Telly addicts and togetherness

The trees are strung with TVs in Berlin. The cables that hang from them creep along pavements toward the bar or restaurant that rigged the public screening. It’s the World Cup and the whole city’s a living room. The streets are filled with seats, and eaters become watchers, sharing their team allegiances with staff who let them linger over empty plates. Passersby slow as they approach the action, pausing long enough to catch the score. The screen, like every screen, is a magnet. It’s virtually impossible not to look, not to keep looking, not to feel its incessant pull on your attention. But there’s something about the TV trees that feels different.

I just had this Shirley Valentine-referencing Prudential ad pop into my head, in which a deluded husband declares, “We just want to be together,” as his wife divorces him with a look. (The ad’s from 1991 and is for a pension aimed at women. Haaa pensions.)

Togetherness is a volatile sensation. It’s possible to feel it for a few seconds with a group of strangers, but it can fail to show at an intimate dinner. It’s not about the just being there, it’s about the shared interest. Maybe that’s why I’m enjoying watching people watching football. The street screens don’t nag me the way my phone does. They say “gather round,” rather than “look at me until you die.”

 

A conversation with Jonas Mekas

 

Back in early March, a couple of days before I left New York, I had the honour of interviewing Jonas Mekas at his Brooklyn home for the Japanese magazine Libertin Dune‘s 15th issue, out now and available in Japan and New York. Follow Libertin Dune on Instagram for a peek inside the issue. With thanks to Kazumi Asamura Hayashi and Masaki Naito for allowing me to publish the English version here. Portrait by Jacqueline Harriet.

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Opening the pages of A Dance With Fred Astaire, the latest book from Lithuanian American filmmaker, poet, and artist Jonas Mekas, is like falling down a rabbit hole. Non-chronological, it puzzles together anecdotes from six decades of adventures at the heart of New York’s avant-garde film world. While the history books trace the outline of the era’s events and achievements, Mekas does the colouring in. The bustling social life of ‘60s Manhattan is rendered as vividly as the struggles its heroes endured, and icons like Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and Jackie Kennedy are revealed as idiosyncratic human beings simply trying to make sense of the world just like the rest of us. Along the way, Mekas shares glimpses of the spirituality that a lifelong commitment to the arts — he founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1970 — can sustain.

The 95-year-old has a knack for telling stories in a loose, intimate fashion, as if he’s known you forever. It was pouring with rain when I visited his library of a Brooklyn apartment on a grey March afternoon; all around him were shelves and tables filled with his archives. A sleek and wiry black cat called Pie Pie, who used to belong to his daughter Oona, made herself comfortable on the table between us as we talked. Witty and razor-sharp, Mekas smiles with his eyes and speaks with genuine excitement. It’s not hard to see why the best and brightest of the New York scene were drawn to him.

I’m really enjoying A Dance With Fred Astaire. How did the book come together?

Sometimes when I am with friends, as we’re eating and drinking, some memories come that relate to what we are talking about, and later I wrote them down. They were recorded during a period of maybe 10-15 years. Then at some point, I had so many of them, I thought, Why not put them into a book? It’s a form of autobiography in a way.

It features many giants of the avant-garde New York scene of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as introducing the reader to less familiar characters of that era. It’s a really beautiful journey of discovery.

[In my life,] I have worn many different hats. I seem not to be able to stick to one area. I seem to be a vagabond. Sometimes I am pulled to one direction and then I’m pulled to another one. Because I live with no plans — I go where I feel I am needed.

Where did your curiosity come from?

I am not that curious! I don’t think I am. I go, as I said, where I am needed. It’s something that has to be done, but nobody else can do, or wants to do, or knows how to do. Almost all the projects I initiated — like Film Culture magazine or Film-Makers’ Cooperative or the film department in the Village Voice — it had to be done, but nobody else was doing it. Or somebody needed [something], like Jackie Kennedy needed someone to teach her children film. So I fell into that position. It just happened with no plan, no effort.

In the book, you talk about the excitement you feel when you see something you’ve never seen before in art and film.

Yes! That sense of excitement. I get into it when I see something unique and something special, and yes, I get excited about it — with no restraint. It does not always have to be a work of art, poetry, or film. It could be a person, like Peter Beard. When I met Peter Beard for the first time, as a person he was so unique, so full of energy, and very much interested in nature. And we remain friends since ’62, ’63, when I first met him. So it could be anything that has energy. There is a certain energy that is contagious. Same as a work of art can be the energy, beauty can be contagious. To me, at least.

Your friendship with Barbara Rubin is very much alive in this book.

Barbara, she was an amazing person. Spector Books in Leipzig this summer will be bringing out a book of her letters to me. Her letters will show some of the same energy. She was a contagious person.

What was the energy running through New York in that period like?

We are in the beginning of the ’60s, in transition from the ’50s, when all the classical art forms and styles of living that we had came to an end, and new forms in theatre, in music, in every art were emerging — everything was changing. So it was very exciting period, and that was where Barbara Rubin appeared. She was a trouble-making teenager, so suddenly she found herself in the middle of the most active period in New York. She immediately got submerged in it and met everyone and became a very key person in that mixed, exciting family. Going from Jack Smith to Warhol to Velvet Underground to Bob Dylan, and all the smaller personalities. And they were not always the easiest personalities, and not always talking to each other even. But she managed to work and accept, and they accepted her, all of them.

One of the things you did back then that had to be done was finding the money and resources to support the important work of the avant-garde film community.

That was one of my functions. I was the Minister of Finances, the Minister of Defence, Minister of Propaganda. [Laughs.] Yes, all those.

You mention people like Hiro Yamagata and Jerome Hill in the book, who both acted as patrons to many of your contemporaries.

Hiro Yamagata, he came in a little bit later [in the ’90s], but I introduced him to Allen Ginsberg. It was actually a very funny story because at that point Hiro Yamagata wanted to paint portraits of all the important persons in the arts in America. I don’t know what he actually completed. But he said, “I want to meet Allen Ginsberg!” I said, “Oh, I will introduce to Allen. Because as it happens, today his photography show opens at New York University gallery. So come because I have to be there.” So I took him to the opening. It was not open yet. Allen was still hanging his photographs. I introduced them and I had to do something, so I left them talking. Then a few days later, I met Allen in the street: “So you had a good talk with Yamagata?” He said, “Who is this person? He just bought my complete show!” [Laughs.] He bought all his photographs, the whole show. Later he became a big supporter of Allen, and Allen wrote an introduction to one of his books.

These days, brands seem to have become the new patrons of young artists.

You see, that is the scene today. But if you go to the ’50s, there was no such market yet for artists, especially for film and video artists. You could not survive from what you were doing. There was no tradition yet. Now some video artists can sell their work and [there are] galleries that show, and, of course, we have the whole business art collectors scene. But not in the early ’60s — even big names like Andy [Warhol], when I met him he was not known, he hadn’t had a big show yet.

