Celebrated culture writer John Berger just passed away on January 2nd at the age of 90 years.
Since our profoundly troubling political moment has much in common with 2005, I am sharing an essay I wrote that year, having just met the man in London. I hope it proves to be fortifiying in 2017.
“There is Where We Met: An Homage to John Berger”
‘At a large dinner table, you sat between S., filmmaker extraordinaire, and across from your partner B. I sat near D. and J. and G. In fact, during the entire evening, you and I only exchanged a few brief sentences. ‘Nice to meet you, I’ve admired your work,’ (me) and “You and your daughter were really talking about left and right brain functions when experiencing art,” (me) and, during a cheek-to-cheek kiss, “Of course! I’ll have to tell K. what you said! Remember: left and right!” (you). Yes, you kissed me with a smile and much enthusiasm, and I will never be the same. With piercing blue eyes and childlike wonder, it appears that you do everything with a happy curiosity. (In fact, you joined our table late because you felt compelled to finish a drawing in a quiet spot in the restaurant hallway before dinner. And you had just turned seventy nine years old.)
I was not convinced that I deserved to be at this meal with you. Had the adoring young Berger cousin with the golden curls been turned away at the restaurant entrance? Had a devoted fan of many years been told that she was of no consequence when it came to dining with John Berger? It had been awkward at the entry door because we all knew that the table had only been reserved for sixteen, and that G. would have to choose amongst the thick crowd eagerly gathered there. I merely had the advantage of being with D., your friend and mine, one of two people who originated the idea of this month-long, city-wide celebration of your life’s work.
Your daughter K. and your are quite close. You have exchanged frequent and ironic electronic text messages, about: the nature of art, the marvelous, flawed and mysterious human figure as depicted by Titian; the dissolution of the self through art (whether by Titian or Rothko); daughters having babies; father and daughter love; sensuality as central experience, and so on. Many of your exchanges became the book you wrote together, “Titian: Nymph and Shepherd” from which you read aloud to an audience just before the dinner.
You and K. had read to each other at a table on a stage in a sold-out lecture room at the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Behind you both, there was a large screen with images of Titian paintings. Initially, while listening to your exchange with your daughter, I was envious. I wanted those kinds of conversations with my father, upon whose lightness my entire family depends. Or with my older son whose fingers on the piano are astonishing. Or with my younger son whose perceptive actions touch my heart almost daily. But I am fortunate. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I already have an intimacy with my father and sons. These are gifts I must remember to treasure.
I had returned to London (where I had once lived) to attend as many “John Berger: A Season in London 2005” events as D. and I could manage. D. and I filled up our time together at his flat speaking about a few of your many books: “The Seventh Man” “G” “The Shape of a Pocket” and “Here Is Where We Meet”.
Then we feasted ourselves on your ideas by attending events all around London. We learned of your partnership with people in literature, visual arts, film, television, photography (especially Jean Mohr), live performance, and politics. So many have been influenced by your unique version of the essay form!
Why does a soul have early fame and success with an important book (“Ways of Seeing”, 1972) and then decide to go off to an isolated, distant mountain to quietly live? How does one maintain discipline, modesty, spontaneity, and a democratic spirit, along with the need for open-ended collaboration? Above all, how to pursue a a deep desire for a just world — all through the lens of what we actually allow ourselves to see?
Does the love of women help at all? And, if so, is that recognition sexist? What can any woman take from your writing, which is so clearly the work of a man?
Over the years, you and your collaborators got the big issues right, because your work remains painfully relevant in 2005:
**Looking at images is either about losing the self (a unifying thing) or about power, either of which can be good for the spirit or bad for us all (“Permanent Red” “The Shape of a Pocket”).
**Art as commerce and consumption has always been everywhere. Therefore, art is of no use when it comes to advancing the human spirit and community well-being unless deliberately created for these purposes ( “Permanent Red” “Wanting Now: A Thought for Trafalgar Square”).
**The migrant/immigrant/NAFTA experience can be universalized when we express our opposition to exploitation of people for corporate profits and greed. Big government exists mostly to promote large-scale capitalist interests. This problem is a cancer that is heart and planet destroying (“The Seventh Man” “The Shape of a Pocket”).
**We have lost our former innate intimacy with other animal and life forms, and so have cut ourselves off from the essential creative force that touches every cell of our bodies (“Parting Shots from Animals” a television documentary).
