Welcome to Transgressor,
a celebration of outsider philosophies
and cultural trespassers. The following pages contain
video, audio and other interactive features. The table of contents
is the main navigation page for the issue; click or touch
the triangle icon below to return at any time.
Please tell us what you think:
filmFist in Your FaceWilliam E. Jones Remembers Fred HalstedInterview by: Caroline McCloskey
Photographs courtesy of: Semiotext(e) and Hustler Video
© All images copyright of their owners
fashionMASTER OF IMPERFECTIONA Conversation with Vladimir KaraleevInterview by: Karen Sharkey
Photographs by: Jackie Lee Young
theatreKill for the PictureThe Real Theatre of Pretend WarWords and Photographs by: Otis Ike
landZOOMING IN AND OUTMatthew Coolidge on the Center for Land Use Interpretation and the Importance of Knowledge and MysteryInterview by: Caroline McCloskey
Photographs courtesy of the: CLUI photo archive
workTHE HORSEMEN’S CAFETERIALife on the Backside of the New Orleans Fair GroundsWords by: Abram Himelstein
Photographs by: Aubrey Edwards
travelNight Time is the Right TimePostcards from St. PeteWords and Photographs by: Elliott Hostetter
Starring: Harmony Korine
meditationSound Synesthesia Part IIA Triangular MeditationVideo by: Olivia Wyatt
touchFEEL WITH MY EYES HEAR WITH MY FINGERSOn the Art of ClairsentienceInterview by: Ottessa Moshfegh
Photographs by: Dagan Barrett and Allison Pharmakis
beliefOn the Ground and in the TreesInside the Movement to Stop the XL PipelineWords by: Diane Wilson
Photographs courtesy of: The Tar Sands Blockade
Allison Pharmakis is an editorial photographer currently living and working in Boston.
She is happy.
Abram Shalom Himelstein is a fourth generation Mississippian who planned his escape to New Orleans with great care. In NOLA since 1996, Abram is the co-author of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing (1998) and What the Hell am I Doing Here (2002). In 2004 he co-founded the Neighborhood Story Project with Rachel Breunlin, and the two of them have been at work making collaborative documentary books and posters for the past nine years.
Aubrey Edwards is a portrait photographer and educator. Born in the California desert with her heartstrings tied to Texas, she presently resides in New Orleans. Her work documents and archives under-the-radar regional subcultures through imagery and collected oral histories, exploring themes of connection to land, living traditions practiced and passed, sexuality and gender, and societal invisibility.
Caroline McCloskey is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.
Diane Wilson is a fourth-generation shrimper, mother of five, author, and an environmental, peace, and social justice advocate. She has launched legislative campaigns, demonstrations, hunger strikes, sunk boats, and climbed chemical towers in her fight to protect the Gulf Coast bays.
She is the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas; Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus; and Diary of an Eco Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.
Jailed more than 50 times for civil disobedience, Wilson is a co-founder of Code Pink, the women’s anti-war group based in Washington, DC; co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for inmates rights in Texas county jails; co-founder of Texas Injured Workers, which advocates for injured workers in the petrochemical, oil, and gas industry on the Gulf Coast; and executive director of Union of Commercial Oystermen of Texas and San Antonio Bay Waterkeeper.
Dagan Barrett is a photographer and mixed-media artist living in Jamaica Plain, MA. The primitive and unconscious instincts that lurk beneath all of our day-to-day activities are an obsession for him. We are animals. The spirit and dream worlds make for great road trips.
Elliott Hostetter is a film production designer living in Los Angeles. He is always looking for adventure.
Jackie Young was born in Oklahoma in 1982, but grew up everywhere overseas until returning to the United States in 2000. Spending the majority of her early life in different countries, she began to document through photography at a young age. She received her BA from St. Edward's University with a focus on English Literature and Photography in 2005. Time spent shooting in China and Southeast Asia combined with the Southwestern region the United States has kept her seeking new and inventive methods of portraiture to convey human nature.
Karen Sharkey is a video artist and musician born in Dublin, where she graduated with a Hons. B.A. degree in English and Philosophy in 2002. Later that year, she moved to Berlin and along with three close friends opened a clothing store/gallery called DON’T. She moved to New York in the spring of 2005 where she assisted Jay Massacret (fashion editor at V MAGAZINE and VMAN) and Nicole Formacetti (DAZED AND CONFUSED, ANOTHER MAGAZINE, and JAPAN VOGUE). She has worked as a stylist for TOKION Magazine and also went on to do costume design on a few short films. She currently lives in Austin, Texas and consults for Miami-based clothing label HANS ARK.
Olivia Wyatt is a filmmaker and photographer based in NY. She was a multimedia producer at Magnum Photos from 2005-2010 and is currently a member of the Sublime Frequencies collective. She directed, produced, shot, and edited Staring Into the Sun (2011), a feature documentary, 136-page Polaroid book, CD, and double LP of field recordings about tribal music and culture in Ethiopia, which was released by Sublime Frequencies. Her second feature, The Pierced Heart and The Machete (2012) explores two religious pilgrimages in Haiti and was released this past fall. She also collaborated on an LP/DVD split, Vibraquatic, with Bitchin' Bajas for Kalliztei Editions.
Olivia’s films have been featured at festivals such as the Milano Film Festival and Arnhem Mode Biennale and her work has screened everywhere from the Barbican Museum in London to Anthology Film Archives in NY. Her writing, photography, and/or multi-media work has also been published in National Geographic, Spin, Slate, XLR8R, Capricious and Elle, among other publications. She is currently in Thailand and Myanmar shooting her third feature-length film Sea Gypsies.
OTIS IKE is a self-taught photographer, video artist, and documentary director. From 2003-2007, he worked as a fabricator for notable Mission School artists Clare Rojas and Barry McGee (a.k.a. Twist), aiding in the creation of new work for exhibitions in the United States and abroad. His 2009 exhibition Libres y Lokas with Ivete Lucas was acclaimed in several Texas art journals including Art Lies, Fall 2009 issue. In 2010, IKE was awarded the top grant from the 2010 Texas Filmmakers Production Fund to finalize post-production of a feature length documentary about Vietnam War re-enactors, Vietnam Appreciation Day. He is currently in post-production on two other feature documentaries The Curse and The Jubilee and Architecture in Crisis due to be completed in 2014.
Ottessa Moshfegh's fiction has appeared in journals such as Fence, Noon, and The Paris Review. She is the 2013 winner of the Plimpton Prize and will be a Wallace Stegner fellow in the fall. She received her MFA in creative writing from Brown University, which is what brought her to Rhode Island and, thus, to Susan Collyer.
Interview by Caroline McCloskey
Photographs courtesy of Semiotext(e) and Hustler Video
© All images copyright of their owners
When he committed suicide in 1989 at age 47, Fred Halsted was alcoholic and destitute, scraping by working odd jobs as a gardener and maintenance man. Still mourning the death of his longtime lover and creative collaborator, Joey Yale, from an AIDS-related illness three years earlier, Halsted—a self-taught filmmaker formerly considered one of the most radical voices in experimental gay porn—had lost everything. “I’m a has-been now and can’t get anything produced,” he wrote in his suicide note. “I’ve had looks, a body, money, success and artistic triumphs. I’ve had the love of my life. I see no reason to go on.”
Halsted’s 1972 debut feature L.A. Plays Itself, whose SM couplings are set against the city’s uneasy tension between natural paradise and urban development, created a sensation for its off-rhythm art-house poetry, as well as the fisting scene between Halsted and Yale that was reportedly the first man-on-man depiction to ever be released in theaters. Collected by MoMA and admired by Salvador Dalí and Jonas Mekas, the film established Halsted as a pioneer of the SM underground. He cemented this reputation over the next decade by directing and acting in several more films, including The Sex Garage, A Night at Halsted’s and Sextool; producing a magazine called Package; and opening Halsted’s, the "stand-up fuck club" he operated in Silver Lake in the early 80s.
