Where Are the Maya? The Making of the Documentary

By Al Giordano

As Jill Freidberg, dean of the documentary filmmaking department at the 2010 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism mentions below, there was some understandable skepticism before February’s boot camp, er, session started that a group of people from different lands and languages, most of whom had not worked together before, could produce a meaningful documentary film in just ten or eleven days.

I just smiled, with the knowledge that we’d already done it before, in Bolivia back in 2004, when the j-school documentary team planned, shot and produced Chew on This: For Us, Coca Is Life, in just ten days. It is a work that, six years later, not only withstands the test of time, but also added its grain of sand to push big changes in Bolivia. (Evo Morales, for example, went from union leader, member of Congress and then-professor of the School of Authentic Journalism – where he was also a volunteer advisor to our film - to becoming president of his country 18 months later, and reversed the government policies that oppressed the subjects of that film.)

That 2004 ten-day documentary was a little over ten minutes long, and we put it on the Internet before YouTube existed. Then Narco News webmaster Dan Feder created an entire online platform for it, from raw Internet code. It filled me with enough faith in our students and professors, and enough pride in the horizontal work model of the j-school, to never doubt for a moment that the 2010 documentary filmmaking group would be able to meet and exceed the standards set by that pioneering video.

At 15:34 seconds, Where Are the Maya? will, in the same spirit, put a struggle ignored by the national and international media on a somewhat bigger stage (and DVD copies of it will also be delivered, as before, to the local people and organizations whose voices, faces, words and homes are seen in it, so that they may use it as an organizing tool in their struggles).

It was a gargantuan task, and it meets every standard that I consider to mark excellence. I asked team leader and cutting-edge documentary filmmaker Jill Irene Freidberg to pen a few words about the process by which the film you see, above, was made. Jill writes:

"When Al asked me to join the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism to ‘lead’ the documentary team as a ‘professor,’ I balked. Knowing how to make a documentary is one thing; teaching others how to make a documentary is something else altogether. But Greg Berger assured me that there would be a lot of overlap, at this j-school, between ‘professor’ and ‘student.’

“He was right. And that’s why we were able to make a movie.

“There were ‘students,’ like Edwin Reed-Sanchez, Marine Lormant Sebag, and Amanda Huerta Morán, who already had plenty of video production under their belts before j-school started; ‘students’ like Edwin Alvarez, who had never made a documentary, but who contributed a wealth of experience in leadership and community organizing; a ‘student” like Ter García who came to j-school with very little hands on video experience, but after years of daily newspaper reporting in Spain sure knew how to pull a story together. There were also ‘professors’ like Quetzal Belmont, Andrew Stelzer and Vanessa Ortíz who brought yet other skills and talents (from investigative reporting, interviewing, audio to extensive knowledge of community organizing dynamics) and hard work to the team.

“J-school took place in three different locations, across the Yucatan Peninsula, over the course of eleven short days. Making a documentary, in less than two weeks, in three locations, in two languages, is not an easy task. Early on, a consensus emerged that we wanted to focus our lens on the contrast between tourism and the reality of the people who live and work in the shadow of tourism. But with so little knowledge about the region, its history and context, narrowing the scope of our focus seemed like a daunting task. It was French journalist in Mexico Anne Vigna who, over beer and cigarettes, on the ‘smoking bus’ from Puerto Morelos to Merida, pointed us in the right direction with a wealth of contacts and suggestions, putting us in touch with the courageous people of Colonia Maracuyá and the folks at the Tzolk’in Center for Culture and Ecology."

Everyone should know that I - as the School's director - didn’t always make it easy for the documentary film group at the 2010 j-school. They wanted, needed and kept pushing and organizing for more time to work on it. I insisted that they could use the three or four hours a day of "free time," usually in the afternoons, and plus the hour or two of daylight at dawn, but that everybody still had to attend the four hours of morning plenary sessions and the nighttime plenaries and events as well (half the afternoons were devoted to work groups – a total of 24 hours in all out of an original 27 planned).

Members of the documentary filmmaking workshop at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, left to right: Andrew Stelzer, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant, Edwin Reed-Sanchez, editing video through the night in team leader Jill Freidberg's hotel room-turned-work studio in Playa del Carmen. Photo DR 2010 Jill Freidberg.

As Jill mentions, they had some good local support, from the authentic journalists in the state's biggest newspaper, Por Esto!, its publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, its state editor Renán Castro Madera, and its Playa del Carmen bureau chief Manuel Chuc. Our old friends who we filmed back in 2006 with the Other Journalism with Other Campaign from the Tzol'kin Center for Culture and Ecology and other organizations did yeoman's work introducing the documentary film team to the local people in struggle. Anne Vigna, Natalia Viana and other members of the 2010 School's investigative journalism group did everything the documentary group asked of them, too. When the documentary group needed a van to go filming in Cancún, Mercedes Osuna (who has a special message for Narco News readers today) took the wheel. This team goes down in the j-school annals as 11 on a scale of 10.

