A lone black man stands on a desolate mountainside. Over the course of repeated attempts to scale the height, he falls again and again, but returns to the climb in spite of his injuries. As he climbs he hears the sound of a traditional African-American work song; it rises and falls along with him. As evening closes in, the man pauses for a final attempt. The indignity of an unseen force holding him back – knocking him down – is challenged by his determination and the history (represented by the song) he carries within his body.
This performance was staged within the video game Grand Theft Auto V by Matthew Ballou in April 2020. Grand Theft Auto V is a 2013 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. All players start the game as an African-American character named Franklin Clinton. Centering a black male body as a main character in the game is significant in a variety of ways. By dislocating the only playable person of color from the criminal activity that the game encourages I decontextualize the purpose of the character and suggest other narratives for his existence.
Performed by Matthew Ballou in GTAV on an XBOX One, April-June 2020.
Featuring “Big Boy, Can’t You Move ‘Em” by Uncle Bradley Eberhard. Florida WPA Recordings, 1940 (AFC 1940/011), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/flwpa000375/
Miyoko Ito’s work has such intense gravity for me. In the midst of the high strangeness of our time I find solace in her works.
The only major professional goal I have left is to work on an exhibition or book about her work. It is a crime that we have dozens of books on the likes of Richter or Pollock but really only a single TINY volume on Ito – and it’s currently out of print.
I first encountered Ito’s work in person at the Roger Brown House in Chicago in the fall of 1999. I spent a good deal of time roving around the Chicago area to see all the Ito’s that are available in and around the city.
One of my main teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was Barbara Rossi. Rossi is an incredibly influential artist and educator who knew Ito and impressed me with her own work and her knowledge of the contexts surrounding art making in Chicago.
In 2015 I got close to arranging an exhibition of Ito’s lithographs but could not secure proper funding and loans of works. I’ll try again sometime soon. In that process I began to correspond with Vera Klement, a contemporary of Ito and a paragon of Chicago art. Via email interviews I got some fun backstory on the life and times of Ito, Rossi, and Klement. I’d love to get the chance to explore these artists and their works again.
My favorite podcasts of 2019! I provide these in no particular order, but know that these are the podcasts that elicit a “I must listen ASAP once I see this in my podcatcher” response.
Click on the images to go to their sites.
These three are among my go-to podcasts about true crime. There is a consistent quality to these pods. They engage different parts of the world, focus on different aspects of the narrative, and provide unique access to varied levels of life experience. Casefile is perhaps the most serious, though both it and True Crime Garage showcase great research and preparation.
TCG’s end-of-the-year series on JonBenet Ramsey brought something new to that case, and made me rethink what I thought I knew. Also, their investigation of The Delphi Murders was powerful.
Casefile is – to me – the premiere Australian true crime podcast. An excellent team of researchers, evocative writing, and a perspective that highlights the real people at the center of these horrific stories make it indispensable. To see for yourself, check out the Beth Barnard story in Case 80.
I love discovering podcasts that you just HAVE to binge. You NEED TO KNOW. You NEED to follow the story. When it comes to this, I think there are a number of AMAZING podcasts out of Australia and Canada that REALLY do this well. Someone Knows Something, a podcast by Canadian award-winning filmmaker and writer David Ridgen is particularly strong (currently between seasons, but see Season 4 – from 2018 – especially).
CRIME, COMEDY, CRYPTOZOOLOGY, UFOLOGY, HIGH WEIRDNESS, UNCANNY VALLEY, ETC:
The LPOTL crew is pure joy for me. Henry, Marcus, and Ben are hilarious and irreverent, yet showcase great research and a well-crafted perspective on everything strange and uncanny. Just listen to the Spring-Heeled Jack episode (151 – Horrors of the UK) to get a feel for this essential podcast!
STAR TREK NERD ALERT:
I’m not even a little embarrassed to say that Ben Harrison and Adam Pranica have the Star Trek watch through thing locked down. Their expertise in film production and great mixture of reverence and willingness to poke fun at all things Trek make this really enjoyable – and hilarious – listening. Check out Episode 132: Captain Potter (TNG-S6E7) to experience The Greatest Gen in full effect.
