I did another few open mics this week. Tonight’s (at Cosmic Comedy) was ok. The audience was great, emcee was great, other comics were great. I was ok. I redeemed myself a smidge (to myself).
LAST night, I sucked—read from paper, didn’t connect with a tough crowd, workshopped on live audience (cf not connecting with a tough crowd). All the noes, not posting link, not even watching tomorrow’s and then tonight’s for performance review (it’s too soon). Just heckling myself a bit before bed.
Here are the worst five things about this open mic thing I’m (apparently) doing:
1. It’s not making money with art, probably never will be, and thus undermines my medium-term interest in thriving as a young artist living in Berlin (whose artist visa will naturally be renewed because she makes money).
2. It makes me super nervous.
3. I did almost all-new material last week (at open mics #1 and 2) versus this week (at #3 and 4). Yet, I haven’t even gotten to what I think of as my most important, must say this, this is really funny and matters, stuff (like my policing, mass spying, corporate plutocracy, crazy-ass American surveillance state stuff). And I tried to get to it tonight. But it was not ready. So I cut it out of my set at the last minute, and have yet to do it. Grrr.
4. I’m still pretty bad at connecting with the audience because I’m so nervous about remembering my lines and not sucking. I’m not focused on them like I (imagine I) should be.
5. The best I can do to be off-book is apparently scrawling all over my left arm. Classy.
But I am a perfectionist. I know, I know—my perfectionism needs so much work… I can laugh at myself about it—about this hatchet performance review thing, trying and failing (always) to not spread myself too thin, to not try the hardest thing possible and beat myself up for sucking at it, (the first umpteen times), to not focus on what is wrong instead of what is fine…
Probably a lot is fine, for my sixth open mic ever/4th recently, 4th in Berlin, 4th this year… Probably I mostly keep doing what I’m doing (whatever the hell that is). Because must? Because friends say so? Because kinda fun?
So I did stand-up at a few open mics last week, and a few fellow comics/writers/travelers were kind enough to give me some feedback. Now I synthesize the feedback before writing more new material and prepping for a few more open mics. (I don’t know why. Bracket.)
Here’s what I learned.
1. Relax and feel beautiful already.
Being a woman, I was worried I looked fat.
Survey says I could indeed be thinner; shall I donate my arm or my leg first? (Sigh.)
“Does this make me look fat?” is really only a good line when you’re trying on a fat suit for the next Austin Powers movie ft. Leonard Cohen, “The Spy Who Was Sentenced to 20 Years of Boredom for Trying to Change the System from Within.”
Seriously though? I feel loved, beautiful, and safe here. So I can do this thing where I exist as a body in a public space and don’t hate myself. Even though it’s still different as a woman doing comedy…
Another comic made a cheap shot at my rack after my second Berlin show last week, and I was like HAHA GOOD JOB I LIKE YOUR HAIRCUT AND HAVE A NICE DAY! because (1) ja, comics do this to one another, (2) politeness reflex so automatic, and (3) dick joke too easy.
But male comics don’t do this to each other’s bodies like they do it to women. This is a thing that exists and sucks a little. It doesn’t bother me like it used to. I have so many kind people in my life now that I’m coated with some form of joyful immunity.
2. Small words, some German.
I am doing English language comedy in Berlin because cos America so crazy kthanksbai. Eventually, I should be doing this (and much else) in German.
But for now, the best I can do is try to keep my English relatively simple. Substitute smaller words for larger ones—it’s better writing anyway.
And work in some bilingual wordplay to start getting comfortable presenting in another language…
3. See and be seen.
I gotta stop touching my hair. And look at people. Put down the paper. Put down the hand. THE AUDIENCE IS ACTUALLY THERE TO SEE YOU AND FOR YOU TO SEE THEM, SO FUCKING SEE AND BE SEEN.
Or as my favorite old director used to tell me, “No hiding.”
