You Who Knew

In my ongoing Nuremberg: 2027 series on future war crimes trials.

Gouache on 36 x 48 cm paper.

Is it legal for art to threaten the President, CEOs, and other political and social figureheads? Yep (h/t Artsy). But should it? How is an imagining of future war crimes trials different from a threat? In what contexts are ideas really so dangerous that an imagining or preaching alone—like the radical Islamic preaching of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whom then-President Obama ordered drone-assassinated without due process—could be correctly construed as a threat? And are some of these questions (and perhaps then this whole art series) moot or misguided? Are the more important lenses of foci, as Picasso’s “Guernica” suggests, the victims rather than the perpetrators of war crimes? How then to represent (celebrate, mourn, call for valuation of) recent and future hypothetical climate change/militarism/inequality victims, and their avoidable suffering?

Gouache on A3 paper. 

“Epitaph for Climate Change Deniers”

This is the spot
where Trump
was shot.

The Kochs got away.
What did you expect?
Another day,
we’re trying
Exxon’s chief exec.

Til then we’re in a slump.
Done with spectacular lying.
And firings where no one is crying.

Black milk of morning, Paris—
he did his best to embarrass
all the world into climate action,
got an equal but opposite reaction.

Tens of millions dead,
hundreds displaced.
Chopped off his own head,
clan and country disgraced.

Gouache and acrylic on A3 paper.

“You Who Knew”

You who knew that it was getting hotter
and denied the science, watching rising water
from the comfort of a beach you’d sold
knowing its next house would never get old—

when we are standing on a level shore,
you will answer for your crimes—no less, and no more.
When tens of millions die and hundreds are displaced,
the world know your face and name—disgraced.

Trials will just be the beginning
when you’re no longer winning.
Every bit of oil and gas
will be publicly owned, along with your ass.

After your arrest,
the world can be distressed
about more important things
than how many a CEO hangs.

Gouache and acrylic on36 x 48 cm paper.


The Shock Doctrine

Gouache on A3 paper. H/t MC for the tattoo design and concept that inspired this art: A beautiful art deco piece symbolizing both rising sun and atomic bomb explosion. Needed change may only come from disastrously great exogenous shock, the sun-bomb suggests. Of course, so too may such shocks bring disastrous change… 

Can and should the left learn to exploit the politics of chaos like Naomi Klein suggested in The Shock Doctrine ten years ago the right had learned to do? Or is exploiting the shock doctrine morally and practically wrong? How can we prepare for the Trump Administration’s efforts to exploit crisis (like a major domestic terror attack) for radical change? Does measuring the speed and intensity of exogenous shocks matter for ordinary people (e.g., to learn how to make better attention resource allocation choices in a faster and faster-moving information environment)? Or does prioritizing agenda-setting at a remove from that speed and intensity make more sense for helping people understand and act on their political interests?

Gouache and acrylic on A3 paper. 

“The Shock Doctrine”

The shock
is not
what got
the block,
but how
the flock,
—or not—
looks on
and on now.
We feel
the coming
blow, but
steel as if
No. What?
This can’t be,
—isn’t yet—
When it comes,
shock still numbs.
Power’s spree
collects the debt
of our disbelief
that evil can be
as bad/
and as glad
for evil
as it seems.

Gouache and paper on A3 paper. 



Graphite, ink, and gouache on A3 paper. How does it change the process of tackling difficult ethical choices if we re-imagine utilitarianism, Kantian moral theory, and other typical lenses for pressing forward this process—in a network context? Social problems like anxiety and depression—and social phenomena like trust and mistrust—are, well, social, and can spread like contagions along social networks. Can it then be utilitarian to ask what choice will best enable acceptance of an unknowable future self? Or is it only hedonistic to selfishly choose what loves you best, not necessarily so that you and others following your example or principle of action might better care for the world in the future—but because it feels good? 


In dialogue with Linda Pastan and Peter Singer.

You’ve heard the riddle:
An old lady and a Rembrandt, trapped in the middle
of a museum fire. You can only save one.
Situation: dire. Which?

Or the one about trollies:
One will hit a larger number of people
if you do nothing but look on,
and a smaller number if you act.
Will you flip the switch?

