Down Time

Photo by Jess Barbagallo.

FOR THE LAST FEW DAYS—between applying coats of linseed oil to my newly stripped desk and walking my dog up and down the block, maintaining six feet of distance from the other stragglers walking their own in this ominous time—I have been dipping in and out of the Trickle Up: NYC Artist Network, a subscription video platform launched on March 23 by Taylor Mac, Kristin Marting, Morgan Jenness, Emily Morse, Niegel Smith, and other leaders of the downtown theater scene. The goal of the project is to share unique missives from NYC artists as a way to gain 10,000 subscribers at $10 a month for the next year. The money will go toward awarding grants of $10,000 to one hundred and twenty artists living below the poverty line who have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. As of today, the platform has raised a little over $10,000.

Trickle Up’s catalogue is presented plainly in no alphabetical order; clicking on little windows takes me inside the homes of artists I have known personally and professionally, either as a friend or a fan, for the last fifteen years—Adrienne Truscott, Lois Weaver, Lisa D’Amour, Diana Oh. The list goes on. I watched choreographer Annie-B Parson, my teacher and colleague, color in a hand-drawn broom next to a text she glued alongside the sketch that reads: “To Clean/ To Clear/ To Disinfect/ To Brush Away.” She calmly explains that this is a performance score she will send to dancers in Las Vegas, where she was scheduled to premiere a new work at The Believer Festival. Now that the event is off, the score is available online to be danced at home by anyone who wants to.

Faye Driscoll, “How Faye Driscoll Got Her Start,” 2020.

I watched another choreographer, Faye Driscoll, act out a childhood story about how she came to be a dancer. She plays all the parts with a conjurer’s intensity, searching for the sense memory of old voices inside of her mouth: herself at four, her mother, her father, as they all sat in a Venice Beach restaurant in the 1970s. Driscoll’s props include a plastic fork and a pair of sunglasses. She is in a large studio that could be housed in a barn. (Maybe she’s in the country right now? Or Los Angeles? I’ve hunkered in the city for so long, I only have vague references to other locales.) The room’s expanse made me curious about what kinds of strange movement she must be getting up to when she turns the camera off. I wonder if it looks like the hours I spend in the evenings moving the four pieces of furniture I own into different corners of my room like a deranged interior decorator, rearranging knickknacks to occupy my time under the new shelter-in-place orders. My possessions, my leaky roof, and the bucket I have to place underneath it all feel like a kind of abundance right now, as my friends call me, worrying that they will not receive their one-time-only relief checks from the federal government because they were working off the books, or didn’t finish their taxes in time.

Thus far, Trickle Up’s content—largely filmed on phones, with flashes of incredible archival performance by Basil Twist, Dirty Martini, and Split Britches—serves as a source of tender goodwill, rather than a conduit for the justifiable rage, panic, and fear this pandemic is producing all over the globe. The aesthetic politeness mirrors the clearly felt effects of social distancing protocols, which call upon us not to disturb other bodies as an act of citizenship and pragmatism. In lieu of the ephemeral’s charged flame—the one ignited in the relational exchange that marks an evening at the theater—we are now left only with embers to remind us of the heat generated when we follow certain artists into the night.

Bridgett Everett, “Bridgett Everett Sings for You,” 2020.

I watch cabaret powerhouse Bridget Everett, martini in hand, deliver a song dedicated to her mother, who is now in a nursing home. Everett muses that the song might be a good icebreaker for Mom, new to the residence, to share with fellow wards. And then, as the top of her tits playfully swing into the frame, she “hits the track” (her signature demand when one of her stories has gotten too out of hand) and launches into a somewhat subdued version of “What I Gotta Do.” (For those unfamiliar with her work, the full lyric goes: “What I, what I, what I gotta do? What I gotta do to get that dick in my mouth?”) Terror gets funneled into irrepressible id, and I muse on sharing this song with my own mother, a nurse in upstate New York, who tells me the surgical mask she wears at work is really more just like a splash guard than a piece of protective gear. Disturbingly, she almost sounds unfazed. People cope in wild ways.

Some artists simply use the platform to delight in the banal, a gift made more pertinent by the strictures of solitude. Loveable goofball Ellen Maddow of The Talking Band pounds out a tune in her kitchen, singing about a man who cleverly catches his dog’s shit in his just-finished cappuccino cup. I tell a friend about her video and they say, “I’ve caught shit like that too!”—reminding me of my days as a fact-checker at Us! Weekly, before they axed the research department, and the ridiculous joy of reading its iconic “They’re Just Like Us!” column. Other contributors look more seriously toward the allegorical for guidance: In her gentle tale “Pilgrims,” playwright Lynn Nottage invokes unlikely bedfellows made in the aftermath of 9/11, chronicling the history of a patch of Irish ivy in her backyard and the visitors it has called in.

