"Hippo Banana," April 22nd, 2017. Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:24:58.
Matt Freedman: Thanks for coming. Thanks Larry. Thanks Perry, thanks Richard for letting us perform in the middle of this wonderful show. We had envisioned that you would use of this sitting wall to be part of our show, but I think that people looked at it and thought it was not a place to perch for more than the length of the actual films. It was calculated quite brilliantly for just that purpose. But the stories that are embedded in Perry and Richard's videos and the animations were part of the germination of this project, the idea of the reflecting stories and then this grotesque absurdist narrative threading through them w
It was something I was actually thinking about even before, because last month there was another wonderful show here that we thought we were going to perform in the middle of, but we didn't. Then it was Susan Silas’ images using mirrors. and I began looking into mirrors and the history of mirrors and Heterotopias has and looking glasses and inverted worlds, and a character popped up who had a thread to some earlier stories and then threaded forward to our present stories. A German chemist named Justus von Liebig, the father of organic chemistry and one of the leading educators of his time who developed a system for applying silver to the back of glass without using mercury, which was driving people crazy the same way it drove people crazy when they made hats or-I suppose half the people in the room have listened to S Town on the PBS podcast and you know--that using mercury to apply gold leaf also can drive you crazy. But Liebig came up with the safe system for mirror plating that wasn't used till after his death. But he did a lot of things that are interesting to us, and will be interesting to us as we go along.
But the story actually begins more or less with an accident. A slip on an icy surface, almost glasslike, in Philadelphia. It was a late snow. Philadelphia is in a constant state of uproar, repairs, cycles of decay and reconstruction. And I was walking on this plate of icy steel that covered a hole. I slipped and almost fell. And as I came nose to the ground, I saw a slice of tomato, and then another slice of tomato, and then a leaf of lettuce… in this consecutive order. Even though it was taking place in space, there was a kind of dramatic temporal quality to it. You immediately began, or at least I did, after I regained my equilibrium, to reconstruct the event that must've caused this, which was someone walking down the street with a hamburger and without much sense of social fabric, did not want the mayo or the lettuce. So they dropped the tomato slice, took a step, dropped the second slice, and then the lettuce. Somehow thinking about this gave me tremendous satisfaction; that I had somehow looked through time to see an event.
But then it occurred to me that I was being somewhat egocentric in my analysis, that I was assuming that the walker and I were going in the same direction, and that the tomato would've been the first thing that would drop. This would only occur if you were eating a hero sandwich, which in Philadelphia, is built with tomatoes on one side than the cheese and meat or whatever on the other side and then the lettuce on top, so when you open it up, conceivably you could take the lettuce off the tomatoes and throw them on the ground and then the lettuce at the end. But in the classic hamburger, which I had been envisioning, the lettuce is on top, the tomatoes are below and then the hamburger is below that, so that in fact you would have to be traveling in the opposite direction, I think, in order to achieve the effect.
I don't know what’s more satisfactory, more satisfying; to think about one solution or the other, or the fact that you can occupy your time idly by speculating about this past event by these three objects left on the sidewalk, which I had almost stepped on. It did cause me to pause though and look up at a statue that I passed many times on my walk from the bedroom I rent in Philadelphia to my job, and it's outside an old person's home; a gigantic, depressing space. The sculpture is of three old people carefully balanced for gender and ethnic histories, and they're sort of dancing. They have their feet up, one foot is up, they’re holding hands. And what makes it especially depressing is that it's a fountain that is never an activated. So they're standing on a kind of a platform and there's a system of pipes underneath and there's a kind of a pool painted that sort of faded blue that you're not supposed to see when there's water in it. And then the figures are actually not cast metal, but are welded together in slats, so that there are holes between a series of lines and spaces in their pants and dresses. And I think the arms are welded together, but it looks like what happens is when the fountain is turned on, the people are short of spritzing all over the place. I don't know if that's in fact true, because I've never seen it on.
On the edge of the platform that the dancers are on are the words “Come grow old with me. The best is yet to be.” This is one of those phrases that you can't remember if it comes from a song or a poem. It sounds pretty good. So course, it's from Robert Browning the famous 19th century Scottish poet. And it’s actually quite long. The first stanza is the one that we know, “Come grow old along with me. The best is yet to be. The last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in His hand who sayeth, ‘ A whole I planned.’ Youth shows but half. Trust God and be not afraid.” Which was, I think the part that we mostly read, but it's actually a poem about a 12th Century, Rabbi Ben Ezra. And it's a little bit more complicated. It's about a man looking back on his time in dealing with what it's called, the theistic paradox, which is that his life--although the Ben Ezra was one of the most distinguished thinkers of his time--this man, pondering his life, is recognizing that the things that didn't go right are perhaps the things that made his life worthwhile: “A paradox which comforts while it mocks. So life succeeds in what it seems to fail, what I aspired to be and was not, comforts me.” In other words, we don't really know what we want and we. Better make the best of what we get, I guess.
The other thing that I was thinking of, as all the consequences are coming together, was the fact that if the random beginning of a story that begins with an accident, and if it would begin with this idea of a slip, it would probably not be a slip on an icy patch or a tomato. It would be a slip on a banana peel, which seems like the most obvious beginning of this sort of random history. And when I look up banana peels, it turns out that banana peels are in fact extraordinarily slippery. They have a friction quotient of 0.0 A tomato has a friction quotient of 0.05, An apple peel is .2. Rubber on concrete 1.0 So the actual likelihood of slipping and the banana peel is quite low because of the gel which forms when you compress them, which is now being researched for use in replacement of lost liquid in joints.