THE REASONS WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS:
I listen to a bunch of political/current events/history podcasts, but these two are among the best. Robert Evans (follow him on twitter) runs Behind the Bastards. His intense journalism in war zones around the world led him to start profiling the bastards who have made the world the way it is today – from Jerry Falwell to Muammar Gaddafi. One of the most disturbing episodes was The School That Raped Everybody. You need to be in a good mental space while listening to that one. As Robert demonstrates, always keep your bricks, machetes, and bolt cutters handy.
Knowledge Fight is such a niche thing and I’m totally confused as to why I love it so much. I mean, a podcast breaking down the insanity of Alex Jones? I think part of the interest for me is that the hosts have a funny repartee batting Jones and his stupid conspiracy theories into the ground (like that scene in Casino).
Some years I do a year end list or two (Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011). Why not? I mean, 95% of the lists out there are lame, so why not throw my 2 cents in to the hopper?
Top Songs of 2019 (which may or may not have been released in 2019)
Here are the songs that have dominated my Spotify listening the last year… If you’d like to take a listen, click on the Spotify Playlist Link here.
Timebends by Deerhunter from the album Timebends (2019)
A sprawling, rambling, operatic jam, this track is a phenomenal breath of fresh air. At nearly 13 minutes it has enough room to breathe and transform as it goes. It is a joy to take in.
Cop Killer by John Maus from the album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of ourselves (2011)
I discovered this ethereal, weird song while watching Russian Doll this year. The oddly (and almost cliched) vampiric delivery of the transgressive lyrics force a detached, otherworldly vibe.
Doin’ Time by Lana Del Rey from the album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
Lana Del Rey is phenomenal mood-maker and NFR! is a great effort. I’m drawn to many songs on the record, but this is quintessential LDR. Bartender is also a standout track. My only real low for this album is the horrible cover art; get a graphic designer, Lana.
Tiberius by The Smashing Pumpkins from the album Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
Tiberius signaled a real return to form as the lead track on William Corgan’s reconstituted Pumpkins lineup in 2014… though I didn’t experience this album until 2019. It might as well have been recorded in 1996 for all the melodic bombast and lyrical melodrama it contains.
True Dreams of Wichita by Soul Coughing from the album Ruby Vroom (1994)
Mike Doughty‘s Soul Coughing made some of the most unique and catchy tunes of the 90s. True Dreams of Wichita – like many of the songs Doughty has written – is loaded with imagery and visual/linguistic puns. The phrase turning paired with a sharp evocation of location and emotion is just good poetry.
Pitch Or Honey by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)
Neko Case is nothing short of a national treasure. Outspoken (follow her on twitter [@NekoCase] for some serious fire) and totally aware of her power, Case brings intensity from the first note to the last on the Hell On album. Pitch Or Honey is the perfect song for an artist like me; the refrain “am I making pitch or honey?” is a question all creatives – indeed, all people – have to ask ourselves. I want to make sweet sustenance, not just crap to gum up the works. Neko knows.
I Only Play 4 Money by The Frogs from the album Starjob (1994)
I was introduced to this legendary shock/lo-fi/weirdo-rock band from Milwaukee, WI in 2001 while ensconced in the woods between the town of Saugatuck, MI and Lake Michigan. It was a strange time. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this song and the number of versions where the likes of Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan sing and play on the song. Go to YouTube and just search for the track to discover these funny, chaotic iterations.
