Juliana Spahr & David Buuck

the Side Effect

When he got home later that night he poured himself another drink, sat down at his kitchen table, and began to do what he called working on his writing. What he wanted to write was a description of the project that he had done in the small room. How each day he had held the pose of a person who was torturing someone or who was being tortured by someone. His source for each pose had been a series of photographs that had been found on the internet, photographs taken in a military prison called “The Hard Site.” As he reenacted the poses he had not distinguished between who tortured and who was tortured. He had let both shape his body. What he had wanted to write was about his decision to do this project, to put his body into the position of particular others, that indexical other without whom no one can be. About his attempt to think of his life as part of a series of complex, passionate, antagonistic, and necessary set of relations to others who act and are acted upon. He was attempting to think about how his passivity contributed to all this, even when doing nothing might have seemed the opposite of contributing. And also about his reservations around this project, this different kind of contribution, about its ineffectiveness. About the limits of art done in isolation. About the limits of art.

But as he typed he became more and more aware of how every time he leaked a sentence out of his body it contained not just his thoughts and ideas and attempts at documentation and description, but also the residue of failure, of a mortifying and paralyzing shame. He was trying to describe something that might be artful, might have something to say about the political moment, but yet could live safely in a room loaned out to him by an arts organization dedicated to the parsing our of aesthetic experiences for a nominal cover charge, but it kept going wrong. It was as if he was no longer free to imagine anything in which he did not also imagine the torture done without his consent but in his name and with his passive support.

Still, he soldiered on though the night, doing what he thought was working on his writing, swirling the ice cubes in his drink, swabbing his leaking blisters with pieces of toilet paper, going to the bathroom to shit or get more toilet paper or insert a homeopathic suppository. He listened as in the distance the day’s first train rumbled along the raised subway line two blocks over. He heard a whistle blow. He raised himself up from the table, evenly balanced on his legs, torso bent at the waist, so that his hands rested on his knees, his head bent at the neck and lifted, feeling a tingling in his face. He could hear the noise his body was making, standing bent over perfectly still, not moving, not even as the room became light.

But the noise his body was making was also not only his body. At first he thought he was hearing things. But then he heard from the basement the whizzing burr of hard-drive fans and diesel engines running at high volume, intermixed with the occasional crisp jangling of metal keys and it was too loud and too rhythmic to ignore. He lurched to the couch and one by one dragged each cushion and pillow and blanket and dog bed and throw rug and soft sculpture and tossed them down the stairs and into the basement. Then he stage-dived down the stairs, landing in the midst of a giant ruckus.

There was a nervous click-clicking noise that jittered in and out of a thick soup of hissing and booming, bomb-runs of pounding, deep-earth bass, punctuated by what sounded like clapping or the slapping of skin. There were angry and ecstatic guitar solos, trap drums playing taps, brass trumpets playing reveille. Musicians kept appearing and joining in, some blowing their horns from a great distance, others using joysticks or satellite communication systems to control their computers and samplers and sound processors and circuit-bent video game consoles. DJs spun and scratched the dented hubcaps of half-exploded armed personnel carriers, the hillbilly armor attached to sprawling networks of scrapped wiring and repurposed military hardware, the improvised exclamatory devices screeching into the general din and frenzy.

In the wings, to the extent that there could be said to be wings to a basement, there suddenly were what seemed like tens of thousands of extras. Everyone had a costume, or rather were themselves, wearing what they wear, with combat boots, dog tags, cargo pants, tight or loose-fitting dresses, tasteful work shoes, hipster jackets, and all the variations that could be imagined among such a throng. They began running in from the sides in circles, at the same time thrusting their hips and making airborne chest-to-chest collisions and air-stroking their cocks. They would at moments form a chorus line that snaked through the basement and with interlocked arms they kicked to the music, stopping now and then to give each other high-fives and thumbs-ups and to simulate a series of heretofore classified but since wikileaked enhanced interrogation techniques. There was slapping, singing, sweating, smiling. Kicking, whooping, twisting, posing. All with or without consent, with or without blushing, timed to the insistent beat of the band.