4. Use the crutch wisely.
I’m so green and afraid of blanking out. Holding a piece of paper on stage is a bad. But it worked better for me than the hand. Maybe I need to get a blank card deck and write bigger/shorter prompts, or set up something like that on a first row table? Practice eventually solves this problem, but I’m not there now. I need a crutch. So I want to choose my crutch wisely… Play with different possibilities before one of the becomes a habit.
But I’ve performed in plays and music competitions and such in past lives, and my memory is fine. This is just so new… I need to be able to call “line” to myself when the beautiful people distract/frighten/applaud me. For now.
5. More practice is better.
Even just one to two Berlin open mics. So yay.
6. More acting out is also better.
This comes from knowing the material better, being more comfortable on stage… Basically also from practice.
7. Being a woman talking about sex is ok.
I am not crazy about the trope of the token female comic doing menstruation and vagina jokes. But sometimes I am a female comic doing jokes about being a woman who has woman parts and stuff.
But I am not advertising sexual identity when I talk about condoms and swingers. I am saying, “here is a piece of truth that I found for myself, with a little help from my friends, rather clumsily as we happy animals do. Aren’t we funny? I’m funny. But at least now I get the joke. Let me tell you…”
8. Talking is good.
There is so much more that I want to say. Being an expat is funny. Changing your name is funny. Lie detection is funny. Death threats are funny. (But oh, how quickly trying things out loud in front of people becomes a better idea than typing out a draft on a blog…)
Must painter. Am painter. Need to painter. Paintpaintpaintpaintpaint.
I still have no idea why the stand-up experiments are important and must continue even though making noise is hard and I’m busy.
But both open mics last week were fun… During and after, at least. (Not before. Before I was nervous, sorry I’d signed up, almost couldn’t make myself go, and just wanted to paint.)
Some of my recent work reminded a dear friend of Norwegian artist Jakob Weidemann, who in turn inspired more work in this vein. To paraphrase the old saw: good artists borrow, great artists steal, and working artists steal from everyone else and themselves six times before breakfast. [Swipe.]
I did a short set at Monday Night Mics this week, and another at Adorable Creatures tonight here in Berlin. These were my first attempts at stand-up, after about a minute at a food bank benefit show in Virginia in 2012 and a valiant attempt to generate noise on a stage in Stockwell in June.
I did them because I had signed up for them. I signed up for them because for once I’m free and living in a city with an open mic every night of the week, and I’ve always wanted to give this a proper go. I’ve written and published comedy-like entities for years. Performance is better, harder. Different.
But when I was getting ready, I kept saying “I just want to paint. I just want to paint. I just want to paint.” I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel prepared. I just. Wanted. To paint.
I could make a list of everything that could be better in these sets (and indeed, automatically begin doing so the second I see a bit of a clip—posture/sit-up’s, accent/projection, and shouldn’t this all be in German???). But I’m not sure why I’d bother, since I’m not sure I’ll do stand-up again. I’m not even sure why anyone would. The venues were lovely—smaller and friendly, the people were very nice and kind—encouraging, I like the other comics, and I like getting out like this.
It’s just so weird. I have no idea why I’m doing this, especially if I just. Want. To paint.
On one hand, it’s great to have and hear a really clear signal from my own self of what I most want—to paint. And on the other, I’ll probably keep doing random things that scare the shit out of me for no readily apparent reason. They’re kinda fun. (Especially after they’re done.)
How happy is the little stone That rambles in the road alone, And doesn’t care about careers, And exigencies never fears; Whose coat of elemental brown A passing universe put on; And independent as the sun, Associates or glows alone, Fulfilling absolute decree In casual simplicity.
I’m a Thanksgiving baby (Sagittarius), I read Rob Brezny’s Free Will horoscopes even though I know that’s ridiculous, and he gave us a writing prompt this week that this post responds to…
Review: In Vera Wilde’s “Life,” It Could Happen Here
WTF Critics’ Pick Drama, Play, Self-Creation Closing Date: TBD Berlin
The Cold War has returned to Berlin, with the heat to make McCarthy hard. This time, crypto is the new red. The new cold warriors are the hot freaks and geeks of the global anti-surveillance resistance—WikiLeaks, Cryptoparty, Tactical Tech, and the other five openly swinging LGBT independent journalists in the world.