To have watched, nursing my first coffee, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant and Ter García marching out of our Playa del Carmen campus at six a.m. one morning, having recruited Mercedes Osuna as their early morning driver, to film a construction site (“we’re architecture students,” the authentic journalists pleaded with the site foreman, “can we film you doing your work?” - they had him at "we"), tripods and cameras in hand, filled with pep and vigor, hope and pride in their work, and new lifelong friendships, was a memorable first-of-the-day moment that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Nor their beaming smiles when they returned at 9 a.m. with the footage they had gone hunting to get, and the stories of how they got it.

The documentary film group didn’t stop when the School “ended” on February 13, either. Jill, Ter, Marine, Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Quetzal, along with Narco News' Spanish language editor Fernando León Romero, turned my apartment, “somewhere in América,” into a video editing studio for two weeks after the school, and I did my best to stay out of their way and just keep them in food and, a good number of them, in cigarettes. One night I came home to find the walls of my house covered with notes on pieces of paper, images, and notes atop those notes, like a Criminal Minds TV show war room. They also took over my House M.D. white board for the script timeline. Ter returned to the Yucatán peninsula to get more source materials as did Quetzal to film a few more shots of B-roll. After that, collaborating with each other long distance, they handed the draft edit, script and materials off to Jill - la maestra - to put on the finishing touches, and each and every one of them, I’m certain, knows that this documentary film happened through their creativity and labor, and is theirs as well as it belongs to the good people they interviewed in it.

I couldn’t be happier with the result. Really. You could knock me over with a feather. May the question this documentary poses go “viral” (and auténticos, you know what to do, embed this in your social media feisbuk pages, tweets, blogs and email lists):

Where Are the Maya? Where are they in the tourist Meccas of Cancún and Playa del Carmen that, day in, day out, exploit the name and the descendants of that beautiful historic peninsula whose indigenous peoples, monuments and cultures have awed the world time and time again, to be left in the dirt, to fend for themselves against greedy men, companies and governments of brutal, violent Power.

This is a documentary about a situation that cries out for justice and correction, a documentary that emboldens and comforts the inflicted to organize for it, and that inflicts the comfortable who stand in the way of that justice being made. And as another blessed consequence, I'm sure you’ll be hearing more from the members of the documentary filmmaking group of the 2010 J-School, almost all of whom will be invited back, if we’re able to do the School again in 2011, as “professors,” as Jill (excellent job, and a salute, comandanta) likes to put in quotes.

The Real Crisis of Our Times is What Crisis Does to Us

By Al Giordano

A wonderful essay is circulating by Alain de Botton in City magazine (I came across it via Andrew Sullivan), titled, On Distraction. In just 333 words, de Botton captures one of the central problems of this present moment in history:

“One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

“The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows.”

De Botton – who has an interesting project in London called The School of Life - recommends “diets” or “fasts” of the mind, which may or may not work to alleviate such alienation depending on the individual, but do not address the larger societal problems described. Plus, the counsel sounds a little bit too much like a “self help book” prescription (and the constant overdose of media stimulation has different effects on different minds: not all suffer from bloated obesity) when his analysis can also serve as a trampoline with which we can also jump toward some additional inquiries and ideas.

Fourteen years ago I wrote a kind of manual and manifesto about arming ourselves to fight the “24-hours-a-day war between Media and Self,” and in recent months I’ve picked back up the unfinished project of that work, The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media, dusted it off, and with other collaborators have set parts of it into praxis again in the realm of daily life (which especially includes what happens away from the Internet and other screens). Back then, a lot of the conclusions and ideas put forward in that document were a lot less popular and a lot less easily understood than they are now, at this present moment that de Botton describes so well. Today, there is an emerging and wide societal consensus on many of them. History has been kind to that once inconvenient analysis of “media” as the central problem of our era.

What I have often smacked down from this corner as “the poutrage of the week” and the panicked Chicken Little behavior of those who follow the commercial media’s constant feedbag of crisis and attention-seeking, is really, all of it, a consequence of the harms that de Botton describes. Like domesticated oxen, the population is yanked from media stoked crisis to crisis, all of which carry a whiff of apocalypse: an oil gusher in the Gulf now comes with underwater 24-hour live stream cameras, all available online and to TV networks, as experts – real and invented – jump onto our screens to tell us their version of what is happening. “We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture,” says de Botton, “and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.” A few weeks later comes Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla (the Middle East being, for many, a Pavlov signifier for “apocalypse” and thus an easy ruse for the media to get all sides drooling and barking according to an age-old script) and the cycle starts anew. And next week or the following week, when fatigue sets in on those obsessions, it will be something else altogether.

De Botton describes the debilitating effect of all this crisis-mongering on the media consumer. But we had also better study what it does to the media worker – not just journalists, per se, but communicators and artists of all kinds – who are now reduced to typing monkeys that have to go out and find those “instant experts” or cram to be able to at least play them on TV, or on a blog, or any other media. You’re expected to write or talk or shout about every crisis of the week, so you - I'm talking to you, fellow and sister media workers! - run to Wikipedia and the rest of the online library to pull up some factoids and buzzwords that fool the crowd into thinking the reporter or communicator really knows what he and she are writing or talking about. The formulaic nature of this kind of frenetic activity at work stations is killing so much of the creativity of the formerly “creative class”!