At first, he just sat there befuddled. He did not ask if what was happening was real or if it was the product of parasites and alcohol and sodium channel inhibitors and adrenal glands of animals and gin and downloaded photographs and depressing statistics all mixing up in his stomach and then into his brain. He just sat there, trying to relax and breathe into the soft site he’d made with the pillows and the cushions. But soon it was as if the woven and laminated fibers in his shoulders and back would not let him merely sit and watch, but instead thrust him up and out of his pose and into the dancing fray, as if this might become some kind of remedy for all the leaking, the tightening, the freezing of muscles and mind.

So his body leaped up and joined in an elaborate line dance where they thrust their elbows out and spun their fists around in front of their breastplates, then thrust their thumbs back over their shoulders with a forward and back motion, each in their own disjointed time and imprecision. Some were now lurching around in combat-booted counterpoint to the music, as if experimenting with the different way the shoulders and the ass jut in or out when the hands are cuffed in front or in back, the legs trailing behind. First their shoulders caved forward and then their shoulders pulled back, their chest caved in between each spasm of the shoulder as they moved, again and again. Others ran in place, like cartoon characters, interrupting this every few seconds by making sudden contractions of the psoas, reaching down to slap the floor with their hands, then bouncing back up into running across the stage, all the while singing in a low monotone:

Where’dya put the body
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya put the put the body body baby
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya where’dya put the body
Where’dya where’dya put the put the put the body baby

Except it wasn’t a stage, but a basement. Except it wasn’t a basement, but a rehearsal space lent to him by the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a rehearsal space, but an interrogation room. Not an interrogation room, but a soundstage for filmed re-enactments. Not a soundstage but a fake Baghdadi neighborhood staged for counter-insurgency training exercises. Not a fake neighborhood but an intersection in the Financial District on the night of March 23, 2003. Not an intersection but the holding cell funded by the Department of Homeland Security for counter-terrorist efforts, holding 2,438 protestors in a nearby warehouse rented for this very purpose. Not a warehouse-turned-holding cell but a warehouse-turned-club where the after-party takes place. Not an after-party but an opening at a well-funded art museum. Not an opening but a fundraiser for the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a fundraiser but an academic conference on politics and aesthetics. Not a conference but a boardroom meeting on tax-deductible philanthropic donations to nonprofit arts organizations. Not a boardroom but a bedroom, after an argument between lovers. Not a bedroom but a bunker, dug into the cold, cold ground. Not a bunker but a book, each line redacted except for the numbers. Not a book, but the fire made from its burning pages.

Except the fire was painted on an enormous screen, propped across the back horizon, so that the set gave off an ambience that is part desert war-scape and part reality TV game show, with all kinds of online ballot measures available for viewer participation for those who could face the prospect of clicking the icon to vote combatants off the show. There were blips of heat on the screen that could be double-clicked, sending flares up into the night sky so that the audience could better see the action, except there’s no audience, since all this is happening now and everyone’s knee-deep in it, not just watching but embedded participants. Even tapping his feet to the catchy rhythms was participation. Even rolling his eyes to the absurdity of it all was participation. Even pressing a piece of toilet paper against his cheek to collect the fluid leaking from his face was participation, since now the giant toilet paper roll, filled with all the fluid and all that shits out of all of us, was unrolling, unfurling, and scrolling across the bottom of the screen, a real-time news ticker for all who will have tuned in to follow the lyrics and sing along with the bouncing bomb:

Didya put the body in the bag
Didya put the body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the body bag baby
Didya put the body in the body bag bag didya
Didya put the put the body body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the bag baby didya didya

The musicians were now making sounds like Dopplerized armored vehicles speeding by a riot at a heavy metal concert, with yelling and chants and whistling and catcalls, in what seemed like a hundredfold languages, a riotous wash of voices shouting in protest or singing on an assembly line or marching, running, breaking glass, as there then commenced lifting and unfolding and crease-fingering, the sniffing of pits and pockets, checking for ticks and leakages, floor-rashes and knee-bruising, swabbing with toilet paper and rubbing with ice, wiping clean and hiding the hurt, before gearing up again to climb the twelve foot high and three foot thick reinforced concrete Bremer walls that surrounded the basement, smiling for the closed-circuit security cameras scanning the theater of operations in order to document and file all that’s done in our name, and then dancing and swinging their arms, some vertically and some horizontally, as if signaling to an invisible fleet of stealth helicopters where to land.