This liquid that the banana peel creates that changes its viscosity is known as a no-Newtonian Liquid. Newtonian liquids, as Newton noted, like water vinegar honey, are more or less consistent in the viscosity. They always remain about the same level of slipperiness. But a non-Newtonian fluid like banana oil or yogurt or blood or mucus or semen or ketchup changes its viscosity in relation to stress. I believe the formula is N equals T over Y: N being the apparent viscosity, G being the sheer stress, and Y being the apparent stress. Now, if you plotted it, it would be sort of like this.
Now some fluids, like a ketchup, become more fluid when stress is applied. That's why when you're holding a bottle of ketchup upside down and doesn't come out until you're whack it and then it liquefies comes out and then solidifies again. You can make this material if you're interested--and this was another thing that began this whole story--We were at some friends’ house and their daughter Allie was making Slime. Everybody about the age of 13 now is making slime. And if you're interested, you just use Elmer’s Glue and Tide. It's actually borax is what you want. You combine these together. You put sparkles and if you want, or you can use clear Elmer’s Glue to get Clear Slime and some coloring. And if you really want something exciting, you can add magnets, little magnetic shavings to it. A this stuff is quite fluid until you until you manipulate it and then it becomes more solid.
It was marketed as Slime when we were kids. It's actually also called Flubber, after the material that the absent-minded professor invented in the 1961 film, which I will not go into, but it's quite fascinating. Flubber is in fact “Flying Rubber”. It has nothing to do with-- it is a non-Newtonian fluid--- but has nothing to do with the stuff that the kids are making. The change in viscosity can work both ways. So sometimes it gets softer, more fluid when you stress it, and sometimes it gets harder. An example of the hardening fluid would be Magic Mud or Oobleck. The actual name comes from a Dr Seuss story, Bartholomew and the Oobleck about a boy living in a kingdom who works for a king who is bored by the constant rain and wants something more to come down and so it's a kind of a saga of hubris . His wise men invent Oobleck, this gooey stuff that gets into everything, and the King has to say he’s sorry and he’s wrong and he's happy with rain if it comes down. You can make Oobleck if you want, with cornstarch and water. It's a pretty remarkable material because it is fluid until you compress it and it becomes hard, so you can actually make a pool of Oobleck and walk across it, which makes you wonder if Jesus had something up his sleeve. There is an idea that you could make a Oobleck armor. You could walk around in this stuff and it's soft until you get shot and then it hardens and it protects you, except that’s not going work with cornstarch. So the theory is good, but they haven't figured out how to weaponize it. But I'm sure they will.
The Idea of things coming down from the sky that we're not really interested in or knowledgeable about, has an interesting and long history. 1816 was known as the Year Without Summer. All over the world, the winter persisted deep into the summer months. In the northeast it snowed in June--in Massachusetts. There were famines in Switzerland and riots in Germany and Ireland. Nobody knew why, but there were odd results; incredibly bright sunsets. Turner's famous sunset series from that time with their bright yellows is sometimes thought to have been partially caused by that strange year. It was so rainy that vacationers had to stay inside the whole summer.
On Lake Geneva. The Shelleys and the Byrons and the Polidoris sat around, unable to go outside. So they wrote ghost stories to entertain each other. So we have Frankenstein and the vampire, the first vampire story, and most of Don Juan were produced because of this cold, miserable year. What it was, was a volcano in Indonesia called Mount Tambora that erupted and spread ash into the atmosphere that blanketed the earth and caused a drop in temperature as the sun was blotted out for an entire year. But nobody knew about it at the time. Just 70 years later, there was a somewhat smaller eruption not so far away when Krakatoa blew, but by then the system of communication had advanced to the point that everybody knew and Krakatoa and it became celebrated as the most enormous eruption in modern time, which it wasn’t, although apparently it made the loudest noise ever heard ,3000 miles away.
There was a 13 year old boy in what is now Germany--he was a Hessian--who also suffered from the famine of 1816. And it was our friend Justus Liebig. He was not the Baron von Liebig yet, but he began a career at that point that was dedicated to the erasure of limitations on growth of plants and animal husbandry. He was not a farmer, but he was a leader in the debate at the time between the Humus Theory and the Essentialist Theory, a materialist theory about a nutrition. For thousands of years-this was Aristotle's theory-that plants thrived when they were given organic material to feed on. And the idea was that there was something in the organic material that the organic growing material responded to in a way that could not be replicated with inorganic material, and that in fact, you just needed to sort of nurture these plants with as much material as you could in order for them to grow.
But as early science of organic chemistry grew, certain proponents, like a man named Springel and then more popularized by the more famous Leibig, began to argue that there was no difference between the materials, say potassium or nitrogen, that were needed to grow if it came from manure, or if it came simply from chemicals that were introduced into the soil. They developed what was called the Law of the Minimum, which also attacked the holistic idea about how plants grow, which is that you needed all the nutrients in order to thrive. The Law of the Minimum held that plants survived in relationship to the least available essential vitamin. So it didn't matter if you had plenty of nitrogen, if you added more nitrogen, but if you didn't have enough potassium, then you wouldn't thrive until you've got enough potassium. He used an interesting visual cue--others, I guess, after him did--The Liebig Barrel, made up of different levels of staves. It shows that the capacity of the barrel is only as much as the smallest stave in the barrel. If you increase this, then you've increased the capacity, and then the next lowest stave will become the determining limiting factor in the in the capacity of the barrel. It's sort of the weakest link of the chain theory. And in fact, this was very effective in eradicating the immediate causes of plant starvation in agriculture and it's obviously had a tremendous effect in the way that we grow plants to this day.
