Saturday, 7 February 2009

with arms outstretched - david lester

David Lester

David Lester is one half of one of my favourite bands, Mecca Normal. David’s artistic contributions range far beyond his guitar playing in this band, however. David is an accomplished painter and writer. Discussion of his most recent book, ‘The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism’ forms the majority of the discussion in this interview as after reading the book I was deeply affected and moved to ask more about David’s views on capitalism, and the ways in which we as individuals can affect change. The book is a culmination of over a hundred pages of world statistics and statements documenting how the world is destroying itself, and in turn how it’s impacting upon the worlds’ population.
Prior to this interview I discussed with David how the book had affected me, and wanted to stress that I was keen to hear his responses, without assuming that he, any more than me, or anybody else for that matter have any of the ‘answers’. David’s responses in this interview however make me more aware than ever that it is all of our creative ‘answers’ that are important.
On my first reading, parts of this interview made me cry due to David’s unwavering faith in humanity and the acts and efforts of individuals.
I have so much respect for David.

Sept ‘07

Hi David.
When I sat down to write these questions to you I became a bit overwhelmed as there’s so much you do that infuses my life with inspiration and energy that I didn’t quite know where to begin… (or indeed when to stop talking!)
I guess I’ll start by asking about Mecca Normal since it is through your music that I first became aware of your work.
You and Jean (Smith, singer in Mecca Normal) are self-described ‘Anti-authoritarian poets’ working outside of the mainstream music ‘industry’ -- fusing and weaving intricate tracks that are uniquely your own sounds. How do you think these reciprocate ways of working together within ‘underground culture’ have contributed to your longevity and musical output?

“Underground culture” as I relate to it, is a culture based around ideas and creativity without the aspect of commerce and fashion determining the outcome. This has emboldened Mecca Normal with the ability to follow our own artistic path and methods of proceeding. When you work outside of the mainstream, you loose certain benefits of that mainstream, but you soon discover what you gain by the vast support of other bands, individuals and the fine people who run labels we have released records on. This sense of community has been crucial in our longevity.

In your book, ‘The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism’ you feature statistics upon statistics that were I in more of a delicate mood could slay me into submission, woefully staggered and crippled by the injustice in the world. While compiling the book how did you manage to stay focused and positive while surrounded by such gruesome facts?
When I start a project, I’m very driven and excited by it. While researching the book, I felt I was discovering bits and pieces of a world that was even worse off than I ever imagined. The education I was getting strengthened my resolve to complete the project and I’m sure I was making the book as much for myself as for others. From sadness can come anger that can lead to action.

I also felt the statistics in the book spoke with the eloquence of poetry so I designed the text as if it was indeed a book of poetry by giving each page the kind of white space poems are accustomed to.

Facts such as: ‘For many of the worlds poorest countries, living standards are lower than what they were 30 years ago’, ‘Every 4 days the world spends $7 billion on the military. The U.N estimates that this amount would be enough to provide poor countries with primary education for a year’. ‘It takes 11,000 litres of water to create 1 quarter-pounder hamburger’, ‘The richest countries are home to 20% of the world's population who consume 86% of all resources’. Did the potential effects of compiling the book and distributing it help keep you buoyant?
Making the book was a long process requiring stamina (including the research, illustrations and design). Knowing it would be published and that there was a deadline helped to keep focused. Ultimately I was thrilled about the prospect of publishing a book that I looked upon as scream of horror.

Do you think the alarm and challenge the book raises in its readers is actually positive - that such facts aren't just an inconvenience that we can sidestep, but truths that we must face head on?
The book is a tough read. Even some friends have said that it is too much, but no one has said it wasn’t worth doing. The book is a challenge, one that doesn’t offer answers or let any of us off the hook. That may be harsh, but sometimes that isn’t a bad thing. Earlier this year, a professor in Ottawa, Canada concluded his lecture on Activism by quoting from my book as a source of inspiration to students. In the autumn, a university in Vermont will use my book as a text in a course on Globalization. As well, a Member of the Canadian Parliament wrote me to say they loved the book and will use it. So I think that the book in a small way has had an impact which I could never have predicted. Art and activism are often like that, they can’t always be controlled or quantified.

Some of the statistics that I found personally alarming where those pertaining to human trafficking. I am currently involved with a campaign here in the UK called 'The Truth Isn't Sexy', aimed at raising awareness of the truths behind the sex industry. To read in your book that 'an estimated 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the US for sexual or forced labour every year', that 'in Sri Lanka 10,000 children are enslaved in brothels' and that 'in Nigeria girls and women are trafficked for forced prostitution to Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Cote d'Ivoire, and Benin' just gives me further impetus to keep working with the campaign. It is clear that by including such statistics in the book it is not just the corporate/consumer aspects of globalization that you wish to make known, but the effects of economic globalization in all its capitalist forms (trafficking included). Would this statement be true to say?
At the cold heart of capitalism is greed and if a profit can be made by buying and selling women and children, then this will occur. If a profit can be made by destroying the environment, then this will occur. I point the finger at capitalism because it is the system that represents our western world. It represents our ideology of greed. In another country, in another time, that greed would be represented by imperialism, colonialism, and all the varied versions of dictators from the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and China.

