Making Glue from Macaroni
Dedicated to Ali Mustafa, Toronto photographer, killed in Aleppo on Sunday, March 9
Lisa chose some of my tapes – video art, video activism, video storytelling – as my contribution to Generations of Queer. Tonite I’m going to tell stories about how I made three of these tapes. The stories will sample methods that echo or mimic the formal strategies of the tapes themselves: substitution, hybridity, alchemy. Willfully, in this retelling, they have become jail stories. They involve Coconuts, Zorses, Glue.
The Roman Baths & the Perils of Pedagogy
Thanks to Monty Python, everyone knows that if you can’t afford
horses, you can always substitute coconuts. This is the story of how my first night in jail back in 1983 inspired me to put on a policemans uniform and a magic marker clone moustache.
In 1983, I spent the summer in Esteli, a northern town in Nicaragua, working with my friends Maryanne and Eric on a documentary about the Sandinista’s revolutionary agrarian reform efforts. I arrived back in Toronto one hot August morning, and decided to catch a bus home to London Ontario to visit my very worried parents, who’d been sweating their way through Contra headlines and Reaganite sabre rattling for 3 long months.
The last bus was at 10pm, and the Bus Station was several blocks south of the Roman Sauna Baths on Bay St. I was walking south on Bay, from my new apartment share at Harbord and Spadina. I crossed at Gerrard, and I’m pretty sure there was a green light and a walk signal. But then I heard a voice: “Why’d ya cross on the red light, faggot?”
There were two uniformed cops, lurking in the shadows. They asked for ID. All I had was my passport. They started hassling me about the Nicaragua stamp, repeatedly calling me faggot. I explained I was on my way to catch a bus. They knocked the passport out of my hand. I bent to pick it up. One of them stepped on my hand. I called out loudly in pain. They accused me of threatening them. I told them if they beat me I’d yell — loudly. They put me in handcuffs, threw me in the backseat, drove me down to the 52nd Division. I was allowed a phone call. I called Tim McCaskell. He phoned Bob Kellerman, one of the law union lawyer who’d defended many of the found-ins in the baths raids 2 ½ years earlier. I was released around 3am, and caught a morning bus to London. Needless to say, I told my parents I’d just missed the last bus, no big deal. When the case came to trial, Bob found a witness, another gay guy who’d been beaten by these same two cops a few months earlier. Their modus operandi was to lurk a block from the Romans, and make their arrest quota by nabbing guys coming and going. The case was thrown out.
Six months later, for my short video The Perils of Pedagogy, I needed a quick shot of a cop jerking off. I’d lined someone up – but then they cancelled at the last minute. Lacking a horse, I became the coconuts — I pulled on the uniform myself, drew on a quick magic marker clone moustache, and got the shot, accompanied by the dulcet tones of a youthful Stephen Andrews (seen here in a school boy uniform), seductively lipsynching to Lulu’s To Sir With Love.
The Kiss-In and the Letter.
ACT UP staged their infamous Stop the Church action in late 1989. 4500 activists outside St. Patricks Cathedral chanted slogans against the lethal homophobia of Cardinal O’Connor. 111 protesters were arrested and one activist notoriously threw a communion wafer on the floor. Artist Ray Navarro dressed up as Jesus to cover the action ‘live’ for DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Activists) TV.
A few months later, channeling a similar DIVA spirit, the Toronto chapter of Queer Nation organized a lunchhour kiss-in at the Eaton Centre. The goal: targeting the rise of anti-gay violence and promoting queer visibility.
The kiss-in was a humourous failure. Only three dozen people showed up, and we seemed more committed to gossiping then smooching. Along with fellow video artists Colin Campbell and Stuart Marshall, I’d volunteered to shoot the action, and we had a hard time getting any decent footage of actual lip-on-lip militancy. The hundreds of shoppers seemed oblivious, more intent on the 50% off sale at Stitches.
The cops and security guards were another story, however. Over a dozen of them circled our group, repeatedly asking us to leave, clearly frustrated that they had no legal means of moving us. The chief security guard attached himself to me. He was obviously upset about the kissing, and displaced his anger onto my camcorder, insisting over and over again that videotaping on private property was against the law. I argued back that the courts just six months earlier had legislated that malls were indeed public areas, despite private ownership. I also pointed out that a CBC newscrew was filming a few feet away, and asked why he wasn’t harassing them? The answer was predictable: they were journalists, I was a demonstrator. Well, ok, I’d done some kissing myself, but who are cops to arbitrate objectivity? The situation degenerated and eventually I was arrested — the only demonstrator to be arrested that day. My camcorder was confiscated because he claimed it could be used as a “dangerous weapon.”
That such a lack-lustre demonstration could be so threatening to the cops, and that it’s recorded image could be confiscated so arbitrarily, serves to illuminate just how jumpy the state gets when dissent and desire meet. The demonstration sought to promote visibility through intimacy — in short, to kiss and tell. This combo flies in the face of the state’s accelerating project over the past two centuries to regulate in Foucault’s sense — to do all the talking. The states many tentacles (in particular its legal and medical arms) don’t seek to choke or repress the sexual conversation, but merely to monopolize it. Deviant dissenters threaten this monologue with their own voices, and are thus prime targets of censorship.
