Article on Yoko Ono's Art Activism

My article "Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World" came out in the November issue of RVA magazine. The editor of the magazine wrote Ono and obtained from her some beautiful high-resolution images of the Imagine Peace Tower directly. Here's the link to download the original article in a pdf file. [The article is on pages 60, 61, 62, and 63].

Enjoy and let me know what you think!


The Magical Efficacy of Peelander-Z

Peelander-Z stormed in with their infectious fun-driven insanity at the Camel in Richmond, Virginia on November 7, 2007. Self-labeled as “Japanese action comic punk,” the New-York-based trio invigorated the socially sleepy downtown Richmond only a few blocks away from the iconic confederate hero Robert E Lee statue, one of the most visible structures in the city. Richmond’s cultural landscape may not be as dormant, regressive or even washed out as it seems above-ground. The presence of an anime punk band, to a large degree, resonates with the backdrop of Richmond as an East Coast hub of punk and hardcore that gave birth to GWAR. The aesthetic genealogy of Peelander-Z, to my knowledge, must have crossed that of GWAR somewhere along their outrageous ride of high-energy, raw sound and dramatic characterization.

“We are not American! We are not Japanese! We’re not even human! We are Peelander-Z!!!!” [All vocal gestures by Peelander-Z reverberated with exclamations.] Proclaiming to be of an anime-derived outer-space species, Peelander-Z wore power-ranger-like polyester suites and played through a series of tune-driven segments interwoven with interactive routines such as audience call and response and human bowling. Peelander-Z demonstrated the “claw” and the audience responded with their “claw” back during opening tune “Mad Tiger.” Peelander-Red then dragged out a suitcase full of pots, pans, and drumsticks while inviting the audience members to join the band by making percussive sounds. Human Bowling, as one would imagine, was one Peelander member bowling his band member across the hall and into a set of bowling pins. Throughout the set, the drummer held up signs to cue the audience into responding with particular phrases, gestures or actions.

The audience, comprised of mostly 20-or-30-something White Americans with punk-inflected apparel (tapered jeans and canvas Vans), got wild, dirty, and down with Peelander-Z. The women especially went nuts during the interactive breakdown sessions. I saw three girls in their early teens with their fathers, who had on autographed Peelander-Z Tshirts. Even the audience members most unfamiliar with the band felt connected to be participants.

Peelander-Z’s interactive techniques demonstrate an impeccable and unexpected synthesis between elements from punk, anime, and Japanese/Asian game shows (popular in East Asia. The premise of these show is for audience to interact with celebrity icons). There is something mysterious and almost ritualistic about Peelander-Z’s live shows. I shed all my skepticism and inhibition after their “Mad Tiger Claw” warmup. Their power of conjuring up immediacy, liveness, and interactivity is shamanistic – perhaps more efficacious than the folk evocation of personal sincerity and social intimacy.

How about a Kodak moment with Peelander-Z? [more images]


Boris, Michio Kurihara, and Damon & Naomi descended into the Virginian valley

Japanese sludge metal band Boris and Michio Kurihara from Japanese psychedelic folk rock band Ghost rumbled Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville on Thursday, October 25, 2007.

Hundreds of fans, indie music enthusiasts, metal-heads, punk kids, hipsters, and gen-x'ers crowded their stormed-drenched bodies into the Ballroom to witness Boris' ultra-live presence on stage. With a three-foot gong, countless effect stompboxes spilling out of pedal boards, stacks and stacks and stacks of amps, and dry ice (!!), Boris and Kurihara made the most godly sounds while descending in the valley of central Virginia. Kurihara's first guitar solo of the set, in "Rainbow," barged in like an alien with a desire to devour all of mundane earthliness, howling and growling. "Heavy", indeed, as described by many critics. What emptied me out was their generous outpour of unbridled melancholy mixed in with the uncanny.

In an email I wrote to a friend, I revealed my afterthought:

"i woke up this morning thinking that i just saw an otherworldly show last night. seriously, so many things about it made me feel like it was produced by superhumans - the drummer's choreographed taiko-like gestures, the nonchalant non-showman-like asskicking FEmale lead guitar, the double neck bass/guitar player who played out of two fucking stacks - and of course michio kurihara's virtuosic guitar effects and solos (man, his first solo took me to some sort of imaginary land with hendrix-like 'greatest guitarist of our time.')"

Boris in action

Boris drummer Atsuo - surfing

Damon & Naomi opened with a bittersweet set

one half of Kurihara's pedal board [more images of the show]

After the show I spoke with Naomi Yang of the acid-folk duo Damon & Naomi and the now-legendary indie-folk Galaxie 500. Naomi introduced me to International Sad Hits Volume 1: Altaic Language Group, an album featuring Asian singer-songwriters from the 1960s put out by Damon and herself. These artists, she explained, were discovered by them when they toured in Turkey, Korea, and Japan. I intend to review this album once I get a close listen of it. Damon & Naomi are on tour with Boris and Kurihara this fall.

I witnessed the gods of rock and roll channeling through Boris and Kurihara that night.


Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World: reprise

Upon Kenny's recommendation, I decided to extend my article on Yoko Ono's recent wave of her Imagine Peace campaign. The longer version will appear in the November issue of RVA Magazine, an independent arts and culture magazine based out of Richmond, VA. Here's a preview of the article:

On 10/9/07, John Lennon's birthday, Yoko Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland. Ono conceived of the concept for the Tower in 1965. At the time, John Lennon dreamed of having the light tower in his garden. Ono said, “maybe this is John’s garden.”