Suzan-Lori Parks, “Photograph of a Brother,” 2020.

I also learn sweet things I never knew from these little community board–esque love notes—like playwright Suzan-Lori Parks plays the guitar! Sitting on her couch, she—who wrote in her brilliant 1994 essay “From Elements of Style” that the definition of “bad math” is “x+y = meaning,” a useful axiom which has certainly stood the test of time—offers us two original songs: “Colored All My Life” and “Photograph of a Brother. " The latter is a response to a 2015 New York Times headline documenting the murder of Walter Scott, who was shot five times in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. As she sings, she is joined by her son Durham, who wears a superhero’s mask. At one point in the video, Parks asks him to sit up so that the audience can see his shirt, which reads A LITTLE KINDNESS CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING—and maintaining perfect posture, he adjusts himself as she sings: “If we ask why this is happening again / then we do not know how well we have been trained.” These words reverberate in my head; I can still hear her keeping time on the lower bout of the instrument—time now a material to be cherished even as it bears the shape of a foreboding on which I cannot speculate.

The Trickle Up platform presents a spectrum of artists engaged in a shared practice of “making do,” a phrase coined by theorist Michel de Certeau in his 1980 book The Practice of Everyday Life, which I discovered via the writer Sara Jane Stoner. De Certeau writes about methods of survival that are available to the weak, the sorts of play and trickery that might be employed by underdogs or, for the sake of this paradigm, artists. He defines these slippery methods as tactics, juxtaposing them with the fortifications of strategy, “the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, etc.) can be managed.” The tactician-artist in this schema has no such place to call a home, but instead must “play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.” The tactician-artist must subvert and serve her needs—and the needs of those whom she loves—from within the very structures that perceive her not as a potential collaborator, but as target or threat. She must “make do” as a capitalist when the moment calls for it. This is a drag performance, but the tactician-artist has been well-trained for it by years of squeezing impulses and observations into grantspeak, learning all the byzantine channels for procuring funds through institutional support. The hunt for formal subsidy has made the tactician-artist, or at least the ones able to maintain some commercially viable foothold in the culture industry, an expert at the ways of bureaucracy.

Lynn Nottage, “Pilgrims: A True Story,” 2020.

Crowdsourcing as a means to support cultural workers and their endeavors isn’t headline news, but the following fact bears repeating: The grander neoliberal project of privatization, which has naturalized the sort of valiant fundraising efforts epitomized by Trickle Up, is deeply perverse. It has imagined the world as a collection of robust, invulnerable entrepreneurs who might cheerily Kickstart and re-Kickstart their ideas ad infinitum—a nightmare of a cocktail party (forgive the crude allusion, although we all might give anything at this point for that particular awkwardness and possibility for contact)—rather than bodies that can and will break, eventually and always. They are breaking now, en masse. This breaking makes me reassess the weight and consequence of my own ambivalence regarding my creative life, the relations I have attended and the ones I have neglected, particularly through those antisocial tendencies that I never fully abandoned after adolescence with the false sense that there might always be another day to opt in, to join the bravest artists in their ardor for the unknown.

Of all that I have thus surveyed on Trickle Up, what has most stayed with me is a deeply moving missive from iconoclast Penny Arcade. At seventy, she tells us that she is in the youth of her old age, reminiscing on the elders she has lost—Taylor Mead, John Giorno, and Jonas Mekas, among others—as she assumes the mantle herself. She muses that she had considered calling her contribution “How to Survive a Plague”—a reference to the grassroots organizing that transpired at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s—as she places COVID-19 in that history of watershed moments that have “changed life forever,” particularly for those individuals most vulnerable to state violence. She reminds us watchers that we are part of a greater lineage of “counterculture,” and I become emotional when she utters this word. I cannot remember the last time I heard it, the evocation of an ethos that makes me feel most connected to art as an essential practice of empowering dissent. Arcade suggests that “one of the great ways to move forward is by remaining in touch with the people who are like you.” I’ve never met Penny, but I’m glad I have this way to remain in touch.

You can learn more about Trickle Up: NYC Artist Network and subscribe here.