Halsted’s films remain little seen and hard to find, and in the years since his death his legacy was in danger of being lost. But in 2011, Semiotext(e) released Halsted Plays Himself, a biography by writer and filmmaker William E. Jones, that goes a long way toward correcting this oversight. Through interviews, images, research and analysis, Jones restores Halsted to his proper place in history and revisits an L.A. subculture of hustlers and dreamers and artists and lovers whose moment was fleeting but alive.
We spoke with William E. Jones in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
- the Editors
L.A. Plays Itself was one of the first pornos I had ever seen, and little did I realize: Few of them would be as interesting. I didn’t really know quite what I was watching. I have to admit that my first reaction was not arousal. But when you look at something and you think, I don’t know where to put that, what category to put that in, that’s often the beginning of something really important.
In the 1970’s, Los Angeles was simultaneously more rural and more sleazy. It was a place that was still not quite citified. The LAPD was really kind of fascistic in its persecution of gay men, and it was a very repressive place in a lot of respects. But then there was this other element, this secretive element. The leather scene and the SM scene in Los Angeles flowered here before other cities in America, contrary to what other impressions people might have. It had some relationship with how awful the LAPD was, but it also had to do with the fact that LA was almost like an empty canvas for people to use. It was an open place for people to come and reinvent themselves.
Overlay on that the repression that’s associated with the Hollywood star system and the media. For instance, a lot of people knew Rock Hudson and saw him at parties or maybe had sex with him, but they saw him at different stages of his life—when he was young and handsome, when he was older and going to pot, when he was much older and really out of it. Imagine going to a fisting party with a bunch of black magic practitioners and Rock Hudson. You won’t find that anywhere else!
Halsted began his filmmaking at a moment when it was not clear what direction things would go. There was the possibility of new, sexually explicit gay filmmaking that was experimental in form, and I think that Halsted, in his crazy hopefulness, thought that this would go on indefinitely, that this was the new way of making movies that were commercially viable. And subsequent events proved that wrong. Now we look back on it and say of course a sexually explicit gay movie with hardcore SM scenes is not going to appeal to a wide audience, but I do think there was a moment when, to some particularly hopeful people, that seemed possible.
One of the most appealing aspects of Fred to me was that he was a working-class guy who had no training in filmmaking and he wanted to make it. He wanted to become famous. And he worked with what he had: He had his beauty, he had his charm, he had an ability to hustle (in every sense of the word) and he had his friend’s camera. It was a little bit like the genesis of Pink Flamingos, when John Waters said to Divine, ‘You want to be famous, I want to be famous, what do we do? Let’s make a movie where you eat a dog turd at the end! Okay, let’s do it!’ This was the way Fred was thinking: Okay, I want to be famous, I’m going to make a gay porno and it’s going to have fisting in it. And it’s going to be released in theaters.
I was so pleasantly surprised that so many of his associates were still alive. And I was really quite surprised that there were few sources who wanted to be upfront and on the record. Those that did tended to be people who were working in the adult video business, but they didn’t know him that well—they just worked with him. The really close friends were very standoffish, or they were very forthcoming but they wanted to have a pseudonym.
I think Fred had a certain kind of charisma that allowed him to bring things out of people. And sometimes they were things that the people themselves later had the occasion to regret.
Films like L.A. Plays Itself or Sex Garage, they don’t occur every year, or even every decade. Fred came from the era between Confidential magazine, which would destroy people’s careers with scandalous details, and reality TV. It was a great moment, a very particular moment, one that’s very hard to imagine now because things have become reactionary in certain ways. Someone who came from nothing and really invented himself in that way would have a tougher time being celebrated at the Museum of Modern Art. It could happen again I suppose, but under different circumstances.
I don’t know if I could get anyone to agree on any one thing about him. But I have my own ideas. I think his mother’s religion, the Doukhobors, was more important than anybody realized. He had this contrarian stance that’s the product of a dissenting religious upbringing. I think this perverseness, his contrariness, is something that a lot of people would agree upon. A lot of people thought he was a sweetheart.
He was also a very tormented person who, as one friend put it, alternated between feeling as though he could do anything and feeling as though he couldn’t do anything at all.
Fred was a little passive. He had this persona that was the fearless aggressor but in his dealings with people he was a pussycat, and I think his attitude encouraged people to take charge, to make decisions for him, to help him. It’s an interesting thing—other people were a little more willing to endow Fred with agency. And some people were just jealous. Although what they have to be jealous of, I’m not sure. He was quite tormented. People expected something from him, and he didn’t deliver. That was sad, tragic, and common.
To me it’s not interesting to do another book about Marilyn Monroe. To me what’s interesting is salvaging the reputation of someone who might be forgotten, or known by only a small handful of people. I want people to know about Fred.
Larry Flynt owns the rights to L.A. Plays Itself, and he could make them more available if he chose. Sextool is unlikely to ever come out again, because there’s hardcore sex in the whole thing, and I really don’t know what distributor would be foolhardy enough to release it. It’s the real lost film. The print I saw at MoMA is very faded. It’s the only print I’ve ever seen or heard tell of, anywhere. There must’ve been a video version at one time but I, personally, have never seen a copy. And I’ve been looking!
Interview by Karen Sharkey
Photographs by Jackie Lee Young
I think when I first met Vladimir Karaleev, he was wearing a voluminous green hoodie, a bright baseball cap, and an oversized black rope necklace he had made himself. He was someone you couldn’t take your eyes off of, a bright figure in the dark world of Berlin. He worked the door at some of the most exclusive clubs, such as Rio and Cookies, but he wasn’t brash or loud; he was quiet. It was one of his many charms. We would often just sit and observe people, and I remember thinking how pure his idea of beauty was. It was so rare to meet someone creative who hadn’t let a cynical idea slip into their dreams and slightly disturb their future.
In a way, I knew then that the only thing that could blossom out of this purity was success. Vladimir knew what he wanted to do and exactly who he wanted to be and, believe me, in your early twenties in Berlin, that was rare. I was so taken aback by how dedicated, determined, and talented he was. He lived, breathed, and was fashion.
I recently interviewed my old friend over email. Today, ten years after we met in Berlin, he is one of the most promising young designers in Germany.
- Karen Sharkey
What was the first piece of clothing you ever made?
I think it was in high school. I used my grandma’s old sewing machine. I desperately needed a very crazy outfit for a big rave party. I remember it took two hours to make and it didn’t last through the end of the party. It just fell apart. But, I had some safety pins with me; I could predict a tragic end.
When we first met, we were all broke. Sitting in the shop eating biscuits for dinner was normal. How does that compare to your more glamorous lifestyle now?
It was a glorious time back then. I would trade all the glamour now for those moments. Berlin was such a magic place.
How important is it for you to be involved in projects that deconstruct the traditional construction of clothing?
It depends. It was never my intention to break a tradition, to be rebellious. Most important to me is that the whole design process has to be interesting, and it has to make sense to me. If I have to deconstruct to achieve the result I want, good. If I have to do it properly using traditional patternmaking and then break it with some uncommon fabric or color combination, then I’ll do that.
What person, place, or thing would you most like to make clothes for?
I am still very interested in making clothing for women, not any particular one. I don’t have anybody in mind when I am designing.
What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?
How do you think living in Berlin has shaped you as a designer?
I believe having fewer worries on a daily basis, like paying the rent, gives you comfort, which makes you free to be creative and do what you want to do. Otherwise, this laziness that rules Berlin is sometimes so unproductive. I mean you can do something, but you can also do nothing here, which is deadly.