In the late 1960s, John & Yoko began the "Imagine Peace" campaign as a part of the anti-war effort against the US occupation of Vietnam. They utilized mass media, such as magazines, newspapers, billboards, and television, as a vehicle to spread pacifist messages to a wide audience. A famous project central to their campaign was the “Bed-in,” a series of two week-long press-conference-like performance art events in a hotel room first in Amsterdam and then in Montreal following their celebrity wedding, with the objective of turning the star-craving media attention upon themselves into a sit-in protesting against the Vietnam War. During the course of the week, John & Yoko spoke to celebrities, politicians, activists, world leaders, and joournalists who visited and phoned in to discuss issues related to war, violence, inequalities, pacifist strategies, media, etc. Dressed in all-white pajamas, they held protest signs and led sing-alongs with other musicians and artists.

To John & Yoko, world peace is a possibility only after a critical mass of people imagine it as a possibility first and then adopt it in their everyday lives. Yoko Ono, now 74 years old, has extended the John & Yoko anti-war agenda into the early 21st century political and technological context. The most recent form of the “Imagine Peace” campaign involves the implementation of her website [www.imaginepeace.com], a virtual hub serving to enlist people around the world to rehearse the idea of peace while enacting it by repeating the mantra of “imagine peace” in various ways in their daily lives. For example, she encourage to download from her site desktop graphics, website banners, and Myspace icons. Ono also has a Myspace and Facebook page. On the main page of the site, Ono keeps a log of news about her recent activist and art projects. The most recent post displays for Ono’s statement of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader currently imprisoned for her free-Burma resistance.

In addition, on her website, Ono has included an instructional page for her performance art piece “Wish Piece,” soliciting participants to create and display personally designed peace-ful messages to be exhibited on a tree. Ono has re-contextualized a Japanese traditional practice for the objective of world peace. This effort is joined by Ono’s “Wish Tree” gallery exhibits, from which she has collected peace wishes around the world. So far, she has collected a sum of 495,000 wishes.

The Imagine Peace Tower, a large, minimalist structured light beam, projected upward into the pitch-black sky of Reykjavik's night with solemnity and strength. The structure is comprised of a 55-foot platform that sits on a 6.5-foot tall wishing well, onto which is “imagine peace” inscribed in twenty-four languages. Ono plans to bury the peace wishes in “capsules” around the Imagine Peace Tower while planting a tree on top of each capsule. She envisions an eventual forest symbolizing the world’s collective wish for peace.

Sean Lennon and Ringo Starr partook of the celebration as Ono’s entourages. In a speech, Ono invoked the intent of the tower: “We are here together. Billions of us. Standing at the dawn of a new age determined to shift the axis of the world to health, peace and joy by loving and caring for all lives on Earth.” The presentation ended with her performance of “Onochord,” an interactive flashlight performance piece signaling the phrase “I love you.” Echoing the logic of many of her performance art pieces, the Imagine Peace Tower is not only a reflection of the artist’s vision. Moreover, it is a socially engaged imperative that ignites, sustains, and augments peace - as a mental state and practice – among the individuals in the world. Art, in this case, is not created for the sake of art only, but for a social cause.

Ono’s anti-violence activist agenda has been consistent in her art projects since her participation in the Fluxus movement in the late 1950s. In 1964, her performance of “Cut Piece,” a Fluxus performance-based work in which she kneeled on stage while instructing her audience to cut off pieces of her clothing. The compelling images of feminine fragility and body violence evoked in this piece, some thought, challenged the assumptions about the role and representation of women in contemporary society. Others interpreted “Cut Piece” to be a contestation against the Vietnam War.

Since then, Ono has participated in a number activist music projects. Her 1995 album Rising, a collaborative project with Sean Lennon’s art rock band IMA, voiced social concerns for HIV-positive individuals. To mobilize support for gay marriage she re-rendered a 1980 hit on Double Fantasy “Everyman Has a Woman Who Loves Him” into queer friendly versions – “Every Man has a Man Who Loves Him” and “Everywoman has a Woman Who Loves Her.” Furthermore, she played a crucial role in Amnesty International’s production of two compilation albums: first one is titled Wake Up Everybody, a post-911, politically charged album containing her re-make of “Give Peace a Chance”; second one titled Make Some Noise is an effort to raise global awareness on human rights crisis in Darfur.

Ono's production of peace hopefully speaks to an audience wider than ever before.
It’s been more than 40 years since the emergence of the fraught Beatles-related myth about Ono. My sense is that people are now starting to pay serious attention to her artistic and political contribution. Among the recent key advocates for Ono include Thurston Moore, Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper, Laurie Anderson, as well as cultural critic bell hooks.

I watched the unveiling ceremony broadcast on Icelandic TV that night. The spectacle exuded peace, serenity, warmth and social connectedness. When the children's choir sang Lennon’s “Imagine” in Icelandic, the brims of my eyes got a little moist. For over thirty years, Ono has not ceased for a moment to instill positivity into the world. “Negative thoughts are a luxury we can't afford,” Ono notes on her Website. Yoko Ono’s message of courage, pacifism, and love, I hope, will continue to reach and move more individuals in the world. To me, Ono-ism is pacifism in its most poetic and imperative form.