The bigger crisis of our time is, thus, Power's need to create constant crises, generated first and foremost by the commercial media, all competing for our dwindling hours of free time and attention span, and exacerbated by every kind of interest group, advertiser, opportunist, politician, "activist," aspiring tyrant or con artist who know that a person who perceives himself or his community or his world in crisis can be sold all kinds of products and ideologies to serve the salesman. When we “lose our heads” we are easy prey for the predators.

The more I live the more I keep concluding that we, as a society, as a public, need a kind of intervention or vaccine that inoculates us to panic and crises (or that at least arms us to deal with perceived crises with a methodology very different than that of running in circles, screaming and shouting, or the opportunist's impulse to make money or fame out of them). Some weapons available come with creating a better show outside of the crises that instead of fostering panic interrupt the spiral-of-doom with a smile, a joke, a song, a dance, a creation, those surprises that remind everyone – participant and spectator – that nobody is, or needs to be, alone in our “24 hours-a-day war between Media and Self.”

You can see in the recent letters from Jesse Freeston and Edwin Álvarez and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours – and you’ll be receiving more such letters from others soon – about their experience at the School of Authentic Journalism in February. That’s one tool that, thanks to your support, is changing lives and inoculating communicators to impede the process by which most become typing monkeys and crisis junkies. To revive a free press we need to first revive the existence of free pressmen and presswomen!

But I’m also thinking a lot these days that in addition to the vital work of preserving and expanding an authentically creative class, one communicator or authentic journalist at a time, that we need to be plotting such interventions on bigger and bigger levels: the in the terrains of the home, the neighborhood, the community, the city, the country, the region, the world: A reopening of the Situationist project of “creating situations” that awaken the most powerful human instinct there is: the will to live, not just to survive, but the will to pleasure. Because if there is anything defining about a crisis mentality it is that it is anti-pleasure: it cripples its adherents and since its technicians are the former members of the “creative class” it is crippling the creativity of society as it makes them extinct.

As a graffito from that project said, “We will have good masters as soon as everyone is their own.” To resist the siren call of panic and crisis we need to rise up an army of warriors skilled at fighting that 24-hours-a-day war against the commercial media-imposed crisis mentality.

So if I’m not always typing about whatever the rest of the media and its junkies shout is the crisis of the day, it’s not out of sloth or cowardice (usually in the cases when some asshole says “you’re censoring the story,” it is precisely when a thousand other typing monkeys are addressing that supposed crisis furiously anyway, so why bother adding to the noise?). The accusation of fear always comes, anyway, from those who have taken less physical and personal risk for their shouted beliefs in an entire lifetime than I've taken to report a great many single stories. It’s that there are other, more compelling, games afoot.

Some, like the ongoing work of the School of Authentic Journalism, we update you about all the time. Others are still being gestated to birth. It’s always hard to know, in advance, when an unfamiliar or new kind of fruit will be ripe. But when you’ve been to the banquet already, and you can detect the wafting scents from the kitchen sent out like clues and hints, you know that the chefs are busy, and you are going to enjoy the meals to come.

Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation and a Stage Called Journalism

By Al Giordano

“The political climate that we live under says that diverse people from different strata of society, from different cultural orientations, would not all be together in the same room at the same time sharing a similar experience together. The political climate that we live under is divisive. It’s designed that way. It only reinforces the extremes in difference between us. And yes, while we are all very different from each other, we are overwhelmingly similar.

“There are lesbians in this room; there are gay men in this room; there are heterosexuals in this room; there are bisexual people in this room, are there not? There are transsexual people, asexual people. There are Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics in this room. There are Asians in this room. There are Blacks in this room. There are Hispanics in this room. There are Middle Easterners in this room. There are WASPs in this room. There is every kind of ethnic group in this room. There are trendy people in this room. There are people over fifty in this room. There are people over sixty, over seventy in this room. There are people under twenty-five in this room. There are at least five kinds of gay men in this room, and they don’t agree with each other about anything! There are people in this room who don’t identify with any particular group in this room.”

- Penny Arcade, early 1990s

During an April visit to New York I had the chance to see The Penny Arcade Experience at a club called the Poisson Rouge, which now fills the hallowed space of the old Village Gate. The original Gate marquee still stands, an historic landmark, on the corner of the beige brick building at Bleecker and Thompson Streets. It eternally announces the last two shows that appeared at that legendary forum when Art d’Lugoff had to close its doors in 1993: one by Jacques Brel and the other was Arcade’s long-running (more than 1,500 performances) Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

Everything I have always loved about Penny Arcade’s performances was as vibrant and alive as ever on that April 2010 night in New York, starting with Penny – nee Susana Ventura, the girl from the Italian immigrant family in the mill town of New Britain, Connecticut who ran away to New York as a teen and soon landed as Andy Warhol’s youngest superstar – a tornado of truth-telling, humor, timing and authenticity. The male and female erotic dancers, actors and performers, video camerapersons and the lighting-sound-production-dramaturgy team on and off stage included a core group of the same talents that were collaborating with Penny on her works back in 1996 and 1997, when I last attended a Penny Arcade show: dramaturge Steve Zehentner, stage manager Lorie E. Said, dancer Kenny Angel Davis, videographers Dean Lance and Rick Jurgens. Hanging on to a team for 14 years and more (most go farther back than that) for a project of independent anything is itself a rare accomplishment, especially in the ego-heavy world of show biz, whether a project is economically flush or it is underground and often struggling.