Liebig had another cause, which was to supply meat to as many people as possible. Meat was in short supply. Something called the Meat Question began to permeate debate in Europe and North America as populations grow and urbanized and the amount of resources available to grow cattle shrunk. So the same problems that we may be thinking about now go back 200 years. Liebig thought people were preparing meat improperly by boiling it and he felt the nutrients in me at were in the juices as well as in the fiber were being lost when it was prepared in open kettles. So he advocated closing the kettles to cook the meat and he also felt like there must be a way to make meat available to more people than could afford a big steak. He thought if he could reduce meat to an extract a kind of an intense syrup of meat, then it could be bottled and, and given out. So he developed Liebig’s Meat Extract, sometimes called Meat Tea or Liquid Beef. It was a great idea, only it took 30 pounds of meat to make one pound of Liebig’s Meat Extract. And it wasn't actually that nutritious, but he was already so famous that it became a popular brand that was stolen from him. Everybody was making Leibig’s Meat Extract, and Liebig sued and it was held that he was sort of like Kleenex or Coca Cola. His name was actually in the public domain, and it was up to the buyer to beware of all imitators of Liebig’s Meat Extract. Eventually he gave up and began to market the extract as a comfort food. Big pots of liquid beef that you could pour. People invented different dishes that would accommodate themselves to this liquid beef.
One thing I've discovered that was very strange is that our interest in meat was so particular that in 1865, an editorial written in the New York Times specified that on that day 4,075 head of cattle had been brought down from Albany, and the day before a 5,514 cattle had been brought down and that the meat suppliers were actually squeezing the butchers in Manhattan in order to raise the price of meat one penny. They were watching so carefully that they knew exactly how many head were coming into the city and how many pounds of beef were being made available to people because supply was in such demand. This was also during the Civil War, which probably complicated things a little bit.
Which brings us to ketchup again. Ketchup as we know it comes from kicap in Maylasia, which is a liquidfied fermented fish sauce that was very popular and then spread across the British colonies by travelers, eventually reaching Great Britain and North America. The fish part became less and less significant. Basically instead of fermenting fish, you can use vinegar and salt and sugar and you would add oysters and then walnuts, mushrooms. Mushroom ketchup. Apparently--Kate is this true ? Mushroom ketchup? Never had it? Damn, I was told that you can only buy it in English shops here, I'm going to look. Jane Austen apparently loved Mushroom Ketchup. Ketchup is just a sauce. Tomato sauce It was not very popular because canned tomatoes, you may remember as a member of the night shade family, was suspected of being poisonous. In fact, there's an apocryphal story that somebody tried to assassinate George Washington by feeding him a tomato soup. Apparently, that's just a short story that somebody turn into fake news, but tomatoes were somewhat held in suspicion. And so boiling them in reducing him to this mass actually made it more and more popular.
I actually had a cousin Dave, who tried in 80s or 90s to sell ketchup, a kind of early gloomy ketchup. He called himself Cousin Dave’s Kickin’ Ketchup and he wore a flannel hat and try to pass himself off as a kind of Vermont backwoodsman, even though he was a Jewish guy from Boston are because those all days before Brooklyn took it, this or things from Vermont were considered to be healthy and delicious. And so he went all over the country to these food conventions where people would try to peddle their specialty foods and he dressed up like this and he tried to sell this fancy ketchup. The high point of his career was wind his ketchup was included in the Harvard Business School's textbooks used as an example of what not to do because nobody would spend extra money on ketchup because it was not a gourmet item. They might spend it on other sauces like mustard. The ketchup was considered so declasse that no one would ever pay extra for it. He was determined to prove the Harvard Business School wrong, but at least in this case they were not wrong and he went out of business soon after that.
Another byproduct of the world’s Year Without Summer was the loss of many of the horses that were relied upon for transport at that time. And among the more ingenious solutions was that of a man named Drais in Germany. A Draisine was an early version of the bicycle was an early version of the bicycle. So early that it was basically a wooden board attached to two wheels with a little padding and then an elaborate breaking system. The way it was operated was you would sit on the Drasine and then just run and then, I guess, lift up your feet and then glide and try not to hit anything and try to work the braking system as best you could. It was actually quite popular. Exactly the same people liked the Draisines as like skateboards and inline skates now. Obnoxious young man who like to careen through crowds and scare people. There were actually laws, I think, that were passed to limit the places where you could ride these things. But technology was on the side of the bicycle and within a few years pedals had been added to the front to provide more reliable propulsion, and then a gear system eventually. So that by the end of the century, the same natty young men were riding around on familiar looking bicycles, including Alfred Jarry .