Gone is the tentative touch of previous casts, detrimental in particular to the Charlottesville, LA, and Boston runs in 2014-5; one senses the director is confident, competent, and demanding of the actors’ whole presence. This production is thus able to build on the best of prior runs, first and foremost the prolific painting, gentle music, light poetry and other expressive merits of the original.
Reflecting the same iterative nature of the effort, previous criticisms of Vera Wilde’s “Life” abide: a synesthetic creative process and multiplicity of possible narratives leaves the work feeling scattered; perfectionism gets in the way of experimentation—with swift social sanction when it doesn’t; and the ability to play with different lenses of viewing self and other, though distinctly improved in this most recent Continental production, remains spotty. Absurd, long-winded, and self-referential, “Life” yet offers much to the critical observer who stays with it.
The plot, though fresh with digital-age details, echoes witch-hunts through the ages. What’s fresh here is the flashback nature of disclosures, and (sadly) the gender of the protagonist as a political actor. It’s clearly still hard for Vera, once silent for months, to physically speak on occasion; nearly impossible to sing; and difficult to say who she is and what she’s done. But watching her increasingly embrace the simplicity of being a young artist living in Berlin helps make real the promise of a free and happy future for individuals who choose it, though the world may burn.
But part of the artist remains the Harvard scientist, thoughtful interviewer, and innocent interrogation subject who came before. Faced with evidence that some of the abuses she documented were not lone cases, the scientist turned over years of documents, sources, and other research to a reporter—who relied heavily on her contributions without offering the already-harassed researcher a potentially protective byline. It was dangerous for sitting Senators and their staff to document and denounce the CIA breaking the law and lying to Congress about it; it was suicidal for a graduate student working alone. Could it be worth it to lose your country (job, career, home, friends, pots and pans and paintings…), to gain your soul?
Love her or hate her, that woman had more balls than Donald Trump in a playpen contest. And the few mentors who knew told her to hide the brave thing she had done, as if to protect her. It is she, not they, who learns that silence does not protect you in a police state. Nor does changing your name and moving across the country a few times. And collaboration does not protect you either, if you insist on telling the truth—as Vera finds out when she drinks her police research colleagues’ procedural justice Kool-Aid, and behaves as though rule of law applies and one may be permitted surprise when its proponents fall short.
As a lie detection researcher, the artist currently known as Vera established that federal agencies that use polygraphs do not seem to behave as though equal opportunity law applies to their polygraph programs. Vera documented multiple cases of agencies including the CIA undermining the war on terror and breaking equal opportunity law in polygraph interrogations through questioning about religious and political belief, sexuality, and even sex crime victimization—while denying applicants and employees recourse to EO complaint procedures. She also released documentation that the CIA lied to Congress about that practice, after unsuccessfully suing multiple federal agencies for a statement of policy or practice on the applicability of EO law to polygraph programs—and data to test the programs for bias. Just cos they won’t say, don’t mean she gonna go away.
It was phenomenally stupid to blog about that as a penniless postdoc—as if she honestly believed the feds would follow the law, and police and colleagues would protect her if they didn’t. Despite that permanent naivety, sometimes the protagonist seems quietly courageous in this political context—as in her personal choice to go someplace new, trust her intuition, find love and let it in.
And sometimes, Vera seems like a derivative, second-rate Heidi—chronicling her adventures for no one in particular, worrying instead of doing, daring like a man before purring in a puddle on the floor, just another thirty-something waif who can barely hear the phone ring over the ticking of her own biological clock. Much to the consternation of her non-breeding partner. But if winning is simply getting on with it, she’s triumphant in her painting, cooking, loving extravaganza—making home not war.