There was also something new in the Arcade arsenal in 2010: Merchandise. For decades, Penny and her collaborators have videotaped most of her public performances. Like a sports team, they watch the videos after each “game” both to evaluate the play and to capture the considerable improvised and ad-libbed moments, the best of which get worked into future performances in an ever-evolving show. Back then, the video was about developing and improving the work (“In the 80s I was antiproduct,” Arcade has said, “that was my stance.”) Now, entering or leaving Penny’s shows, the audience can take home DVDs of a 1991 performance of La Miseria, the 1995 An Evening with Penny Arcade & Quentin Crisp, a 1999 on stage filming of Bad Reputation and a 2009 revival of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

Also new, a book: Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews (2009, Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press), based on transcripts of Arcade’s shows, an interview with Penny by editor Chris Kraus, and essays about her work by Stephen Bottoms, Ken Bernard, Sarah Schulman and Steve Zehentner.

I took those DVDs and the book south of the border where in recent weeks some of us – students and professors of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, along with friendly artists, performers, singers, photographers, designers, troublemakers and such - have gathered weekly to watch, read and discuss together what we see in those and other works of varied indole.

My j-school colleagues have repeatedly remarked things like, “Al! Now I know where the School of Authentic Journalism came from!” I had much the same thought seeing these works 13 years after the year I was immersed in and around Arcade’s laboratory (we lived under the same Lower East Side roof from about May ’96 to May ’97, but not having enough gray hair yet for memoirs, that’s really all the disclosure required for now; April was the first time in a dozen years we had spoken). Penny was then busy developing, rehearsing and performing Bad Reputation, a powerful show about “bad girls,” violence, rape, and resistance, among other things. It was, for me, the year of my big inquiry (what others probably called an early mid-life crisis) in which, having left commercial journalism, I worked at a local anarchist bookstore (largely out of motive to read everything on the shelves for free), and co-hosted, with Arcade, Radio Free New York on a pirate radio station every Friday evening. There, we held long on-air conversations with the likes of Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov of The Living Theater, Semiotext(e) publisher Sylvere Lotringer, writers Peter Lamborne Wilson a.k.a. Hakim Bey and the late Robert Beers (also an actor and film curator at MOMA), musicians Jayne County, Tuli Kupferberg, Bebe Buell and Coyote Shivers, the poet Ira Cohen, former New York School Board president Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, and others who had lived and helped form the secret history of radical New York over previous decades.

I confess that, during that heady year on the Lower East Side, I thought my inquiry – an attempt to study and figure out where I really do stand in society and its politics; to unlearn myself of years of presumptions conditioned by staffing commercial media and “go back to the drawing board” anew – was “out there” on the bookshelves and in the pirate radio studio. In retrospect, the more highly advanced revolutionary project was happening right under my nose, in what Penny and her collaborators were building. I was sloganeering politically about “refusing mediation” and trying to understand Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “the war machine outside the state.” Arcade was doing it. Full circle, that experience turns out to have been a defining influence on all that I’ve done since.

“I talk directly to the audience,” Arcade said in the book’s 2008 interview by Chris Kraus. “I started doing it because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene. I understood that my relationship was with the audience, that it wasn’t with arts administrators, that it wasn’t with the press, and that the audience and I were actually treated the same way by the press and by the arts administrators. They thought we were stupid and didn’t know anything, and so I developed that talking to the audience, and just got braver and braver and braver.”

Narco News’ decade-long adversarial relationship with the commercial media and our greater priority of building and sustaining a direct, unmediated, relationship with our readers pretty much copies the Arcade Doctrine of theater and applies it to journalism. And you know what? A decade later the jury is in: it works, and is sustainable, across the borders of art forms.

Arcade continues:

“A lot of younger people who’d work with me would see me talk directly to the audience, and they’d go, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But they didn’t understand the level of integrity you have to bring to talking directly to the audience. Because …it doesn’t work unless you’re really at risk… When I break out, it’s because I’ve realized something. Either something that I’m hiding from the audience, something that will embarrass me…”

And those are the moments that – whether it happens on a stage or via an online newspaper – the work breaks through the Fourth Wall and, according to Penny, “We’re all in it together.”

“It’s a complete accident that I have a career,” she says. “It’s really because of the public’s commitment to my work.”


“So when I say it’s an accident, I mean obviously I understand that I made a demand on the audience in the ‘80s, very early on, and that demand was, if you need to see like a big article about me in The New York Times or the Village Voice, stop coming, because they’re probably not gonna write about me. But if you think this work is important, if you like this work, if you want me to continue doing this work, I need you to replace yourself.”