Alfred Jarry was a young man from the provinces who, in addition to other remarkable attributes, was extremely small, tiny guy, and when he was in the French Army, which at the time had big hats and very macho uniforms, they refused to let him march or parade with the other soldiers because he looked so absurd in his teeny little outfit that nobody fitted for him accurately. Which was probably just as well because Jarry was an incorrigible iconoclast. He was apparently a wonderful, charming guy, but forerunner of the absurdist Dadaist movement by about 20 years. He was an athlete actually. He was a duelist and he was kind of obsessed with the bicycle. He wrote a story called The Supermale. He wrote some beautiful stories. He had invented a concept called pataphysics, which is beyond metaphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. And so in The Supermale, all these men are eating a food, a perpetual motion food that allows them to race against trains in teams of bicycle riders. He wrote a long story on how to create a time machine, which was based on the system of a bicycle that you would pedal there were geared systems in all three dimensions would rotate. And he actually was quite sophisticated about what was known at the time about the space time continuum. And the idea is that this machine will allow you to step outside the flow of time and you could move backwards and forwards by staying in one place.
The thing that he's known most for these days--- he died at the age of 34 of tuberculosis---was a play he wrote he was 23. It was based on a show that he and his friends had made in high school, about an unpopular teacher named Herbert or Hubiere. And this Ubu Roi, the story that Perry and Richard have accessed in their stories and animations. Ubu Roy is this monstrous character, grotesque, fat, endlessly evil. And hungry for everything; for power, for food. The story is based on bits and pieces of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. It’s about a man groping for power, being urged on by his wife, killing whatever he can. But it was presented in such an outrageous form that it was closed after one performance. The first word you heard, “merde”-- “shit”-- caused a 15 minute riot. Yeats was there and he said, “This is the end of the world. Art is over now.”
All right. One down. Oh right. Sorry. Drum solo.
Kicap, the fermented fish sauce from Indonesia, actually had a precursor, perhaps not directly connected, but there was a sauce called garum that was exceedingly popular during the Roman Empire. It was made in a remarkably similar way. First you would lay fish guts down, and then a layer of fennel and celery and oregano and salt and then some more fish guts and then more celery and oregano and then more salt and then fish guts. And you would let it sit there until it all liquefied into this miasmic ooze which you then would ladle onto food. And depending on how pure it was, it could fetch very high prices. But it was controversial because some people thought it was the most disgusting thing ever made and some people really liked it. We actually owe garum for a lot of what we know about Mt Vesuvius’s eruption that buried Herculean and Pompei, because when they uncovered the cities in the 19th century they found a gaum factory filled with the entrails of a particular fish, the Bogue, cow-eyed in Latin, a very wide-eyed fish that was only harvested during late July or August. And in fact, they are pretty now sure that's when the eruption occurred. That wasn’t the only thing they discovered when they were digging through Pompeii. The other was an amazing--their eyes--preoccupation with phalluses. Pictures of men with large penises. Priapus, the god of fertility, is always pictured with an erection that sometimes he needs a stand underneath or something holding him up. There were windchimes made giant penises with things hanging out. This was all put under lock and key because it was considered unsuitable for sensitive people. Only educated men who could read Latin learned how to have access to the secret museums that held these objects. Of course, they had sort of gotten it wrong. This was not so much erotica as a form of fertility worship, although it's probably fairly erotic too.
We know a lot more about the destruction of these cities because Pliny the Younger, a historian, was on the other side of the inlet. Pompeii is on this bay. Vesuvius flowed into these cities and covered them up. It took several days actually. And Pliny’s uncle Pliny the Elder, who was an admiral and a historian himself, sailed into the bay to try to save some of his friends after the initial destruction of ash. He didn't realize that there would be a secondary surge of this volcanic material; highly liquified Non-Newtonian material moving at a hundred meters a second. It came in just as the uncle’s ship arrived and basically incinerated everybody who was left, leaving the spaces behind. But Pliny the Younger was watching this from far away and in letters he wrote he describes in great detail the effects of this destruction of the city. Vesuvius had erupted many times before, and in fact, there were a number of earthquakes that sort of proceeded this eruption. So there was ample opportunity for the inhabitants to move. But of course, human nature being what it is, everybody accepted what was happening as the norm, and it was not until it was too late that they realized that this was a cataclysmic, world ending event.
In the 19th century, there was beginning to be a growing notion that we had perhaps reached a point of no return in our expansion and exploitation of resources. The Meat Question was just the beginning of it. There was a notation made that in North America as the population had grown, every problem had been solved by expansion west. In 1816, the year of no summer, the farmers in the Northeast just picked up and moved to the Midwest where there was richer territory to be gotten. In fact, Joseph Smith had been living in Vermont and moved to New York, which was west to him, where he discovered the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni. So the Mormon church comes out of the eruption of Mount Tombora in 1816. But expansion continued to the west until, by 1900, we had filled up the country. People looked around and discovered that in the previous couple of hundred years we had wiped out the Bison. We had wiped out the Carrier Pigeon. We had begun to wipe out all the Redwood Trees and the Codfish. They thought, “Is this it? Have we actually reached a point of no return where we will have to change the way that we live or is there some solution that can save us from ourselves?”
And their answer, of course was yes, there was a solution that we could save us from ourselves. A congressman from Louisiana named Broussard and a famous scout, a man who is all about forgotten today, but I'm confident you hear his name shortly in various adventure movies, named Russell Burnham, concocted a plan to save America from its burning Meat Question and also solve an ancillary environmental problem on the way.
