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04.16.2004 An Evening With Disinformation

OK, it's my turn now to talk about the Disinformation evening last Friday in NYC.
The event, held at the CUNY Graduate Center, was well attended though not packed by an audience quite varied in terms of gender, age, and appearance. It featured a few select clips from the Disinformation DVD, along with speeches by Disinformation co-founder Richard Metzger, Douglas Rushkoff, Joe Coleman and Howard Bloom.

:: Richard Metzger ::

Metzger as MadGhoul.com noted was "at home in front of the audience" and delivered his opening keynote with ease, quick wit and a good dose of humor. It was a golden opportunity to listen to the Wicked Warlock himself tell the full story of Disinfo's "great corporate media swindle", or how the notoriously conservative CEO of TCI (now known as AT&T Broadband) was persuaded into spending 1.2 million bucks to finance the Disinformation website. Later, he would realize what he had done, reportedly refer to the site as "anarchist bullshit", and get rid of it by giving it back to its creator.

The story has, of course, been told before, but it was a real treat to hear Richard tell it from the beginning, complete with anectodes and witty quips (which at times had the audience laughing uproariously). What's more, he gave it full context by referencing how the ideas behind Disinfo (the series and the site) were conceived. From such perspective, the whole endeavor takes on the connotations of an intensely personal story almost like a work of art, through the medium of... a corporation. And that in turn lends personality to the company itself, one that for about 8 years has been providing me and plenty of other aficionados with tools for bending, hacking and expanding our cognitive paradigms. In all this time, I had never taken as satisfying an overview of how it all started, developed and changed over time and across such years of powerful social/economic mutation as the early spread of the Internet, then the Dot Com boom and the Dot Com crash.

Last but not least, that tone of mischievous glee with which Metzger related the whole TCI episode, by itself tells volumes about Disinformation's vision and raison d'etre. Too bad it can't be encoded in HTML and put on Disinfo's about page.

:: Douglas Rushkoff ::

Following this very enjoyable keynote, Douglas Rushkoff took the stage and casually delivered what I can only describe as a truly classic speech of the epic, stirring, eye-opening variety. Others have characterized it as preaching, and I would agree that it was but in a very positive way. Rushkoff clearly drawing upon insights deriving from his Jewish religious background powerfully tore through the surface, to address the soul of several of the issues that Disinformation has tackled throughout the years. Issues like the fallacy and limitation of traditional media, its being transformed into a huge influence and propaganda machine; "a media space in which facts are disappearing", where merely listening to a bunch of opinions clashing and neutralizing one other is taken as a, uh, 'fair and balanced' way of getting to the truth.

He proceeded to comment on recent efforts by the Left to confront the Right at its own game of media manipulation, influence and compliance; such attempts being often accompanied by the justification that "it's a tough electorate out there" and, in the Realpolitik ballpark, propaganda is the name of the game so at least let's play "for the good guys". Rushkoff questioned, then rejected this entire premise; he convincingly drove home the point that the game really worth playing is waking people up, and not putting them to sleep "even if they're going to dream in the way you want them to dream". He reminded us that everything we know is not wrong: only most of it, because we don't really know it, but rather we accept it on faith. And on that note, he concluded with a statement which is worth quoting in full (emphasis added):

'Well, I don't think we can live in a faith-based society anymore, because the people concocting the stories that we would like to believe in do not have our best interest at heart.

The only thing we can do, at a time like this, is having the courage and compassion for one another to collaborate on the stories we are living together. And to do that, we've got to take over a certain part of the media.

We've got to find one another.
However bizarre the circumstances under which we meet in order to conspire lovingly together, we have to do that... and continue to write, just write our stories together, and see whether or not we can and maybe we can't, but we can at least die trying whether or not we can bring more truth into this realm.'


:: Joe Coleman ::

Next, a man known as The Apocalyptic Visionary Painter, the deviant orator seen delivering a sermon on how humanity is a cancer at Disinfo.con (just before blowing himself up on stage); ladies and gentlemen, need I say more enter: Mr. Joe Coleman!

Joe's bit was remarkably different than the explosive performance at the Hammerstein Ballroom event 4 years ago. It was... understated, almost; although the powerful impact of what he was saying, coupled with the slides of his paintings projected behind him, sustained quite a strong emotional space. I thoroughly appreciated his honesty and quiet openness in discussing himself and his art two subjects that really cannot be separated. Joe Coleman the human being sans the cathartic theater we've seen (and appreciated) before was well visible, exposing himself, and offering us an opportunity to get to know him better.

He described the personal pain that his paintings come from, and how he arrived at extracting such amazing images out of it. He spoke of his childhood, and of the early influences coming through his Irish Catholic mother, who through the stories of saints and martyrs convinced him that there must be something very holy in pain and by extension in his own pain. To Coleman, painting is inextricably connected to pain, and viceversa.

Particularly interesting were the explainations of his artistic process one bit I hadn't heard before: he begins every one of his paintings without sketching or planning anything beforehand. He says he wants the painting to tell him what it is and what he is. So he begins painting, with his single horsehair brush, by completing a single square inch; and then he proceeds outward, without having a clue what the completed image will look like. At this rate, one of his paintings might take a year, but at the same time it will be a sweeping, non-linear and unpredictable meditation through images spanning many aspects of his life, weaving threads inside it, stitching dozens of pop-culture and occulture references into it along the way. "There's truth in faith", says Joe, in another ironic tip of the hat to the Catholicism of his infancy the faith of trusting a painting to come to life even as he abandons all attempts to control the composition, focusing only on the smallest details at a microscopic level.