Do you think that brand involvement in the arts has a negative or positive effect?

The way I see it, it has a negative effect on art. [In the early days], there were no foundations supporting art, neither individual foundations like Guggenheim or Ford, or the state or the city. There was no tradition. I remember some of the filmmakers, they all came in around 1970, after the ’60s were already over. I used to meet in the ’80s some of the filmmakers and I remember asking Paul Sharits, “What are you doing? Another movie?” “No, I’m not making another movie because I applied, but I did not get a grant.” So the dependence on sponsors began.

Or, okay, you go into the new Whitney Museum — when it opened, I went and I saw those big, huge spaces. I remember the original Whitney, when it was still on 8th Street, in a little place, small rooms; it felt like home, almost. So I was telling my friends, “Go and see the new Whitney because you will see a museum designed for big art.” Then the Whitney Biennial came and I go to the Biennial and there are only big pieces. There are no small, personal pieces. So I asked one of the curators who was involved, “Why it’s only big pieces?” She said, “We did not find small pieces. If we would have found, we have spaces upstairs, we could have exhibited them there.” But what artist wants to be in a closet in the attic? Artists want to be together! So now already the space dictates what art [is shown].

Have you heard about The Shed? The biggest art structure for presentation, for dance, for music. It’s conceived as a space that will be able to change the shape, the size, adapt itself. It will be opening, I think, next year. Huge! So everything is only for the big art, but where are the other places for personal, small pieces? Now art is made for [being] like a subsidiary to the airports, hotel lobbies, bank lobbies. Decorative, in a way. Okay, in the old centuries, the church [was a big space for art],  but the churches had so many other little spaces that you could put [your art] besides covering the whole ceiling or the wall.

I wonder how much attention span feeds into into it—

Just to interrupt, I was afraid that that would [also happen] with MoMA. But I went just last week to see Stephen Shore’s photography, which is an amazing [show]. The largest photography exhibition that I have ever seen — he deserves it. What they did was they built almost a room within a room, a museum within a museum. Some of the new spaces are also big, but not as big as the Whitney.

Fortunately, in cinema, the big theatres have disappeared. They’re getting smaller and smaller — 70 seats, or under 100. And, of course, the whole internet situation now permits a very personal communication, like sending a postcard. So it’s very unpredictable what the effect will on public cinema, and on the different forms, technologies, and the theatres.

It seems the biggest problem facing avant-garde cinema in the ’60s was censorship, of which you write in the book.

Censorship and the lack of public exposure. With the creation of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, we managed to create our own venues. Mostly through universities and colleges. We never succeeded getting into those 3000 or 4000 [-seat] public theatres across the country. Even the [films] conceived for the wider public, like Shirley Clarke’s films, had a very minimal run, maybe 10 theatres or 20. And it was very expensive. I remember Shirley Clarke released The Connection in ’62 I think, and after it ran for a year or two here and there, I asked her how did it do. The film cost around $200,000, and I asked, “Did you make a lot of money?” “A lot of money? I received a bill from the distributor.” It enumerated how much for publicity, how much for making prints, this and that, and it ended in a deficit and a bill for I don’t know how many thousands of dollars.

What are the problems facing avant-garde cinema today?

It’s very difficult to tell who is making what and where. The biggest, largest chunk of it is on the internet, but you don’t always know where and under what name you should look. I will jump to the ’60s and ’70s. In the very beginning [of avant-garde cinema], you knew almost everybody who was making films or, later, video. You could say, “I have seen everything made in New York.” Then around the ’70s and into the ’80s, it begins to explode. By the end of the ’60s, you have Gay and Lesbian Cinema, Asian American Cinema, Native American Cinema, Black Cinema, all those different branches emerge. And you had to be from the black community or from the gay community to know who is making films in that community. So if you have a survey of what is being done in 1980, you had to have representatives [from each community] who knew what is being done. That’s why at Anthology Film Archives we introduced different festivals. We began with Gay and Lesbian Festival, because that was the only way to see [what was being made]. They curated it, people who knew what is done there.

With the internet, it became totally impossible to know what is being done and where. So I think it will take some time to gain perspective because there is some kind of Darwin’s Law that can be applied to the art: survival of the fittest. That’s not what survives because of the technological aspects, but pieces that people like and want to see again and again. So I think from all those millions and millions of pieces that float around now, there will be some that people of different persuasions, races, backgrounds see something special in and want to keep. They won’t permit it to disappear. When people say, “Oh, YouTube, everything is going…” No. There will be some pieces that will remain. And some of it, of course, will remain for pure human interest. Some pieces I have seen on YouTube are with birds and animals, they are so unique and so spectacular. We could not record it before, with huge film cameras. What survives is not only art.

Some of the literature that survives is also biographical. I was just reading a book by Athenaeus, a Greek. I found it in the street! A cookbook from the 3rd century BC. We’re kind of traveling around subjects here.

That’s the best way. What else are you reading?

Not much that I am reading is contemporary. I tried many times to read Virginia Woolf’s The Lighthouse — three times I started — but then I got to The Waves, and it is amazing. Everybody should read The Waves. It’s not easy reading: The Waves is not written in normal grammatical sentences, it’s written in three-dimensional sentences — a little bit Joycean. And of course, A Room Of One’s Own, every woman should read, and every man should read.

In your brief interview with Anna Karina in A Dance With Fred Astaire, you make a reference to the Women’s Liberation Movement. That is still going strong, not least with the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood. I wondered what you thought about that?

Women and students will change America. It’s coming, yes. It goes beyond America, actually. It’s already beginning in Asia. It’s easy to try here, but in some of areas of Asia it’s very dangerous for women to start a school.

Do you follow what Hollywood releases?

My favourite film is Lady Bird, it’s an amazing film. You should see it. It’s very simple, a series of scenes, a young girl growing up. If you go to my website, I have my little review. I taped Greta [Gerwig] talking about the reasons why she became a filmmaker. It’s a very moving personal statement, which I put on my website. It is a film that can only be made by a woman. It cannot be made by a man, because its subtle observations could not be seen and put into the film the way she did it. It’s very well made.

Also, Three Billboards — the performance of lead actress [Frances McDormand] is so amazing. And, of course, the subject is very timely: the rape of the daughter.

One of the things that comes through very strongly in your book is your spirituality. What informs that?