Right now I think I want to change place, but that’s the thing – it’s so easy staying here.
How do you envision the clothing of the future?
I would love to know the answer to this one. I recently read about the development of a printer that can print clothing. You go online, buy it, pay for it and download it, ready to wear. That’s the future of commercial clothing.
I think handcrafted and artisanal clothing will be even more valuable in the future.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
That’s the most difficult one! If everything goes wrong, I probably see myself walking down some airport mall and seeing a cheap perfume named "Something by Vladimir Karaleev" on sale. If everything goes perfectly, I see myself walking down some airport mall and opening a magazine to a three-page ad spread for my brand that says something like “V.K. available at Barney’s, Bergdorf, Selfridges, Colette, and Lane Crawford.”
Am I too cheesy?
Words and Photographs by Otis Ike
For their forthcoming film Vietnam Appreciation Day, the filmmakers Otis Ike and Ivete Lucas infiltrated a small group of Vietnam War reenactors. It took two solid years of showing up at swap meets and reenactments, and investing in authentic Vietnam-area fatigues, before the pair was able to strike a deal of sorts with the group: basically, their presence was tolerated because of the photographs they would send out via email after the each event, playing to the reenactors' strong desire to see themselves as real soldiers in combat.
For their part, the filmmakers challenged themselves to see past their subjects’ anger, gun fanaticism, militaristic hero-worship and sometimes racist worldviews to reveal the commonalities that bind us together as humans. Along the way, the pair became especially close with the central characters of their film, Bubba and his mother, Rose. “Bubba and Rose opened their lives to our cameras, allowing us to record their failures and successes. I still hear their voices daily as Ivete edits the film, and I think of them as family,” says Ike.
In the following pages, Ike shares with us the photographs that initially got him behind enemy lines, and his impressions of why these guys felt the need to recreate this war in the first place.
- the Editors
In 2007, while digging though a few piles of military surplus at a flea market in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, I stumbled upon book of photographs. Meticulously laid out in a Walmart-brand photo album with period-correct unit patches on the cover, the photographs were strikingly similar to the scrapbooks that my dad, a Vietnam veteran, had stashed away in his dresser—images of young guys camping, posing with various rifles and shotguns. Some even had writing on them, indicating how many kills the soldiers had and what part of Vietnam they were in.
But there was one stark difference: The young man running the military surplus stand was in most of the pictures. They were taken recently. The guys in these photographs were pretending to be fighting in Vietnam, purposely reliving a period that my father had spent nearly 40 years trying to forget.
The guy running the stall was named Robert “Bubba” Holland. He was an intimidating figure, with a 300-pound build, shaved head and spit-shined boots. The stand across from Bubba was run by his mother, Rose. A tie-dye-wearing single mom covered with peace tattoos, she sold Barbie dolls and children’s clothing. Rose was peace. Bubba was war.
I soon learned that Bubba had just joined an established group of reenactors, captained by 25-year-old Ryan Rentschler, a former Army-enlisted soldier who was released from duty because of a head injury sustained while training to be deployed in Afghanistan. Intrigued, Ivete and I embarked on a project documenting the dichotomy we saw in Bubba: His reenacting character—the commie-killing, jungle-addicted strongman who brought death and destruction to Viet Cong outposts in the Pennsylvania woods—and Bubba himself, the giant softie obsessed with drawing and making photo scrapbooks, who lived at home with his hippie mother and a coterie of cats and dogs.
What started as a photo project documenting this relationship between a son and his mother soon evolved into a journey through the world of Vietnam reenacting, one that spanned five years and yielded 150 hours of footage.
Like Bubba, his fellow reenactors came from the rural, blue-collar former farming communities around Lancaster, Pennsylvania and eastward toward Delaware. Some aspired to be in the military but weren’t able to participate because of physical and mental health issues. They were all reared in what could be considered the center of war reenacting culture: Gettysburg, Valley Forge, and Reading, home of the Reading Air Show and World War II Weekend, our country’s biggest gathering of WWII hobbyists. Many of these guys grew up reenacting the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI and both the German and US sides of WWII. But all of these eras belonged to their parents, mentors, or history teachers. No one was doing Vietnam.
After years of taking orders from older reenactors, Vietnam offered them a opportunity to be in charge and stage their own events; they could own that time period. Additionally, reenacting Vietnam was their chance to upgrade their arsenals with M-16s, access cheaper gear, interact with living veterans, and honor a maligned group who got screwed by their own government. Or so they thought.
The core group that formed around Ryan and Bubba included Mark, a UPS truck loader and lifelong reenactor; Cody, a high school janitor and Army reservist; Jimmy, a night-shift worker at a battery factory; and Ryan’s wife, Joana, a Bank of America teller who portrayed a nurse. The unit was formed as a tribute to Mark’s father, who served in the Army in the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. Ryan, who was unemployed, applied for jobs the entire time we were shooting without any solid prospects. Cody, whose military parents gave him up for adoption, was commonly referred to in the group as “the Mexican.”
Jimmy had “Bad Luck” tattooed on his knuckles. He suffered from diabetes and had more incendiary tattoos, including a swastika on his chest and “SS” on his neck. After talking to Jimmy for four years, it became clear to us that he did not have a philosophy of hatred, just an utter inability to comprehend the statement he was making by tattooing these symbols on himself. He dated a girl from Honduras who also worked at the battery factory, not thinking twice about the contradiction of being a walking advertisement for white supremacy. He swore he was not a Nazi, that he just loved their flags and weaponry. To be honest, he was one of the nicest reenactors we dealt with, and we witnessed firsthand the huge price he paid for his ink when, during the third year of filming, he was jumped by a gang of ten hardcore kids at a Murphy’s Law show in Philadelphia. They broke his arm and jaw and collapsed his lung, nearly killing him.
One of the most striking aspects of documenting these guys was the sheer number of weapons they collected and traded amongst each other. These guns are real, and though they fire blanks at the reenactments, they spend a lot of time shooting real bullets at the shooting gallery.
Ryan alone had a militia‘s worth of loaded guns in his garage apartment, and though we never felt in danger, we did feel uneasy because this guy was clearly not doing well in his personal life. He was very angry with his fellow reenactors for not obeying his orders at events. He wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t working, and was clearly unhappy in his marriage.
Jimmy had an equally large collection of weaponry. After he was nearly killed by the gang of Philly hardcore kids, it felt like he could snap at any minute and hunt them down one by one.
That was why their guns scared us. Although not all the reenactors were like Jimmy and Ryan, a number of them clearly suffered from mental illnesses, and guns were central to their hobby. In the world of reenacting, guns are crucial to the identity of a soldier. In turn, being a reenactor validates gun ownership: How could owning an M-16 be questioned if it was a tool used by a living historian?
Clearly, guns also gave these guys a sense of power that they could not find elsewhere in our society. In the fictitious world of reenacting, they were able to create personae that demanded respect. If you didn’t respect them, then you were also disrespecting the veterans they portrayed. Even if it was a respect transferred, it was respect nonetheless.
The film scholar Thomas Doherty said, “Since 1977, Hollywood has been succeeding where Washington consistently failed: Namely, in selling Vietnam to the American public.” Today, the protests are gone, but the movies persist as romanticized, immortal accounts of a highly unpopular war. The reenactors we met strongly believed that reenacting is the highest from of honor and support they can show for the veterans. They saw themselves as accessible living historians and some felt a patriotic duty to reverse the baby-killer mythology that surrounded the legacy of the US soldier in Vietnam. As common as reciting verses from Hollywood films was the group’s certainty that Nam vets did not get a fair shake. That was something they could relate to.
