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What Flood? 2 weeks of disaster relief in Austin, Texas (#ATXFloods)

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Collapsed house after Austin Halloween Flood

A condemned houses in the aftermath of the Austin, Texas Halloween 2013 flood.

In the early hours of Halloween 2013, Austin, Texas suffered from a record-breaking flood. Some 1,100 homes were affected by the floods with hundreds of those seriously. Flood response was dangerously delayed by a faulty flood gauge and improper human monitoring of the rapidly rising Onion Creek. Because of the city’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward the residents of the floodplain, many remained asleep as water began to pour into their homes:

Onion Creek was transformed into a raging river last Thursday. The Halloween flood set a new record for high water levels in the creek. More than 1,000 homes were damaged and five people died.

At a town hall meeting in the Dove Springs area Tuesday night homeowners had a lot of questions, and one comment caused concern.

‘We relied too much, me, on technology and gauges that were not working properly,’ said Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Flood survivor Norma Jeanne Maloney took to Facebook to tell how she and her partner Dawna Fisher were awakened by rising waters:

Dawna Fisher woke me up to tell me we had a problem. Half asleep I said ‘Say again, what kind of problem?’ ‘We have some water outside and it looks pretty high.’ I went to our front window to see a raging body of water about 3 feet high. I said ‘We need to wake up the kids we are in serious trouble.’ I woke up Ruby and she woke up Texie. I went back into our bedroom where the water had already begun to seep up into our floors, I heard my cat Pickup howling, yes cats howl, under the bed. I managed to grab him and while he clawed me to pieces ( and he has never ever hurt anyone ) I said to him, go right ahead pal, I’m not letting you go. Texie and I shoved him in a bag and zipped it up. …

We all had gathered in the living room wondering if anyone on earth knew what was happening and how we were going to get out. We saw someone trying to escape in their car, it flipped on its side and was washed away. I heard voices and saw a boat in the street and my immediate response was to open the front door to swim to the boat to get help for my family. Do not try this at home, it lets more water in. We began flicking our porch light on and off and were seen. A beautiful tall firefighter walked through the raging water and made it to our window and asked how many lives we had in our home including pets …

He said he would be back. We waited and watched the water continue to rise, our belongings beginning to float about the house. My daughter Ruby asked me if we were going to die. That was the hardest part. Of course not I said, wondering if I just lied to my child and if we were all going to perish. I said guys, I know this isn’t really your thing, but can we pray? Without hesitation we all grabbed hands in a circle and asked that we be spared, at this point the water was past our waists. … The firefighter came back, we heard our neighbors screaming and we said go back for them, they are elderly and need your help. Our neighbors (we know now) were screaming go get them, they have babies! On his last trip to our window they finally managed to get the boat near our living room window against the current and said they were ready to load us. These brave men loaded our family and our animals in the tiny craft and we were transported less than a half mile north up our street where it was completely dry.

As is so often the case in these disasters, city organizations and big nonprofits poured into the neighborhood to offer assistance and ask for cash donations in the immediate aftermath, but it didn’t last. The Red Cross turned up to serve thousands of hot dogs before halting meals a week after the floods. A city-operated shelter opened for a mere 2 weeks. And while the Austin city government offered buyouts to over a hundred of the worst damaged homes, residents are expected to wait months to receive that money:

Saturday Art: Phoenix by Sebastian Miles (#ArtOutside)

5:02 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

 

In late September of 2011, I remember camping with some friends. We were celebrating Burning Man, the massive festival in the Nevada desert, at a Central Texas campground since we couldn’t make it to the big event. On the last day, I remember the skies filling up with smoke. Most of us assumed there was a fire nearby.

A rustic cabin bird feeder sits atop a charred pine log.

Phoenix in the Art Outside art gallery.