I grew up in nature. Some of my reading includes a lot of sufis and mystics, like early Ibn Arabi. My mother was very spiritual, so I think there is some influence there.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Yes, I do. I believe that this is one stage, and then you go another, and after that still another. All philosophers and religious prophets, the further back you go [in your research], the more you understand those steps that lead into other dimensions. We have lost that understanding, that’s why I am going back to the old literature, before Plato, where I find more truth. Of course, the real tragedy began with the Industrial Revolution, when everything became so practical: jobs, jobs, money, money, buy, buy, buy more. That’s where we are today, which is leading to ignoring the nature, ignoring the results that we have today in the world. We don’t talk to each other, we fight each other, because of the neglect of the spiritual part, and neglect of education in schools. The arts are out, but sports are in. In the old days, Plato participated in the Olympics — he was a wrestler. Sports were there, but the spiritual aspect was also strong. Now we have only the physical aspect, but no spiritual aspect.

I am not a pessimist. There are still millions of individuals that retain work on the spiritual part of humanity. But if those who run the countries are pushing only the practical aspects, then humanity suffers. I think we are in that period now. But somehow the Earth and humanity eventually takes care of itself. There are some bad periods, but we are still moving ahead. If we don’t destroy ourselves with the technology, then we will pick up again the spiritual part. But maybe we should pick it up now, before we self-destruct. I’m not giving up. But we have to be aware that we are in a dangerous period: technology has progressed far ahead of the mental and spiritual and moral development. That affects the Earth, the nature, which is beginning to make itself visible and we are still ignoring.

Did you ever contemplate retiring?

No! I don’t understand what retiring is, really. Only if you do what you don’t like just for money, then, of course, if there is a chance of retiring, you take it. You escape that boring job. But what I do, it’s not even a question of liking or not liking, it’s something that I must do. That’s my nature; it’s part of me.

Plus, I am doing so many other things. I have a big show now in Seoul in Korea. This year I had two or three books out besides A Dance With Fred Astaire. There is a new edition of I Had Nowhere To Go. There will also be Conversations With Film-Makers, which is going through the final stages. But my main work in this period is building a library on top of the current Anthology Film Archives building. I’m adding another floor and a cafe on the side. The cafe for our survival, and the library for the huge amount of paper, reference materials, books, periodicals, documentation, posters, and also audio materials related to cinema. They’re all boxed, not available to scholars, research students. So that’s a $12million project. But I managed already to raise $6 million. So another year, maybe, of fundraising work and then maybe we can begin building construction. I will never stop doing what I am doing. Like a bird singing, you cannot stop. That’s how I am.

Rip it up and start again

I’ve been doing a lot of walking recently, and it’s been helping me think. When I am sat in front of a screen, things can get stilted pretty quick; physical motion oils my brain as much as my joints. One of the things I’ve been thinking about on my walks is time, and how warped a relationship some humans have developed with it, myself included. Screens, with their addicting glow and infinite-scroll distractions, stretch one’s experience of time into an eternal present: how many days have screens gobbled up, and why is it never enough? I think about what that means for the future, and specifically, what that means for a chance of a future that doesn’t simply replicate the past.

Then, of course, since it’s a field in which I am involved, I think about what that means in terms of the music journalism landscape. In a recent paper about music and gender, Jes Skolnik pointed out that white male critics have “until the last five years or so…been overvalued in the industry and have taken up too much critical space, controlling the dialogue.” The result being that music journalism has been on a treadmill for decades. That who does the gatekeeping has an undeniable impact on which artists get championed, and just as importantly, how they are written about, shouldn’t need an explanation.

The shift of the past few years that Jes references is one that I was privileged to witness from the vantage point of New York’s music and culture publishing world. During my four-year spell in N.Y.C., I saw new and old media alike make hiring decisions that felt like a step toward a more inclusive and incisive future. Thanks in no small part to social media, specifically Black Twitter, the industry began to self-regulate: poor commissioning decisions were called out, and good ones praised; the level to which cultural context fed into criticism was analysed with care; and who did the writing and the editing (and photographing and styling etc) was as much a discussion point as who was written about. That momentum allowed for the kind of internal conversations that push publications to serve their readers better, and pay their contributors more. Taking a step back, the thorough and thoughtful documentation of this particular moment not only signposts a new era, but acts as a map to get us there.

That’s not to say it was all rosy. Publications and websites sometimes failed to retain the black and brown writers and editors they hired because their largely white environments proved too toxic. But in turn, that became part of the discourse: Who does the heavy lifting in cultural criticism and who benefits from it?

I’ve been back in the U.K. two months now, and all I can think is: Britain is caught in a time warp. Where American publications at least project a sense of listening to public opinion, it feels like many British publications have their fingers in their ears. It’s ironic because the British have a way of looking down at America — It’s a mess! The racism! Guns! Trump! — that conveniently allows for denial about the state of the U.K. to flourish, which is reflected in the U.K. media’s own endemic racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and sexism.

If you think that the U.K.’s music and culture media is immune to the above, then you’re also in denial, or part of the problem. White publishers and editors who claim to understand what white privilege is need to put that privilege to work and invite black, brown, and trans writers and editors, as well as those from other marginalised groups, into the spaces they occupy. Representation matters, but presence matters more: you can’t ask questions if you’re not in the room. If U.K. music and culture publications and departments hired black, brown, and trans editors and writers as staff, rather than simply calling on them for (often poorly paid) freelance work, the industry’s future would have a shot at actually being progressive rather than simply posing as that. (For the record: 15 white men, 3 white women, and 1 black woman does not equal a “diverse workplace.”) That said, sometimes it feels like even hiring the right freelancer for the job would be a Radical Act. (This was a missed opportunity.)

At a time when governments and corporations are actively working in favour of the 1%, every aspect of the so-called free press should be in service to the 99%. Art and music have been defunded and devalued in part because they have the ability to encourage reflection and action. That’s why art and music criticism still carries weight, and why we should care about who is authoring and commissioning it. It’s no secret that western history was written by white men. If today’s criticism and journalism is tomorrow’s archive, what kind of progress has really been made if it’s largely written and commissioned by their descendants?

Perhaps the public should ask of the media what it does of politicians: democratically elected media representatives in power for ring-fenced periods of time. I don’t know, I only know there has got to be another way. Just like with walking, if the collective U.K. music media industry takes a different route, we’ll all get someplace new.

Give a word a break

A lot of people, myself included, learnt how to write about music by reading about music. (What evidence do I have for such a huge generalisation? I’ll come back to that in a minute.) When I was in my late teens, I was obsessed with Jockey Slut — a now-defunct U.K.-based dance music magazine — and as in awe of its writers as the artists they wrote about. The language they used felt authoritative, and I took note. Of course, it’s not just media preference that helps shape a person’s perspective on music — personal experience, cultural background, and listening habits all feed into it, too. The more we listen and read, the wider our taste and knowledge grows.

Decisions around word choice, however, sometimes seem caught in a cul-de-sac. In the mp3 blog years, for example, you could barely move for breathless posts describing grime as “dark” and “alien.” Even the “real” journalists seemed to fish for adjectives to describe the black London sound from the same pond. Either they were all coincidentally arriving at the very same sonic description — informed by both what they had and hadn’t listened to previously — or they were all reading one another.