Still, it’s not all celebration and self-deprecating humor. Citibank has kept funds from a closed account, PayPal appears to be routing all incoming payments through a CIA network-associated lawyer’s company, U.S. T-Mobile seemed to reroute calls attempted domestically and internationally to a scam cruise line, an unknown party created a website with plausibly relevant (and sexually explicit) content under her old name, and even the cabbies in Boston seemed to be in on the joke. This is overwhelming force on a level that is literally unbelievable. Yet, parts of Vera’s wild story begin to seem slightly more plausible as more information trickles out, as when FOIA requests reveal the use of undercover “cop cabs.”
Combining oppressive surveillance (or the use of obvious surveillance to harass and intimidate subjects), sockpuppetry (or the use of fake in-person and social media personae to mislead, threaten, and even deprive subjects of sleep), data and device compromises, national security journalists and lawyers who refuse to use encryption on request, mentors who throw whistleblowers all the way under the bus, and other forms of threat, intimidation, and fraud, the police state hands the cute little postdoc her ass on a silver platter.
But what seems from the first person like an overwhelming experience of illegal retaliation is also clearly indistinguishable from insanity from other perspectives. Such ambiguities are not coincidental; Stasi and Soviet psychological operations were designed to discredit political opponents by causing them to appear unstable. Unsurprisingly, then, “Life” has too many mysteries to be explained wholly by corporate-state collision to crush dissent.
Yet this, too, points to universal truths the production draws fellow-travelers into dancing with around a campfire. The nature of trauma is that the better we can communicate about it, the less power it has over us; traumatized people can’t convey the context of their behavior, and powerful storytellers—who don’t need to tell their own stories anymore—are already healed. This is why it is heartbreaking but unavoidable that no one ever shows up when you need fight, flight, or friends.
At a political level up from that interpersonal experience of the paradox of trauma narrative, crazy conditions tend to drive people crazy; and plausible deniability about the creation of those conditions is an art of the powerful. Neutrality is increasingly fraught, and so science can easily be a form of collaboration in such a world.
Her vulnerability to lawless retaliation in U.S. client states and international airspace hits her through flashbacks of the retaliation that caused her to leave the States—as does her own powerlessness to communicate such vulnerability. And of course the academics don’t think she’s doing scholarship because she’s not pretending neutrality means stating the facts and throwing up your hands. Upon returning home, she falls asleep safe and warm, only to wake up drenched in sweat, having imagined that her harassers hacked her devices and threatened her family. The irony of being yet more vulnerable in some senses when you have loved ones and are loved, instead of facing evil utterly alone, is bittersweet.
In spite of such backward leaps, in the fullness of literary time, we see resilience through creative drive. But at the same time, the ways in which everyone seems to be in various stages of recovery from trauma troubles the notions of resilience and resistance in the context of totalitarianism. When artists and intellectuals are forced into a false choice between being crazy and being collaborators, what hope does society have to shelter free thinking and expression?
Perhaps it has none. Even so, “Life” insists, individual free thinkers may find and love one another while the empire slowly crumbles—trying, and increasingly failing, to crush its own last, best hopes along the way. To simply walk away and begin again, again, when things are not right, remains quintessentially American.
But the long arc of history bends toward a weird sort of chiasmus, as refugees from imperial degradation of rule of law gather in the same city they once fled. And so what could read as a cautionary tale about attempting to do independent police research in a police state, instead comes across as a heart-warming tale of finding home in strange places, asserting self with the grace of safety, and above all being excellent to one another in a dangerous time. It’s a wild world. And it’s full of love and beauty, and soul-mates gazing up together from the gutter to the stars.
Vera Wilde’s “Life” runs in Berlin as long as the city grants freelance artist visas to catch brain drain. Get a passport.
Echoing one of Odilon Redon’s symbolist boat masterpieces, revised to reflect how ongoing refugee crises show climate change affecting the global south early and often? or yet another study of golden ratios? We report, you decide.
Recently I was honored to have the opportunity to present on my National Science Foundation-funded dissertation and postdoctoral research at an American Studies Symposium in plum-blossoming Osaka, Japan. The talk was based on this paper, “Lie Detectors On Trial? Science, Security, and Accountability in the Era of the Hague Invasion Act.”