In 2009, we accompanied Bubba to an event called Vietnam Appreciation Day. The occasion, which bore the theme “Welcome Home Veterans,” depicted the war through displays of weapons and uniforms, as well as live battle reenactments. We watched over Rose’s shoulder as Bubba led the troops into engagement with the Viet Cong forces hidden in the “elephant grass.” After a thundering firefight, Bubba was "shot" in front of his mother and numerous Vietnam veterans. Rose was visibly shaken and one veteran told us that when he heard the first shot, he felt his guts tighten up and wanted to hit the ground.
But Bubba didn’t actually get hurt until after the battle was over. As he was unloading the blanks from his weapon, he cut his hand badly and had to go to the hospital. After the battle, there was a reenactment of a USO show with impersonators portraying Bob Hope, Raquel Welch, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Bubba had already left by the time the Nancy Sinatra impersonator took the stage and began to sing, “Bang, bang, that awful sound. Bang, bang, my baby shot me down” to a rapt audience in lawn chairs.
After taking a break from filming Bubba and his group, we returned to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2010 to learn that Bubba had been depressed for most of the year. The unit had begun to crumble; Ryan’s temper began to alienate people and there was other internal drama that had begun to tear the unit apart.
That summer marked the final Vietnam Appreciation Day. Fort Mifflin had informed the unit that they were no longer allowed to stage public battles with Viet Cong, so this year the guys simply set up displays and sat around listlessly in uniform waiting for veterans to arrive. Only ten showed. Apparently, Ft. Mifflin had pulled the plug on live battles because a number of veterans had complained that witnessing the reenactment made them very uncomfortable. Some even reported experiencing flashbacks.
Interview by Caroline McCloskey
Photographs courtesy of the CLUI photo archive
Since it was founded in 1994, The Center for Land Use Interpretation has amassed and presented staggering amounts of information about how we interact with our landscape, whether casting its lens on underexamined industries (waste, oil, water, shipping, mining); government facilities (atomic power labs, military bases, remote research centers, testing sites, prisons); everyday phenomena (the American parking space, abandoned malls, the birthplace of television); or unusual collisions of man and nature (lightning fields, artificial lakes).
Through exhibits, books, guided tours and lectures, as well as its comprehensive Land Use database and annual The Lay of the Land newsletter, CLUI seeks to educate us on our complicated relationship with the national grid. But the nonprofit organization maintains a meticulous neutrality even when the subject matter is incendiary. Its exhibits and articles are as likely to elicit awe and amusement as paranoia and horror. CLUI provokes with information, not rhetoric.
We spoke with Matthew Coolidge at the CLUI headquarters in the Culver City, California.
- the Editors
When you look out the window at the landscape around you in geography class on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, where I went to school, you don’t see graded streams and geomorphological phenomena of the usual sort. You see people, architecture, streets, buses, cars and buildings. It seemed to me that’s part of geography, as is everything humans do.
Human activity was somehow a separate category than natural sciences. You had to move beyond geography to find new ways of looking at our relationship to the planet, which seemed like an increasingly important thing to do as an undergraduate back in the ’90s. It was about understanding the mechanics of disintegration, of the natural order, in order to prevent incipient disaster, starvation, the disintegration of our infrastructures—all the paradigms in which the world is going to end.
We are an organization dedicated to increasing the diffusion of information of how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived. Part of that interpretation is ours, but a lot of it is in the people who consume the things we produce. That’s the basic phenomenology of interpretation: it’s a dialogue between the thing being observed and the person observing it.
Our general aesthetic is to not be another loud voice out there crying for attention. We’re not hiding; we leave breadcrumbs out there for people to find their way to our various portals, physical and online, but we don’t really send out press releases. Things can be discovered rather than win the mindshare through volume and campaigns.
There is a certain amount of obsessiveness in individuals that can make for really interesting views. You carve it out by focusing. And these kind of microcosmic views of the world can be really enlightening for a macro audience.
We zoom in and out all the time, back and forth, and stop at different gradations in there, in the regional projects that are a characterization of a state or a town. Being able to operate at different resolutions is important but it all serves the same ends, which is to understand the way individuals and groups, collectively all of us, interact and express ourselves in the physical world.
We try to let the landscape speak for itself, but of course that’s impossible.
Rather than orienting people, CLUI seeks to disorient them. Our orientation is, hopefully, encouraging them to lose their bearings. Because when you lose your bearings you’re looking for them; when you have them, you’re not. So by cutting away the usual indicators that tell you, politically or otherwise, where something is coming from, you allow people to be untethered a bit and have to look for other signs to help them figure out how to look at it.
Everything seems to go back to Ohio. It’s weird. Somehow Ohio is the center of the country in all kinds of ways. It was the East back when the East was the East, it’s also the Midwest, it’s industrial, it’s pastoral. Ohio seems to be where things come from and where they end up—obviously you could say the same about some other places, but someplace has to win out as being the place where the most things come from and end up, and maybe that’s Ohio. We also find that the things that initially seem to be the most uninteresting things are the most interesting things, because they’ve been overlooked, and because people dismissed them.
A gravel pit is a boring thing, so you don’t think about it, but personally I find gravel pits to be some of the most interesting kinds of landscapes out there. They’re one of the emblems of the incidental negative space, because they’re where our buildings and our roads come from. They’re not designed spaces, so they are manifestations of some collective process. They’re the antipodes of the creative world, they’re fifty percent of the equation, but we’ve overlooked them simply because they’re everywhere. But I think we’re coming around to seeing the world differently. We’re looking at the unintentional spaces as being important. And I think Ohio might be the gravel pit of America in some way—it’s certainly evolved intentionally over the years, but it’s also a place that just happened. Ohio ends up being a great space for some kind of collectivization of America, some kind of averaging out of things.
We’re not ecologists in the usual 1960s sense, but we’re ecologists in the sense that we understand the interconnectedness of all things. Everything has an effect on everything else. So when you look at where something physically comes from, you have to look at how it got there, how it came to be, and where it goes when you’re done with it. Because there is no ‘away.’ Everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. Matter’s trajectory through the world is a matter of relationships as it passes through space.
Infrastructures are a way of understanding the mechanics of movement of material through space, and it seems so fundamental to understanding anything that goes on. “Infrastructure” is such a deep word for us, almost everything we look at is looked at infrastructurally, looking at the systems behind everything. It’s surprising to understand that we live in Los Angeles and the watershed of the city extends from hundreds of miles artificially through accretion aqueducts and supply systems in the Rocky Mountains in Northern California. If you look at the infrastructure of water you begin to realize this continental connectivity. None of it is just local. Ecosystems are all integrated.
We’re working on an exhibit about crash sites. It was conceived 15 years ago and is just finally been coming together. It’s about Edwards Air Force Base as a point of origin for experimental aviation, back to the late ’40s with the first jet, the first sonic booms, all the way to the current drone technology.
In many cases these were tragedies where people were killed, and these sites have become memorials to them. There’s a lot of sacrifice in industries, especially ones like that. There are hundreds and hundreds of crash sites in the Mojave Desert. Hundreds of them pepper the place, and they don’t look like much when you’re out there, you wouldn’t recognize them, yet somebody came out of the sky at high velocity and maybe ejected or not, but these colossal evolutions in aviation history are literally played out at these impact sites on public space.
It’s about the disappearance of things, I suppose—how important the events were, and we forget there’s material evidence. But it’s about aviation and lack thereof. It’s about Icarus. It’s about a spell certain technologies have over us, especially flight.
The Nellis Range in southern Nevada is the largest military area in the country. It’s full of secrets and all kinds of things—it’s where Area 51 is. [For the 1999 exhibit “Nellis Range Complex: Landscape of Conjecture”] we were able to get a fair amount of information from them over the course of a year, and we were able to get imagery that had never been released before. But because we could never really get full access to the place, we could never be authorities.