Ray died in 1991 and four of us burned the midnight oil for several days to edit a tribute tape to his life for the memorial. Later, each of us re-cut the footage into our own versions. Mine became Letter to Ray Navarro, which included a romantic beach shot from the 1971 porn classic Boys in the Sand and Barbara Streisand singing Ave Maria, slowed down to make time last a little longer. The voice-over says: “The laws of physics suggest that if you slow down Barbra enough, you could make time last forever. Well, not really. The math doesn’t work, and its too much Barbra. But we’d have more time.”
There was never any time in those years, as the memorials accelerated and Queen West became a graveyard: Michael Lynch, David Buchan, Jorge Zontal, Ron Gabe, Alex Wilson, Rob Flack. We coped by slamming together Barbra and demos and Jesus and kisses. We were making Zorses.
Green Laser and Cairo Flip Flops
Every night in our prison cell in Cairo, I’d stare up at the ceiling fan and think of Gabriel Orozco. In 1997, he placed 3 rolls of toilet paper on the blades of a fan, and created a perfect triple helix when the speed was slow enough. As we remember from Grade 10 chemistry, while the double helix of DNA is common to all living organisms, the triple helical molecular structure, discovered in 1954, is unique to collagen. Collagen is the main protein in the connective tissues in mammals, and has been used as a glue for 8000 years. The word comes from the Greek ‘Kolla’, meaning ‘glue producer’.
I learned how to make glue from macaroni in prison, a glue so strong that it can support a grown man hanging off a hook glued to the wall. It revived my belief in the agency of alchemy, the necessity of making art from toilet paper.
In 2011, I joined the Canadian boat of the Flotilla sailing to Gaza, an international effort to break the Israeli blockade of this open air jail, the only port in the world not allowed to access its own waters. We got within a mile of international waters before we were arrested by the Greek coastguard.
My video Green Laser is an account of that experience, and rifles through the garbage to glue together a bunch of disparate elements: hornet films, Irish step dancing, Seth Rogen, Dalton Trumbo, scenes of shirtless Paul Newman in Exodus, on his boat and in prison as he tries to sail for Gaza from Greece, only to be stopped by the Greek coastguard.
Two years later, I tried to get to Gaza again, and again was stopped, this time by the Egyptian police. Here’s a story about flipflops.
We were sardines for the first three weeks, 38 men squeezed into a 10 m. x 3 m can, marinating in sweat. Then, finally, on September 4, they allowed us half an hour of exercise. To be released into that ocean of sunlight, that vast periwinkle sky, that choir of crows – we couldn’t stop running, round and round the yard. Some of the others had flip flops from their families, but Tarek and I were barefoot, we barely had pen and paper and soap from our weekly ten minutes with the embassy. We ran and ran, not caring that the concrete was griddle hot, a molten ice rink. Four blisters bloomed on our soles, the size of toonies, puffed like pancakes.
That night, it was our turn to give a lecture to our cellmates. Tarek described working as an ER doctor in London’s Vic and Gaza’s Al Shifa. He didn’t mention his ongoing experiments with quad copters (researching alternative methods for delivering blood samples) and 3-D printers (manufacturing medical implements), his radical sideways uses of new technologies that could potentially ease the brutality of the Israeli blockade. Sometimes you have to keep it simple. I talked about the four films I’ve made that are ironically set in prisons, joking that that’s the Canadian way – first we make the films, then we do the field research. I didn’t mention that the four are queer love stories. Sometimes you have to keep it simple.
Tarek decided that we should end with a song. Neither of us can sing. He decided it should be Que Sera Sera. We were shaky on the verses, but got the whole cell singing the refrain. He explained it as a parable of fortitude, of survival, of resistance. What will be, will be. Inshallah, shallah. Songs can let meanings fly free, beyond Doris, out the bars. For Tarek, it perhaps served as a secret serenade to his inner geek. For me, it perhaps subbed as a coded campy coming-out ballad. In the days and weeks that followed, whenever I was sitting alone, feeling blue, crushed perhaps by another extension of our detention without charges, one of the others, Masry or Ala or Ahmed, would throw a comforting arm around my shoulder and say: “Oh John, que sera sera.”
We are now free, and eight of the others are too, but 28 remain behind bars, held without charges. So are 600 others, arrested the same day. So are thousands more, for the simple crime of protesting Sisi’s restoration of military dictactorship. So is Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist arrested on December 29, and now locked up in solitary close to our former sardine can. I wish I could tell him that freedom is sometimes blisters on your soles, but the Cairo winter is too cold for running barefoot on concrete. I wish I could tell him that freedom is sometimes an arm around a shoulder, quoting Doris, but he’s probably not allowed any contact with Ala, Masry, Ahmed.
I’m working on portraits right now of my cellmates, using a Garmin runners watch which records the GPS location of where I run. Here are portraits of Masry, of Ahmed. I create a route, superimposing the drawings I did of them in prison onto a different part of the city that bears some reference to their own life – for instance, with Masry, his brother-in-law is an archaeologist at the Cairo Museum, so I created a route which ran past the ROM. Then I run, and record them, transferring them to photoshop.
Pam Rodgerson and I are running a portrait of Mohammed Fahmy right now, broken up into six different chunks. Like so many, we worry as his case winds its way through the Egyptian courts, a show trial exploited by General Sisi to silence criticism and help consolidate his military dictatorship. Like so many, we can’t figure out why there isn’t more international outrage, why Baird and Harper are staying silent.
For generations, we’ve marched and kissed and mourned the dead – Ray Navarro, Rob Flack, Ali Mustafa. For generations, we used coconuts to make zorses. For generations, the glue that has held us together, despite the odds, a super-glue made of macaroni – that glue is our stories.