Cockroaches, Coca Cola, and Human Evolution

HOW IS THE COURSE of humanity’s evolution enhanced by the cockroach? Could such a universally loathed and commonplace vermin present itself to be a stepping stone towards greater human development and knowledge? Of course! Most people detest the inevitable fact that where there is human activity, there are cockroaches. And it seems the more human activity in one place, the greater the potential for there to be even more cockroaches. And since life is overall a symbiotic process, we, often in unrecognized or unexpected ways, benefit from cockroaches as well. Take this article from New Scientist I just discovered, written in 2014, into account:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25376-dna-nanobots-deliver-drugs-in-living-cockroaches/#.U03CBcYfHwI

To quote the article, “Nano-sized entities made of DNA that are able to perform the same kind of logic operations as a silicon-based computer have been introduced into a living animal” (the cockroach). This experiment is a type of “biological therapy” in which the robot-DNA can travel around the body and do productive things like release drugs. According to the research, this type of procedure has potential to create new treatment for cellular illnesses such as cancer. So they try it first on cockroaches, inserting fluorescently marked robotic DNA into their insect bodies to track the nanobots’ progress.

Cockroaches filled with Nano-DNA that glows florescent! Brings to mind a (not so little) painting of mine I completed in December of 2014:

Big Bug III / 2014 / acrylic on canvas / 48" x 42"
Big Bug III / 2014 / acrylic on canvas / 48″ x 42″

This painting, the third in my Big Bugs series of four paintings, was inspired by the not-so-little roaches that, without contributing to rent, took residence in the nooks and crannies of the Highland Park, Los(t) Angeles apartment I lived in from 2011-2013. I have never been one to be particularly moved by bugs in a negative way; as one can immediately tell from my art, I have a soft spot for them. Or at least find them immensely fascinating. Still, when reaching to fix up a late-night bowl of Raisin Bran and finding a long, twittering antennae and stick legs peering around the inner lip of the cupboard,  an instinctive chill shivered up my spine. Yet again when, coming home from a weekend away to find a baby one just sitting in the sink, unable to climb out. And before you can complain to the landlord, your craziest neighbor comes staggering to your back door rambling about the dozens of cockroaches that hunker behind the pictures on her walls, and to which no amount of self-administered pest control can seem to manage. Such are crazy neighbors, and such are cockroaches.

Though I never witnessed more than a few in my apartment, the few I did experience made a lasting impression on me. With their precise, intricate anatomy, their craftiness and cunning, and their unavoidable reputation within human history, I could not help but study them with fascination. They possessed the power to simultaneously intrigue and repel me; they were both controversial and a part of my local ecosystem.  I could see the workings of a creature whose computational speed surpassed my own, in ways I cannot logically describe, only to be experienced one-on-one. In short, like all other living things, they have an intelligence of their own. Not only can we learn about other ways of being in the world from our uninvited guests, but we can use their intelligence to enhance our own. The fluorescent-Nano-DNA-infused cockroach being a case in point.

Big Bug III, (nicknamed “Bach”, for irrational reasons) though earthly fluorescent, is infused with a commonplace, non-nano-bot drug: Coca Cola.  The appearance of Coca Cola in this image is only partly a commentary on the beverage and the company, Coca Cola being a giant-among-giants of modern-day consumer culture, and a socially accepted, widely used liquid drug.  Its abstracted but instantly recognizable logo dominated by the giant-among-giants paint-by-numbers cockroach eludes the reading of a singular meaning or message. Viewers are swayed by their subjective experiences of cockroaches and Coca Cola, their vision swimming with the unusual psychedelia of the image. Unanswerable questions such as “What does Coca Cola have to do with cockroaches?”, and “Is the can half empty or half full?” float to the surface of thought. Being third in the Big Bugs series, it represents a scene in the progression of modern-day agriculture where the initial food substance (sugar, corn syrup etc.) has reached full aesthetic commodification. The edible has now been branded, no longer a trademark of nature but of humanity.  This aesthetic commodification represents the process of making an organic substance into an inorganic, non-symbiotic commodity for consumption. It is an end with no return. It is self-fulfilling and self-satisfied with its reverse alchemical maneuver of converting living matter into sterile advertising. Only the cockroach it seems can benefit from what is left after the item has been consumed to its end. And it turns out our beloved cockroach, the universal poster-child of the unwanted pest, loves this drug as much as we do.