I think a place can be as interesting for what people think about it as for what it really is. So many images in our photo archives are of gates and entryways that say “No Trespassing”— that’s the public façade of that site. If it’s about the perimeter, and about keeping people out, then that’s your façade. And when it came to the Nellis Range, it really is a black hole that people, because they’re denied access, project ideas onto. There’s no way to confirm or deny what goes on there, so it becomes about a construction of people’s fantasies and desires. That’s as interesting as what may or may not go on there. I think mysteries are important.
Words by Abram Himelstein
Photographs by Aubrey Edwards
Since 1852, horseracing at the New Orleans’ Fair Grounds has outlasted competing tracks, yellow fever, legalized prostitution, and its original proximity to a swamp. The season runs from Thanksgiving Day until the end of March—four months that are measured not in days, but in furlongs, fifths of a second, horses’ lengths and bales of hay. Each October, in preparation for the season, 600 people and 1,500 horses settle into the barns on the track’s backside. The horses take the stalls, and the grooms and hotwalkers take the rooms above and between them.
The day begins at 4:30, preparing the horses to train from 6 to 10 am. Future races are drawn from 11 to 1, and then the races take place in the afternoons. With the odd work hours, the temporary nature of the residency, and a shortage of transportation, many of the 600 workers rarely leave the Fair Grounds. To most of New Orleans, the work and the workers of the back side are unseen.
The world on the backside is a city unto itself, equipped with its own chapel, feed store, betting machines, and kitchen. Track security acts as a de facto police force, with most violations arbitrated on the spot. Serious misconduct results in being “ruled off” the Fair Grounds. Pictures are posted so that security can prevent their re-entry, banishment into exile in America.
At the end of March, the backside begins to clear out, eighteen wheelers hauling horses, grooms, hotwalkers, and equipment. They leave for other parts of the circuit: Keeneland, in Kentucky; Evangeline Downs, in Opelousas; Delta Downs, in Vinton.
There is one restaurant on the backside, called the Horsemen's Cafe. This is the only area for the backside employees to congregate, socialize, drink, watch TV, and play pool. It is sparsely decorated, with cafeteria chairs and tables, and makeshift plywood walls to segregate the pool tables. On the weekends the workers get dressed up and party and dance, making the most of the time before they move on—to another track, another horse, another season on the backside.
For the past three seasons, we have been collaborating on a documentary book about life on the backside of the New Orleans Fair Grounds. In 2011, Abram worked with 17 backside employees to write open letters about their experiences. Meanwhile, Aubrey worked with these authors to create photographic triptychs that complimented the writing. Together, we constructed shadow boxes that held the open letter and triptych, and the Fair Grounds displayed the finished work in the main grandstand. The boxes also offered copies of the authors’ letters for racing fans to take home.
In 2013, we returned to the track to work with ten people on chapters and photographs for a book that will be published in 2014. The photos and excerpts to follow are small parts of the larger picture. On three successive Friday evenings Aubrey set up a portrait studio in the Horsemen’s Café, taking more than 125 portraits all told. On our last night there, we put up a wall of portraits. One of the exercise riders stopped and looked at all the photos lined up. “It looks like a yearbook. That’s what y’all should make, a yearbook to tell us who was here this year.”
- Abram Himelstein and Aubrey Edwards
At the border crossing in Toronto, I left my cell phone and purse in the car, as instructed, and parked myself between an Asian family and a Canadian couple. I felt my hands getting clammy. The officer straight ahead was having a discussion with a young Dutchman, who just wanted to go shopping but did not have an address or idea of what mall he was going to. Unfortunately, things were not quite as relaxed here as they are in Amsterdam. After telling the officer to shove it where the sun don't shine, he was immediately marched off—presumably to the rubber cell I had been envisioning all along—for insulting the United States of America.
I looked up. Shit. It was the officer who had given me the least sympathetic vibe and was happily giving out big fat “Denied” stamps. Awesome. He gave me a withering look, took my passport and began to drill me. I answered with “yes sirs” and “no sirs” and “of course not, sir.” As he lectured me on the unemployment rate of America and his opinion of horseracing (not a good one), I concentrated on the mole that was above his left eye and the hairs growing out of his nostrils. An hour and a half later I walked out, completely drained but victorious. I sent off one text to the girls: “Made it! See you in NOLA.”
The four days of going back and forth to the Fair Grounds from Opelousas ate me up, and I wasn’t sorry that the rains came Tuesday. It rained for two days, so I stayed in the house, watching TV. It rained so hard there was nothing you could do. Wednesday I got out of the house for a bit, ran a few errands.
Then yesterday, I was up at five, making mud for every bit of twelve hours. I made twenty gallons. I brought 12 gallons in the truck the morning, and hitched up to Sam Breaux’s trailer. His horse, Rhonda Got Even, is entered in the ninth race, and I’ll take her back this evening. And then tomorrow, I might be back with a horse for Brinkman, and maybe with Mario Reyes, who used to be a jockey when I was a jockey.
During the downtime, I am talking to people I know about the mud I have been making. I give a trainer a free gallon, tell him to give it to his best groom.
I hoped retirement would look like a light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody knows what’s after this, but you follow the light. Like the three wise men. Not that I am wise. This is not much of a retirement. All my days are scheduled. I don’t have time for me, and the day I have off, I am making mud. When I am making mud, I wear three pairs of gloves and my hands are torn up. I wear three masks, and I’d hate to see my lungs. My product is better than any out there, though.
I don’t want to just do nothing. Because if you stop, everything stops. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I can’t do what I was doing. No more being that jockey. But I am here and moving around, not confined to a wheel chair.
Leaving Louisville is very difficult. In America, it has become my home. I have family, friends and acquaintances in Louisville. I know the city better than any other, and I feel at home. When the weather turns cold, the backside at Churchill Downs begins to clear out. People and horses leave everyday for New Orleans, Florida, Hot Springs, and California. Sometimes I get the chance to say goodbye, but sometimes their barn pulls out in a hurry.
In my barn, I am in the last group to leave. Usually we are twenty or so, but most of the others have gone already to New Orleans, and it is just Kathy, Maurice, Darwin, and me. We have to pack up the barn, take the last horses to run their races, and organize the horses and equipment for transport. On the last day, it's very cold, and I am not looking forward to the ride to New Orleans. I begin to say my goodbyes to other people as they are leaving, and to the people in the Learning Center, who are like my family. I think about coming home again in March, and the friends I will see in New Orleans.
The two worst days of the job are leaving one place and arriving in another. And in between the worst two days is the horrible ride. Leaving day begins at three in the morning, as we finish packing our personal items. For me, everything fits in four plastic tubs. Work clothes, going-out clothes, shoes, books, and most importantly, photos of my family. After I am packed, we begin to pack the trailer: saddles, feed tubs, water buckets, webbings for the stall doors, hay bags. The last thing into the moving trailers are the horses. The horses know the time for leaving is here. They generally go easily onto the trailers, and we start the engines as soon as they are all aboard.
The worst part is next. Kathy and Maurice get in their cars, and Darwin and I get into back part of the trailer where there is room for us to sit and care for the horses during the 14 hour ride to New Orleans. At the start we are freezing, with the wind whipping past us on the highway. On the way, at the stops, we are getting water for the horses, making sure they are comfortable and not hurting themselves. As we ride south, the weather gets warmer, and we know the journey is coming to an end.
- Daniel Orantes
A lot of people are like trees, they like to stay planted in one place. But I think humans are nomadic animals. Before people made fences, I think it was normal for people to go traveling. Traveling is a part of human nature. Before any of us were born, people sailed across the ocean even though they thought the world was flat. Part of God’s gift is to explore the world, and I just like to go.