In reality, the fire was much further away and much larger than we realized. As we traveled back, we heard the real news — and that the fire had cost a camp mate almost all her worldly possessions. The Bastrop County Wildfires of 2011 were the most destructive wildfires in the history of Texas. They destroyed over 1,500 homes and caused millions in damage, and affected the lives of almost everyone in the Central Texas region — if you live here and weren’t touched directly, you probably know someone who was.

Two years after the fires went out, one artist displayed a memorial to them at Art Outside.

Sebastian Miles created “Phoenix” to honor the memory of those fires and the rebirth that followed. The piece is a small bird feeder in the shape of a charred rustic cabin, which sits atop a tall, similarly charred stump of pine. The story of its creation is intimately linked to the fires.

Miles owned properties in the region, but getting to them was difficult because of fires that sometimes raged across highways. His first attempt to reach one of his sites was rebuffed by state officials. Undeterred, he donned a respirator and climbed aboard his dirt bike and set off into the burning woods. On his journey, he spotted a burning cabin alone but for a pile of firewood stacked nearby.

When the fires died down, he returned to the location and collected the remains of the cabin. He milled the logs down to return them to a clean, golden pine and then built a scale replica of the original cabin in the shape of a bird feeder.

Then, in honor of the fiery birth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, he burnt the structure again.

Its charred state also acts like a natural weather proofing, meaning in the future it could be installed outdoors and used as a functional bird feeder.

Healing from an event like this takes time. My friend still, today, goes looking for some object and then realizes it’s burned away. But life begins to return quickly to damaged places. The death of old growth allows us to take new paths and begin new undertakings — now, my friend is working toward a graduate degree in mental health.

 

Phoenix on its charred stump.

Phoenix is a working bird feeder. The re-burnt would provides natural weatherproofing.

Miles made several pieces based on the Bastrop fires, some of which were previously displayed at Jennifer Chenowith’s Fisterra Studio and featured in the East Austin Studio Tour. He was a little cagey about what he’s working on now and just said that he has several works in progress that he looks forward to displaying at future events.

Phoenix shows how tragedy can inspire art, and how sometimes the most moving pieces are intimately tied to a time, an event, and a location. For many of us who remember the fires, it was one of the most memorable parts of this year’s Art Outside.

#BurningMan and Paul Addis: The KDVS Interview (Part 2)

3:32 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism, Part 1 of the KDVS Interview

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. This is part 2 of the interview, in which we talk more about the effects of police and pranksters on countercultures and activist movements.

A cluster of NYPD arrests an activist on a night march

Arrests at Occupy Wall Street. The question of when and how to involve police in activist or countercultural movements is often a controversial one.

Speaking in Tongues: It might be useful for me to clarify or to be more specific about my intention with this question. One of the issues which emerged in relation to Occupy, and it occurred in Oakland, and I think Occupy Wall Street and Sacramento as well, was this question about assaultive behavior within the occupations, particularly as directed toward women. And so the issue of whether or not to report such crimes to the police — essentially whether to engage the police at all — was at times a controversial one. Was there a similar type of response initially in terms of seeking police assistance at Burning Man?

Kit O’Connell: I think the police have been involved when something like that happened. At the very beginning, there are stories of people taking it into their own hands and telling people to leave or things like that. But police have been called out for specific incidents. It’s something where the Organization does make that call from time to time.

But I also think the police to some extent arrived on their own, just suddenly becoming aware that there was this huge gathering happening in their midst every year and it was an opportunity — obviously there were safety issues but of course also an opportunity for revenue generation as far as giving out things like speeding tickets to people driving around in the desert. So I think there was a need for order at some point but also there was this sort of encroachment of the police into this separate space much like in Occupy where they weren’t always invited but they appeared anyway and had to be negotiated with one way or another.