Thirteen and fourteen years ago I attended thirty or forty of Arcade’s shows in a row and although she got very little press from the gatekeepers of the media, every single hall was sold out and filled to the brim. Overflow audiences often sat on stairwells and floors. And every single one had a transformative impact on those who attended it. Since no two shows were exactly alike – like jazz, they improvised around structured sections – it never got boring. The same dynamic continued at the April 2010 show, which borrowed from her entire body of work over the decades.

Arcade’s continued drawing power is testimony to the fact that you don’t need to kiss the critics’ asses, or suck up to the media, to build and expand the attention of the public on one’s work. Being authentic alone might not be enough, but if one is authentically entertaining, funny and observant, one can win the night again and again and again. Freed from the constraints of worrying about whether the critics or the media will approve of one’s work, an artist or communicator achieves a much wider field upon which to play. There is simply more one is allowed to talk about, to show and to tell; a wider well of materia prima, available to the anti-careerist. The boss ceases to be someone in a hierarchy of power outside of a project, and instead becomes the audience, the readers, the listeners. The only thing that then matters is whether they find it worthwhile, and also importantly, whether the work provokes them to participate, because that’s how all work is constantly improved, through that interaction or relationship with the public.

From the 2008 interview:

“I’m against the professionalization of the arts, where people actually think that by going to school for four years, they are an artist. Jack Smith said it best, ‘You have to be willing to be bad for twenty years in order to be great. And then there’s no guarantee…’

“Artists will talk about the politics of politics every fucking second, but they will never say anything about the politics of art. They know what side their bread is buttered on, and they’re not going to get themselves 86’d, as I have.”

The same is true in all fields. So many journalists (including many bloggers) express lots of political opinions but never about the politics and economics of the media industry. Not even “media critics” are allowed to do that! Every ethical lapse must be treated as an isolated act, and never a systemic consequence. It was when the late Jeff Buckley (another whom Penny introduced me to back in the day) started to talk about the politics of the music business that he began to have problems with SONY. Communications – whether media or the arts or some combo of the two – are the industries most protected from authentic communication about how they operate, because the threat is always looming over the heads of communicators; the blacklist, what Arcade calls the 86.

Some didn’t understand at all, for example, my comments yesterday about the talents of the 538 blog moving over to the New York Times. Some asked me, "how can you say that? Isn’t that guy your friend?” First, yes, and that friend will be fine. He can smile all the way to the bank. He’s just going to have to live with the ticket he bought that brings with it the few pockets of sustained criticism of the New York Times that have achieved this unique space (a stage, in a way) from which we’ve long made the Times our foil, a Mrs. Teasdale to our Groucho Marx. 538 can continue to do good things, but can’t during its partnership say anything “bad” about the Times itself, one of the incarnate media problems of our era. Nor can any blogger or reporter that aspires to work at official media, where the Times is considered king. And that has long been the achilles heel of so much "alternative" journalism, art, blogging, or whatever: the playing of the role of "the outsider" as merely an audition to become an insider, when the rare authentic artist or revolutionary is up to a different game altogether: tearing down the prison wall between inside and out. Democracy is not a lottery ticket!

Self-censorship is the guillotine over the heads of so much media, including those who inhabit the “alternative” press. Mark Liebovich and David Carr were enormously important writers in their alterna-media salad days. Since they’ve been swallowed up the Times, can you cite or even remember anything of real import they’ve been allowed to write since?

True, the official media try to ignore, or mock, or discredit any voice raised up against any of its members from the critique of the everyday life of how the sausage is really made in those media. Take this 2002 “review” of Penny Arcade’s show, New York Values, in 2002, by Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice:

“Like the amusement of her adopted name, Penny Arcade offers a reasonable amount of low-rent razzle-dazzle and whisbang for the buck. In New York Values (P.S. 122), she delivers her rants and raps ringed by a chorus of go-go boys and girls, illuminated by spots, magnified by live video, and backed by a rock ‘n’ roll soundscape… Of course, discussing Arcade’s material is almost beside the point. She’s attracted a following not for what she says… but for who she is: a dizzy autodidact with big boobs and a mean streak. Even at 51, she still looks devastatingly cute in décolletage and mouse ears… It’s a pity her repetitive material isn’t aging as well as her rack.”

As Stephen Bottoms notes in Bad Reputation, “The poisonous blend of sexism and snobbery in these comments hardly needs underlining.” I would add: except to mandate the observation that such cat calls have failed at their motive of turning the public off from Arcade’s work (Swift’s concept of a confederacy of dunces increasingly is recognized by the public as pointing toward genius, and the official media's minions are more frequently receiving the dunce hat), more in popular demand than ever before, built one member of the public at a time, and than by the word-of-mouth that public generated.

What has lost credibility and attraction over these same years is the professional gatekeeper of media and other institutions. It was the generic reporter and critic’s repetitive and formulaic material that didn’t “age well” and the public stopped looking to them for guidance; many were simply laid off. The media market-niched its audience by “identity” categories and demographics, in accord with advertiser "targeting" strategies, which makes Arcade’s early 1990s observation atop this review about “the political climate” and the diverse kinds of people that “are not supposed to be all in one room” prophetic. When Barack Obama began saying something similar a decade and more later, many people thought it was a new idea!