Best Shows of 2019 (that I watched in 2019, at least)
Watchmen is an incredible thing to see exist as art in today’s America. It’s everything you want art to be – challenging, genre-breaking, character-driven but not subservient to tropes and minor concerns. While many producers of American culture believe that they can fulfill the representation of people of color or tell formerly-non-centered stories with token characters and shallow arcs (I’m looking at you, Disney) Watchmen doubles down on history, context, and powerful performances with developed characters. The ensemble cast is top notch, but Regina King (Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan) absolutely dominate as the main characters. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and an amazing Louis Gossett Jr. anchor a group of actors – both veteran and very young – who really buy into the deep magic of the Watchmen universe in ways that give keen insights to what is happening with racism, rising nationalism, and the frayed edges of our political establishment right now… wow. All that and an alien squid shower.
Midsommar is a powerful film about family, death, belonging, and the social construction of meaning. The tension created between how death visits Dani’s typical American family and how it visits the cloistered, alien, cult-like community she visits in Sweden calls us to reconsider how we understand the trajectory and significance of our lives. Are these very different notions of human dignity, purpose, and value truly at odds? Might the strange, pagan ritual of Midsommar offer something altogether deeper for those who believe? Excellent, challenging film making.
Below is a bit of writing I have been banging around for the last number of years. This section is actually much less than half, but the rest of it isn’t ready. Today being my cousin’s birthday, and this text being about my time spent with him, I’m dedicating this post to him and sharing this present with everyone. – Matt Ballou, 12/15/2019
Nunc Perpetuus: Making Now Eternal
“One instant is eternity; eternity is the now.” – Wumen Huikai (1)
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.” – T.S. Eliot (2)
On a brisk Sunday afternoon in April 1998 my cousin Christopher Metott and I ventured out onto the rocks atop Salmon River Falls near Altmar, NY. The photographs resulting from that excursion reflect – our differing aesthetics notwithstanding – the great affinity we share regarding time and experience. While our focus was often different, it is certain that we were often held in an otherworldly grip as we spent time out in the hills, fields, and woods we once called home. We went looking for landmarks, not of space on the land, but of life in the landscape of time. We wanted to set up those touchstones as a means of hope for what was to come and as a remembrance of what was gone behind us. In a way that seems, in hindsight, dramatically lucid and reasonable, we established these places to make sense of our past and to justify our future. We formed those experiences together, and it bound us as two journeying souls.
We had spent long, cold winter nights ensconced in nothing but our nylon tent and a bit of hope, almost daring the circulatory disorder that Chris had to take us on. We took the longer, back way up mountains just to say we’d done it – and paid the price. We fished tinkling little streams few people knew about, happily releasing our delicately armored catch. We took many expansive road trips out into the quiet upstate New York night to catch the wind off Lake Ontario, to bask in the deep stillness of Route 3 (The Star Road) at 3 in the morning, and to wander with the colonial ghosts lingering to the south. We witnessed those slumbering Adirondack giants – ancient and rounded – blacking out the starry canopy as we wove between their couched numbers. Then there were those northern light nights, which seemed like mystical initiations into A Great Mystery. We saw them for the first time in the deep cool of the earliest morning hours, streaking over us as we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags, gazing up into the glowing pinprick host above. Then again, years later, on the small island we’d gone to on an impulse, we witnessed the green and blue flaming curtains exploding over the low hills to the north, reflecting off the water and our eyes.
Yet there was always the backyard simplicity of the town where we’d grown up. Hiking out into the forests of tamarack and pine, through fields of corn and hay to find that perfect spot. The trees, paths, hills, stone fences, rocky streams, and rippling fields conjured our transition – like an incantation – from the daily concerns of siblings and chores to deeper, more satisfying meditations. We tried to maintain it. We stayed at Winter’s Night, stacking up those old field stones from the corner of the fence for our fireplace. Or maybe View would be our destination, with its mild overlook of the languid valley in which our hometown was situated. Sometimes we’d just sit in Whispering Pines, poking at our fire and laughing at those who’d never understand us.
There was always the ritual, the ceremony, of naming our places. They were our blameless sacred groves. Some names come to mind, some are lost in the mist for now, yet each can summon memories that speak not just about events and people, but also about feelings and our sense of the world. We’ve never stopped our efforts to be available to the creation of these sorts of signposts in the fabric of our time. We want them to catch us up when, lost in some future, we need to go back and forward in the same moment. To remember how it was and how it ought to be… and how it might be again. When we need to recall innocence and reinforce our will to be good and honest and kind in the world, such as it is. This is how we discovered morality for ourselves.