And this, my friends, is just one small insight in the darkly twisted, deliciously raw world of Joe Coleman. This incredible contemporary American artist, whose work has been shown with that of Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch, whose degree of mastery (though decidedly not the classical sort of mastery) cannot be doubted, also talked about his being kicked out of art school. Those of us that have had their brush with the academic 'art world' could easily relate to his stories about the obnoxious, oppressive narrowsightedness often shown by art teachers. Naturally enough, this has been Coleman's destiny for long after his school days: pretty consistently rejected by the mainstream art scene all along, Joe has recently been excluded even from the New York Outsider Art Fair. Yet another example of the gulf that seems to every time insert itself, by default, between 'mainstream' and 'fringe' culture and such gulf, incidentally, is one of the many fields of study that interest the next guest speaker at this Disinfo event: Howard Bloom.

:: Howard Bloom ::

The author of The Lucifer Principle, a book that has been praised very highly by Richard Metzger and featured time and again on the pages of disinfo.com, closed the event giving a brief speech his first in Manhattan in about 15 years. Long kept bedridden by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the brilliant scholar and former music PR legend seemed to be in pretty good shape Friday night, as he briskly walked onstage, to sit next to Richard Metzger around a small coffee table.

Bloom's research in the field of "mass moods and cultural convolutions" to use his own words, strangely accurate in their generality is groundbreaking. His approach to human mass behavior is wide and unorthodox enough to include connections ranging from the microbiological world to the social interactions of sea anemones. Studying humanity, he came to see our race as genetically divided in "super organisms", sort of macro colonies locked in an eternal conflict that serves certain evolutionary purposes and which is hardwired in every single one of us. In other words, according to Bloom, there is no way to eliminate the impulses that lead to war, racism, strife and evil in general. But, provided that we first accept them, there are ways to turn these impulses into a constructive force by consciously integrating them. An example of this might be the conflict between Americans and Japanese turning from the actual war with the nukes, the kamikaze, the dead, the wounded etc. into the fierce economic competition that followed it strenghtening both countries instead of hurting them both.

Not the least controversial of all theories, I'm sure we can all agree. But that, by itself, is not really what shook up those sitting in the audience at the Disinformation event, ultimately pushing them to engage in direct dialogue with Bloom, questioning his statements and demanding him to back them up in more thorough ways. What got the audience was that Bloom's speech, kickstarted by a question about his book The Lucifer Principle, soon turned into a full-blown (and very heartfelt) rant with Howard painting in vivid detail the impending danger that he believes faces mankind, and particularly Western secular democracy.

He spoke of the Pakistani atomic bomb, developed in recent years and now worshipped almost as a god in the region, and of the danger of Pakistan building its own nuclear submarines with technology acquired from France. He railed against the evils of radical Islam, how it does not believe in our values, and so on. He did so viscerally and emotionally, on issues that are quite emotionally charged already, point blank, in front of an audience that in all likelyhood was expecting a rational and intellectually detached lecture. I don't think anybody should be surprised that he rocked the boat a little.

Bloom was clearly speaking from a place of genuine concern, and said he was trying to "warn people" and to "save lives". His concern for genocide, and how to stop it is what motivated him to start researching these issue, and what still drives him. There is no doubt in my mind about that, and personally I find his point of view very much worthy of consideration even when expressed in such an incensed rant. However, it appears clear to me that the dissenters in the audience did have at least one point: Bloom dropped the bombshell of "impending doom", then sort of indirectly suggested some kind of preemptive move to stop the danger of the Pakistani submarines, and left it at that. Well, sorry, but nobody can make that sort of statement, at a time like this, and then leave it at that saying, "I am not a military man", "I don't know what the right policy should be" and so on. Responsibility for those words is bound to be demanded, feelings are bound to be stirred and clashing opinions to be invoked. And quite frankly, as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing. Controversy is a fitting note to end a Disinfo event on and besides, even during the most heated moments, the atmosphere was more one of intellectual stimulation and humor than one of anger and degeneration of dialogue.

:: Conclusion ::

I left the Graduate Center thoroughly inspired by this highly unconventional event, and feeling fortunate to have been able to participate in it. Disinformation once again delivered the goods, once again it was able to commit another "random act of higher revolutionary mutation". What the three guest speakers had to offer blended into a strange cocktail that happily and quickly got under my skin framed by Richard Metzger's narrative and vision, Ruskoff's, Coleman's and Bloom's contributions packed an undeniable cultural wallop.

With Douglas' exhortations to "take over a certain part of the media" in order to "find one another" still ringing in my ears, I walked away with the clear cognition of having experienced something real, something with a precise intention: waking me up and jolting me into an active state, one of greater participation in the co-creation of the reality around me. Stimulating a greater cognitive "literacy". Pointing once again the way to reclaiming of the media, that may allow us to reclaim authorship of the reality that we share.

All this and more may be found during an evening with The Disinformation Company, Ltd... If such things are your idea of a nourishing intellectual meal, you are probably starving out there so follow the network, let's find one another, and once again start bending reality.