Now, here’s a little word-of-mouth, YouTube style - from that same New York Values show in the same year - so you can now replace the obsolete Voice critic, too:

A lot of the strange official hostility toward self-sufficient projects is class generated ("low rent... autodidact... mean streak...", these are descriptions that are only considered epithets by the comfortable, for whom the most classless act is desiring a classless society aloud): Big media tends to hire its troops from oversocialized university graduates. Autodidacts are generally less reliable as contented servants. (“There is nothing so depressing,” said the Mexican anarchist and independent journalist Ricardo Flores Magón, “as a happy slave.”) And likewise nothing is so threatening to the managing classes than the evidence that the rest of us can manage ourselves just fine, thank you very much. Everyone who is working class or poor (and that is the majority of everyone, after all) knows how this works, as it is drummed into our heads from every direction from a very early age.

In Arcade’s earliest full-length stage work, La Miseria, an actor portraying her brother, Mario, yells at Penny on stage:

“You are working class! That’s what you are… You’re living in a fuckin’ fantasy world. You know that? You – what – you wanna be an artist? … Let me clue you into something. Art – art – art is for rich people… Besides that, nobody wants to fuckin’ hear from you. Huh? So just shut your mouth!”

And then there are those, like Arcade, for whom shutting up is an impossibility.

Steve Zehentner, Penny’s longtime dramaturge, writes in Bad Reputation:

“I used to describe Penny as an angry mob in just one person. I would complain to her after witnessing another round of her surly public behavior – breaking the routine of calm of the neighborhood café with a tirade against the ‘pseudo-hip’ gentrifiers, swinging the microphone stand perilously close to the heads of the audience – that she was never socialized. I’m truly sorry about that. Now I recognize it as a little miracle.”

“She marched around her loft as if on the verge of a great discovery. She talked and walked and had things she wanted to hip me to – things I needed to know: ‘You don’t know the ground you’re standing on,’ she said. ‘The whole Lower East Side used to be a landing pad for aliens; the illegal, the immoral, the born losers, it was a Mecca for the Misfit. It had everything except control freaks. Have you seen the avant-garde lately? Who are those young Republicans with purple hair?”

“She doesn’t sit. Working with Penny is to engage in the continual development of a never-ending performance… She’s up, stomping about, trying things out, thinking out loud. She turns up the music and now she’s dancing: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Dylan, The Rolling Stones. People drop in, hang out. She likes an audience. There’s always commotion, something stirring in the air.”

Every word Steve writes is true, 24 hours a day. Penny is the same person on or off stage, which means, take your pick, she is either never off stage, or perhaps never on it in the sense of a pedestaled stage that places the performer as elite and above the plebes in the audience.

Another thing I learned from Penny is the power of long term patience. Also from the Bad Reputation interview:

“As Quentin Crisp said when I complained to him about my career, ‘Not to worry, Ms. Arcade. Time is kind to the nonconformist.’ You know, so eventually… they wouldn’t give me anything in my 40s, you know, they wouldn’t give me anything in my 50s, but no doubt if I live into my 80s, I will have the full thing, do you know what I mean? Because that’s how it works. They wait ‘till you can absolutely do nothing with it.”

After attending Pete Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden last year, I made similar observations. Ten years ago Pete was largely out of sight and out of mind, and certainly in the media. I remember when singer-songwriter Stephan Said pulled Pete out of his Beacon farmhouse to collaborate on a song against the Iraq war, The Bell, and how little attention that got. But by 2009, suddenly Pete, the former blacklisted communist, was playing before hundreds of thousands on the National Mall at the President’s inauguration, and filling The Garden for his birthday. Time is kind to the nonconformist who marches to his and her own beat, if he and she live long enough to harvest it. And posthumous history is even kinder.

There’s a lot more to say about Penny Arcade and her extensive body of work, much of it said well in Bad Reputation. This may be the first review of her work that didn’t focus much on her being raised “by a tawdry band of drag queens,” among them Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Penny’s history from Stonewall through “gay rights,” and the AIDs crisis, to a more public hetero and market acceptance of gays with her singular front row faghag seat, or the matter of fact that she is widely and fairly considered heiress to movements and moments like Warhol’s Factory, The Living Theater and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, among others. The first musical project that Patti Smith ever formed was with Penny, and all those historic events are of course important, but I chose to focus on what I think is most relevant to our work as communicators and artists in the present day.

Projects that really are free of any worry over offending the gatekeepers and that succeed at building an authentic relationship with the public without dependence on the media are immensely important to the freedom of society. They become more important every day as the warden caste of the mass media prison solidifies its techno-grasp on the dwindling control panel: the press is entering a new era of fewer and fewer reporters and more and more middlemen, editors and outsourced “content providers.”

Penny Arcade’s project in theater and performance began doing it, year in, year out, before any of us attempted anything similar in journalism or media. With more experience, it is of course more highly evolved and advanced, a continual engine of innovation that can be applied not just to journalism, but to all art and forms of communication.