It was a morality mitigated by music as much as by place and time. We favored plaintive, earnest, digressive compositions that lent themselves to mythic application – everything from 70’s progressive art rock to weird new age kitsch to contemporary British hipster fare. It was always about mood, about ushering in wanderlust amid a sense of place. We wanted music that would work in tandem with the winter winds, the midnight sound of water on ancient shores, and dusky skies flecked with fiery clouds and a sweet breeze. In the end, we wanted to palpate the very feeling of being, the dearest knowing of our own experiences.
Through all of those experiences lay a thread of earnest documentation, a yearning to hold it fast, to remember it, to know it. Half the time we didn’t really know what the it was. We knew that it was what happened when the two of us where together, experiencing something with each other and with the world. We knew that it was a feeling of rightness, of sensing something beyond mere perception; something we only knew was there by sighting its position through each other in a mystical triangulation. It was a spiritual hope, a burning desire to be in life. To experience a fulfillment in the moment – a moment that could expand to fill eternity with its promise and light and perfection – was our aim.
A key component of our desire to hold fast to our experiences was to revisit our sacred places over and over again. This consistent returning – a physical, mental, and spiritual act – infused them with more memories, more mystery, and more access to that joyful transport of sensory perception we so earnestly sought. Sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t feel it so strongly, only to – upon remembering – find that it was still there. Thus a special mimetic fact was discovered: remembrance is often more powerful than the experience itself. Our shared remembering sometimes held the deepest connections to the timelessness we pursued.
What does any of the above have to do with a Sunday in April of 1998? Well, pretty much everything. Our different forms of expression (I am a painter and Chris is a photographer) have been informed by this lifelong urge to document, to earmark, to source those moments of insight that impact all the moments before and after. These are moments that become eternal in their influence and necessity; they make us who we are. We’ve tried to live in such a way that maintains those glittering glimpses of eternity.
“But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.”
-Wendell Berry (3)
Wumen Huikai (1183-1260), translated by Stephen Mitchell from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, (Harper and Row, 1989).
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), from Four Quartets, (Faber and Faber, 1959 edition).
Wendell Berry (1934-), from Fidelity: Five Stories, (Pantheon, 1993 edition).
We’re coming to the end of another year fraught with so many weird, world-altering experiences. In the midst of that it’s nice to step back and enjoy some things that are relatively stable. For me, that often means seeing what’s up on the walls of my home.
I’ve posted a few other things about what artworks are up in the old Ballou homestead and I didn’t want to let 2019 slip away without showing more. So here they are.
I have loved Joey Borovicka’s strange, evocative interiors for many years. This sweet little risograph print – with that intense pink and blue – is a kind of distillation of what the artist does well: borrow, shape, and craft mood. I wrote about Borovicka’s work in the latest issue (#8) of The New Territory. Go there and subscribe!
I’ve known Ebbe since we worked together nearly 20 years ago in Evanston, IL. I’ve enjoyed watching his career develop over the years. I encourage you to look at his website – the quality is astounding. If you love masks, phantasmagorical tableaus, or CosPlay, Ebbe’s work is for you.
Stella gave me this print when she graduated. I like it quite a bit, but the way I remember it Stella’s real passion was for pigeons. She made a number of works about the birds, their colors, and their varieties during her undergraduate years. Hmmm… I might have to get me one of those, too.
Though Justin graduated from Mizzou back in 2012, his presence is still felt. He – along with a small group of other Photo students – were a real force to be reckoned with. His work has continued to develop and break interesting, strange ground. I love following his work on Instagram and was pleased to include him in a show I curated last year. Stay wild, Justin.
There you have it. Four more entries into the Ballou Collection. I’ll have to add more in 2020…
I wanted to give a general overview of what’s been going on with me health-wise.