Fast-forward to my time at The FADER in the mid-2010s. One of my responsibilities as managing editor was to oversee the internship programme, which I saw as an honour: an opportunity to help train the next generation of music journalists. Something I always tried to instil was the importance of finding your own voice. The simplest way of kickstarting that journey was sending them a press kit for a new song release and asking them to write a post about it. More often than not, they borrowed descriptors from the press release. When your writing voice has yet to crystallise and you’re presented with “official” information, it can seem like there is a “right” and “wrong” way to talk about something. “Take the facts from the press release, and throw out the language,” I would say. “Listen again. What do you think it sounds like?” Without fail, they’d always come back with something fresh and exciting — they just needed the encouragement to trust their own opinion.

I continue to remind myself to do the same. I’m still learning how to be a better writer, and I hope I keep learning until the day I die. Writing for me is mainly editing. Constant editing. Writing a sentence, looking at it, thinking about what the words mean and what they symbolise, changing the words, rewriting a paragraph, starting again. I’ve had to intentionally develop this practice because it is easy to word-vomit — and, as it happens, more profitable, given the quick turnarounds required on a lot of music “content.” But as with actual vomit, what you throw up on the page often reflects, in part, what you’ve digested. (In that regard, what makes matters trickier is that the internet tends to direct more love — and more hits — towards an exclusive interview with an artist over an in-depth piece of criticism about their work. But that’s a whole other rant.)

After I got laid-off from The FADER earlier this year, I realised I didn’t have a website to speak of, and so slowly started to update this decade-old blog. Pulling together a portfolio of sorts meant reading a lot of my very early work. Bits of it I liked, but a lot of it felt unsure of itself. The same words would pop up, illustrating that I used to cover insecurities about my musical knowledge with language that had been given a tick elsewhere. I was reminded that it wasn’t until a couple of years into my time at Dummy Mag that I realised it wasn’t my musical knowledge that was the problem; I’d been bamboozled by the swaggering confidence of a lot of the white male journalists I’d met and read, and made the foolish mistake of seeing my opinions and insights as less than.

It took time and effort to find my own voice, but I still slip into music journalism’s equivalent of legalese now and then. Despite what they say, first thought isn’t always the best thought. More recently, I have started to interrogate my word choices once again. What are the implications of the repetition of certain words used in relation to artists making the same kind of music? How do those descriptors relate to the cultural contexts of those musics? Are those descriptors in fact reinforcing the status quo? What does it mean when artists of the same gender, race, or sexuality are continually compared and contrasted when the music they make has nothing in common? Do music journalists have a responsibility to help decolonise language? (The short answer: yes. Especially because music is youth culture, and music blogging often a young writer’s entry point into journalism.) Music journalism by definition involves symbolism: one must conjure up an image or an idea of a sound using a bunch of letters. It follows that the way in which different kinds of music are written about often communicates more than just the words on the page.

With that in mind, below is a non-exhaustive list of words that I started making a couple of weeks ago, and have been thinking about ever since. All of them I have worn thin in my own writing about electronic music over the years. I’m going to try to avoid them from now on. After all, as the Fade To Mind artist Leonce recently tweeted, “Music writers always quick to say when a established artist isn’t innovating but I haven’t been seeing any innovation in music writing.”

Words I’m giving a break

Abrasive
Aggressive
Alien
Cold
Dark
Experimental
Explosive
Hard
Jagged
Sensual
Serrated
Soft
Thrilling

 

Eartheater feature

GEN F: Eartheater
March/April 2018 issue of The FADER
Photo by: Micaiah Carter

The placenta that nourished Alexandra Drewchin in the womb is buried under a cherry tree in the garden of her childhood home. The artist, who makes industrial-spiked pop as Eartheater, grew up on a remote horse farm in north-east Pennsylvania. She was born to a British mother and a Russian father who met and fell in love in New York before moving to the countryside. Drewchin’s father, the son of a Soviet-era propaganda artist and himself an abstract painter, was absent for much of her childhood. When Drewchin was eight, her parents split up, leaving her mom to bring up four children on her own.

“She’s the most badass lady,” Drewchin tells me one morning in December, as we sit at a wooden table in her light-filled bedroom in Queens, New York. “She gave birth to us all on her own in the house, and home-schooled us all.”

Around us, flowering orchids, platform shoes, boxing gloves, and musical gear wrestle for attention; two of her father’s paintings hang on the walls. Drewchin has lived here for six years, renting the room from an established visual artist in her 60s. The roommates share an affinity for metallic sculpture and lush vegetation; from behind a closed door I hear what sounds like the call of an exotic bird or three.

“I was extremely sheltered in some ways,” she continues, explaining that her family didn’t have a TV or a computer. “I remember the first time I managed to hear a Lil’ Kim song when I was 11 or something — naturally I was just so inclined to get the fuck out and find that stuff.”

Read the rest of my Eartheater feature on TheFADER.com

Drugging in music investigation

We need to talk about drugging
Non-consensual drugging is a common factor in sexual assault, particularly within the music industry. To denormalize abusive behavior, it’s time we faced up to that.

Published: The FADER, December 12, 2017
Illustration by: Sharon Gong

This story contains reported descriptions of sexual assault.

One morning in December 2014, Esta, a 35-year-old artist manager with over a decade of experience in the music industry, woke up naked in her hotel room bed. Another manager, a man she had met once before, was lying next to her. She had no memory of what happened or how they got there. As she hazily came to, he left without saying a word. The room began to swim into view. “There was blood everywhere, all over the sheets,” she told me in a phone interview. “There was a glass by the bed and a glass in the bathroom.” When Esta grabbed her phone to see what time it was, she saw a message to her best friend that she didn’t remember sending. “Are you having a good time?” her friend had asked. Esta had replied, “I’m not sure anymore.”

The day before, Esta and one of the artists she managed had landed at the first stop on a major, multi-headliner tour. (Unless otherwise noted, the names of all women who gave their stories for this piece have been changed to protect their identities.) At the show, she did her usual trick of ordering sparkling water with a slice of lime — it looks like a vodka tonic — to dissuade others from buying her drinks; Esta never drinks while she’s working. After the show, a small group of people who worked on the tour headed back to the hotel to celebrate, where Esta had her first drink of the night. “I was pretty measured,” she said. “I was aware of what level I was at.”

So what happened? Why did she black out? Had she been drugged? Those questions were raised by her mom and a close friend, and, after speaking to them, Esta worked up the courage to call the manager to ask him what happened the night before. “You were pretty out of it,” he told her. “You did ask what was going on a couple of times.”