The School of Authentic Journalism today makes Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation: Performances, Essays, Interviews a recommended textbook of our curriculum. As one of our recent graduates, Sebastian Kolendo, the young Wikipedia overlord now working as a video editor on the Narco News team, recently commented while watching the video of Penny’s 1995 stage interview of the late Quentin Crisp in Austria, “Who is that doing the interview? That’s the best journalistic interview I’ve ever seen!” Bad Reputation is of course a must-read for anybody who ever steps or hopes to step upon a stage, but – think about it - that means journalists, too. And all artists in any field. Its transcripts, essays and interviews open the curtain on an important part, surprise, surprise, of our own secret history.


Penny Arcade official website.

The book, Bad Reputation, can be mail ordered via The MIT Press.


By Al Giordano

The best independent reputation on the Internet today announced that it will co-brand with the worst journalistic reputation on earth.

What were the statistical probabilities of that?

The New York Times sucks the life force out of every single person it touches. And now I have to watch someone I like and admire be destroyed, slowly and painfully (yes, nerds, think of it in language you can understand: it's the Sarlacc pit from Star Wars), where they will either digest him slowly over a thousand years after stuffing him behind a paywall or, worse, turn him into a prick just like every other Timesman.

In the end, everybody has the right to make our own mistakes, and that goes for Nate, too. I've cheered every other success he has had: the book contracts, the New York mag gig, and all. I mourn this move because I want Nate to succeed and go to the toppermost of the poppermost. But the Times is hurtling downward in the opposite direction.

Remember those crazy protesters outside the Royal Wedding with the placards that shouted “Don’t Do It, Di”? At the end of the tunnel car chase, it turned out that they were right.

Not even Nate Silver can make the passé New York Times cool again. But the Times, in its death throe years, can make even Nate Silver uncool.

I don't know what he's thinking. This is not the first time an artist or rock star I've known took a turn toward nihilism. But, Jebus, Nate: heroin would have been a safer move!

Good luck, Bro. I hope I’m wrong about this. And we will miss you on the outside. While you’re there, at least make some blueprints of the building, its security systems, floor plans, exits and entrances, and a list of each guard's vices, and send them this way, for you'll want us to know how to rescue you when the revolution comes.

Obligatory Nag

By Al Giordano

This handsome young Canadian is Jesse Freeston of The Real News, whose cutting edge online video journalism work has been featured here before. He was one of 40 volunteer professors in February at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico where we trained each other plus 30 students to be better at this craft. Today he writes you a letter about his experience at the 2010 J-School and asks you to support this project with a donation:

I think the word that was all over my lips after the J-School was unique. What a unique experience I had, truly like none other I’ve had. I’m very picky about the people I spend time with, some might even say, an asshole. That said, I can’t think of a single person in a room of 60 at the J-School that I wouldn’t want to spend more time with. I familiarized myself with new concepts, skills and perspectives, some of which I have already put into practice. I met some tactics, ideas, and templates that I will likely never emulate or disse minate. But I’m still all the better for having been exposed to them in an environment like the one provided by the school...

After unique, if I could help myself to an entire phrase to describe the school, it would be density of potential. The human potential that was in the room in Mexico was unprecedented. The capacity per square foot was orders of magnitude above any room in the world. And we’re just starting to harvest the fruits of that time spent together.

So to those who have already donated, and those who helped organize the school, thank you a million times over. For those who still have some pennies to spare, pretty please with a journalistic revolution on top, help us keep Narco News publishing also so we can do this again next year!

You can donate online at this link:


Or send a check to:

The Fund for Authentic Journalism

PO Box 241

Natick, MA 01760 United States

There's more to Jesse's letter, so read the whole thing. Truth is, we're short on funds right now and with the summer season about to begin I'm worried that we'll have to make some cuts while I go out to the street corner and clean windshields or lease my writing fingers out to pen comic-tragic porn for The Onion or Wonkette (that would be fun, but wouldn't you miss me here?) to be able to pay the bills for the rest of the team who works so hard here every night and day on subsistence level stipends reporting, translating, webmastering, editing video, training and being trained as the next generation of authentic journalists.

We give this to y'all for free. We always have. That means we have to count on your generosity and support to keep on keepin' on. So toss a coin into the cup if you can, large or small, every little bit helps.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Two Kinds of Migrants and the “Cultural Generation Gap”

By Al Giordano

A new report out of the Brookings Institution offers a thought provoking theory that could explain recent freak phenomena like Arizona’s anti-immigrant law and the conservative tea baggers: a widening “cultural generation gap” in certain regions of the US.

The math is simple enough: compare the percentage of senior citizens (age 65 and over) in a given state or metropolitan area who are non-Hispanic white with the percentage of their neighbors who are 18 and under and non-Hispanic white, and, voila, let’s look at what part of the nation has the widest “cultural generation gap.”

Arizona tops the charts, with 83 percent of its seniors Caucasian but just 43 percent of its minors in the same racial demographic: a gap of 40 points.

Brookings writes:

Demographically, there is no doubt Latinos and other immigrant minorities are America’s future, and on this, Arizona stands on the front lines. Over the past two decades the state has seen its Latino population grow by 180 percent as its racial composition shifted from 72 to 58 percent white.