Many thanks to fellow surveillance scholar-activist and artist Ivan Greenberg for the Call For Papers, science & technology studies scholar (and crack literary humorist, editor, and friend) B.R. Cohen for the encouragement and advice, my esteemed colleagues including Yone Sugita at Osaka University (Japan) for the invitation to present my work at their American Studies Symposium—and for awarding me the Emerging Scholar Fellowship that made it possible, fellow presenter and lie detection expert Ken Alder for his comments, and my caring, smart, funny, vibrant tribe of vanguard hacktivists at Hack42 (where my artist residency continues), in Berlin, and beyond, for the sense of home in fellow-travelers that let me revisit my work on lie detection and corruption with the next level of brute honesty and integrity that it deserved. Thanks also to the advisers who have helped me make my work good when it’s good, and otherwise bear no responsibility.
Today is the day my German class starts back after two weeks’ vacation. And I missed about two weeks before that. So I’m way behind and have put off catching up, because painting explosions, move, flu, and a recent work trip I haven’t told people about yet. This means I cannot continue exploding paintings in my glorious new studio space. At. This. Moment. I must learn German. Everyone in Berlin speaks English, so I could be here for years (as I plan to be), and not learn if I don’t make a point of it. Make. The. Point. [Scowl.] I love languages! This is exciting! What am I putting on my blog real quick because I am a young artist living in Berlin, telling people what I’m doing while I do it (sometimes) instead of making art and trouble quietly behind the barn where no one can judge me but no one can hear me scream?!
In lieu of more new poetry and paintings, today I draw attention to the music page I recently created in the course of updating my website (which I’m about to replace again anyway). I moved to Berlin in November in part to prioritize moving my poetry into the performance realm in the right ecosystem. I promptly realized that one hold-up in pushing myself to perform so I get better at it is that I don’t want to sing my old songs. They are old. So I started writing all new songs around a new album concept (we make revolution) even though albums are not even a thing anymore. I haven’t recorded even draft vocal tracks on most of them (which is bad practice, since no one else can read my shorthand, and I don’t usually notate stuff like rhythm—I know it or I don’t).
But I’m still usually too embarrassed to even sing out loud to myself. Despite a productive class with a wonderful jazz vocalist in grad school that helped with that, and a tiny bit of work on my old draft accompaniment with a brilliant pop-jazz accompanist near Boston during my Harvard stint last year, there is still this huge space between what I hear in my head when I’m composing… And what I hear when I make music mess out loud. This might be one of the last remaining areas where I can be completely overwhelmed by shame, in spite of knowing how much I admire other people for expressing themselves. I can make lists of ways to improve my relevant skills to attack that, but I really just want to find a way to let myself be in flow with this like I have been at some points—in the same way I can get into flow with painting and writing (albeit always with mixed results). Don’t know how, maybe it’s not my thing, or maybe some of that social ecosystem magic happens here that helps things fall into place. I think for people who get really good at what they do, skill level-up after level-up tends to follow flow, and not the other way around.
Top left is a bit like this favorite Calder but actually inspired by a spiral staircase I’ve been staring at and dancing. Top right is a bit like Demeter, but I want to do more careful study of Arp. It’s dark and the flash distorts the bottom painting… In a way I like and want to layer it to actually look more like when this layer is dry.
Another hard day in the oil painting mines, in my new studio full of light and air, in my new home full of love, in my new hometown full of friends.
#4 from day 2 is still my current favorite… Of the first bit of the new oeuvre.
Next: Making music out loud with company before enjoying other people’s stand-up comedy!
I suppose I need to work harder on getting composition training, get back to writing projects with audiences and deadlines in mind, all kinds of work on the apocryphal album, and my new draft stand-up material needs a comedy workshopping buddy here… Wonder if I should have a plan and hone instead of trying to make more and better mess in this broad way. That discipline thing just didn’t work for me like this flow thing does. Artists gonna art. And anyway I’m so happy, being this way feels so right, right now. I’m safe. I’m loved. It’s finally blue skies and sunny in Berlin. Spring is here.