It was a big production, with a budget of $1,229,735,801,934.00. Weekend reservists repelled from the copters hovering above as others made the raise the roof position to receive and pass along any number of bodies leaping and falling from above, in what the contract calls the performance of several air transportations, as their diamond dog tags glistened in the pulsing strobe lights, which were meant to induce sleep-deprivation, bewilderment, and increased motivations for compliance. And so they bent and leaned and leapt and fell into the rifle-hot flesh of the pillowed and cushioned and moldy drywalled mosh pit, lifting others onto the back and swaying with them, giving over weight and impulse upon impact, all with or without groans or eye-rolling.

Meanwhile, he had piled the saw horses into a pyramid and then climbed up into the rope support network and squatted down, balancing on the front of his feet, his head forward and down, spine straight and aligned, right arm pulled back, and from this position could see more and more people arriving and using their assault rifles or night-scope sniper rifles or prosthetic arms and legs or their helmets or combat boots and frantically breaking up the concrete basement floor and digging into the ground, singing, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison, while others lined up, each pushing a mop, the right hand on top of the left, both hands on the handle, arms bent at a 90 degree angle, scrubbing vigorously back and forth, shoulders hunched, bent at the waist just enough to put pressure on the mop heads to clean up the evidence leaking from his face, singing:

Sop it up, mop it up, soak it in your cloth
Never burn your mouth on another man’s broth

Mop it up, sop it up, classify, redact
Swab it up, zip it up, keep it all ice-packed

Then, finally, if there can be said to be a finality to any of this, there were approximately 919,967 performers lined up in a seemingly endless chorus line facing inward at mad angles, instruments and weapons and tools dropped to the ground, arms linked or amputated stumps pressed up against one another, all singing in a spooky half-whisper, half-hum, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison. Sweat dripped down their backs and faces and they cast their gaze around the gathered thousands, breathing and looking, breathing and looking.

Pausing, breathing, sweating, looking. The helicopter sounds fading into the sounds of the world outside, if there can be said to be an outside, sounds of cars, trucks, convoys, people, chatter.

And as the music began to swell again, as if into a final number to end all final numbers, they all walked two steps forward and then one back, then two steps forward and one back again. Two forward, pause, one back, two forward, pause, one back.

They stutter-stepped and swayed towards and away from one another, moving forward and then rocking back, stopping and starting, aligned and misaligned in their breathing and their movements, singing softly:

Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by desire and by fear held back
Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by connection, by ambivalence back

Two steps forward, one back, pushed by righteous anger and pushed back by the fear of failure.

Two steps forward, one back, compelled by need and held back by the fear of commitment. Two steps forward, one back, attracted to the pack and repulsed by its unpredictable sloppiness.

Pausing, breathing, hands into fists. Rocking, breathing, swaying, looking. Silent laughing or teeth grinding or glowing inner radiance or the biting of the inside of the lower lip.

Two steps forward, one back.

He could hear his heart beating. He could hear everyone’s heart.

Two steps forward, feeling the struggle-force well up within, then one step back to get ready.

We are always getting ready. But we keep moving slowly in this manner, even if it takes us the entire night to get wherever we’re going, or a day and a night, or a week or month or year or lifetime.

He’s walking forward, two steps towards the center, one back, and you are walking forward, swaying forward and back in the same manner, rocking back and then forward again, and all the thousands of singers, dancers, performers, musicians, artists, soldiers, and walking dead, arms locked and high kicking to the boom-boom bap, tap-tap-tap, two steps forward, one step back.

We’re all moving, getting ready but moving all the same, towards the messy entanglement that awaits us when we are ready to finally dive in.

Editors’ Notes

"the Side Effect" is an excerpt from a book called "An Army of Lovers." A version of "the Side Effect" is forthcoming in the next "Lana Turner" that uses the same first paragraph but proceeds towards an entirely different ending.

Juliana Spahr & David Buuck

Juliana Spahr & David Buuck Juliana Spahr edits with Jena Osman the book series Chain Links. She recently edited with Stephanie Young "A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism." She is writing with David Buuck a book about two friends who are writers in a time of war and ecological collapse. And she recently organized with Joshua Clover the 95 cent Skool and the Durruti Free Skool. David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. Publications, writing & performance samples, and further info available via: davidbuuck.com.