Russell Burnham was almost zen-like in his ability to endure pain and privation. He taught himself to go for weeks with very little food or water. He could lie still and disappear into the landscape. He had been taught all these tricks by older scouts. He was born in about 1860. As a young boy, I think as a two-year old, he'd survived an Indian attack by lying in a heap of wet new green corn as a building burned down around him. He didn’t move until his mother found him after sorting through all the green corn and there he was abe he was saved. He said that was his first lesson on how to be still. He was a bit more than a bit of a classic American racist colonialist. He went to Africa to fight in the Boer wars on the side of the English. He believed he was bringing-as did many of these men-that he was bringing civilization and Christianity with him to the far corners of the world. He went off on gold mining hunts in Alaska that didn't work out. He looked for oil in Southern California, which did work out.
But the thing that we're interested in now was the solution that he and Broussard and some others came up with for the Meat Question, which was to bring hippopotamuses from Africa to the United States and dump them in the bayous and swamps of Florida, Alabama and Louisiana where nobody could go. It was unproductive land. But he could tell, Burnham said, because he'd been to Africa, that that was exactly the kind of place hippopotamuses liked. In addition to bringing hippo meat to America, Broussard was very eager to solve another problem via this manipulation of the environment. The River Hyacinth, this beautiful purple flower, I think that come from Japan years before, as a gift of a dignitary, had become all the rage in the United States. But it turned out it had no natural enemies in the Everglades and the swamps down south and it began to choke off waterways and deprive fish of oxygen. And so there was a serious problem all over-- which continues to this day--of how to get these damn flowers out of the water. Every time they raked them back, they would just grow back in. Brossard’s brilliant idea was to bring in all the hippos and throw them in the swamps where they would eat the flowers. And then the harvesting system was that gentlemen like Burnham and Teddy Roosevelt, who would go down to the swamps and shoot them and then there would be an endless supply of meat for a hungry Americans.
The only problem is they saw it was the make people like to eat hippopotamuses. They realized their only problem was that people were basically really backwards and uncreative. Burnham didn't really care about food and could eat gravel so he wasn’t very sympathetic to culinary objections. He had an additional argument. He knew that a few years, decades before, another visionary had brought camels to the American southwestern desert on the theory that they did so well in the Arabian deserts, so why wouldn’t they be a highly practical form of transportation and freight bearers in the American southwest? And in fact, it was true. They were very good at surviving in their new American environment. The only problem was they were bought for the army and no soldier would be caught dead riding a camel for exactly the same prejudicial reasoning Burnham felt that nobody would eat a hippopotamus. And in fact they released the camels into the wild when they proved to be unusable and Burnham came across them, some the surviving descendants of these camels out, in the desert and they were doing great. Burnham said, “if we could just have made people ride camels and we could just make people eat hippopotamuses we would overcome all the problems that ail us.” But alas, neither ever caught on.
The solution to Liebig’s meat extract problem did not come from the continent of Europe. It came from South America. A business associate informed him that in Uruguay and Argentina millions of pounds of beef were being thrown away. Cattle were being slaughtered to make leather and there was no market for the meat. It was falling into the garbage pits. Leibig set up slaughterhouses in South America and had a source of cheap beef, which was then shipped back to Europe to make the delicious beef extract. The funny thing is that Liebig’s company did very well using Liebig’s name, but it was eventually turned into the Oxo Corporation. Oxo I believe comes from the oxen that were responsible for much of the content of the beef extract. In fact, if you go to London today, you will see the Oxo Tower on the Thame, right next to the Tate Modern Museum. if you're going to the Tate Modern, just walk up river a few hundred yards and you'll see this tower. Advertising was banned on the river, so they overcame this by making an art deco tower that said OXO on it in the windows in glass mosaics imbedded in huge circular and square windows. The effect is very beautiful. While the factory has closed, you may recognize the name Oxo; it became a beef bouillon cube company, and then it eventually moved out of London altogether. But now this old building is used for all sorts of creative activities. I once went to a symposium on the art of drawing and storytelling in the Oxo Tower, without any knowledge of the wonderful history it had built on liquid beef.
This pivot began to South America with the American supervision, in the name of food safety, of the construction of these slaughterhouses and Uruguay and Argentina. This I continued a policy in the United States to control this hemisphere that began with the Monroe Doctrine, the first assertion by this country of its control of the area. It was basically a warning to European powers to stay away from any part of the Caribbean and South America, which we considered our realm of influence. This was further developed about 120 years later by what was called the Roosevelt Corollary, which held that in addition to saying that you couldn't come in here, that we would actually consider “outside” intervention on South America to be an act of war.
It wasn't until 1933, when Teddy’s cousin Franklin determined that there was a need for a better relationship with the south, that the Good Neighbor policy began and the United States began to draw back from its military interference with the goings on in South America and to try to develop better policies that would involve the exchange of goods and culture with the south. During World War II in Europe, it was seen in Washington as essential to have as many allies as possible and also to have as many markets as possible since so many had been cut off by the war. What's interesting is it wasn't just selling food and goods, but cultural exchange was very important to them.
Hollywood signed on. John Whitney, one of the most powerful and wealthy man in the country was interested in the movies. He became the head of the field office that was designed to make movies that would both appeal to North Americans to think better of their neighbors to the south and to convince southerners that Americans liked them. The muse of the good neighbor policy was a famous-in-Brazil performer named Carmen Miranda, who was a superstar in her home country, but completely unknown in the United States until she was brought in and she became a star here as well. She's known for, of course, her headdresses covered with fruit; bananas and strawberries and everything else, on a tight scarf. At the time she was a huge in Brazilian, but she was actually born in Portugal. She was a European. She was a wonderful woman, a fairly progressive character. But what she was doing was wearing the headdress of the Bahian women. The Bahia region is an area in Brazil where a lot of Brazilians of African descent lived. Slavery in Brazil ended only in 1883.
