watched, and just thought to myself “I wish, but I really doubt it, mom,” and also, “Whoever mixed this song did a killer job.” Then I went back upstairs and got back to work.