What neither set-up tells you is this:
If you do nothing, the old lady, the painting,
and all the people on all the tracks
will probably never like your art anyway.
Their tolerance for you is already waning.
Just as you feared, they will think your clothes are weird,
you have too much (or too little) to say,
your hair sits too dirty or stands too wild,
your choice far too selfish for not having a child,
and your taste in men (and women’s)
expression—scandalous. At worst they hate,
at best they judge—everything you are.

Don’t let the dilemma frustrate
your natural faculty for eating life’s lemons.
Switch or no, the trollies don’t take you far
enough. None of these people
and no painting on the wall
will talk you off the mat,
walk you through changing a flat,
or be there for you at all.
Only you can save yourself,
which is really the question:
How will you go on, having made
unforgivable mistakes
like any human being off the shelf?
Who will you have faith in,
when faith is not an artefact of your fates?
Cut the crap. Save the cat.


It Takes A Flock

Graphite, pencils, ink, gouache, and acrylic on 36 cm x 48 cm paper. 

In dialogue with Lucille Clifton and Walter Benjamin.  In my Nuremberg, 2027 series imagining future war crimes trials. 


“It Takes A Flock”

It takes a flock to feed the monstrous child of history.
It takes a wild bird of a breast to nurse her, wings beating
the air above the smoldering ashes
the flower buds of fingers springing up as she grows
as if clasping her tiny shoulder with its dead oceans
as if the world now could hold her
as if one dead mother could nurse another’s ghost.

It takes a warming world to move the flock.
Migration on migration swarms ever more wetland
of what was once frozen shut
to all but the harshest wilds,
although the droughts are harsher
although the fires will grow
although, if they live, our grandchildren
won’t believe it possible that we—who could act—we know.

It takes a village to heat the world.
The whole organism of mankind
that would like so much to make and live—
that has wanted also always to destroy and die.
And the great world bonfire of our mistakes,
gathering like a single holocaust at the feet of the angel
whose face is turned forever to the past
as he hurtles toward the future—what of it
when the smoke of our debris rises above his head,
and the great wings fixed open in the wind
blowing violently from Paradise can hold no more?


Standing Rock Thunderbird

Gouache and ink on A3 paper. An abstract riff on the Standing Rock Thunderbird tattoo. Skimming a few sources on the historic victory, subsequent losses, and counterterrorism tactics used to defeat activists gives a good summary of what is going on in North Dakota. 

“What Is Going On in North Dakota”

“My attention has been focused elsewhere, so this is a serious question: what is going on in North Dakota and why should I care?”—A Facebook friend on Standing Rock in November 2016. I wrote this poem then in response, and hoped it would improve with time. Like the news it did not, but appears online anyway.

Oil barons building one more pipeline
crossed the wrong Indians and river, in time
threatening the clean water of mil’s.
Spills are common. Protestor injuries, too.
Yell about that and the suits will want to talk to you.

But that’s only the badness. What about, well,
the sadness? That no one can know about every train wreck?
They’re coming too fast. We’re playing with a stacked deck.
It’s not just propaganda and not knowing who to trust.
It’s the strip-mining of our attention—yet pay attention we must.


Angelus Novus

Graphite, gouache, and acrylic on 36 cm x 48 cm paper. A meditation on a meditation on the futile nature of justice.


A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

—Walter Benjamin’s ninth thesis of his 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” interpreting Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus.”


Witness: Testimony

“Gina,” gouache on A3 paper. Artist’s imagining of a Rorschach ink blot featuring Gina Haspel, current Deputy Director of the CIA, former black site operator and reported author of a cable ordering destruction of evidence of the torture that she oversaw. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights recently called on German federal prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for Haspel. Part of my Nuremberg, 2027 series imagining future war crimes trials. 

“Portrait of Absentia,” gouache on 36 x 48 cm paper.

Ink:               blot
human:         error
true:              lies?

What was is not what is, not
the same order
the same breath
the same terror.
I can tell you,
but you won’t hear the same cries.
I can’t make you believe me.
I can’t make you look me in the eyes.

What:              if
confusion:      proved
verity?            Verified
facts—           authenticity?

