July 9th, 2005


Live characters and 1000 gods & demons

On Friday evening I hung out with Mischa Shoni, Mie, Mumbleboy and others in the agreeable "tunnel of twee" that is the Giant Robot New York store (437 East 9th Street). They were holding a party featuring "live characters and 1000 gods & demons!" This turned out to be an artist called Friends With You presenting a new range of comic, boxy wooden toys, The Good Wood Gang. The live character bit consisted of Mr Friends With You emerging from the back of the store dressed as a shaman in rainbow raiment, doing a sort of rain dance to the accompaniment of African ritual music as he squeezed along the narrow aisle, then taking his place at the door to sign T shirts and toys with red paint.

I spent a while browsing an excellent new book of photos of hip hop dandies from the 1980s, A Time Before Crack, by Jamel Shabazz (who also did the "Back In The Days" book). As I browsed, it occurred to me that the Friends With You guy, the back-in-the-days guys, Lord Whimsy and me all have something in common. We're all media-savvy, media-friendly self-creations, and we all seem to aspire to be cartoons. Whereas Hollywood stars and politicians tend to dress, act and speak with calculated moderation and timid vapidity, keen to hold onto their power and keep on the right side of the undemonstrative masses, we poorer, smaller media actors pull out all the stops. We have nothing to lose; there's really no reason for us not to embrace utter flamboyance.

It seems to me that New York is one of the cities that encourages precisely this sort of self-mediation. Downtown New York is dense and intense, concentrated and tolerant. People work on their look, people have a schtick, people quickly find that extremity is an excellent sales tool, it gets them remembered, noted, reported. I haven't yet seen the Klaus Nomi move, but I'd imagine it was exactly the same when he was in New York, or when Quentin Crisp came here to make himself the ultimate cartoon of the "great stately homo". I even think of the vogueing Latinos in the documentary "Paris is Burning". It's a common misconception that people who give themselves the license to flounce, to vogue, to make a splash, are somehow spoiled rich socialites. But I'd argue that it's the poor who really pour their heart and soul into making an impression, into self-mediation. The poor and the hungry. Few of us are rich, and it's unlikely that we'll ever be played in a Hollywood movie by Johnny Depp (though you never know). But we have a certain instinct, part-commercial, part-aesthetic, for dramatic self-editing and self-presentation. In some cases we make a living playing the larger-than-life characters we've devised, acting them out in real time on the catwalks, corridors, subway tunnels and runways of a city like New York.

Walking along Grand Street with Lord Whimsy, whose real name is Allen, I found myself asking what happens when people with an innate talent for editing and graphic design turn their skills on themselves, and make themselves their ultimate creation, their own Frankenstein's Monster. Do we always retain control of the resulting cartoon? Does the more complex picture in the attic become scary with neglect? Do we overwhelm people less adept at self-mediation? Do some find us unbearable, overbearing, absurd, inhuman? Are we mistaken for the rich and powerful? Do people find us self-obsessed, selfish?

As if to answer my question, the next day Whimsy—Allen—sent me some frames from the Flash piece he's been working on to illustrate my song Bantam Boys. They look completely gorgeous, and whet my appetite for the finished piece (which Whimsy says will be available soon). Above all, they show that not only are self-mediators not rich, they aren't selfish either: they're just as happy to put their talents for editing, presenting, highlighting and brainstorming at each other's disposal as their own. If you love one facade, you probably love them all.