Taking care of horses is what I like I do. I have family members who want me to sell cars. They don’t understand why I work seven days a week. They all have what they call “real jobs.” Selling cars is good money, but too artificial.
I didn’t like the pressure that people would put on me. I could do the work, but I couldn’t see that being the meaning of life. I graduated high school when I was 16, and I joined the Army. It was a lot of dealing with people, getting yelled at, and having people tell me to yell at other people. Psychological pressure.
When I was working in a restaurant, people wanted their food in 10 or 15 minutes. I cooked for 15 years, and did construction while I was growing up. It was all stress. Even though this work is every day, horses don’t stress me out. They ground me. You know how a dog will take the stress of the world off of you at the end of the day? That’s how horses are, and I get to do that for my job. Even if I didn’t get to groom on them, I would still want to be around them. I feel blessed to have found what I want to do with my life.
It’s kind of like being a monk. They put on the robes, and they don’t get involved in the worldly things. I try to live the monk’s life here, send myself on to a positive place and ascend.
for 44 years
for 10 years
Arturo and Miriam
Owners of Horsemans Cafeteria
for 1st season
for 10 years
for 1 year
for 23 years
for 5 years
for 5 days
for 17 years
for 50 years
Lofredo Orantes and Enrique Delcid (brothers)
for 4 years and 7 years
for 10 years
for 40 years
for 6 years
for 10 years
Groom + Hotwalker
for 13 years
Words and Photographs by Elliott Hostetter
Starring Harmony Korine
With an average of 360 days of sunshine each year, St. Petersburg, Florida has come to be known as the Sunshine City. And, because of an influx of elderly Americans who migrated there in the 1980s, the town earned another, some might say better, name: God's Waiting Room. But in the first decade of the millennium, people began to leave. From 2000 to 2010, the population of the city dropped by 4,000 people, while the population of the state increased by over two and a half million.
With the highest rate of violent crime in Florida, maybe St. Pete is no longer the best place to quietly catch some rays and die of old age. Maybe there’s more to the town than that. Maybe the town is simply misunderstood.
While working with Harmony Korine to make the mesmerizing partycrime movie Spring Breakers, production designer Elliott Hostetter spent a couple of months down St. Pete’s way, squinting his way through the blistering days and wandering wide-eyed through the warm and welcoming darkness.
In the following pages, Elliott shares with us the beauty that is St. Petersburg, Florida at night.
- the Editors
Video by Olivia Wyatt
This meditation focuses symbolically on stimulating male-oriented energy within you, and promotes an upward dynamic movement of that energy. The element of fire is represented by the upward facing triangles, counterbalanced by its opposite, the feminine element of water, associated with Venus.
The use of the prism of colors allows for simultaneous vibration within each Shakra. Though obscured, the natural flow of water is what generated the color patterns swirling around and within the upward facing triangles, therefore creating unity and balance while the merging of the male and female forces protect us completely from negativity.
“A Triangular Meditation” is best experienced with headphones.
- Olivia Wyatt
Interview by Ottessa Moshfegh
Photographs by Dagan Barrett and Allison Pharmakis
When Susan Collyer handed me her card and said, “I think you’d be interested in what I do,” I was sort of terrified. At the time I was on five kinds of psychotropic medication for what doctors told me was mania, depression, OCD, ADD, and PTSD. I walked around in a daze, alternately despising and pitying the people around me, and was never really capable of connecting with what was happening inside of myself—it was just too painful. When I called Susan, she invited me over to her home in Rhode Island, asked me what was happening. Unable to describe what I was experiencing internally, I talked about my work. I was writing a novel based on a true story of a sailor in 19th century Salem who had murdered his would-be gay lover in a drunken blackout after suffering brain-damage from jumping off a moving train. I said something like, “I don’t know how to end it.” She pointed out to me that I was wearing a navy blue jacket with buttons that had anchors on them. “What’s that about?” A few minutes later I was lying on a table and she had her hands on my heart. What happened next changed the course of my life. Whenever I’ve tried to explain what Susan does, I end up calling her a “body psychic,” which hardly does justice to her practice. I interviewed her recently about what she does and how she does it.
- Ottessa Moshfegh
I went on this blind date in 1986. I really wasn’t that interested in the guy. But he was interested in me, I could tell. And you know that anxiety before you get home and you think, oh shoot, do I have to kiss the guy? How do I say goodbye without hurting his feelings? I was praying in the car: God, please make this easy. And I thought, oh, I’ll just put my hand on his shoulder and I’ll thank him profusely. But when I put my hand on his shoulder, I entered another zone. My eyes were open and I could see the dashboard of the car and the night outside and everything, but at the same time, something else happened that I had never experienced before. It was an internal vision, like I was watching a movie in my mind. What I saw was this guy, and I was in his shoes. I felt shame, I felt fear and embarrassment, and I saw his boss yelling at him, stabbing with his pencil onto a clipboard. So I was kind of stunned and I told him what I’d seen. And he freaked out because that’s exactly what had happened to him that day.
So I started touching people and seeing if I could feel or see anything else. And I did, but I wasn’t sure if it was really happening or not. The visions happen in the part of my brain that fantasizes and imagines, so I wondered, “Am I just thinking it?” I decided not to care whether it was or wasn’t real because people seemed to be affected. I put a flyer up in a crystal store. From day one I started getting clients, and eventually I got a six-month waiting list. People were clamoring to get in and I was very excited and I was also thinking, “What am I doing?” After 26 years, I still have trouble explaining it.
It’s as though I feel with my eyes and I hear with my fingers. There’s a blurring of the senses that most people are not aware of. There’s a lot of research coming out about how many more senses we have, but we’re not consciously in touch with them. For example, half of taste is smell, or when you hear music you’re also feeling the drumbeat. That’s the kind of thing that I do. I don’t know of anybody else who does what I do except for people who work through touching objects. They’re called clairsentients. And that’s how I label myself, because I work through touching the body.
There are some people that are very open and ready, and when I touch them, images come to me, information just flies off of their bodies at me. They are usually people who are ready to move on and ready to connect to a higher level of themselves. And there are other people I touch and think, “Whoa, hmm. I don’t even know what I have to work with here.” Sometimes people are just shut down. A tremendous amount has to do with whether or not you’re willing to have a relationship with what’s going on. If you’re willing to work with it, it moves.
There’s a code in the body that I can read or translate. Whatever feeling is in the body, I start to feel it myself. Suddenly my throat will catch, and I can’t speak or breathe, so I’ll cough and I’ll tell the client to cough too. If I’m working on someone’s body and I get some information and I describe it, if it’s accurate, if it’s true, I will experience what I call the poof from the body. It’s as though words of truth have so much power on the unseen body—like when people say something strikes a chord within them—that there’s an energy expansion that hits me. That is one way I can tell I’m on the right path. There have been times when people go, “Oh, no no no no, that’s not true.” I’m like, “Oh, yes it is.”
If you’re in denial of the grief you need something to get you to jump into it. If you’re wallowing through the grief you need something to move you onto the next step, like anger. I insist that people use their throat, their truth. People so often edit themselves, judge themselves, silence themselves and their pain, and they keep it all in the body. So making sure that there’s an open channel in the throat for their truth to come out is very important. Using the throat moves the unseen to the seen, the unheard to the outside world. So when I’m working with people and I am hearing the body, I might say, “Groan for me, there are some groans in here.” That’s usually the first step. Often my clients will have a judgment about groaning or growling. I have to get them over that, so I might start doing it for them so they don’t feel so embarrassed. Or I’ll hold their hand while they do it, and I’ll do it with them. It’s not an easy thing to do. Breaking patterns of defense requires tremendous courage.