**We must challenge the disappearance of native and peasant cultures worldwide without whom we cannot maintain our original sources of nourishment, the old stories of our land and water, and our necessary role in these narratives. In the end, yes, it is about our survival (“Pig Earth” television documentary, “Into Their Labors” fiction trilogy).
**Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico and you have agreed that seemingly powerless people – often forced into armed conflict for mere survival – must, of necessity, use memory, dreams, and hope to shape and share a better world (“The Shape of a Pocket”).
I know that you are now thinking of death in “Here Is Where We Meet”. But, for you, old age and death are not sad songs. Instead, being an elder becomes yet another opportunity for you to listen, listen, listen and reflect back, to form a charmed chain of lived experience. Even with those who have passed. This moment seems to be partly about departed family members, friends and lovers, who speak through and to you, about earthly magic and, yes, tragedy, that never dissipates. For instance, in your essay, “Some Fruit As Remembered By The Dead”, we are reminded that every bite of fruit that touches our lips is a pure and sacred celebration of color and taste.
Speaking of food, I think, with envy, of your enormous appetite for meat and drink (and conversation and cigars) that night at dinner. I stole glances at you, and was impressed. Most of us at the gathering could not match your energy. When our party was finally asked to leave, around midnight (the waiters had been patient!), you seemed disappointed. Finally, we all left the table, said our goodbyes, and four of us shared a taxi home.
Still, I have more questions for you. Do you believe that others have joined you on your life’s journey? That is, how can we be political idealists and hungry for culture in this impossible moment? Have there been, in recent memory, easier times? Although ugly people and behaviors loom large, how can we still seek remedies with one another? Will you tell us, yet again, about the critical role of the artist in society?
I think I finally understand your biggest gift. It became clear to me in an essay you wrote in “The Shape of a Pocket” about Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo. In that essay, you speak to Kahlo’s ability to paint her pain in luminous colors onto hard flat surfaces, as if the very surfaces were her own skin in agony. You then say:
“In the dark age in which we are living under the new world order, the sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refinding of dignity and hope. Much pain is unshareable. But the will to share pain is shareable. And from that inevitable inadequate sharing comes a resistance.”
And so, with Kahlo’s self portraits and your gentle words, we go beyond metaphor, back to life itself, because this is possible. You offer out what you have at last understood to be true: that there is a heartbreaking impossibility, an aching beauty, and a chance to heal in our shared human condition. This precious truth will surely help us to defy to formidable tyrants wer face today.’
Tragically, my banner from 2005 is more relevant than ever, albeit with a few changes.
Dr. Gwen Dubois, President of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Lili Sheeline, local resident of Lusby, MD and member of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community penned this ground breaking op-ed on why Dominion Energy’s LNG refinery and export facility needs to be stopped:
September: My “Disappearing Drawings” were featured in the United Workers ‘Development Without Displacement’ art show at Chesapeake Art Center. They are my home made upcycled paper and seed discs: art made to inspire, then to be planted, to become perennial flowers that feed multiple pollinators, in order to regenerate life. Purple Cone Flower seeds are in the disc where I drew that flower; ditto with Black-eyed Susans. Plant the drawing and the real thing emerges instead! #LifeGivingCorridors#FlipTheScript #WhatShouldHumansDoWhileOn
July – Our fracking towers made center stage again! At a public hearing and in the streets, it became clear that Marylanders know that now is the time to ban fracking in Maryland! Thanks to HoCo Climate Change!
June – The escalation of the demand – to halt Dominion Energy’s disastrous LNG plant in Cove Point on the Bay, and save the Bay and our bioregion from this insanity – has begun.
April – Result of meetings and research! Thankful for partners who have the time to implement what we all dream up. This new phase has begun. #StopDominionEnergy #SaveCovePoint #ProtectLusbyFamilies #LoveTheChesapeakeBay
March 17 – VICTORY! Maryland Declares Curtis Bay Incinerator Permit Expired!
March 6-12: What we did with friends – big love to Backbone Campaign!
Dominion at Cove Point, your days are numbered!
Come one, come all!
December 15th, Free Your Voice and our stupendous, wonderful allies visit the Maryland Department of the Environment to demand that they uphold the law and revoke the expired permits for Energy Answers to build a toxic incinerator in an urban neighborhood, Curtis Bay.