Two days later, still in shock, Esta went to the hospital to get checked out. The staff asked her if she had taken anything: “I couldn’t answer — I didn’t know.” She broke down and was taken to see a counselor who she talked with for several hours. “They really pushed me to make a complaint against him,” she said. “But as a woman in music who has a good career and a good reputation, I don’t want to be the person who sued a guy for sexual assault. I want to be defined by what I do professionally, not something that happened to me.”

In 2011, a 33-year-old woman named Kimmi met an artist at a music festival in L.A., where they both lived. She had approached him to say she was a fan of his music. They struck up a friendship over text. After talking for several weeks, he messaged her one night to say he was in her neighborhood and wanted to see her. They hadn’t hung out before, but given the friendliness of their conversations, she felt comfortable inviting him over to watch a movie.

Kimmi had poured herself a glass of wine earlier that night, but only ended up drinking half of it. In conversation with the producer, she mentioned that she had hurt her neck.

“I’ve got something that can help with that,” he told her, pulling out a bag full of white pills of various shapes and sizes. “Do you want some painkillers that can help with your pain?”

Kimmi told him she didn’t like taking opiates because they’re too strong and bad for your liver. She also remarked on the number of pills he had on him. “Is this something you do often when you go to girls’ houses?” she asked him. “You just bust out a bag of pills?”

“Oh no, it’s fine,” he told her. “I personally like to take pills. I do them all the time. It’s not a big deal.”

Feeling pressured, she agreed to take half of a painkiller. Any more would upset her stomach, she told him.

The next thing she remembers is coming to and feeling his body on top of hers, raping her. “Stop, stop, please stop,” she said. The room was dark, save for Christmas lights around her bed. He got up and she watched him put on trousers and leave. She passed back out, and didn’t wake up until the next morning, when she struggled to piece together the night before. Her pants had been removed, she noted, but the upper part of her outfit was still on.

“I remember us on the bed watching a movie, and then the next thing I know I woke up and he’s inside of me,” she told me over the phone. “That’s all I remember. There was no point in the evening when I was conscious that I remember kissing him or him making a move on me. There was nothing that led up to that that I initiated, or that I consented to.”

“I’ve taken painkillers before,” she continued. “That’s why I knew there was something weird going on because even off one half of a pill, I was so out of it. I was like, What did he give me?

Like Esta, she reached out to ask him what happened. He told her, “We hooked up, you know that.” She told him that, no, she only remembered bits and pieces and that she felt violated, adding, “So you just fucking come over to people’s houses and take advantage of them when they are passed out?”

“‘No, you’re tripping, what are trying to imply?’” she recalls him saying. He said he thought she took pills all the time, and that it seemed like she was into it.

Kimmi repeated that she felt violated. After some stressful back and forth, she said he gaslighted her with a half-assed apology: “I respect my mother, I respect my sisters, I was raised to respect women, I would never do that intentionally to anyone.”

Hollywood is not the only industry with nasty secrets. From the top of the charts to the most underground of DIY scenes, across genres and borders, stories are emerging about abusers in music: artists, PR reps, journalists, and more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for the entertainment industries share the same power dynamics and, therefore, the same opportunities for abuse of those powers. But there’s another similarity between the reported cases of sexual abuse at both a mainstream level and within niche communities: the recurrence of drugging.

In the news, there’s Bill Cosby and Dr. Luke. The former admitted under oath that he bought Quaaludes in bulk to use on women he wanted to have sex with. In her lawsuit against Dr. Luke, Kesha said the producer gave her what he called “sober pills,” which turned out to be GHB, a drug associated with date rape.

Meanwhile, on social media, there are more stories. In October this year, a woman called Chelsea said in a Twitter post that the L.A. producer, Gaslamp Killer, had drugged and raped her and her best friend in 2013. (He denies the claims and is suing her for defamation.) That same year, a woman said CeeLo Green drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2012. Months later, Green said in a series of swiftly deleted tweets that “if someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously, so WITH implies consent,” and “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (Prosecutors said they didn’t charge him with rape because of insufficient evidence, but he was later sentenced to three years probation for a drug felony.)

According to Dr. Suzanne Swan, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina, there’s a philosophical thread running through all incidents of drugging: bodily integrity. “Consent is an underlying theme here,” she said. “Just as someone who does unwanted sexual things to another person does not recognize that person’s right to consent to what happens to their own body, a similar violation of consent is at play in drugging.” There’s a level of understanding, if not compliance, when it comes to not touching someone else’s body unless they want you to. By that same standard, you shouldn’t be deciding what substances they ingest, either.

Not only is drugging someone without their knowledge a form of violence, it’s also illegal in some states — although each one has a different understanding of it. In New York, for example, administering a drug that can intentionally cause unconsciousness or other physical impairment, without someone’s consent, is classified as assault in the second degree, and punishable by time in prison. In California, “furnishing or administering” drugs is not seen as assault, but as a drug offense with penalties depending on the type of drug.

“Using the word ‘drugging’ can be helpful,” says New York psychotherapist Asher Pandjiris, “but maybe it is one of the mechanisms by which a lot of this sexual abuse and rape actually ends up happening.” If that is the case, then we need to be committed to investigating drugging in as much depth as we have the sexual abuse discussions that have opened up in recent months. So why aren’t we talking about it?

“A lot of it is down to feeling embarrassed or feeling like you can’t speak out,” Kate, a 27-year-old London DJ, told me in a phone call. She was drugged in a club in 2012 — she believes the substance was in a bottle of champagne that a stranger topped up her drink with — and, as soon as she realized something was very wrong, she tried to get a taxi home. A man posing as a taxi driver kidnapped her; a number of other men also got into the car, and she was mugged but managed to escape before being raped. The trauma of the experience turned her life upside down.

“Afterwards you feel horrendous both physically and emotionally, and you can’t always remember what’s happened. Then you realize that everything you thought was part of a bad dream had actually happened to you,” she said. “I was also shell-shocked because you can’t believe what you’ve been through, so a lot of the time, you don’t want to share it — some of my closest mates didn’t even know it had happened. It’s a really hard thing to talk about, you feel violated.”

Katie reported her attack to the police, who told her they had heard about similar cases, but the perpetrators were never caught.

After the attack, Kate didn’t drink or have sex for a year. She also became vegetarian. “I realized I’ve been through a lot on my own emotionally,” she said. “It properly changed my world because I was shocked at how I was still alive.”

Read the rest of my drugging investigation at TheFADER.com

Discwoman profile

We Need Discwoman
Club culture is plagued by sexism and white supremacy. These three women won’t stand for it.

The FADER Summer Music Issue 2017
Photo by: Mary Kang

If you’re a raver, you see your city’s streets in every kind of light. The brooding shadows of the midnight shift. The soft focus of pre-dawn. And the rude, hi-def splendor that greets eyes emerging from an all-nighter. In the intimate hours between days, certain streets outside underground clubs, bars, and warehouses are transformed. Soaked in the warmth of shared confidences and cigarettes, a scuffed up bit of pavement can become a nook — somewhere to huddle with friends and speak dreams into the breeze, before breathing deep and diving back into the dance. In the afternoon sun of the following day, the same spot will look ordinary, but you’ll know different.