The next step is to connect with the area of the body that the energy is in, and try to understand what it represents. So let’s say it’s in an elbow. The elbow is either about changing directions or about making space for yourself. I can usually identify which, because there’s a different energy field in each. One is light and one is angry. Maybe you’re at a crossroads in your life, or you’re feeling stifled and ready to grow. I will suggest a sound. And after the growling, I will find a metaphor or just describe the energy to the person so they can get more in touch with it, and when I find the right path, the energy poofs.
Sometimes I will get an image that has nothing to do with the person I’m touching, but I see it as a metaphor for where they are in their lives. For example, ten years ago I saw a woman whose husband cheated on her. The metaphor that came to me for her was strange. I said, “You’re in a new place, it’s like you’re in Kindergarten.” And all of a sudden, she started to weep hysterically. And I said, “What’s going on?” She said, “In Kindergarten we had just moved here from China and I didn’t know the language. My mother brought me to Kindergarten. I didn’t speak, and I was left in the corner.” That was the feeling inside her body that she was revisiting—feeling cornered and isolated and frustrated and mute.
Trauma can get trapped all over the body. Most people carry trauma in the back of the heart, hips and legs. Many sexually abused people keep it in the inner thighs. It’s shame. They try to keep the legs crossed. People who’ve been sexually abused tend to be overweight with very heavy legs to keep people away, you know? It’s heartbreakingly brave of them because they didn’t have any other way of protecting themselves. People who’ve been profoundly abused, sexually or through neglect or otherwise, they don’t even really have a sense of their bodies. They live in their heads because the body’s too painful. The body carries the truth, after all.
I was raised Quaker, and you know, like most religions, it's all about the soul. The body is something to be transcended. And I found myself at a very young age hating my body, and it was that self-hate that made me want to kill myself. I woke up one night and I heard a demonic voice saying, I’d rather die than feel the love of God in my body. Whether it was a real entity or my own dark unconscious, the truth was that I did not value my body. I hated it.
So I had to learn to experience love in the body, and I was given a gift of this love in profound visitations of a divine Presence. When I was in great distress, I would hear an angelic voice say to me, I love you, or simply be. And I didn’t quite understand simply be, but that has evolved into a greater understanding of how everything up here in our heads can screw us up. The brain, the heart, feelings, senses, they can go backward and forward through time and space. The flesh can’t. The body doesn’t have a choice: It is present. Religion says spirituality is an internal experience. But I figured out that when you ground yourself in your body then you really do have access to the Presence, because that’s where God lives.
Words by Diane Wilson
Photographs courtesy of The Tar Sands Blockade
In 2008, the Calgary-based energy company TransCanada submitted an application to the State Department in order to build the XL Pipeline for the transport of oil-rich tar sands from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. A back-and-forth of economy versus ecology immediately ensued. Petitions were signed, letters written, and protests waged. While thousands of US citizens flooded hearings in opposition to the issue, there were whispers of a pro-pipeline bias within the State Department. In 2011, suspicions were confirmed when it was revealed that the company’s primary lobbyist for the pipeline, Paul Elliott, had been then-Secretary of State Clinton’s national deputy campaign manager for her 2008 presidential bid. Despite growing vocal opposition, TransCanada began its construction of the southern segment of the XL Pipeline in the summer of 2012.
Citing eminent domain laws, the company plowed through privately owned farmland, ranchland, and wetlands across Texas. In what became known as the Tar Sands Blockade, dissident Texan landowners and environmental activists joined forces to build camps directly in the path of the pipeline’s construction. The group released photographs of their actions, which included crawling into a stretch of laid pipe to document visible holes in the welded seam. Leaks were reported in Utah and Nevada. TransCanada continued to lay pipe.
That fall, renowned Texan environmental activist and author Diane Wilson made contact with the blockaders. No stranger to the eco-war, Wilson— who is also a fourth-generation shrimper—wanted to target Valero Energy Corp, the Houston-based company that has been contracted to process the tar sands into oil. Accompanied by members of the Tar Sands Blockade, Wilson locked her neck to a Valero Company truck and commenced a 45-day hunger strike in an effort to call attention to the effects that the Valero processing plant has on the small community of Manchester, where it has been reported that, on any given day, at least eight identified human carcinogens can be found in the air.
What follows is Diane’s day-to-day account of her action, paired with photographs sourced from the Tar Sands Blockade via Creative Commons Licensing.
Drive my truck to Nacogdoches to talk with Tar Sands Blockade activists who have just set up their second camp in the woods. Tarps and tents everywhere. Sit in a circle on the ground and talk about the hunger strike at the Valero refinery near Houston ship channel in Manchester. Entirely new direction, I say. Urban fighting instead of tree houses.
The cell phone reception is spotty in these woods. I keep getting an aborted call from Cherri Fotylin, a mother of five who walked from the Louisiana swamps to the White House after BP dumped oil in her front yard. She’s doing an action somewhere and wants me to join, but security is high and I don’t know where she’s located. “Where?” I keep asking. Nobody gives out much information on these actions. “On a need to know basis,” they say. I think she’s chaining herself to something, though.
Drive to Houston in truck loaded down with shrimp nets. I’ve got a million possibilities for those nets! Drape them over Valero’s gate. Slow down a barge. Bob, a Waterkeeper of San Antonio Bay, where I shrimp, has agreed to do the hunger strike with me.
He’s got no idea what he’s in for.
Have last meeting with Tar Sands activists before action at undisclosed home. Synchronized watches!
Everyone slept at same place. Bags and bodies are piled high.
7am: Leave for Valero refinery. Hopefully, we don’t get caught in the morning rush hour traffic.
8am: Activists gather and try not to look conspicuous to the refinery security that roams the town.
9am: Bob and I lock our necks to trucks outside Valero. The bulk of the activists have one job: Stop the truck! One of the truck drivers won’t stop so a woman lies down in front of his truck tire. That stops him.
10am: A dozen police cars arrive, followed by a fire truck with the hydraulic Jaws of Life.
Arrests at 11am. Visited by homeland security shortly thereafter. Jail at 11:30am. Hunger strike begins in Harris County Jail.
Harris County does not hand out water. They hand out baloney sandwiches on white bread. The only water is over a dirty metal toilet where a tiny spigot hopefully works. Nope, not this spigot. It’s a hunger strike, so no food for me. And no water, either.
The overriding attitude of the guards here is that you are stupid, worthless, and, apparently, deaf, because every spoken word is a scream. And if you dare raise an eyebrow you will get a burly sergeant in your face screaming that he doesn’t like you and he can send you to J Pod, which is very cold, for a very long time. Then he smiles and says that if he really takes a dislike to you that he will put you in the suicide cell with a paper gown and then you’ll really be cold.
I’m the oldest woman by a mile and for some reason the women take a real liking to me. I’m Momma to everybody. I think it’s because I gave them my baloney sandwiches. In this cold, mean place, an extra baloney sandwich is real special. The also liked me because they thought I told the officer that I was a 64-year-old stripper. “No,” I told the girls, “I’m a 64-year old shrimper.”
Sunday. I’m in a permanent cell with forty women and freezing my ass off. There is absolutely nothing to do so I spend a lot of time rocking in my bunk to keep warm. A loud speaker hollers my name and it’s so loud and vibrates so bad on the cement walls that I don’t understand. A woman punches me on the arm. “You got a visitor,” she says. It’s been four days without water and I’m a bit dazed so when I’m shoved into a small closet-like visiting room with fifteen other women, I have no idea what I’m doing there. Glass walls separate us from a mass of strangers. I don’t know anybody. Finally I recognize a face. It’s Bob! Only got one little problem. Those speaker holes high on the wall to talk to your visitor, well, none of them work. Everybody’s shouting: “What? What?” I don’t understand a single word. Bob is shouting on the other side of the glass. I shout back: “What did you say?” Boy, was that a waste of time.