As a stand-alone image, this painting has many connotations, references, meanings and suggestions interwoven into its visual fabric. I do not want to go into everything this painting speaks of, for it is primarily the job of the viewer to gather from it what they will, and to complete the work within their experience of it. I am just the artist, I create the image. Still, it is of interest to me to share some of my thoughts on the paintings I create. As for Bach, I could write a book on him! Nine months after the physical manifestation of this painting began, it was finished. Over time, more thoughts and feelings about him will undoubted surface. I plan to expound more upon him and the other three Big Bugs in the future. For now, we can rest assured that cockroaches are an integral part of our evolution, both scientifically and artistically.

Big Bug III detail

Big Bug III is on display through June at the Atrium Lobby Gallery, Ventura County Government Center, 800 Victoria Ave. Ventura, California.

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Art in the Park (Toto, I’ve a feeling were not in Ojai anymore)

were-not-in-ojai-anymore

THIS PAST SATURDAY (May 28th), I ventured into the downtown area of my hometown (Ojai) for the annual Art in the Park event. When going downtown on a big weekend (in this case, Memorial Day), one is guaranteed to find droves of people perusing the pergola and mulling about the arcade, window shopping and pausing briefly to appreciate the historic post office tower. According to the announcement on the Ojai Art Center’s website, Art in the Park “draws crowds (between 3,000 and 5,000) from Ojai and neighboring communities”. With Art in the Park being one of Ojai’s best-known annual events, the amount of people coming to get the “Ojai experience” this weekend was phenomenal. I know because I went, and was impressed that an art event in my little hometown could attract such a large audience.

For reasons both mythical and factual, Ojai has long been touted as an artistic community. From the legacy of the potter Beatrice Wood to the Ojai Music festival to the making of The Monkee’s film Head, Ojai has a solid history of being a place where art happens. Many prominent creatives have visited Ojai over the years, from an eclectic assortment of composers including Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, and Aaron Copeland; to the lesser known creatives Harry Partch, Mike Kelley (based on a drawing I saw at a MOCA retrospective), and very recently, musicians Eugene Chadbourne and Peter Brotzmann. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono blessed Ojai with their presence. With all that history, it is no wonder Ojai has a reputation of being a place where artistic energies coalesce.

Art in the Park, being a free, outdoor public art happening (beginning in 1977!), stands to represent Ojai as an artistic community. According to the Ojai Art Center announcement, it “was started by local artists to give fine artists a place to sell their work during Memorial Day Weekend”. I would add that it’s not just about selling, but showing art as well. This is all well and good, and lines up with the vision I had of Art in the Park since growing up in Ojai. However, my visit this past weekend to Art in the Park makes me wonder what having an art festival in a town with its own art history really means.

Even with with my appreciation of Ojai as an ‘art town’, I truthfully wasn’t expecting much of this year’s Art in the Park. With Ojai’s artistic legacy firmly in the past, and very little new, actually creative artistic output having presented itself, I attended Art in the Park with little expectation, mainly to see what it was all about. However, I must have had some expectations, having been surprised at what I did find. And in having been sorrily disappointed.

Instead of being an event showcasing and promoting the local art and creativity that Ojai boasts it has, the 2016 Art in the Park turned out to be a generic, miniature art expo. Besides the usual multitude of high-end jewelry booths and elegant ceramics, the ‘art’ booths went in three main directions: slick photography, unsurprising painting, and clever craft-oriented work. None of these directions are inherently bad (though often mediocre), except that nothing was by local artists. There was a booth of amazing intricate wood inlays of flora and fauna–all the way from New York. There was a booth of unique framed landscapes made with dried plant material–from Balboa Park, San Diego. There were booths and artists from all over California–but none even from Ventura County. In Libby Park on May 28th, 2016, I could have been anywhere.