On the Sunday night of a hot mid-May weekend, the street corner outside Bushwick’s Bossa Nova Civic Club plays host to such a scene. People borrow lighters and trade names, drawn to one another like moths to a flame. While most of the city sleeps, one hundred or so bright young things have come together to party into the early hours of Monday. It’s a birthday party for Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson — the visionary 30-year-old co-founder of Discwoman, a collective and DJ booking agency that exclusively represents cis women, trans women, and genderqueer artists — and her friend Gregory, who is a loyal regular of the supportive scene Hutchinson has helped build.

Inside, Frankie’s Discwoman partners are behind the decks: Emma Burgess-Olson, 28, who makes spare yet dynamic techno as UMFANG, and Christine McCharen-Tran, 29, an event producer who is the business brain behind the operation. Dressed respectively in a voluminous white jumpsuit and a baggy black shorts and tee combo, the pair make a point of playing Rihanna’s “Sex With Me” for Frankie, who hot-foots it to the front in a cheetah-print crop top and patterned pants. Discwoman is often associated with techno, but tonight anything goes: reggaeton, Afropop, rap. The lights rotate through vivid blues, greens, and pinks, while the fog machine exhales deep, creating an ever-shifting space in which guards lower and spirits rocket sky-high. The crowd is mostly N.Y.C. club kids, including GHE20G0TH1K artist LSDXOXO, Tygapaw of the queer collective Fake Accent, and local rapper Quay Dash, whose last record was packed with anti-transphobia anthems. Later, ascendant stars Kelela and Moses Sumney roll up to let off steam after a gig. But nobody’s dancing harder than Yulan Grant, a.k.a. SHYBOI, one of the eight artists signed to Discwoman’s agency. In a corner with her baby sister, she twists and leaps, channeling the music with her body.

“Being a part of Discwoman has been a game changer,” SHYBOI tells me later. “They’ve been so great at constantly outlining and reifying their ethos that it’s inspired me to be even more upfront with what I want from a nightlife space and those who organize those spaces.”

Club culture is nowhere near immune to the systems that enforce the status quo. “It’s without a doubt that queer women/gender-nonconforming/trans artists, especially those of color, are treated differently than their white male counterparts [in the music industry],” SHYBOI continues. “Having the backing of these incredibly talented people has pushed me to test myself more, tweak a boundary here and there in a different direction. No one on this roster takes any bullshit.”

As SHYBOI hints at, creating a space that is truly supportive is not a one-off job, it’s an ongoing process. One that requires patient negotiation and tireless listening skills. For Frankie, Emma, and Christine, launching Discwoman has been more work than they’d ever imagined — and a test of their friendship.

Until she turned 8, Frankie lived with her parents and older brother on a council estate in London’s Hackney borough. Her father was an alcoholic, and was physically abusive to her mother. “One day, my mum came and took me and my brother out of school and said, ‘We’re leaving your dad right in this moment — your dad knows and he’s coming for us.’” Her mum hid them in a doorway around the corner from the school as they watched their father pass by on foot. “That was one of the last times she’d see him for a really long time,” Frankie says. “Same for us, actually.”

We are perched on a sofa in the cozy Bed-Stuy apartment she moved into just a week ago. It’s the first time she’s had a proper base in months of sleeping on friends’ couches, and she’s relishing the sense of security. While we talk, her new roommate, Stephen, quietly dishes out wine and weed before retreating to his room to give us space.

Frankie’s mum found a place in a women’s refuge in north-west London, where the three of them ended up staying for two years. “We shared one room, literally pissing in a bucket. It was really intense.” Between the stress of their living situation and lack of money, Frankie’s mum was miserable — but she took pains to empower her young daughter. “From as young as I can remember, she would just be like, ‘Kick men in the nuts,’” Frankie says, laughing. “She tried to drill some sense of self-worth into me, which now feels even more powerful than ever.”

In 2005, Frankie moved to Sussex for a degree in Film Studies and American Studies. (Her mother had remarried an American and moved to New York, which granted Frankie a green card as a minor; the city was in her sights.) “As soon as I got there I knew I didn’t fit in,” she says of university. “Finding out that a bunch of people’s parents paid their rent for them, I was like, What is going on here? Alarm bells were going off.”

There wasn’t just a massive wealth disparity on campus; racism was also rife. “I was living in a house with eight or ten people, and I got really close with this girl,” remembers Frankie, declining to name her. “Meanwhile, I had developed friendships with some black friends — Kuchenga, Patrick, and Xavier — and they were becoming really significant relationships to me.” When it came to sorting out a place to live for the following year, Frankie suggested to her housemate that they all live together. “She said, ‘Frankie, can I talk to you?’ She was squirming a little bit. She said, ‘I just really don’t feel comfortable living with all black people.’ It was a fucking kick to the stomach.”

“I said, ‘I’m the only black person in this house, what do you think my experience is?’ I got up and ran to my room. This white girl who lived upstairs came down and I heard her say, ‘Did you do it?’”

It was Kuchenga who saved Frankie in that desperate moment, and who she went on to live with. “She validated what I went through, she understood it,” says Frankie, explaining that Kuchenga, a darker-skinned black trans woman, has experienced discrimination “on another level.” “I’ve been friends with her ever since.” It was a different story with her white friends, however. “The amount of white people who would not engage with what happened — and I told so many people about it — was insane. It was just so painful.”

Looking for a distraction, she threw herself into partying. She took her first ecstasy pill at a rave called Raindance in London (she found it “so therapeutic”) and attended all-nighters in a field behind her campus where she danced to house, techno, and, notably, “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin.

As part of her degree, Frankie spent the 2007-08 school year abroad, at the University of California in Santa Cruz. On a social level, the local nightlife didn’t hold a candle to back home, but, intellectually, studying in America opened another door.

“I discovered all these amazing writers who talked in ways I didn’t even think was possible: James Baldwin, Angela Davis, bell hooks, the usual ones,” she says. “I had a breakthrough in my understanding of myself — from being a young black girl wearing towels on my head ‘cause I wanted straight hair, to understanding that you have just been trying to obtain whiteness your entire adolescence. That was such an emotional point for me. I hated myself a lot and thought I was so ugly and horrible. You realize why — because you’ve been bombarded with all this bullshit. It’s such abuse.”

Frankie moved to New York two weeks after graduating. She worked a string of part-time jobs in her first couple of years in the city — from doing community outreach for the African Diaspora Film Festival to serving hot dogs at Brooklyn’s Trophy Bar, which is where she met the people who would go on to launch Bossa Nova Civic Club. It was, in fact, at Bossa in late 2013 that she first met Emma, who had a monthly residency there. Frankie gave her props for mixing in a “fucking dope” Call Super song, and by the following May, they were hanging out every week.