Any account, video, email is a riff
on one side of the full facts grooved
into some holy carbon of who lied, who died.
Traumatic stress is not a synchronicity.

Go:              slow.
Know:         most
can’t be the ones
won’t be the ones
won’t even try
to bear witness in that way.
Not because they’d lie.
Nor because they saw no guns
heard no shots
found no casings in the sand.
But because the scales of justice weigh
against reliving death
against wasting your breath
against taking the stand.
You cannot take another strafe.
We’re going somewhere safe.
Take my hand.


The Poet’s Prayer—Nuremberg, 2027

This is probably going to be the first poem in an illustrated series on future war crimes trials imagined to be taking place in Nuremberg in 2027. Some of the work I’ve recently blogged, like “Where’s Olaf?“, fits later in the same series.

“The Long Arc Breaks,” gouache and ink on 36 x 48 cm. 


“[N]ach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch…” —Theodor Adorno

“I thought he supp’sed to be the all-lovin./The same God who let Hitler put the Jews in the ovens?”—Dead Prez, “Propaganda”


Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Although time is said to lessen
pain, war crimes make enduring shame.

Thy kingdom come.
Thine will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Was it 30,000 at Dachau? Reckon
with the uncertainty:
God knows, but not you or me.

Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
You’re either with or against us,
the President said.
Two hundred thousand wound up dead.
Iraqis—so they get free passes,
whose lies and insistence sped
the world to war?
And what for?

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
What should be the shame of a nation—
a war of aggression, torture, rendition—
barely leads to upheaval,
while the powers that be
are still the powers that were.
Four hundred thousand dead Syrians,
and you voted for her?
What rule of law used to mean is a blur.

For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
War criminals’ kingdom
is the whole church and state.
They’re teaching the story
of “we had to”—prostrate
to whichever interest is paying.

Now and then,
one can see straight
through to where the long arc
of history has bent, is bending, breaks
the unbending loyalty of the clan.
Justice has coaxed the wild animal of man
into pawing two feet up to stand, roaring in the dark:
I am your own voice crying in the wilderness
I am your only choice.

In the moment it takes
to cry out, all the world is praying.
It is a hopeful thing, how we wish
for someone more powerful than this,
more just than us.
Though many have died thus.


Holy Thursday


Holy Thursday
By William Blake

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Last night I ran across this poem towards the end of the Innocence half of William Blake’s illustrated poetry book Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, and saved it for this morning. The poem literally refers to Holy Thursday—the day between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday commemorating Jesus’s establishment of the Holy Communion and the priesthood at the Last Supper. But the real focus is living children, not tradition or sacrament—and the value of caring for real people as holy creatures, rather than going through procedural motions.

In the illustrated prose version of his philosophy, The Marriage of Heaven and HellBlake explores the compatibility of good and evil. In Songs, his use of the innocence-experience continuum to achieve that compatibility is even more explicit. One wonders whether he and Machiavelli would argue over dinner, or perhaps agree that what seems evil is in some cases merely innocence—and in others, experience.

The felt sense of their moral universes couldn’t be more different—Blake’s universe is (ultimately) kind and requires faith, while Machiavelli’s is cruel and requires cunning. Yet the political and social contexts of their writings share striking similarities. Machiavelli was keen political analyst, republican consort, and Medici torture survivor who explicitly wrote The Prince for the family responsible for his torture to systematize tyranny, while resisting between the lines—often showing rather than telling why free republics are better than corrupt principalities. Blake, friends with his own notable radical contemporaries including Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, survived charges of high treason and a sedition trial that contributed to his failing health. Both see continuity and freedom where others see sharp difference and constriction. Both proposed a marriage between heaven and hell, but Blake saw himself as observing and celebrating the infinite, bursting with meaning and worth—while Machiavelli saw himself as observing and stating the obvious, dictated always by power.


Mosaic Angel

“Mosaic Angel,” oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store).


“Playing in the mud”

The difference between a child and God is only—
you can make the clay, pouring water into dirt,
appearing matter where there was none,
splashing and laughing in happy disarray.
But you can’t shape it into living, breathing beings.
Not yet.