I certainly wasn’t in Ojai anymore–but where was I? Where did the art at Art in the Park come from, and why? Why was it that the only locally made art I could find was from Brook’s Institute of Photography, and my own alma mater, Nordhoff High School? Could it be that people aren’t interested in seeing or buying local art anymore? Upon hearing comments here and there from booth owners, I could tell this was not the case.  Many of them seemed disgruntled (“This is the last year I am doing this”, and “I don’t normally sell out here”). There were hundreds of people milling about–yet it didn’t appear that many people were buying. And people certainly weren’t seeing any art from Ojai. Unless you count the High School student’s work.

So, what is going on here? It’s not that the art from New York or Colorado or Palm Springs is better than any local art (except that you can’t find stone lamps of that size here!). It’s not even that this art-from-anywhere-but-Ojai is more interesting (unless you like sloppy, poorly composed paintings of horses in awful colors? There are plenty of decent horse-painters in Ojai who do it much better! And also some that don’t!). It’s not that it is more creative (trademarked Jackson Pollock rip-off technique, anyone?).  And it’s not that it sells more. Period. Need I mention that there are working artists in Ojai, both seasoned and emerging? Artists both represented by local, established galleries and artists creating silently and diligently in their garages? With all of this in mind, it is safe to say that Art in the Park is a misrepresentation of Ojai–a shameful image sending a wrong message to the world.

 Art in the Park 2016 is over, and it will be yet another year until it happens again. I do not know what the Ojai Art Center (assuming they are the ones who pick the booths to exhibit) has it store for next year, but in the meantime, Ojai could use a little restoration of it’s reputation as an arts community. A grand, all-encompassing scheme or large event is not needed–what is needed is for the creative individuals of Ojai to emerge. You–painters, photographers, illustrators, writers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, general creatives–must come out into visibility and make it known to the town and the world what you are doing–creating art. Because that is a notable thing to do, and people want to know about it. People want to experience art (the thousands of people who came on Memorial Day weekend is proof of this). Locals and non-locals alike want Ojai to continue to uphold it’s prestigious reputation as a creative hub. But with events like Art in the Park exhibiting a random array of packaged art from all over the country, no one is going to remember Ojai as having anything unique to offer. The problem is that Ojai does have unique artistic potential to offer. And this needs to be proven.

So what I am suggesting to all the creatives of Ojai, whether you already have a comfortable reputation as an artist, or anonymously paint in your garage, is that you promote your position as an artist of Ojai, that you get your work out there to be seen and known about. Even if you are already established, your reputation will dwindle with the receding tide of Ojai’s credibility as an art town. It will no longer be of any merit to be a part of an arts community–because there will be no one to see it as an arts community. If the world comes to Ojai and sees art from other places, it appears as just another globalized art market–just a few steps removed from the internet. Ojai has history, yes, (so special in this post-everything era…) but it cannot stand on it’s historical laurels much longer before no one cares anymore.

In this post-(post-post-post…)modern epoch, looking backwards and revisiting (or often just appropriating) the past is where many peoples heads are (still) at. Everyone seems frozen in this post-(mortem?)-state, not knowing what to do next. However, art is not dead and cannot die, because it is a vital part of culture and of human evolution. Though there is no clear-cut method to, say, bring on an artistic renaissance, the true artists of the present–those who have unique visions and ideas, and who–bottom line–create art–can step up to bat and take a swing. If anywhere in this artistically-ailing society (rampant with aesthetic conformity in the guise of “likes”) has potential to present itself as a center of artistic output, it is Ojai. And the world wants this. The world wants art.

I say all of this as words of encouragement. Many great things are possible, especially in such a beautiful and magical place as Ojai. It sounds cliche, but it’s true: Ojai remains special. And the potential is just barely being tapped–there is a gold mine of creativity within these mountains! As a side note, to quote Napoleon Hill, “More gold has been mined from the thoughts of man than has ever been taken from the earth”.

As a conclusion, I would like mention the Indigenous Ojai Underground, an arts collective of lesser-known Ojai artists. If you go to www.artistsofearth.net, you will find a sampling of their creative output.  The collective is very new–just beginning to exist–and is a promising vehicle for the oncoming reemergence of Ojai’s true artistic spirit.