Read the rest of my Discwoman profile on TheFADER.com

 

 

Sampha cover story

Sampha’s Search For Magic
The Londoner lent others his voice and made their good songs great. Now, it’s his own story that needs telling.

The FADER Summer Music Issue 2016
Photo by: Francesco Nazardo

There’s a lump in Sampha’s throat and it won’t go away.

When he first went to have it checked out in early 2012, the doctor sent him home without a proper examination. “They were like, ‘It’s nothing. You’re too young,’” the 27-year-old remembers. “I had to go back a couple of times and be really stern.” We’re sitting in an East London studio, a windowless space that’s right next door to the office of his record label, Young Turks. He tells me he wishes there was a technology that could identify pain and convey it. Like: look, that’s how I feel. He was eventually given an endoscopy, so that the doctor could see what was going on. They found nothing.

In person, Sampha can be a little shy. But when he sings, his voice gives everything away. It cracks mid-range and frays into a whisper when he reaches for his falsetto. It’s almost like his emotions are so close to the surface that they’re bruising his vocal cords. On “Plastic 100ºC,” a delicate ballad from his long-awaited and still-untitled debut album, Sampha candidly details this recent brush with his own mortality: Usually I’d run home/ And tuck the issue under/ Oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah/ I didn’t really know what that lump was.

The lump had appeared in 2011, a couple of months after Sampha had joined a tour with his frequent collaborator, SBTRKT, real name Aaron Jermone. One morning, Sampha woke up with a cold, a fever, and a strange, painful feeling in his throat. He got better, but the lump remained. It bothered him, but he had too much going on. He put it to the back of his mind. He didn’t want any more bad news.

In 2010, his mother, Binty Sisay, had been diagnosed with cancer. Since Sampha was the only member of his family still living at home — his father died from lung cancer in 1998 — he’d become her primary caregiver. At the time, he’d been working hard to get somewhere in music because, much to his mother’s dismay, he’d dropped out of university a couple of years before. (He’d been studying music production but wasn’t really connecting with the course.) So when the chance to tour with SBTRKT arose, Sampha’s brother Ernest — who had moved home shortly after their mum’s diagnosis — and his cousins Maggie and May stepped in to help look after Binty.

Her cancer went into remission in late 2012. In the relief-fueled year that followed, Sampha’s career blossomed. He flew to Toronto to work with Drake on Nothing Was the Same tracks “The Motion” and “Too Much,” then to Ghana to work with Solange on music for a forthcoming project. A few months later, he traveled to both Los Angeles and Italy to work on early sessions for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, resulting in the vulnerable-sounding “Saint Pablo,” which Kanye added to the album four months after its release.

By the end of 2013, Sampha had moved out of the family home and was living by himself in East London. The plan was simple: hit pause on collaborations and start focusing on his debut solo album. But plans often go awry. His mum’s health was up and down, and in late 2014, her cancer returned. Sampha moved home to be with her in the South London suburb of Morden. Some weeks, she was in and out of the hospital every couple of days. This past September, she lost her life to the debilitating disease. Understandably, Sampha is still reeling from the loss. “There’s not ‘the grieving process,’” he says quietly. “It’s like a dream you never…” He pauses for a second. “It’s never gonna feel real.”

Sampha is the youngest of five brothers by over a decade. His older siblings — Junior, John, Sanie, and Ernest — spent their formative years in his parents’ hometown of Kenema, Sierra Leone. But in 1982, his dad, a diamond evaluator named Joe, got a new job and moved the family to London, where Sampha was born a few years later. They settled in a semi-detached house in Morden on the edge of the countryside. The move was a chance to provide more opportunities for his sons, and to escape the corruption in the diamond trade that was wreaking havoc in his home country. A few years later, a decade-long civil war would break out in Sierra Leone, killing over 50,000 people and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees.

Sampha was 9 years old when his father died. “I wonder what kind of things I get from him,” he tells me in a gentle tone. “I always find it weird that you have [inherited] things about you that are not just physical: the things you think, the things you feel — the epigenetics or whatever.”

His mother and older brothers did their best to shelter Sampha from the trauma of his dad’s death, but nevertheless it left a void. In the years that followed, Sampha’s emotional world became entwined with music. His dad had bought a piano from their elderly neighbor when Sampha was 3. It was supposed to provide a “productive alternative to watching TV,” his brother Sanie tells me later, over the phone. And it worked; Sampha was always playing it. Later, he discovered music production as a young teen, after Sanie, who’s 16 years older, built himself a makeshift home studio in his house around the corner. But his real introduction to the music industry came second-hand via a London producer named Kwes, who he’d met on Myspace in 2007.

Back then, Sampha jokes, he thought “people in the music industry could far enough be aliens with huge blue hair and red eyes.” Kwes helped put things in perspective, though, and went on to introduce Sampha to Young Turks, which, at the time, was an offshoot of XL Recordings. But it was Kwes’s actual music — scratchy, bubbly tunes that defied conventional structure — that Sampha says changed his life. “It made me feel more okay with the songs I was writing,” he says. Through Kwes, Sampha met a community of like-minded artists, including Ghostpoet, DELS, and Micachu, whose music strived to make new, irregular shapes at a time when seamless, glossy pop like Girls Aloud and Sam Sparro was dominating the U.K. charts. Sampha would upload tracks to Myspace, and he says the response he got from his peers was liberating. He felt understood.

That moment of understanding — of pure sonic communication — became something he actively sought out; it eventually resulted in Sundanza, his debut EP of intricate instrumentals released on CD-R by Young Turks in 2009. It was an exciting time at the label: The xx was enjoying debut album success, and expectations for Sampha were high.

He tells me about the “very unspoken connection” he had with SBTRKT while working on the London producer’s 2011 debut, for which Sampha wrote, produced, and sang. Later, when Drake received a .zip file of Sampha’s music from Young Turks in 2012, the first thing he showed interest in was a mid-tempo beat. Drake didn’t end up using it, but the choice was still mind-blowing for Sampha: one of the world’s biggest rappers recognized his skills as a producer. Rick Rubin also spotted something in Sampha’s music, and invited him out to L.A. to work with Kanye. The place where they met looked like a bungalow in the side of a hill, Sampha tells me, but opened into an underground mansion. He got nervous when Kanye was “really responsive” to the embryonic album tracks he played. “I listened to College Dropout religiously,” he says, still in awe even now.