I have a lung disease.
It’s been making things hard for me for a while – beginning in June of 2019. That’s when an epic case of Viral Pneumonia hit me hard. We tried a number of things to kick it, and eventually a short run of steroids seemed to do it. But during that Viral Pneumonia my primary care Doctor ordered a CT to check for blood clots in my lungs (my sister had a lot of clots and died of a pulmonary embolism, so it was a fear for me).
The CT didn’t show clots… but it did show damaged lung tissue. Blood work was ordered. A culture of a series of my nasty phlegm nuggets was done. Over the months I’ve had dozens of tests. I had a bout of aspergillus that made it hard to see the underlying cause of things.
The last few months (August through October) have seen a steep downturn. My ability to get oxygen into my body has been really hurt. Without supplemental oxygen I am able to maintain an oxygen saturation of about 87%. I’ve seen it go lower than 79% at times. Normally, the average person is able to maintain 98 or 99 percent oxygen saturation almost all the time. Once you get below 91 or 90 percent your body can’t maintain itself properly; the fall-off is steep.
What began as intermittent exhaustion and strange bouts of breathlessness solidified into constant problem by August. I have worked out almost every day since my heart attack (Feb 2016), but I have not been able to do “normal” workouts since the beginning of August. Basically, I “earn” the same amount of heart-rate elevation and physical exertion just trying to get around the house and walk to my classroom as I used to get doing a full on hour at the gym. This is because I’ve apparently lost 15 or 20 percent of my lung capacity (according to the Pulmonary Function Tests I’ve had). Activities that used to barely register as effort at all are now breath-busters. I’m on oxygen all night long (5 liters pushed through my CPAP) and 30 to 40 percent of the day using my portable oxygen condenser.
I was given an initial diagnosis of Interstitial Lung Disease, which basically has two primary causes – either autoimmune or environmental.
The doctors on my Pulmonary team ordered CT scans that showed them two things: first, the “changes” to my lung tissue are continuing but, second, there seems to be no permanent damage at this point. The main issue with Interstitial Lung Disease is the scarring that can happen. Once lung tissue scars, that’s it; it’s basically permanent. But when the cause is environmental, and if the scarring has not yet taken effect, the situation can be reversed.
My doctors decided that a Bronchial Biopsy was necessary. I had a Lung Lavage during the same procedure (I encourage you to Google what a Lung Lavage entails… the more intense variations are something else). Unfortunately during this biopsy/lavage procedure part of my right lung collapsed. I spent the next 30 hours in the hospital to provide therapy to my lung and make sure that I healed from the collapse and the biopsy.
So what’s next? My doctors will look at the biopsy and lavage analysis to chart a course forward. My condition looks like a cross between Interstitial Lung Disease and Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis. I hope to learn more this week and trust that a course of treatment will manifest.
As it stands now I feel like about 50% of the person I was last semester. Doing everything – sleeping, getting around, parenting, teaching – is hard. I’m thankful for the support around me, good health insurance, good doctors at all levels (especially my Cardiologist and my Primary Care doctor who believed me when I said things were different with this).
On this day 20 years ago I was in the House of Blues in Chicago, having walked just a few blocks from my dorm on Michigan Avenue (It’s now classroom space, not dorms, but I kept my elevator floor sign before the demolition started).
I’d only been in the city a short time. This was my first trip out for a concert – OK, sure; lame choice. From my room across from the Art Institute it was just a short walk west, then north over the river, toward the “corn cob towers.” Just a few years later they’d be featured on the iconic Wilco record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If only I’d been to see them that night.
Yngwie was effervescent and shrill that night. Loping around the stage, posing before his stack of Marshall amps, and gratuitously clanging his numerous bracelets and bangles against the neck/fret board of his trusty Strat.
He was bursting from his leather? vinyl? spandex? pants. He was in full hair-band-era-cry. Hair teased so high, chest exposed by some combination of V-neck shirt or vest or Pirate jerkin… who knew?