There are areas of Brazil which were and are heavily populated by Brazilians of African descent. The women of Bahia wore very tight head scarves and they carried fruit and other containers on their heads. Carmen Miranda was basically wearing a caricatured version of this traditional indigenous African inspired headdress, and at the time she was attacked by some white Brazilians for appealing in their eyes to a lower cultural standard than they wished to be seen in the west. And now of course she's seen as a bit of a cultural appropriationist. I regret not being able to bring in a picture that a friend of Jude's gave to her when she was in Brazil of Carmen Miranda dancing with Cesar Romero. She's wearing her headdress and he's throwing her in the air and her dress is spreading out in a beautiful spiral around her and her legs are splayed and she's not wearing any underwear. It's somewhere in the bowels of our house and if I ever find it I will show you.
The first movie that she made in the states as part of the Good Neighbor policy was The Gang’s All Here. I won’t go into the details, but the plots of all those movies were about creating goodwill between people. It was directed by Busby Berkeley and it's famous for the song and dance number The lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat, which took place in a nightclub and is still worth watching. All these women are holding giant bananas in their hands and waving them up and down. And apparently the Board of Censors made sure that they didn't hold the bananas like this. They had to hold the bananas like this, and they were shot from the side and below. There's a beautiful shot where the banana holders are sort of in a circle and the bananas point in like this and then they spin out together, you know, like a giant kaleidoscope
Then you are inside the circle and you see this array of women sitting, facing out like this. These are their legs and the ones on the outside are holding giant strawberries and they lean forward and the strawberries come in at the same time as the bananas fold in and their legs are scissoring back and forth and it's quite mesmerizing. But if you watch it long enough, there's a detail that jumps out, at least to me. Two of the women whose feet are meeting like this, as they scissor in and scissor out, their feet lose contact with each other and you see you in the middle of this perfectly choreographed dance two feet out of sync, fumbling madly for each other, trying to touch each other. They hit and then they slide past each other.as giant bananas fold over them and all is obscured, but I always wondered what exactly happened when they were going through the rushes. Did they miss the mistake completely or did they say, “Well, there's no way we can afford to reshoot this whole thing. We'll just leave it in.” Or did they say, “Oh what the fuck. It's kind of cute.” Maybe no one noticed. Maybe it’s just me. Carmen didn't come to a good end. she drank too much, took too many pills, went down to Brazil to try to dry out, died of a heart attack at 46. Not to bring anybody down.
You may know that the main bananas we eat now are called Cavendish bananas, and people who like to complain about such things say that they're not as tasty as they should be. Cavendish bananas, bananas in general, are an interesting example of the dangers and wonders of monoculture. Back in about 1899, a Boston sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker loaded up a ship in Jamaica with bananas. Bananas, I believe, come from Asia. In 327 BC. Alexander the Great brings them out of India and transplants them in Africa and they spread all over the world because they're very tasty and they're very hardy and they're very easy to grow as it turns out. But they were almost all consumed by local populations, until Lorenzo Baker loaded up his ship and sailed to Boston and sold out his supply of bananas at 1000% profit within days. Bananas could be sold for about a fifth of the cost of an apple. You got two apples for 25 cents, but you could get a dozen bananas for 25 cents, which is I think was worth about $3 at the time. They were very popular.
The banana that was most prevalent in Jamaica at the time were called the Gros Michel, the Big Michael banana. They were very big and very hardy. They ripened slowly. They were sort of the perfect banana, incredibly sweet. And so when Lorenzo Baker went down and began to bring them back to Boston he had a big market. Then he and his employees began a plan to dispossess indigenous people from their land and then rehiring them at lower wages to grow and harvest his bananas. This all came to a bit of a crisis in the 1920s, when a blight wiped out the Gros Michel population. They had been manipulated to reproduce asexually so they could no longer interbreed them to find a defense against this fungus. The race was on to find out a banana that was more hardy.
The Cavendish banana is actually named after the Earl of Cavendish who had some bananas that he had taken from some other place was growing in his greenhouse. They're not as sweet as the Gros Michel. And they're actually not that hardy. They have to be carefully nurtured. They bruise easily. They need special rooms to bring them to ripness before they can be sold. But they are not, or were not, susceptible to this particular blight. So they replaced the Michel. Interesting that some people when they taste the Gros Michel feel that they are much superior to the Cavendish, but other people say they taste fake, like banana candy. It turns out that bananas owe their flavor to a very simple compound called isoamyl acetate, which tastes exactly like bananas. You can actually fabricate it exactly artificially, as Liebig did, in the laboratory and create something that tastes like banana. Gros Michels bananas are almost purely made of this stuff, whereas Cavendishes have other flavors in them. So they're either too sweet, or they’re superior, depending on your taste.
Of course, now there is a new blight and the Cavendishes are now succumbing and we're revisiting this age-old debate. There are scientists who want to inject genes into existing bananas that will make them resistant to this blight, this particular blight, and there are others who feel that we have to figure out how to grow many generations of bananas and cross pollinate them until we get a banana that is naturally resistant to all of these depredations. But since bananas no longer have seeds, you have to go through literally a million bananas to find one seed that you can then experiment with, which is providing employment to people smashing through bananas.