How important has the project been to you?
I think when you incorporate politics into your art, it is exciting when it comes from an unforced place. I had been reading news articles that fuelled my rage at the corruption of the world, so I presented this information in the ideal form of a chapbook which at the time I was experimenting with the possibilities of. It wasn’t that I sat down and thought “what should I do?” It was obvious. From there, the chapbook received such a positive response that it led to a full-fledged published book.

On a practical level, my author royalties are donated to the Canadian Centre for The Victims of Torture. Torture is yet another by product of greed.

Linked to the above, I recently read that 'In Northern Thailand families are pressing their daughters into the sex trade, not out of desperation but to meet consumer aspirations for a car, a new house, the latest TV'. And that of clients, 'It could be that the consumer culture dominating the world today is very good at teaching people that they want, deserve, *need* a certain product or service' (source: New Internationalist).
What are your thoughts on such abuse of human rights for the sake of consumerism, aspiration or assumed, deserved, on-a-plate access to anything people desire?

In general, I see a world resigned to giving up their culture, ideas and dignity in order to fulfil corporate consumer needs. Exploitation and corporatization go hand in hand. Making these links public is important if the slide to complete consumer debauchery is to be halted. Advertising has worked so successfully it has engrained in the average person the idea of entitlement to consume. Bizarrely, the wealthy have always had their sense of entitlement, now the poor have their own. What is positive is that not everyone buys into it. The shroud of advertising has not worked on all of us.

Without us stepping up, and stepping in now what are your fears for the future?
We must not believe the juggernaut of mass media and the empty diet it feeds us. It is never the whole story. I remain hopeful that more of us will forge are own futures based around original, creative ideas. It is all we can do. It is all we have. And that is a lot.

By producing a book, rather than conventional forms of 'activism' (for whatever that term means) such as standing for Government, protesting, or lecturing; how do you think the book acts as, and also how may/does it inspire audiences to act towards,*creative expression*and cultural activism*?
I know some people view politics in the narrow sphere of conventional forms such as political parties and demonstrations. Important as those activities are, they do not define all politics. My book is just one small example of cultural activism: I’m an artist, not an academic or a politician, yet I’m treading on that ground. I’m using my skill as an artist to combine art and politics. Judging by the reaction to the book, it has been a source of inspiration. Where people take that inspiration is up to them. I purposely avoided telling people what to think or do in the book. I’m no expert and I didn’t want to give easy answers. I leave that to the reader. The role of the best political art should be to inspire thought.

How important is underground cultural activism to you? How did you first begin to get involved in this form of important action?
I was influenced by my much older brother who was a sixties radical. It wasn’t that he gave me any direction, it was just that I lived in proximity to underground newspapers, political/cultural books and music that I never heard on the radio. I explored these myself and realized the world was so much bigger and exciting than what we ever receive access to in popular culture. That was the beginning of the end. I just couldn’t knuckle under to the mainstream in any form. All during high school I drew a regular feature on education for a youth liberation magazine out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After high school I worked on an international anarchist newspaper and then discovered punk rock…

How would you define cultural activism, and how would you define your own current work as cultural activism and thus instigator of social change?
Cultural Activism is to be aware, alive, thinking, and not accepting the world at face value. In my narrow sphere as a guitar player, book maker, painter etc… I view how I do things as important as what I do. My work can be viewed as much for its content as for its metaphor. In Mecca Normal, we perform our own form of music, undefined by ‘normal’ notions of what a band is or should sound like. I look at that defiance as cultural activism. It isn’t about bands or music, it is about how we can look at the world in different ways and how crucial it is to have that diversity of thought and ideas in all aspects of our lives. Plus it makes for a very exciting life.

The politics are not always obvious:
"It isn't always obvious what is political. Maybe making music with your friends is actually a political act in such a corporate world. It doesn't have to be explicit. You don't have to be making a statement, but you're making a statement by your actions. There's politics all over the place and it's often how people act and the choices they make on a daily basis."

This spoken word piece, and associated painted work (or visa versa) is some of your most thought provoking material for me, and is something I return to again and again when thinking abut what I do and why I do it. I remember you once writing to me, saying 'All these things we do (like painting, and your zine) infuse life with both excitement and dignity', and that idea is something I return to again and again when hit by feelings of not 'doing enough'.
How do the above quoted words, and the notion of all our actions-as-statements link to ways in which we / you personally can deal with obstacles: procrastination, perfectionism, the internal and external critics? Do the choices and creativities you make on a daily basis, outside of the corporate world, help you to believe in your political contributions?