4am: I am released from Harris County Jail. Feeling very bad from lack of water. Two activists grab me as I stumble out and shove bottled water into my hands. Drive to an underground office in Houston that’s part sleeping quarters, part meeting room and part storehouse for supplies. No windows. One long, dark hallway. For 4am, it’s a pretty lively place, though. I get asked a dozen times how I’m doing. Still on the hunger strike, I say. Day what? I can’t remember. I take three ibuprofen for the pain in my kidneys and hit a cot piled with coats and sleeping bags.
Bob and I meet with a young radical lawyer in a funky restaurant, downtown Houston. The lawyer calls himself radical, it’s not me saying that. His business card shows a guy in a business suit swinging his briefcase at the Federales. The words across the top read: “The other side has the Army but you have me! “
I think I’ve found my lawyer. Haven’t eaten in a week.
There is a long line of people at the courthouse waiting to go through the police scanner, snaking clear outside and into the street. When I get to the courtroom, they’ve already called my name and the judge is pissed. Nobody but nobody is late for his courtroom. The judge says he’s a mind to send us all back to jail, no bail. Lucky for me, I wasn’t actually late. The court messed up my paperwork. The judge gives me another court date for one month later and I bail out of that courtroom by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!
A big white board in the underground HQ has a timeline that keeps getting erased. Devising strategy is an ongoing problem. I can see this is gonna be the most difficult hunger strike I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a few. Bob and I are ready to set up the strike in the park, at the front gate of Valero, in the ditch. It doesn’t matter, for crying out loud! Set us up in one of the empty dry fields where Valero has probably killed all the grass! They are certainly killing all the oranges on the trees.
Seriously, those oranges look really weird.
Manchester is a factory town squatting next to the Valero refinery and engulfed in all those fumes. Folks who live there don’t have access to a grocery store, either, so we decide to set up a Free Store that we’ll stock by dumpster diving. The crazy thing is, Houston just outlawed feeding folks in public. So the Free Store is clandestine. A midnight run is on and they borrowed Bob’s car. The crew comes back at 3am. The run was a success! Incredible breads and fancy juices I never heard of, whole frozen turkeys, and deli meats fit for the mayor.
Been two weeks since I ate. The crew is running on a couple hours of sleep a night. I’m wondering how long they can last on such little sleep. I know it’s a lot different when you’re 64 than when you’re 24, but I have a hard time not thinking like a parent.
Today is the launch of Free Store but the time gets later and later. Suddenly, it’s five o’clock and we drive like maniacs to Manchester. Lay out all the food before the sun goes down. A bit disorganized. Not enough tables. Not enough locals. Got to remember to put up a Free Store banner. The cops are patrolling. Who alerted them? Rue (an alias) chases one of Valero’s security cops from the bushes where he was hiding.
Free Store day. It’s better organized but cold. Bitter cold. Police and plant security drive by constantly. It’s hard not being intimidated. But we try. We’ve occupied a yard: drove in protest stakes, hung banners, folded out six tables and piled on fruit, juices, breads, deli meats. Somebody donated a small trailer. Somebody else—nobody’s telling—gave a donation to rent a big balloon castle for the neighbor kids to play in. A dozen small kids show up out of nowhere, ripping and running through the castle in cold bare feet.
Up in Canada, on the other end of the XL Pipeline, Chief Theresa Spence, leader of the Attawapiskat, is on a hunger strike too. We might be separated by the length of the entire pipeline, but it’s amazing the bonding power of the Idle No More cause with the Texas fight. We send a digital photo of Bob and me and three children from Manchester! Solidarity with Chief Spence! Viva!
Swedish film crew out of DC arrive with camera and video. They want to interview Bob and me in the park, in front of Valero refinery. They want to know how we feel after 20 days. They want to know what we are drinking. Just water? Will we die for the cause? Well, that’s fine and dandy with me if they want to film the refinery but I hope they don’t mind the cops and Valero security swarming like killer bees. The Swedish folks don’t take it too seriously. Aw, they’ve been around the block before. I don’t think they’ve seen this particular rodeo but I keep quiet. Sure enough, as the Swedish crew begins to wind up their cables, a six-car police caravan circles their car, and demands IDs. Probably their guns pulled from holsters. I would not doubt.
Also, new Tar Sands activists brought in to do research on Valero. College kids on Christmas break.
I’ve run out of money, truck being repossessed. Try to get loan at bank. No way, Jose. I’ve maxed two credit cards.
Radio show is set up for the evening. I haven’t eaten in 24 days, and the evening is my witching hour. Low energy. But the radio show, “Clearing the Fog,” has two high-energy hosts and they somehow drag me up. Shoot, before they’ve finished, I’ve devised an idea for Unreasonable Women of the Earth! The most radical women of the world unite! Before I go to bed I send out an email alert for an Unreasonable Woman retreat. I have no idea how I’ll do this. I should go to sleep.
Meeting at underground office to plan the campaign. Park my truck in back. Looks like some undercover police have set up something behind our office. Probably being paranoid. Heading back, I sit at stop sign for long time. Forget what I’m doing. Forget where I’m going. Turn truck in middle of road. Turn signals quit. Shrimp nets spilling out of truck. Why do I have shrimp nets?
A huge piece of plywood sits in the yard of a single mom with two sick kids. It’s their letter to Valero. New demands. What chemicals are being released? The Manchester residents dip their hands in red paint and leave handprints. We march the plywood letter to the park in front of Valero. Bitter cold day. More rain. More police. That night we plan an action to take the new demands to Valero headquarters and CEO in San Antonio. Organizer has something of a breakdown. She came into the office and started weeping. The dog was trying to bite her. Yes, he was, but it’s more than that. You can’t work 24/7 with two hours of sleep. We need more people than just the same 3 or 4. Why doesn’t 350.org send us a few of their thousand kids? What’s the plan for San Antonio? Who’s got Valero’s address? I saw it just a minute ago. Where the hell did it go?
We head to Valero Headquarters in San Antonio, get there around 5pm. Everything is shut down. Well, hell. A Codepinker and myself pour molasses and drape crime tape around two huge white Valero monuments. Security spots us and chases us down the highway out of town. We lose the cop and pull behind a grocery store warehouse. Have a big gripe fest over what worked and what didn’t. One Codepinker did not like the masks that the Tar Sands activists were wearing. Argued thirty minutes over that! We should have had our supplies before we left Houston. We should have scouted out the targets! Biggest should have: We should have had a discussion about molasses. Couple days later we are told the Tar Sands headquarters, Camp 1 or 2, won’t use any of our footage. They didn’t like the molasses action. Not non-violent enough.
Return home to take care of Mom. She is 96 and has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know who I am but I have obligations to her. And I’ve got five Republican brothers and sisters to remind me in case I forget. Been gone over two months.
Day 45 of Hunger Strike. Drive to Houston for court date. Judge gives time served. I am surprised; I was expecting six months, as my radical lawyer had explained my three priors to the DA as me being a “professional trespasser.” Bob and I end our strike at a Mexican food place outside of Houston.
We order cheese enchiladas and tacos.
It’s real funny. A real irony. This is the longest strike I’ve ever been on— and I’ve been on twelve—and it’s the one I’m most disappointed with. Nobody covered it, and so Valero has not moved a smidgen. My own daughter didn’t know the strike ended till she called me from Austin.
But I read something recently and I think it applies: We are never in a position to measure or judge the impact of our actions. It is not for us to know who or how many or in what way our actions will make a difference. If we need to know that, then as the great saint Teresa of Avila said to her nuns: You are not ready for the task. Go back in the kitchen and peel potatoes.