The Day-O banana boat song that Harry Belafonte sings as a celebration, is actually a work song that helped the men who lifted and threw banana bunches into the holds of a ship do their work all night long. Six, seven, eight foot banana bunches. They were enormous and heavy and it was hard work. And there's a reference to a tarantula. There's actually a banana spider which has the most venomous spider venom in the world and it causes, among other things, extreme priapism. You get an enormous erection and then you die. Just saying,
I asked my brother Josh if he had any banana stories the other day and he said, no, except for the time that he worked on a banana plantation. I said, “What?” Turns out my brother worked on a kibbutz in Israel, growing bananas among other things. He told me how it's done. First, there's no such thing as a banana tree. In fact, the banana is not a fruit. It's an herb. I guess it's an herb. I don't know. It's world’s biggest herb. It doesn’t have a trunk, but a pseudo stem, which are tightly bunched leaf stalks. They grow only about seven feet, ten feet tall mostly. And then it flowers and the flower turns into the banana bunch, which is made up of hands. There are something like a dozen hands, and then 20 fingers on every hand, which are the bananas. There are like 240 bananas on every bunch that face upward in a tight cluster.
Josh said the way it ws harvested was that three or four-probably American ecotourists-would stand under the banana plant while an Israeli chopped it down with a banana machete, which is shorter than a conventional machete. When the stalk began to tip, they actually punched a hole through the banana stem. The bystanders would catch the banana brunch as it came down and then the machete person cut off the stem and then they threw it into a truck. All the bananas they were harvesting were eaten in Israel, he thought. He said they could only use green bananas because any ripe banana that was harvested was going to go bad before it got to market, so they were free to eat as many bananas as they wanted in the field.
By the end of this he was sure he would hate bananas, but he didn't hate bananas. I don't know if there's a message in that for us, but you can apparently eat as many bananas as you want without ever getting tired of them.
Here's your big chance. (Tim sings Yes We Have No Bananas)
It's very appropriate that Tim Spelios sings that song, because the original banana song begins, “There's a Greek on the street who sells good things to eat.“ It's actually a slightly racist anti-immigrant song about this Greek guy. He says, “Yes, yes yes we have no bananas,” because he doesn't speak English so good. So he starts every sentence, “Yes, we have no bananas.” It became a very popular. It was a worldwide hit. In fact, one of the most interesting things I read about it was that during food riots in Belfast in the 1920s, when for the first and perhaps only time in the century Catholics and Protestants rioted together on the same side, there was only one song and that they all knew that was it all appropriate as they marched, so they sang “Yes, we have no bananas.
The other important person to think about when we think of bananas is Josephine Baker. She was a woman from St Louis who moved to Harlem to dance and then moved out to Europe. She was a very strong, independent personality and she didn't like the racism in the states. She moved to France and became famous in France and in Germany between the wars for a dance in which she wore only 16 rubber bananas as a dress. It was a very strange dance. It's erotic but also oddly comic. She crosses her eyes at one point in the song and she started doing some form of a Can-Can, but she was a big hit. She traveled back and forth to the states, but was largely in Europe for most of the rest of her life. During World War Two she was a spy. She worked for the French Resistance, the underground. Because she was a big star, she was able to tour to the independent countries, the non-aligned countries in Europe, Portugal and Spain and Switzerland and she carried secret messages in invisible ink in the, and the musical scores that her band used. She also hid information in her underwear because she said she was Josephine Baker and no one would search Josephine Baker’s underwear, which turned out to be true.
She started a club in Paris called Chez Josephine, where you could go and “Shake off your troubles like a dog shakes off its fleas,” she said. After the war she adopted a rainbow family: 12 children from Africa, Asia, North and South America, and she tried to raise them in this sort of utopian environment. She was also very active in the American civil rights movement. She was the only woman officially on the speaking roster during the famous march on Washington. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Coretta King approached her in the Netherlands and asked if she would take over leadership of the American civil rights movement, but she declined, saying that she had to raise her family.
Her son, one of her sons, not one of the 12 but a kind of a shady character who associated himself with her, actually opened Chez Josephine in New York, you can go have a lunch there before or after a show on 42nd street. He tried to create the feeling of Paris in between the wars was lots of rich food and I think there's music at night too, but I haven't been there yet.
Howard Hughes during the last stages of his madness, when he flew around the world and never set foot on earth, was addicted apparently to banana nut ice cream from Baskin Robbins. When he heard that they were no longer producing banana nut ice cream, he bought according to legend the remaining thousand gallons of the ice cream so he would never be without it. That made me think about the appetites of men who have unlimited power; what they would eat. Pol Pot ate Cobra stew. Mussolini ate fried garlic. Hitler was a vegetarian, although he apparently eat birds. Idi Amin ate 40 oranges a day to increase his sexual powers. He was known as Doctor Jaffa. Salazar ate bone soup.
The companies that Lorenzo Baker founded to sell his bananas became United Fruit, which at one time controlled vast territories in Central and South America. The term Banana Republic was coined by O. Henry to refer to unstable countries that were under the undue influence of American business and military powers. The 1928 in Columbia a Worker's Movement developed to try to give banana plantation workers eight-hour work days and five or six day work weeks, and to free them from being paid in food stamps that basically kept them in perpetual bondage. The executives of United Fruit and the ambassador wrote to Washington saying there was a communist plot underway in the country and Washington wrote to the government that unless they did something about this we were sending in the marines. This is before the Good Neighbor policy went into effect.