On a sunny afternoon in early May, I meet Sampha outside the Willesden Green tube station in northwest London, a mostly residential area that has the fingerprints of gentrification all over it. He’s lived around here with Jojo, his girlfriend of three years, since his mother passed away. There’s hardly a cloud in the sky, and locals are sitting on metal chairs outside a nearby cafe. Sampha pulls up on a bicycle that, with a tug of a few levers, deftly folds down into a manageable carry-on size. We catch the tube from Willesden to Waterloo, then change to the Northern Line to travel down south to Morden, which is right at the end of the line. Grubby issues of the free morning paper are scattered around the traincar, their front pages emblazoned with a headline that gives away the tabloid’s bias for the right-wing Conservative candidate in the local elections. Two days later, though, the win goes to the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim politician to be elected mayor of London.

From Morden station, it’s a short bus ride and a stroll to Sampha’s brother Sanie’s house. On the walk, petals fall like snow from blossoming trees. We bump into a middle-aged family friend on the way; he’d spotted Sampha out the window and wanted to come give his well-wishes.

Sanie’s house is the hangout spot around here; friends and family drop by, listen to music, and swap stories. Today, Sanie’s at the Southbank Centre seeing a play, so we’re greeted by his other brother Ernest. He’s a tall, broad-framed man who, save for his shaven head and the silver in his stubble, is Sampha’s spitting image; they even have a similar laugh. Sampha’s best friend Hassan, a visual artist with a beard and blue suede boots who lives nearby, is here too. Sampha and Hassan slip inside to catch up while Ernest and I sit outside for a moment, soaking up the sun. As we chat, a tiny red-breasted robin, its beak stuffed with flies, makes multiple trips to a nest tucked away on a shelf above Ernest’s head.

Ernest tells me that Sampha was like a meerkat when he was little; his head would pop up whenever he heard one of his brothers playing music. As he got older, Sampha soaked up his family’s wide-ranging musical interests like a sponge: Stevie Wonder, U.K. garage, rare groove, and sounds from Sierra Leone. It was an education in the breadth, depth, and wide-ranging influence of black music. “We used to get irritated after a while: ‘You ask too many questions,’” remembers Ernest, laughing. “I used to explain how we have certain sounds because of the way they’d been produced. So Sampha’s going on and on, experimenting with deep stuff, then he went off and found himself. I think he’s done well. He’s found his sound.”

Like he always has, Sampha’s been bringing around the tracks he’s been working on for his album and playing them for his brothers and friends. “Sampha’s quite open,” Sanie tells me later. “He’ll come in and play his stuff and be prepared to listen to anyone. That’s the only way you can really develop.”

Read the rest of my Sampha cover story at TheFADER.com

Metahaven feature

Metahaven Is Breaking The Propaganda Machine
The politically minded Dutch design collective explore truth and lies in the internet era in new installation project, The Sprawl.

Published: The FADER, May 6, 2016

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. It crashed in eastern Ukraine, in a region fraught with conflict: pro-Russian, anti-government groups had been engaged in armed battle with Ukrainian forces since the spring. The plane’s 15 crew members and 283 passengers, mostly Dutch and Malaysian vacationers, all died. The Russian government blamed Ukraine. Ukraine said Russia was behind the attack. A criminal investigation, led by the Dutch, is ongoing.

Seven days after the crash, on July 24, 2014, WikiLeaks tweeted a link to a YouTube video, along with a description reading, “Rebels complained back in June that #Ukraine was using passenger jets as human shields.” In the video, a woman identified as “Elena,” standing in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, alleged that Ukrainian forces were provoking pro-Russia separatists to shoot at airliners. Or so I am told by Daniel van der Velden of politically minded Dutch design collective Metahaven, as the YouTube account that was hosting the video has been deleted. (A copy can be found here.)

The WikiLeaks tweet fascinated van der Velden and Metahaven co-founder Vinca Kruk, who together have written a string of books that explore the politics of graphic design—including 2015’s Black Transparency—and worked on projects with the aforementioned WikiLeaks (a 2011 series of designed merch to help them fund their operations) and L.A.-based artists Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst (ideas and visual materials for Herndon’s album Platform), amongst others.

Van der Velden believes WikiLeaks posted the tweet as a means through which to support alternative explanations about who downed Flight 17, and why. “At the far end of transparency, you enter into a kind of medieval trapdoor theory where everything can be questioned,” he tells me over an intermittently fuzzy Skype call from the pair’s Amsterdam office.

The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 thread was one of many such examples that Kruk and van der Velden pulled in the germination stage of The Sprawl, a new video-based project that’s akin to a digital diorama of propaganda on the internet today. With both wit and unease, it explores the proliferation of internet-based propaganda today and its impact on both individual lives and the wider geopolitical landscape.

As its name suggests, The Sprawl’s form does not submit to easy categorization. In late January, a feature-length version of it premiered at Rotterdam International Film Festival, and will be on view at Polish film festival Docs Against Gravity later this month. But The Sprawl also exists as a five-channel video installation that is on display at San Francisco’s YBCA and Warsaw’s MoMA; this weekend, it opens for a three-week run at the U.K.’s Brighton Festival. A third version of The Sprawl launches today as a YouTube channel and a website, which features, amongst other works, short videos that Metahaven calls “shards”—some of which are premiering today on The FADER.

These are a few of the things that exist in The Sprawl: an audio recording made by the Ukrainian Security Service that was supplied to the Dutch police investigating the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash; talking-head scenes with journalist Peter Pomerantsev, artist and theorist Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, and academic Benjamin H. Bratton; grainy “citizen journalism” videos from the Bahraini uprising of 2011, which Gharavi uses to dissent how the uprising’s narrative was effectively “erased” in mainstream media; studio shot clips of actors gazing at screens amidst plumes of smoke; and passages from Russian literature, including a poem by Anna Akhmatova and an extract from Leo Tolstoy’s 1897 book What Is Art?, both read by a Russian narrator.

This non-linear and often context-free combination of cinematic, documentary, and internet-y devices makes for a mind-prodding watch, the kind that kicks off late-night scrolling that lands you down a thousand rabbit holes. Each scene is mediated by either an ambiguously emotive score by U.K. producer Kuedo, who tells me that Metahaven allowed the music the rare opportunity to help inform the video edit, or graphic overlays of shapeshifting colored blocks that by turn obscure and reveal the on-screen action, or sometimes both. Yet for all its vivid yet disorientating storytelling, the responsibility of the narrative arc ultimately lies outside the frame—at the fingertips of the viewer. The Sprawl is less concerned with what “the truth” is, and more interested in the impact that the internet’s avalanche of conflicting truths has on the reality we experience, both individually and collectively.

The Sprawl’s tagline is “propaganda about propaganda,” and its third manifestation—dropped like breadcrumbs across YouTube—is the one that feels closest to the spirit of the project; its fragmentation is a reflection of the way we half-see, half-read, half-understand the world in these hyper-distracted times. But what does propaganda even mean today?

Read the rest of my Metahaven feature at TheFADER.com