I think my life has evolved in such a way that what I do in it follows a course of action of its own accord. By that, I mean it is normal for me to be outside of the corporate agenda. Over time, I’ve come to trust myself and know that the obstacles of procrastination, perfectionism and self-doubt can be surmounted. It is all part of the process that you struggle through while knowing the answers will usually rise to the surface. Trust yourself. You must also allow yourself downtime, time where you can rejuvenate. It isn’t being lazy, it is being thoughtful. You should care as much about yourself as you care about the world. I see that as political action.

Of course, that is what I’m trying to say with my painting “The politics are not obvious.” All around me I see politics in action, but it just isn’t always defined that way. I find it exhilarating that people can be quite subversive without rhetoric.

What does the word and notion of 'community' mean to you? And to what degree is community important to you in terms of partnerships, inspiration and confidence?
Because I’ve travelled a lot by being in a band I feel my community is rooted in cities across North America and Europe. I feel the closeness of that distance. Over the years I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve met in the quick moments of their hospitality. When they’ve provided a bed for the night, and a coffee and great conversation in the morning, when they’ve shared their ideas, lives and trust. Moments have turned into years. Without such a community there is only a shadow.

Alongside Jean Smith you co-ordinate and create lecture, art and
performance events called "How Art & Music Can Change the World" intending to inspire creative self-expression. The very name of these lectures alone fills me with such hope, especially given your and Jean's wholehearted belief in the statement. I know it's a huge question but how do you think it's possible that art and music can change the world?

The impact of art on social change is always hard to gauge. Art can be the heart of a political movement, it can function as a morale booster to those engaging in a political cause. Art can often articulate the collective emotions felt in a time of conflict and change. Art can aid the momentum of social change. Art can help activists with the emotional fuel needed to struggle on. We can learn from art. Art can break through the isolation that can come with political struggle. Art can instigate debate. Art can challenge our ideas. Art can let us know we not alone.
Political art often acts as an expression of society's collective grief or rage. Artists often react to the reactions of society.

We certainly know that those in power have historically feared artists ability to change the world. Otherwise why would successive states attack artists with such venom? Across the world today there are artists languishing in prisons. Recently a theatre group was arrested in Belarus for simply performing a play. History tells us of writers imprisoned in the Soviet Union and China; books banned in the U.S.A. and burnt in Nazi Germany; singer Paul Robeson had his passport revoked because of his political activity as an artist in the 1950s, Victor Jara was murdered by the military junta in Chile because of his songs in the 1970s and in the U.S. in 1917, the Espionage Act made it a crime to publish anything considered to be anti-war, such as urging men to resist the draft. Art has and remains a powerful challenge to the status quo.

Art is a clear catalyst for social movements. Think of the importance of zines to the Riot Grrrl movement; songs to the American civil rights struggle; the posters of the protests in Paris, 1968 and music to the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s. Graffiti everywhere. Even chalking on sidewalks to the suffragette movement of the early 20th century. This is just a small sampling of the depth of how art and music can change the world. This is why Mecca Normal continues to give our lecture and performance.

Also, how do you think that we as *individual* creatives utilizing our own self-expressions can help elicit this social change?
Artists are often at the forefront of political and social change. There is a long tradition of artists using their art to comment on the political events of the day. It comes with the territory of being an artist. History is full of artists who have found themselves thrust into a political debate whether they wanted to or not. It comes with life. To make art is to stimulate debate. Art whether specifically political or not can act positively to push the boundaries of culture. This provocation is the sign of a healthy society.

Within your work you have quoted Arundhati Roy where she says:
‘Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we are brainwashed to believe.’
Do you think / have you found, that being involved in so many artistic and creative mediums (skills sharing, music, instrumentation, performance, discussion, artwork, poetry, writing) has granted you a greater, more effective voice with which to tell your own story, and with which to deprive dominant narratives and hegemonic viewpoints some of their fire and fuel?

I think it is all I can do as just one voice.

Your “Inspired Agitators” series of posters is based on the philosophies of a selection of international activists whose vision and determination has personally inspired you. You have claimed that, ‘History is embedded with obstacles that must have seemed insurmountable. Yet, again and again, battles are waged in climates of indifference, hostility and brutality’.
To what degree is the Inspired Agitators series a lesson in awareness, and creating gateways to inspirators and agitators to prevent the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ due to learning of what has gone before us? I ask this as am willing to be honest and say that I was not previously aware of 50% of the individuals you have featured, and the work they have done.
What do you personally think can still be learned from history, from these individuals you credit; and thus why it was important for you to document their lives in this way?