And so a Colombian general set up machine guns on the roof surrounding the square where a huge crowd of workers were gathered for a Sunday mass and opened fire. Somewhere between 50 and 3,000, depending on whose count you relied on, were killed. Three thousand workers were killed and their bodies were thrown into the ocean. Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude writes about a fictionalized version of this event in the book as part of this endless cycle of violence. The past surges up into the future in the form of the structure of the magical realist novel. The metaphors of the ghosts that visit all of the inhabitants become reality.
My friend Pawel, who's a practicing Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, is trying to educate me on the concept of the six realms of rebirth. He describes it not as a cosmology, but as a form of psychology, whether or not you buy this as a modernist trope or not, it's a beautiful image. You either live through these cycles endlessly or we experience them as endless cycles in our own lives.
When you're in heaven, when everything is going well for you. He said this is when you win the Guggenheim. Only a few of us can attain that, but this is a good time.
Then the Titians. The Titans are sort of demigods who have power and privilege, and yet want more, so they're in a continuous state of desire and unhappiness.
Then the Human state, which we would live our lives in without the glories of a kind of God like status, but with the potential of rebirth. It's in some ways the happiest stage to exist in, if you either reborn into it or as you cycled through it.
The animal stage, it's sort so the lower stage of sort of bail, you just simply functioning without a sense of purpose.
The lowest stage is hell where you are in torment, not for eternity, but in some for agony either from past sins or because things aren't going well.
You can also stand outside this in a kind of state of enlightened disinterest, but you're also not part of the sort of cycle of being.
But this part was most interesting to me. The hungry ghost. Hungry ghost are creatures real or metaphysical, who exists in a state of intense, perpetual hunger and they're represented with giant distended bellies that symbolize their endless desire for more, but they're frustrated by their teeny necks and small mouths that don't allow them to consume as much as their desires urge upon them.
Before I saw an image pf a hungry ghost I had had this picture. They are depicted sort of more conventionally with a head like this, but this form of a being, a tiny head with a distended belly, oddly enough, connected me to an almost inverted creature in American folkloric history, the Shmoo. The Shmoo if you’re old enough to remember, was the creation of a particular man, a genius cartoonist named Al Capp, who in 1948 create a very short cycle of stories surrounding a creature called the Shmoo. He was Jewish and it was obviously a play on schmo, but a Shmoo was a slightly bulbous bowling pin or phallic-shaped creature that only lived to make humans happy. If you looked at it with even the slightest degree of hunger, it would die of happiness and then you could fry it and would taste like bacon or you could grill it and it tasted like steak. You could also peel its skin off and it made fine shoe leather or you could carve it into boards and build houses with it.
It had no bones, so there is no waste. You could use its stiff whiskers as toothpicks and its eyes made perfect buttons. They reproduced asexually and when they were discovered, they solved all human problems. Endless food, endless shelter, endless friendship was available to anyone who could get a Shmoo and since the Shmoos were so fecund and it was only a matter of time between all before all the world's problems ended. So, of course forces of capitalism marshalled themselves against the Shmoos and Shmooicide Squads were sent out to assassinate all the Shmoos in order to reassert economic stability in the country. In fact, they were all wiped out except for two who were taken to a valley by Lil’ Abner where perhaps they're reproducing again, awaiting our return. This became in the era before actual promotion, such a phenomenon that everyone had Shmoo buttons and there were Shmoo societies. It touched a chord that we have not seen since, but unfortunately no one has found the Schmoo since.
Pawel had one more lesson to teach me that seems interesting in light of everything that's gone before. It's the Parable of the Oxherd and the Ox, which is a thousand-year-old story. It is actually taught as a series of pictures. The oxherd represents humanity, and the ox is the universe or the concept of undivided reality.
When we first meet the oxherd he's searching for the ox without finding him, representing a kind of thirst and ambition for meaning, which is not to be satisfied.
Then, in the second image the oxherd finds footprints. He knows the ox is there somewhere, but he can't see it. He's beginning to get a sense of what's needed to find enlightenment.
In the third image, the oxherd actually sees the ox from a distance.
By the fourth image he's caught the ox. So now he seems to have learned enough to approach truth, but he's wrestling with it.
He tames the ox in the fifth image and he's able to lead it docilly by the nose.
In the sixth image he's actually riding the ox, so he's achieved some sort of ability to master himself and his desires and he's beginning to merge with his truth.
By the seventh image he's beginning to transcend the understanding that the ox needs to be possessed and he’s living happily, having forgotten the ox all together.
And by the eighth image, he's forgotten himself as well and is represented as a null entity.
The ninth Image. He's returning to the source. He now realizes that the search that he was on to find meaning was always there in front of him and there is no distinction between the metaphysics of the space around him and the world he inhabited.
by the final image is going back to town arms swinging, fully reintegrated with the world, but ready to transfer his knowledge, his enlightened self, to his fellow beings,
In closing, I'd just like to apologize to my sister Johanna, known as Nana, for calling her Nana Banana all her life. As a child it caused her much distress.
Thank you very much.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
© 2020 Matt Freedman
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