SIT:  One of the impressions I’m getting from hearing you describe what transpired with Addis in Burning Man, it draws my attention to what has been sort of a — I don’t know if conflict is the right word, but competing social perspectives within anti-authoritarian movements whether you want to call them anarchist or whatever — between those who see such movements as an opportunity for individualization and celebrating the individual with the least amount of social constraints possible, and those who see autonomous communities within the tradition of someone like Colin Ward, who celebrated communal forms of social organization within the United Kingdom that often took extremely mundane forms like house squatting or organizing a sports league where people were acting nonhierarchically and were working autonomously outside of a capitalist relationship. That’s the type of tension that I perceive when I hear about this situation with Addis within Burning Man.

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#BurningMan & Paul Addis: The KDVS Interview (Part 1)

2:41 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism

Remains of the burned Burning Man effigy.

The iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it in 2007.

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. Burning Man centers around an annual festival in a temporary desert city that surrounds a human effigy. This effigy is ritually burned on Saturday night of the week-long event, but Addis was jailed for setting fire to it on the Monday before its scheduled destruction.

Here is a part one of the transcript of our conversation.

Speaking In Tongues: We are fortunate enough to have Kit O’Connell from Austin, Texas. I invited him on the air today to speak about an article he wrote which appeared on his website as well as Firedoglake about Paul Addis.

Paul Addis was someone who was involved with Burning Man and I believe he may have been involved with Occupy as well — I’ll be asking Kit about that momentarily — but his life I believe is one that raises a lot of significant questions about radical activism, the people involved with it and how it can be effectively pursued. Kit, welcome to Speaking In Tongues.

Kit O’Connell: Hi, thanks, it’s good to be here.

SIT: Let’s just start with — as you noted in your article Paul Addis committed suicide I believe on Saturday, October 27th.

KO: Right.

SIT: And he did so by jumping in front of BART train, certainly very evocative for a lot of people here because we ride BART and we’re very familiar with it. Who was he and why do you consider his death to be noteworthy?

KO: He was an artist and I think an activist, certainly in his own mind and very involved in the Bay Area in various ways especially in the art scene. He had also been part of Burning Man since even before it began as a member of the Cacophony Society, which is one of the groups that their culture and activities created an origin point for Burning Man. So he was with Burning Man before there was even a Burning Man and he stayed with it through its earliest years when it was a temporary frontier city and he became disillusioned with it as it became more and more organized, especially in the late 90s after some more rules were put in place due to some tragic accidental deaths on the playa.

So they started putting more rules in place, so he wanted– You know, it’s a classic frontier story of someone watching the city they helped create become more orderly than they want. Of not being a frontier anymore but instead being a metropolis.

SIT: Kit, can I just interject a moment.

KO: Sure.

Movie poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

SIT: Oddly enough, it sounds vaguely reminiscent of the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

KO: I actually haven’t had a chance to see that, to my discredit, so I’ll have to take your word on that. But it’s the sort of story echoed in Westerns and literature as well.

SIT: Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance and Liberty Valance is the man who really created the city. … And then [James Stewart] plays the man who ends up being elected senator. In any event, Liberty Valance, despite his importance to the creation he becomes a sort of drag on the city going forward and eventually he is expelled.

KO: Burning Man always balances a frontier and sort of punk attitude mixed with a sort of loving chilled out hippie atmosphere and Burning Man is often a balancing act between those two personality types to a large extent. And he certainly fell more on that punk frontier aspect of it. As as watched the city become more orderly and more rules-driven he became disillusioned. Of course it’s a running joke that people go to Burning Man and say ‘well it was better last year,’ but he took that seriously.

And he took seriously the joke that people have told for years of let’s shake things up by burning the Man early and he went ahead and did that. He actually did burn the man early in 2007 on Monday night, the first night into Tuesday early morning I believe during a lunar eclipse so much of the city was watching that. All of a sudden they knew the Man was on fire. Paul Addis did it, he was actually charged with destruction of property for lighting the Man early and he served as a felon in jail as a result of that.

SIT: It seems to me that an implication of your article is that this is a serious foundational event in the transformation of Burning Man.