Yet there is an important demographic nuance to this growth—providing context to the white backlash in Arizona in ways that could play out elsewhere. It is the fact that the state’s swift Hispanic growth has been concentrated in young adults and children, creating a “cultural generation gap” with largely white baby boomers and older populations, the same demographic that predominates in the recent Tea Party protests.

And so what we have here is a kind of cocktail of racial tensions mixed with generational differences (which, although the Brookings study doesn’t come out and say it, I would posit retards societal integration since old folks don’t typically hang out or even cross paths with young ones; both groups tend to avoid the other even within the same racial or other demographic categories).

And here is something else to consider: In the warmer climes of the United States, Mexicans, Latin Americans and other newcomers to the US aren’t the only new wave of immigrants. The exodus of northern retirees that began decades ago to Florida and Southern California has widened into a wave of elderly immigrants to key metropolitan areas throughout the Southwest. The Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area, being one of them, for example, has the highest cultural generation gap in the country, of 41 points. That’s not only because Mexican-Americans are moving in, but also it is a result of the geezer brigades.

The seniors, of course, come government-supported with Social Security checks, Medicare and lots of other socialized goodies. They move into gated communities with access to cheap “illegal” labor to water the lawns and care for them in every other way possible. Many in fact come to border lands precisely so they can cross into Mexico easily to purchase their pharmaceuticals at bargain prices. But despite all the benefits they receive exactly because they move to the lands of immigrants, these older white populations are hotbeds of hostility against the immigrants, which is how we got to the place where Arizona’s anti-immigrant law has now exacerbated racial and other tensions.

The metropolitan areas with the largest cultural generation gap happen to coincide with clusters of Republican voting patterns and tea party activity: The Tucson, Arizona metro area joins Phoenix among the top three cultural generation gap zones. Certain California metropolitan areas are high on the list: Riverside-San Bernardino, Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto, Stockton and San Diego are in the top ten. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, join them there. Here’s the list of the top twenty:

I think Brookings is onto something big here. Generational apartheid is exacerbating racial segregation and discrimination. And this underscores, among other things, that for political movements to succeed they have to be multi-generational and multi-racial, and very intentionally cross over another kind of border fence called demographics.

The situation created by these cultural generation gap clusters also presents a challenge for the so-called “baby boomers” (officially, Americans born between 1946 and 1964) who were, according to the hype when they were young, going to be the pioneering generation of peace, love, “the Age of Aquarius” and all that granola. Starting next year, the oldest of them turn 65 and join the ranks of the retirees. And that’s when another process will begin that will determine the boomers’ place in history: whether it really is a transformational generation, or one that merely replicates the sins of the fathers it rebelled against when young.

Many of the teabaggers, in fact, are boomers. They’re a small percentage of them but it is nonetheless cause for pause that they exist, because they represent the worst-case scenario of where the boomers could end up politically: From parent supported suburban youths to government supported suburban seniors, the danger is that, in their twilight years, they become their parents all over again.

Which is precisely why a responsibility is on the shoulders of every boomer of conscience to break that cycle both in daily life and in political participation; to embrace his and her generation’s best legacy of community organizing, racial tolerance and integration and all the other qualities they championed in their youth.

The coming national debate over immigration reform, I think, is where we will begin to see whether “the sixties generation” walks its talk, head held high, into the retirement years. If not, it will become one of the biggest jokes in history because it began as the most hyped (and privileged) generation ever. But if, as polls suggest, it understands that there is little moral high ground to be claimed by seniors who migrate to live their retirement years and immigrants who migrate to the same places to live their working years, Comprehensive Immigration Reform can accomplish at least two giant leaps forward for the United States.

First, a path to citizenship for twelve million undocumented Americans will bring them onto the voter rolls, creating a vital counter-weight to the cultural generation gap seniors in the very same states and Congressional Districts where the latter group now has the upper hand. It is the change that will cement the generational political change begun in 2008. The latest data is a game-changer: “68% of Latinos approve of Obama’s job (compared with 48% of overall respondents and 38% of whites), and they view the Democratic Party favorably by a 54%-21% score (versus 41%-40% among all adults and 34%-48% among whites)… And Latinos remain a sleeping -- yet growing -- political giant: 23% of them aren’t registered voters (compared with 12% of whites and 16% of blacks).”

And second – listen well, ye boomers – unless those twelve million undocumented Americans are brought out from the persecuted shadows and into the aboveground economy, there won’t be enough Social Security or funding for your health care or your drugs or anything else left when you hit retirement age. Contrary to urban legend, immigrants aren't a drain on the social services system, but elderly people are! When immigrants are brought in to the system, they also begin to pay in: an about to be badly needed net plus on the national budget.

Without them, your gated communities will fast become the new ghettoes, filled with the elderly poor suddenly without the same benefits their parents and grandparents had. And senior slums won’t be a pretty sight or happy places to live. Only with the new sweat equity of immigrants will retirees get to live out the American dream. Funny how that works, but it’s always been that way. Without immigrants, there can be no America at all.

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