Great video coverage by the Real News! Interviews with Destiny Watford from Curtis Bay and Neil Seldman from the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
Beautiful Baltimore Brew article on the gathering outside MDE to #StopTheIncinerator in Curtis Bay.
September 2015. Free Your Voice Group’s video where I call on the Maryland Department of the Environment to pull the permit to build a toxic incinerator in a dense urban area of Baltimore. Follow link to see dozens of others with same demand. http://www.unitedworkers.org/stop_the_incinerator
July 19, 2015. Artscape 2015, Baltimore, MD. By coincidence, I got to dance outside my place of work, w/fellow Rueda De Casino Baltimore dance company, under AMAZING leadership of Company Director and DJ, Cedric Teamer. Dancing at work is highly recommended!
Join Beyond Extreme Energy in Washington DC May 21-29 to #StoptheFERCus. Great new video by Kelsey Erickson below! Our scary fracking towers will surely make another appearance!
April 25th. Our Sunflower Parade for Fair Development in Curtis Bay, Baltimore. Photos (credit: United Workers)
March 30: Breaking! Baltimore County Schools terminates contract with trash burning incinerator! This follows Baltimore City and Baltimore City Public Schools withdrawing support for the incinerator last week. Here’s Baltimore Sun article. Stay tuned for more! (source: Free Your Voice FB page)
March 3, 2015 Fracking Opponents Visit Annapolis Again. That includes us. Thanks to WBAL and AP! See screen shots!
February 20, 2015. Exellent advances! in phase of our Stop the Incinerator/Clean Air is a Human Right! campaign! Baltimore Sun article: Troubled trash-burning power plant hits another snag, losing major customer for its electricity (Baltimore County needs to move quickly towards zero waste 😉
January 17, 2015. What encouragement, what a treat! Our Human Rights Strategic Dialogue – alternatives to failed development and human rights violations – was a huge success. Below is a FB post from United Workers and a photo from our Zero Waste session.
January 14th 2015. On the first day back for Maryland lawmakers, like last year, we went to Annapolis with creative visuals, to say hello 😉 — alongside our friends at Maryland Climate Coalition.
That evening we were featured on: WBAL Radio & Baltimore Business Journal’s photo galleries, and WBAL TV Channel 11 News.
Yay! Our wonderful team consisted of Mark, Mike, Matt, Bryan and me.
Below see Southern Maryland News article and photos.
November 8 2014. After months of ‘Dream Team’ planning, our Stop the Incinerator Clean Air is a Human Right! Strategy Session was a huge success! Exciting plans ahead. Thanks especially to Destiny, Greg, Charles and Todd for their ongoing hard work and support 😉
November 4-8, 2014. Oh no!!! Our evil fracking towers leaked and created a growing toxic spill at Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (or FERC) entrance and driveway! We were in DC as part of Beyond Extreme Energy‘s week of action. If the photos don’t tell you enough 😉 read this article :
We also brought our animal discs to a protest at Cove Point on the Chesapeake Bay in southern Maryland. We held a rally in opposition to Dominion Energy’s absurdly misguided plan for an LNG export facility here. Rhiannon and Gemma, the two girls pictured below, had made their own protest signs, but were happy to pose for a photo with ours. Read this article:
The following week, the creatures went back to Cove Point for another protest against Dominion Energy’s insane plan for a liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminal on the Bay: (photo credits: FANG)
Two images from the first experimental action of my new pro-biodiversity/anti-fossil fuel corridor project Disappearing Drawings. August 2014.
July 2014. Cuban salsa flashmob – Baltimore’s Casineros!- at Artscape. “Dance, dance, else all is lost” (Pina Bausch)
Gas export protesters blockade FERC July 14, 2014. 25 arrests. Read article by DC Direct Action News. To learn more, see Action Report and Press Release by Chesapeake Climate Action Network: Sit-in at FERC to Stop Cove Point. We brought visuals, including our discs, and our fracking tower costumes and banner. Special thanks to Rose Marie and Ron. Video by Tom Jefferson.
Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual. Published in April of 2014. In my view, our new book is a Declaration of Independence for the 21st century. But this time, there’s an emergent vision for an abundant eco-commons, and no one is left out. Read it FREE online or purchase @ www.strikedebt.org.
Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual & book launch (below)
Pedestrian sanctuary completed! March 2014. Our campaign for a pedestrian island took more than six years. Bittersweet, tragic, ironic ending; a young construction worker lost his life because a car struck him while he was on site. We sacrifice too much to cars.
Cove Point? Baltimore Says NO! February 20 in Baltimore. Paige Shuttleworth designed our fracking tower costumes and banner for this StopCovePoint.org rally organized by Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). Financial support for materials from Baltimore Eco-women Green Drinks gathering.
Stop Cove Point! January 8 in Annapolis. Lead artist Paige, Mark and I brought two-sided round painted disks of iconic Chesapeake creatures to CCAN’s rally and march. Baltimore Sun, Capital News Service, Earthjustice, EarthFirst! Journal, HoCoClimate Change, Chesapeake EarthFirst! DC Media Group, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network used both sides of our rounded discs for events and articles – gratifying! I am holding the Lined Seahorse, Mark is with the Great Blue Heron, Elisabeth holds the Striped Bass, and Paige has her arm raised in solidarity with the Blue Crab.
United Workers celebrates one year anniversary of our Food SHARE Program. January 2014.
Healthcare Justice Play October in Baltimore. United Workers/Healthcare is a Human Right Maryland. Fun medieval-themed street theater with evil private health insurance king-dragon, sick and injured Maryland peasants carrying weak and unjust shields, and a strong ‘Health Care Is A Human Right’ castle wall that can finally withstand the evil private health insurance king-dragon. I had much fun as script writer, costume designer, and actor ;-).
Tracing the Oil Road: Global Lessons and Bioregional Resistance September in Baltimore. A community Fossil Fuel Free Forum at 2640 Space, to welcome my colleague from London’s Platform James Marriott to Baltimore (see James’s co-authored book, The Oil Road). Artie and the Vipers played Appalachian Resistance Music. Matt Weaver and Julie Little donated and served delicious food. Proceeds went to Red Emma’s new bookstore. We learned about Stop Cove Point campaigns by Food and Water Watch and Chesapeake Climate Action Network. To learn about our local (Destiny Watford of Free Your Voice), regional (Brittany) , continental (Bill Moyer of Backbone Campaign) and international (James Marriott of Platform) environmental justice guests, see James Marriott’s blog. Flyer for event. Photos by Shantress Wise of United Workers. Bill Hughes’ video interview of James also below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbLlURnnA54
Youth Justice Reinvestment: Family-led and Youth-led Solutions to Youth Incarceration. May of 2013. I hosted (and produced, with Zachary Norris and Grace Bauer) this two-part Backbone Campaign podcast featuring: Justice For Families, Youth Justice Coalition, Baltimore Algebra Project, Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, Families and Allies of Virginia’s Youth, Albert Cobarubbias Justice Project, Campaign to end the New Jim Crow, and more. Photo credits: Backbone Campaign & Baltimore Algebra Project.
For decades, California and the nation have responded to nearly every problem in our classrooms and communities with police and prisons. These efforts have pushed millions of students out of school, and led to the mass incarceration of youth and our families. Public policies have also disproportionately targeted Black and Brown youth, contributing to severe racial injustice in our educational and court systems. A growing movement led by youth and families is demanding a new investment in public safety – one that prioritizes COLLEGE PREP NOT PRISON PREP!
– Youth Justice Coalition
Obama Go Green! Fossil Fool? February 2013 in Washington, D.C. At Climate Rally with Joe and Dale. Costumes and silly music video. You’ll hear the tune to “All of Me” 😉 with new words. Piano and sound engineering by my son Gabe.
Student Debt Jubilee & Free Higher Education. Two-part Backbone Campaign podcast and resource page featuring two incredible groups of experts and activists. . Photo credits: Backbone Campaign/United Workers.
At Summit for the People, and related street rallies and political theater events with Public Citizen and Backbone Campaign, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision: playing the role of corporate person Mona Santo, aka Monsanto.
Arts and Democracy Bazaar: Challenging the School-to-prison Path. In March of 2011, we did a participatory, theatrical workshop exploring my views on pedagogy, art and justice at a community arts conference at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I also wrote a follow-up article. Partnership with choreographer/physical therapist Stephanie Tabrisky. Photo by Ken Krafchek.
Dialogue about the power of music and singing in activism in interview by Robin Kissinger, of Sing4all and Gypsy Turtle Journal: Tripping the light fantastic in a tiny home .