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#BurningMan, the Death of Paul Addis, and Radical Activism (UPDATED 11/3)

1:34 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Paul Addis, the man accused of arson at Burning Man, the massive fire arts festival, committed suicide on Saturday night.

From the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Remains of the burned Burning Man effigy.

The charred remains of the iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it early at the 2007 event.

Paul Addis, a longtime Burner and artist fed up with the way Burning Man was being organized, died after he jumped in front of a moving BART train at Embarcadero station on Saturday night, according to multiple Bay Area news reports. He was 42.

Addis was convicted of felony arson after setting fire to what festival-goers call “The Man” on that early Tuesday morning [in 2007].

Burning Man is an annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada which attracts over 50,000 attendees and has spawned a worldwide subculture of smaller regional events and year-round communities. The event is based around ethics of a gift economy and radical participation, and has its roots in anarchic gatherings created by groups like the Cacophony Society and Crash Worship (whose descendants Flam Chen were profiled here last weekend).

Its central ritual is the end of week burning of a massive effigy of a human figure. Addis short-circuited this ritual in 2007 by setting fire to the icon on the event’s first night. Reports differ on the circumstances of this action, with Addis claiming warnings were given and attempts made to clear the area while other eyewitnesses tell stories of helping endangered, inebriated people away from the flames. Addis was arrested, convicted of destruction of property (a felony), and spent two years in jail.

Burning Man offers a place where some people (those who can afford it) come to explore the nature of identity, creativity and social interaction free from the constraints of mainstream capitalist culture. Yet as the event grew, this experiment in temporary community naturally adopted rules. Steven T. Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter who has chronicled many Burning Man events, cites an accidental death in 1996 as the beginning of the end of the event’s true lawlessness.

Addis, a Cacophonist who participated in Burning Man’s early days, had infamously (but more harmlessly) pranked before by attaching a pair of testicles to the sculpture in the late ’90s. He grew bitter at the changes to his beloved community and styled himself a direct action hero who would reclaim the free spirit of the event by making good on an annually recurring rumor — that the Man would Burn early. Addis seemed to identify with larger-than-life figures like Hunter S. Thompson, who he played in a one-man show.

In his book Tribes of Burning Man, Jones describes Addis’ motivation for the costly prank:

Addis seems to believe that big gestures like torching the man can prompt people to rally for change. “In any situation, it only takes one person to make a difference. I firmly believe that.” Beyond just taking back Burning Man, Addis wanted to reclaim the country from the screwheads and war mongers, to end the Iraq War, and help “rehumanize” the returning soldiers.

As he announced grandly, “We’re taking it back, that hulking retard known as America.”

There’s no more divisive figure in the Burning Man subculture than Addis. A lengthy profile of Addis’ life and death by Whatsblem the Pro on the Burning Man commentary blog along with the heated comments that follow offers a glimpse into the kind of debate which erupts any time his name is mentioned:

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Saturday Art: Flam Chen (#ArtOutside)

2:07 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Flam Chen is a ‘new circus’ troupe based out of Tucson, Arizona. They have their origins in Crash Worship, an anarchic performance troupe of the 80s and 90s which was heavily influential. Crash Worship inspired much of modern Burning Man culture and street performance groups like Extra-Action Marching Band, mentioned yesterday on myFDL. The new circus movement is booming right now, with aerial dance, burlesque, acrobatics (and ‘acro-yoga’), fire dancing and related arts more popular than they’ve been in decades.

Stilt-walking 'mantises' and two dancers around a fire

Flam Chen's Rites of Spring, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen combine modern dance, stilt walking, fire dancing, experimental theater and aerial dance with colorful costumes, modern projection technology and electronic music. They lead Tucson’s annual All Souls Procession, an annual participatory street festival. They expect 50,000 people to attend this year’s procession and 30,000 will participate in some way. This event trains new performers, then draws them into the streets for a weekend-long ‘Day of the Dead’ style festival.

