January 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
The man who had just won the globe’s most visible job dominated America’s attention. President-elect Barack Obama: intelligent, witty, knowledgeable, eloquent, telegenic, photogenic, aurally pleasing. Gone, the faulty neologisms of the past eight years. Gone, the irrationality of God-directed foreign policy. Gone, the ramblings and the wacky syntax.
Obama’s timely intervention into the abyss began on November 15, just eleven days after the election, when he streamed on YouTube from his website. The video opened on a modified version of the presidential seal, zooming out to reveal the words CHANGE.GOV (his website’s handle), and underneath, THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT-ELECT. Then it scrolled down to the approximated presidential seal again, with these words beneath: YOUR WEEKLY ADDRESS FROM THE PRESIDENT-ELECT. NOVEMBER 15TH, 2008.
This “weekly” address was in fact Obama’s very first, but enjoining “weekly” creates a faux continuity: Past activities fuse with future ones. And by issuing the podcast as the president-elect, Obama created a new, unprecedented, even extraconstitutional, national office. Still, his screen presence felt familiar, comforting. He played a role that corresponds to ones Americans have long watched on TV—from Robert Young in Father Knows Best to Sam Waterston in Law & Order (or, even more apt, Waterston in his TV ads for TD Ameritrade). The role requires unflappability, which Obama exudes like Verbena cologne, and it is his aim, in this video, to quiet America’s erratic pulse, its arrhythmic financial markets, its frightened workers, its bankrupt home owners.
The president-elect is seated behind a desk on a black leather chair, his head cushioned against its back. He’s in medium shot and part of a cozy composition; nothing seems out of place. He almost appears tucked into the image, which divides into discrete elements. On the left, an American flag hangs the length of the frame, the one and only element taller than he. The background is a medium-brown wood-paneled wall. To the left of Obama, shoulder-high, three dark-blue volumes: Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy (1961–1963). The tomes lend a somberness to the image, representing the popular, fallen president, while associating JFK’s New Frontier with Obama’s upcoming variation on the New Deal. On the far right, also shoulder height, another volume, its title blurred, and a basketball, like a Pop art sculpture, signed by Lenny Wilkens of the US Olympic basketball team. A plant’s green leaves drape over the ball.
Though it’s video, it’s basically a still image. Obama wears a dark red tie and a flag pin on his gray lapel. His head moves up and down gently, for emphasis, and occasionally it subtly shifts from side to side. His expression is serious, sober, nearly unchanging, and the new gray at his temples does no harm. The sonorous Obama voice stays steady, on course, with none of the rise and fall heard in his campaign speeches, but he doesn’t shy away from unsettling language, like “the greatest economic challenge of our times.” Still, he’s not running anymore, so he’s transmuted his stump speech into a Fireside Chat, in which the screen is the hearth and his voice the melody in the air. “I know that we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. . . . I am more hopeful than ever that America will rise once again.” He has checked his radiant smile, since these are not happy times, but he reassures the American public that happy days are here to come.
From this initial video message to his preinauguration press conferences to more recent YouTube clips and weekly talks, Obama has transformed the function of the president-elect, just as he transfigured the presidential campaign into an Internet phenomenon. Streaming from the Office of the President-Elect, a nonplace or anyplace, Obama proclaims his virtual presidency. The easy acceptance by the public and the media of this novel authority—after some initial “Where’s the president?” “Nowhere”—attests to the way people live today, in online encounters and communities. They connect as if they were face-to-face.
Barack Obama keeps making history. He has now also affected the English language, specifically the word virtual. Through his prestidigitations, he has helped along a linguistic shift: Virtual is the new actual. And, in that sense, Obama is president, news maker, and commentator. He can explain himself, by himself. Since he knows what he’s thinking—and why—before the mediacs do, he scoops them effortlessly. In comparison with his skills, their responses seem increasingly thin, redundant, more obviously ill-informed, and excruciatingly superficial. Obama’s capacity to think and answer might force the “cult of personality” pundits to stop shouting and start reading. Actually, virtually.
Lynne Tillman is a novelist.
January 9, 2009 § 1 Comment
Athens based artist, Georgia Kotretsos is the editor-in-chief of Boot Print, a contemporary art publication published by Boots Gallery. For the next two weeks Georgia will be the guest blogger on Art 21.
excerpt from her first post
[I] condemn all forms of violence and vandalism and I have been firm on this since the very beginning. Yet in a cloud of ambiguity the media, a political party and many civilians justified the mayhem and fed its appetite. A state of simmering pandemonium stamped this holiday season and with no further delay, a bloody dialogue was set in motion in the early hours of January 5th, 2009. Thirty Kalashnikov shots were fired towards three policemen who were guarding the Ministry of Culture. The gunmen sealed the attack with a grenade. A 21 year-old policeman was wounded and still remains in critical condition.
Both shootings took place in Exarchia, in downtown Athens. When asked about January 5th, a middle-age female resident of the area said with confidence to a news reporter “I heard Kalashnikov shots been fired.” Who can distinguish the type of a gun by its shots in the middle of the night in Athens? The death of the student has sparked the worst riots for decades, which escalated to be a sociopolitical vendetta. Is this a society of an eye for an eye?
Why is this all happening? For way too many reasons that go too far back, but most importantly because the Greek gluttonous government in power since 2004 is digging a hole and inviting us all to jump in. For the last 18 months, new scandals make weekly headlines, there isn’t even enough time to react in between – the lethal combination of a corrupted government and a lethargic Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, is what we’re left with at a time of severe economic stagnation, a chronic lack of meritocracy, an endless list of social injustices and continuous brutality towards protestors, which in this case were often teenagers, by the state.
How could I ever link this intro to the art postings I’ll upload from Athens for you in the following days? Maybe I can’t and maybe I shouldn’t and for that I have to say this now.
Art may echo this page of Greek contemporary history, but I’m not convinced it’s entirely necessary unless we’re willing to individually evaluate the role of art within the contemporary Greek society and further admit openly the kind of voice it has for each one of us, and then get on with our day. There is life after art and if artists are willing to react, or make a stand, they are not obliged to call it art – an artist is also a citizen. If anybody finds comfort in turning this into some careerist driven niche, I’ll personally stay away. An open dialogue that’s not addressed exclusively to the intellectual elite can be an initial answer to our racing thoughts[...]