In any case it was glorious. Furious. SO. LOUD. Riotous and ridiculous and raw. He gave his all, flinging guitar picks and sweat with abandon. My ears RANG for hours after, and were even stunned the next morning. It was epic. I can still recall the feel of the cool midnight air chilling me as I rushed back to my dorm room for a smoke and a reprise of Rising Force.
Normally on my birthday I try to take some time to myself for reflection, good food, and maybe some limited frivolity with friends. This year I wanted to try something different.
Parenting is hard. The logistics of family life is hard. Everyone is in different emotional and physical states. So while I do take my kiddos out for play in the park and do other things very frequently, it’s been a long time since I got one-on-one time with each of the kids.
About 9am on my birthday, I got started. CaiQun and I visited B&B Bagels, just about the best real bagels west of the Mississippi. She loves her plain bagel with plain cream cheese… to each their own, right? Then we went to look at LEGOs and talk about building things. It was a sweet time with a daughter who often has to shout at home to be heard, but who is quiet and calm when she gets some quality time one-on-one.
Next it was Miranda’s turn. She has been asking to go to the Library for some new books about cats and baking, two of her passions. She’s been watching some of the baking shows available on Netflix and has gotten the basic concepts down. She wanted to get more focused understanding (she often over-applies sugars and under-applies flour!), so we searched for some books (“No, daddy, ADULT baking books!”). I steered her away from volumes on French Cooking (talk about delusions of grandeur), but she settled on some good stuff. Then we got her some frosting application bags. Needless to say she’s been very pro-dad for the last 24 hours!
It was now a bit after lunch time, so I decided to take FangFang out for a meal at Panera, one of her favorites. She got mac&cheese and a fruity drink while I opted for a large salad. We chatted a lot about food, food-eating techniques (“I like to double-fist it!” she exclaimed), and potential future meals we might have. This is a girl who definitely likes to eat. After that we had a fun walk around the mall, observing and commenting on many things.
Last but not least was Atticus. He is so excited about all things water these days… and often we come into a bathroom or walk past the cat dishes to see that he has flooded a portion of the room. I knew this caring, curious boy would love some time on a local river in one of the several nature preserves that dot Mid-Missouri.
Capen Park, which is a section of the Grindstone Nature Area, features a nice cliff climb that even little kids can do and access to the river for exploration. It was great to be able to give my boy 2+ hours of self-directed play on the water and rocks.
It was a FULL day – basically 9am to 4pm of consistent activity. I think I’ll hold onto these memories to help me through rough patches… hell, even today I called them up to help me regulate when the kiddos were having some fits.
I’m sad a lot these days. All things are stranger and harder than I thought they would be. But I am blessed and fortunate. A day like this one, taking the kiddos out on individual dad-dates, was really necessary. It was good for my heart and it was good for theirs, too. Each of them has talked to me about their special time. Glad to know I can still do something right.
Now if I could just feel as triumphant as Atticus does here, spreading his arms out at the top of the cliff…
I definitely won’t wait until my next birthday to do this again. A good start to #43.
The notion of coram deo is a theological and para-theological idea that has been held forth at various times. I’ve even got a pastor friend who has a church named Coram Deo. Essentially, the Latin phrase means “in the presence of God” or “before the face of God.”
Well, I guess some would argue that we’re all always in the presence of the divine, but even the bible says that no one has ever seen God (Exodus 33:20). Elsewhere, however, we note a caveat:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” – 1 John 4:12
If we love, we see God. Divine love is manifest in that seeing.
I decided to do a little survey of my studio. Who is here? In loving, where do I see God?
I have a lot more faces and visages and signifiers of people in my studio. These suffice.
Look around… see who you love and who loves you. In acknowledging them – in believing that they are real – you make divine love real. When we don’t believe that others are real – that their desires, experiences, or feelings are somehow not like ours – we dehumanize them. We de-divine their reality. They are miracles. We are privileged to be in the presence of other motes of matter that catch the divine light.