New Stiltwalkers Take their First Steps

Flam Chen's Stiltwalking Workshop, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

The troupe performed twice at Art Outside 2012. On Friday night, they performed Rites Of Spring, which artistic director Nadia Hagen calls one of their seminal works. About every five years, the troupe revives and revises it for new audiences. This year’s combined fire, quadruped ‘stilt walkers’ dressed like insects, and even a gorgeous aerial silk performance. In keeping with their work at the Procession, they taught over 50 new stilt walkers their first steps during the course of the weekend.

A costumed stiltwalking woman in a balaclava

Flam Chen dancer at Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen returned to close out Art Outside’s Sunday night. As the brilliant remixer Pumpkin finished a high-energy set, six members of Flam Chen appeared among the crowd wearing bright balaclavas, with the men’s woven masks looking like devils (or perhaps a Mexican Guy Fawkes). They cavorted, flipped, and danced then led the crowd into dancing with them. Finally, they encouraged the entire festival into a gigantic howling, ohm-chanting group hug.

Six colorful stiltwalkers in a circle

Flam Chen lead Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

For more from Flam Chen, see flamchen.com

If you’re near Tucson, Arizona on November 2-4, be sure to check out the All Souls Procession.

Watercooler: Mud

6:00 pm in Watercooler by Kit OConnell

Hi, y’all.

I had a lovely weekend camping at a small camp-out in the Texas hill country, a small followup (or ‘decompression‘) for the bigger festival I attended last month. I had a great time dancing in the rain, but now all that’s left is the mud on my dancing boots. It’ll soon wash away — except today it’s raining in Austin, so now it’s not the time for drying my things.

A DJ turned the Ben Harper song to the right into a foot-stompingly good mix late Saturday night, but I found a live track for you in all its unaltered glory. And speaking of dancing, how about this story of dancing in New York from the Daily Mail (admittedly, not the world’s most reliable paper)?

Caroline Stern, a dentist, and George Hess, a movie prop master, were waiting for a train at the Columbus Circle station after a late evening at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night’s Swing last year when they began dancing the Charleston to a musician playing the steel drums. … That’s when police came in and spoiled the fun, they told the New York Post.

The officers demanded their ID. When Ms Stern only had a credit car, the police ordered the couple to go with them.

When Mr Hess pulled out a camera to start recording the incident, the officers called for backup and the situation turned nasty, the couple says.

After being wrestled to the ground, they spent 23 hours in jail. Though the incident occurred last summer, it’s receiving renewed attention because of a lawsuit the couple brought against the city. Besides, if Occupy Wall Street has taught us anything, it’s that the NYPD hasn’t gotten any less repressive of free expression in the last year.

That’s what’s on my mind tonight. This is tonight’s open thread. Come chat with MyFDL.

Watercooler: Religion

6:20 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Hi, y’all.

From nuns to hospitals to Trinity Wall Street, there was a lot about (Christian) religion on My Firedoglake today. We can see the nuns doing good while wondering about the other problems of (some?) organized religion, especially as it becomes mired in the politics of the 1% (Trinity Wall Street).

For me, I was raised in the Catholic church but have come to be an agnostic with a firm believer in the power of ritual. I think ritual helps us order our lives, helps us feel control, while building a sense of connection with the people we are near. It doesn’t have to be a religious ritual and it can be as simple as a regularly shared meal or as complex as the central effigy of Burning Man. I sometimes think this love of ritual is hard-wired into human brains, and some researchers support this notion.

Of course, I think we have to keep working with what works for us, and avoid doing things just because others tell us — then we’ve moved from ritual into the bad part of tradition, the part that can keep us from growing.

I’m going to cut this short here — I’m afraid I may be coming down with a cold — sore throat, achey head.

That’s what’s on my mind tonight, though. What’s on yours? This is today’s open thread.