Zen & the Art of American Revolution



Brian Unger asked me to write “some kind of aesthetic-philosophical commentary on Zen art in America” for this issue of Zen Monster.  It is a daunting subject, but I had actually been waiting for someone to request this. We go on distracted in our lives jumping from thing to thing, and in my case, being a polyglot NYC artist, it’s a constant barrage of people, news, politics, deadlines, concepts, people & more people.  I feel lucky to live for creative ideas yet am often feel scattered; there are richly descriptive details all around, but I’ve frequently lost the plot. Here was a chance to put the pieces back together and find out where they might lead- like an archeologist assembling shards of an ancient map. And Zen, Art, and America are three of major pieces of my life.

I grew up in the Tassajara & Green Gulch monasteries; a world of shave- headed characters moving about within uniquely temperate landscapes, letting us kids grab handfuls of organic dried fruit from the kitchen walk-in fridge whenever we wanted.  Besides grabbing dried fruit, my hands were always drawing (no tracing!) and gradually I became aware that the term “artist” was used to describe what I loved to do. Then, as I got older, as I experienced Ronald Reagan’s cold war (youthful contemplation of annihilation by a flash of light), the first Persian Gulf war (narrated by KPFA radio in Berkeley), the farce of the 2000 election, and so on, and I gradually came to live in a place called America.

Among People of our nation, humanness and wisdom are not yet widespread, and people are warped besides. Even if they are given straightforward truth the elixir would probably turn to poison.

Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)

 I love America and  I’ve got to admit it’s been pretty damn good to me (Zen monasteries, little league baseball, California sunsets, Prospect Park) but there’s been a nagging problem in my life: America smells bad to me.  The new car smell, the air freshener, even the occasional incense may attempt to mask it, but my nose picks up the stink of blood & fear. We hear that the country was built upon a foundation of mass slaughter and a booming slavery economy involving millions of human beings but this barely makes us pause from our ceaseless activity.  How could it? One can’t change the whole world and certainly not events that have already passed, one must be realistic and go on with life and so on. But I have always been sensitive to the present-day legacy of America’s sad past.  The odor nags at me and occasionally it stops me in my tracks.

When I was a teenager and did landscaping jobs in the summers, my vision of the Bay area rapidly changed.  Working alongside a crew of Latinos, I noticed the underclass of nearly invisible Mexicans and Central Americans who do all the manual labor in the Bay Area. The mind is amazing: It was as if this transplanted population appeared to my eyes all of a sudden in white pickup trucks with rakes and shovels and pickaxes in the truck-beds-or standing in working lines on the street.  I then noticed that San Francisco, that shining & foggy city that everyone loves, was clearly and precisely divided along class and race lines. The Bay Area was supposed to be idyllic and progressive, but to me something didn’t smell right, and it made me feel disconnected.

Today, I find these legacies alive and well in my new home: New York, and it’s famous “art-world.”  Art is a calling (I hesitate to say profession) that has no inherent boundaries or hierarchies-I believe this. Creativity opens you up. Yet within the so-called “professional art world” I keep running into walls constructed in the open space. From what I can ascertain, they are medieval attempts by those that got it to keep out those that don’t: real simple stuff.  Is this just the order of things naturally? I don’t think so.  I believe it’s all related to a mortal fear of failure (which I’ve identified in myself) but which is also quite clearly the organizing principle of the galleries, museums, and mental space of so many artists in New York. It’s my opinion that this is actually a temporary state; a weather pattern which is compelling and complete in the way that when you’re in a fog you’re completely in it- but then gradually- or rather quickly-you’re not.

And what a shame about this fear fog, because there could be a vibrant and deep collective practice & flowing conversation using all the visual and conceptual tools at hand. These days rapidly evolving technology could completely revolutionize vision and the senses in the way pioneered by Laurie Anderson. She believes that art will evolve to become a playfully vast space; a pure sense research where we can discover and rediscover the joy of feeling; a few hundred years in the future we won’t need art objects. But in the same recent lecture, Anderson mentioned that invisible dollar signs float above the heads of today’s culture crowd and I agree.  America culture on a big scale devolves into a vapid luxury market, a feeding frenzy obsessed with self-promotion. And it’s addictive.

To evoke Allen Ginsberg, I’ve seen the best minds of my generation… sucked into this BS, including my own.  I believe my experiences in the art world of New York are simply a microcosm of what has become a pretty nasty corporate American culture; a foul-smelling hungry offspring of the Indian murders and slavery mentioned earlier. And it’s long been for export so that when I say America- I mean everyplace. This is why America smells putrid, and that’s my rant. What am I going to do?

America is not a young land. She is very old. Before the white man,

before the Indian, the evil was there, waiting. 