It strikes me, (especially in regards to Arundhati Roy’s quote above) that the people in your series do not now have, or did not in their own lifetimes have the ability to tell their own story. How important was it for you to grant the individuals a more public retrospective voice, and thus allow access to the truths of these people's life stories?
I have always loved posters and I have always had a strong interest in political history. Many people I have admired are quite obscure. Not because they are unimportant, but because they are somewhat lost to history. My hope is that we can learn from history and be inspired by it. But as we can see, even in love relationships, we often make the same mistakes over and over again.

The key to my poster series is not that these are heroes, but that they are real, flawed people who stood up at a moment in history and took action. I purposely choose a politically diverse selection of individuals because I think that social change can come from individuals you may not agree with on many other issues including their personal lives. Social change can be messy.

People in my poster series include John Heartfield, one of the creators of photomontage. He is an inspiration because he successfully combined art and politics at a time of great danger to himself during Hitler’s rise to power. American Paul Robeson campaigned against lynching. Imagine living in a time when lynching was actively occurring and the general public took little notice. You have to act. Robseon did, amid great personal sacrifice. Or the obscure American Jessie Lopez De La Cruz who became an activist for farmworkers rights when she was 42.

When we create our own art, when we engage in activism it can all seem hopeless and obscure. But that is all the more reason to act. The people I’ve documented faced down that political loneliness. They didn’t know they would succeed (and some didn’t) but their desire for a just world propelled them on.

Right now, in September, 2007, artists in Oaxaca, Mexico are involved in the struggle against the repressive regime of Ulises Ruiz. Using video cameras, drawings and stenciling graffiti on walls, they are using their art to support their communities and bear witness to the government’s atrocities and provoke the world to respond.

To what degree do you believe that creativity is essential to well-being?
To be creative is to manifest thinking and feeling into expression. Of course I think this is essential to creativity in all aspects of our worlds, from our love lives to making a meal.

I have read you claim that, ‘Communication at street level has become a politicized issue’, and that, ‘the attempt to communicate has been made easier with technology, but does it mean we understand each other any better? Does media depict us any clearer? Is diversity of thought any greater?’
How do you personally think communication (whether the politics therein are obvious or not), linked with community action can help to remedy these difficulties?

I’m not sure where online ‘communication’ is headed. I hope it evens itself out, otherwise I fear that a kind of ‘communication fatigue’ will gripe the world and we will no longer value or trust our interactions. The key remains for us to tell our own stories, to depict ourselves rather than relying on traditional media sources. Traditional corporate media has usually always gotten it wrong, and with new technologies it is unlikely they will suddenly start to get it right. So it is totally up to us to create the kind of online communities that we want to inhabit.

Lack of accountability and honesty have been two areas that have served to undermine trust on the web. If we want to go forward with our art and our community, we are going to have to address this.

I also worry that all the art, music, photos and history we have lived, will be lost in the long term because it has been only made available online (lost because links don't work, domain names are lost, servers go out of business). Culture has become transitory. We must find a way to preserve our histories as well as create them.

One of my favourite paintings of yours is the one which proclaims ‘Ideas are not always to scale’. I came to interpret this painting (within my own experiences) to mean that with so much to do, and so much potentially to achieve and create, ideas can often become overwhelming. How do think it is possible to manage such ideas so that they are effective without facing burnout?
I always try to take on projects that I can see actually being accomplished. Now this doesn’t always work, hence the title on my painting. But even when the ideas are not completed, the process can often be the actual success. The process can be an important development that leads you to finish the next project.

Having too many ideas of the moment can also lead to a kind of inertia. Where to begin? Which road to take? I go over my group of ideas and pick the one most realized in my mind. Now in the long term this might not be the right choice but at least it gets me moving.

But it is easy to get downhearted with the overwhelmingness-of-it-all. It is in those moments when I go for a walk and look at the details of my surroundings. The facade of a rooftop instead of the whole building; one petal of a flower; the weathered cracks in the pavement; the earring of a passing stranger. These small details remind me that our art, our music, our ideas do not stand-alone, they are in some way all connected. To start out with a detail may in the end lead to an idea you could never have conceived of to begin with.

Lastly, where are you heading from here? I hear that you have a graphic novel in the pipeline. Are there any other future projects for us to look forward to?
Yes, I am currently writing and drawing a graphic novel that has become perhaps the largest single undertaking of my life. It is a book that deals with many of the themes we’ve touched on in our conversation. The book is called ‘The Listener’ and involves an artist, political activists, disillusionment and a small moment in history leading to a momentous consequence. The process of facing a blank page of paper every day has been both thrilling and a little frightening.
I also am collaborating with solo bassist Wendy Atkinson on an instrumental project of bass/guitar music.

Mecca Normal continues on with the writing of new songs. I feel we are doing our best work ever. We will perform at the opening of an underground film festival in Victoria, Canada next week. Both Jean Smith and I have films in the festival and for the first time we will perform live to a stunning 15-minute film Jean has made. She continues to amaze me with her work.

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