Dancing Power Up From the Earth
Luke Stewart in Conversation with Thomas Stanley
Luke Stewart: Can we talk about art and norms? Is radical art a questioning of normality?
Thomas Stanley: Whose norm are we talking about? What are the functions of norms in an evolving human situation? Where are we going? We know where we’ve been. We have a planet whose historical record is defined by its bruising collision with different systems of norms and ways of imposing those systems on each other. I wonder if normality hasn’t already slipped away as some kind of standard of what it means to be socially included, socially involved. It’s been fraying in certain subcultures for a long time, but something about the way the media has globalized all these different fringes, these eccentricities, has opened up this opportunity to talk across all sorts of ways that difference has been regularized, or attempts have been made to regularize difference, into invisibility. And we can talk across all those things and have not so much a united front, but an ability to resonate with one other’s perspectives.
We’re not all getting this Imperialism of the Normal—we’re not all getting it in the same way, from the same direction, but we’re all sharing the same experience. So, I don’t know if that has to become a “supernorm,” you know, some kind of new norm, or if the whole point is to evolve into some place where the responsible conduct of human relations exceeds what can be chiseled into a norm and brought down from whatever mountain of authority you claim that your norm came from. I think that we’ve worn that out, and where we’re going will require a whole lot more responsibility than norms have ever implied.
Stewart: What are the systems of being, the buildup to where we are now?
Stanley: We’re all in a lot of different places and the system of being starts individually. We don’t have really good language, aside from art, for talking about processes that begin with one node of consciousness, one individual who has to make choices and make associations and interpret where they find themselves as they’re born into one social strata or another, we have to be honest about what is going on I-in-I. You have a first order of responsibility to yourself, and integrity starts at home. You let yourself down and you create all sorts of turmoil for yourself. The system of being that you find yourself implicated in first and foremost is the system of just being here. The system of just really allowing yourself to be here and to be honest about how much strength and power there is in the courage of an honest witness of what is going on around you. When you bring that honesty to it, it means you have to look at everything a lot closer and you have to turn everything over a couple more times. Yeah, there aren’t any easy answers out here. System of being.
Stewart: Can we still think and act in terms of a community-based art? Is “the community” still an identifiable structure?
Stanley: Community—what we do together, who we are together. “Our” community and where that pronoun throws its reach. Which “our” are we talking about? Which community? The coming community? The one that will exceed the one that we are living in now, the various ones that we’re living in now? It’s possible that at the end of this period called history, the whole notion of community has also been superseded by new forms of association that don’t have to throw a boundary around themselves. Ultimately, how meaningful is it to talk about “the” community once we get interconnected on a planetary basis, and how do we get to that from communities that have to survive a condition of imposed war to be able to be a part of that expansion into these other, coming ways of being a human being?
That’s what’s at stake. That was what all the suffering was for, to give us enough plasticity to assume some new positions, some new dances, some novel orientations toward one other. So, I’m not sure: What does it mean when communitas has engulfed the entire planet and we’re now involved in interrelationships that have all sorts of moral implications and that don’t have anything to do with just human beings, or just human beings of this nation or that nation? You have to become limber enough to survive this shit. And by limber, I don’t just mean the part that ages, but the other parts have got to become limber, because the challenge is just that. The challenge is how much of any of this semantic architecture, this architecture about relationships and values and norms, how much of that architecture is really going to be useful in the position that we’re going to have to assume to turn away from the planetary emergency? So, art is always pulling us into the possible.
Stewart: Creative forces…what is the feeling, the spirit of creative forces?
Stanley: The Khoisan, they are in the Kalahari Desert, and they know where they are. And because they know where they are, they can dance power up from the earth and into their bodies and it’s heat, and it allows them to heal themselves and their communities, heal themselves psychologically and spiritually. It allows them to live out their life on a timescale in which their oppression and marginalization are less of a factor. Creative forces are finding your dance. Creative forces are a way of dancing power up from the earth, from the situation you’ve been put into in the cosmos, and to pull it into your body, because that’s what’s going to do it. Your body’s going to do what you’re creating. So, it has to be made out of something. You turn to what is good. The earth precedes all the frailties and failings of human beings and our complexities. The earth is true and is sure, and especially our urban artists must find a way to reconnect with the power that comes up from the earth. That’s there for you to create with. If you don’t use it to build with, someone else will.
Stewart: Is there a relationship between ownership and the imagination? What’s mine?
Stanley: Jac Jacson1 told me that the key to understanding Sun Ra’s concept of the myth is to understand that the myth was that thing whose truth value was not related to its enormous consequence in the world. Ownership is a myth. Ownership is a myth. The worms will eat your body and prove that ownership is a myth. And yet, it’s a powerful myth out of which empire is built and over which your ancestors and my ancestors were uprooted to make something to own for other people. All of these things are just that volatile and expungable—the way acetone evaporates in the heat. This kind of society has to be very cool to keep all these lies locked into place so that you can call all those lies as they lock into place a civilization. The artist puts heat on that and it gets brittle and, oh, the emperor has no clothes, the empire makes no sense. And you see it and you feel it and that’s liberation. That’s something—when you do that for someone, for a friend or a stranger, you’ve done something.
Luke Stewart is a musician and organizer, based in Washington, D.C. and living in New York City, with strong family ties to Detroit.
Thomas Stanley (a/k/a Bushmeat Sound) is an artist, writer and activist deeply committed to audio culture in the service of noetic (r)evolution. In 2014 he authored The Execution of Sun Ra, a critical response to the cosmological prognostications of the late jazz iconoclast. His doctoral work examined Butch Morris' art of conduction as an extended meta-instrument opening unexplored avenues for musical pedagogy and ensemble consciousness. Dr. Stanley is a professor of sound art and critical theory at George Mason University.
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1James Edward Jackson (1932-1997) played percussion, bassoon and flute in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. He famously carved, constructed, and was the sole player of the tall, upright Infinity Lightning Wood drum that dominated Sun Ra’s stage setup. Based on a numerical interpretation, Sun Ra encouraged Jacson to spell his first and last names without the customary ”K”.