           William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

So that’s the bad news.  The good news is that creativity, wisdom and connection remain within reach. A few years ago, I discovered that I needed to sit, (like many people who grew up inside of a religion, I wasn’t too interested in Zen for many years), and found the Brooklyn Zen Center a few blocks away. In my first sesshin [retreat] there, about twenty people sat together in a small brownstone apartment and I was struck with an art-idea.  First, I should say something quickly about the kind of art I’m involved in.  I build motorized light and sound environments- certainly a low tech way to create spectacle in today’s virtual world, but the point is to jar the mind into really experiencing the machine itself which is so much the backdrop of our experience. We walk the triumphant march called progress in their honor, but machines stink like the shit of ancient dinosaurs and worse- they create and wage lopsided wars, they are the best and worse thing about us, and I’ve been magnetically drawn to them in my artwork.  Anyway, back to the sesshin.  After days of silently grooving-in with fellow sitters for zazen [meditation] tea, meals, and soji [temple cleaning] I realized that we had become basically a human machine. When the sesshin ended with a ceremony, I saw that this was particularly true: everyone in the room whether ringing bells, offering incense, chanting or bowing, became part of a larger structure- a collective body performing in the space. I could describe the ceremony as mechanical and precise, which it more or less was- but the feeling of connection in the room was quite the opposite.  It was light and free and full of wonderful sensual experience- a living work of art.  I wondered whether one might make sesshin-art.  

You were born, and so you’re free, so happy birthday.

Laurie Anderson 

My attempt aimed at the feeling of being in synch.  “Electrical Forest” was a human-powered assembly line that produced leaves. I made it with the help of hundreds of volunteers up in the Rust Belt city of Troy, New York. It required a work shift of twelve people to sync up in a giddy rhythm; a zone where everyone depended equally and totally on the other to keep playing. And it took on a life of its own. Over time I realized that the assembly line was like a musical instrument, and that each shift of volunteers played it with their own pitch and melody. Memories, graceful imperfections and humor added soul and texture to the tune.

At first I didn’t see the political implications of the work but that has changed.  

No one is free until everyone is free.


I made Electrical Forest in 2009 and now it’s 2011, and since then that American smell has taken on an intriguing complex aroma. There are notes of a horrible stench of fear that seems totally out of control.  Teaching in an art school now, I sense that students are preparing for a dog-eat-dog world; quite a different vibe than what I felt only 15 years ago when I was in their place.  They sense that the middle class is disappearing in America- they’d better “make it” into the security bubble or else they’re totally fucked. 

On the other hand, I smell hints of an incense of surprisingly sweet fragrance.  I think it wafted over from the Middle East- ironically the dreadful realm of terrorists in the American mind for many years.  Now a true popular revolution unfolds there: a massive human project to throw off the imposed culture of fear.  And however it turns out, remember that Egyptians did it: they stepped outside of themselves and found each other. Egyptians marched into Tahrir Square as one body, embracing a powerful collective spirit that relates in some ways back to that first sesshin I sat in Brooklyn.  Just as in Brooklyn, the Egyptians practiced soji, meticulously sweeping the square; removing trash; taking care of the space. Volunteers emerged to cook for the protesters. And like sesshin, the protesters had to stay still for a long time to get their work done, and they did by synching up together.

We Americans have a lot of work to do in order to make it to our own Tahrir Square.  I’m about to risk sounding clunky & hardheaded, but my friends already know that I am so, and I want to say the following: I truly believe that justice is a total farce in this country when not a single banker went to jail for the biggest planned robbery in history while jails are clogged with minorities for petty crimes and police set-ups. I believe that the money that you hold in your hand is stolen from the labor of the poorest.

And finally, I believe that democracy may be a thing of the past- elections don’t matter when people’s minds are polluted with garbage.  American’s collective grey matter (my Facebook-addicted cortexes especially) has exploded into a whole galaxy of slow-release marketing concept, celebrity, political ideology & pleasure/anxiety rollercoaster rides- there’s little real-estate left for thought, practically none for intuition. And all this stuff is self-perpetuating & viral which means that bigger problems lie ahead. Our reality is a highly branded, face-lifted terrible smelling delusion coving up a terribly sad world that we must change.  It is not okay to create an ever more fearful world for future generations. To bring down this fear, we’ll have to start working in earnest to change our minds & find more tools to cut through fear so we can inhabit our whole minds, & bodies, & world. Nothing is more important.

Art and Zen are two types of research into the mind’s conditioning.  For millennia, paint, ink and stone objects have revolutionized vision: color and space.  Paintings mocked the aura of powerful personages, film punched holes in movement, time, and national narratives. Revolutionaries found their big voice in the theater, poets used words to fragment and demystify political rhetoric.

Today, when every human quality is commoditized into a potential market, when money and power flow in only one direction — up, when nearly all space is subject to privatization, including social space, we have got to find the free, open,  and public space inside of the mind and out.  We have got to come together be powerful.

Americans, Wake up!

American Zen Practitioners, practice kinhin in the streets!

American Artists, paint on endless Freeways and skyscrapers!

Stand Bravely in the Square!

You are Not Alone!