For many, many people around the world, 2016 will be remembered as the year famous baby-boomers dropped like flies. It will also be remembered, I think, as the year the world watched with mute consternation as the destruction of Syria and genocide and forced-displacement of Syrians took place. I wonder if it will also be remembered as the year fascism and authoritarianism unveiled itself once again in the West, a full hundred years after my great-grandfather, a French machine gun operator on the front lines, was overwhelmed and captured by enemy forces at the Battle of Verdun.
2016 also marked the year where I began—very, very incrementally—to re-establish some harmony within my body and with my physical health. I graduated from university (better late then never?) I also spent a lot of time reconnecting with my family in France and Brittany, as well as spent time with my abuela as she coped (and copes still) with the relatively recent death of her husband, my grandfather. There was also time set aside to cope with my younger sibling’s brief but still no-less-terrifying brush with cancer.
Here are some books, some records, some articles and other pieces of art and thinking that touched me particularly in 2016. Some, or maybe even much, of the works on this list are extremely topical and were created recently, some of it is older but I only just this year was able to fit into my schedule.
Capitalism: a ghost story, Arundhati Roy
This book is a treasure—for the depth and breadth of its essays, and Roy’s skill effortlessly weaving together facts of history with luminescent personal moments. This ghost story is a brief history of India, a personal history, a history of the planet. 2016 has shown us that it is impossible to consider anything in a vacuum. Roy’s writing epitomizes this.
The NGO-ization of the women’s movement has also made Western liberal feminism (by virtue of its being the most funded brand) the standard-bearer of what constitutes feminism. The battles, as usual, have been played out on women’s bodies, extruding Botox at one end and burkas on the other.
In the NGO universe, which has evolved a strange anodyne language of its own, everything has become a “subject”, a separate, professionalized, special-interest issue. Community development, leadership development, human rights, health, education, reproductive rights, AIDS, orphans with AIDS—have all been hermetically sealed into their own silos, each with its own elaborate and precise funding brief. Funding has fragmented solidarity in ways that repression never could.
Poverty, too, like feminism, is often framed as an identity problem. As though the poor had not been created by injustice but are a lost tribe who just happen to exist, and can be rescued in the short term by a system of grievance redressal (administered by NGOs on an individual, person-to-person basis), and whose long-term resurrection will come from Good Governance.
Having worked out how to manage governments, political parties, elections, courts, the media, and liberal opinion, the neoliberal establishment faced one more challenge: how to deal with growing unrest, the threat of “peoples’ power.” How do you domesticate it? How do you turn protesters into pets?
I’ve listened to this album, the love-child of Laura Veirs, Neko Case, and k.d. lang, on highways driving through the Rockies, on the métro avoiding rain and snow, and now also on the beach listening to the waves. It’s an album that feels like reading an old love letter: often melancholy and full of softness, yet the music’s strength also lies in how often each song will also feel radiant and expressive.
Rather than bring finished songs to the studio, they honored the spirit of collaboration, with Veirs and lang taking the bulk of the work, and Case, who lives primarily in Vermont, joining them when she could. These are three of the strongest voices in their field—lang the full-voiced seductress, Case the hurricane, and Veirs the wry storyteller—so things could easily have become overcrowded. Instead, they give each other space to take the lead on group-authored material, which wound up veering from lang’s original punk Ronettes template in favor of dusky songs about devotion, heartache, and awe at the simple power of human connection and creativity—the kind that underpins a project like this. “I Want to Be Here” is one of a few songs written by all three musicians, and finds them praising a misfit artist friend who “lost a front tooth, can’t keep a job,” Veirs sings, reassuring them, “but the things you make are so beautiful / They bring me joy / Don’t you ever stop.” Singing as a meditative campfire choir, they avow that “the hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything.” (Pitchfork)
Demystifying Activism—a 101 guide to getting involved, Carolyn Jong
The importance of this article is best expressed in Jong’s own words on the value of protest in all its forms:
Only the rich and powerful get what they want just by asking (or paying) for it. Unless you’re a member of the elite, the people who have the power to make the changes you want to see in the world are going to take some convincing, because as far as they’re concerned the status quo is working just fine (for them). While it would be nice to think that a well-reasoned argument that’s supported by strong evidence would be enough, that is almost never the case. That’s where pressure tactics come in. Protests, strikes, occupations, media campaigns, petitions, boycotts, and acts of sabotage are all ways to apply pressure to groups that can tip the scales in your favour. It’s all about making sure that the perceived costs of continuing with the status quo are greater than the perceived costs of giving in to whatever demands you’re making. This is ultimately how companies and governments function, and it’s also why protests, strikes, and other actions usually have to be as disruptive as possible in order to work. The people who complain about sitting in traffic because protesters are blocking the streets often aren’t aware that this disruption is the main thing that makes protests effective. Yes, they can raise awareness about an issue and help get more people involved, but if they aren’t causing problems for someone, no one (other than the people who are already invested) will pay attention to them, including the mainstream media. In order for progressive change to happen, you need to make it impossible for corporations and governments to continue with business as usual, even if it’s just for a few hours. This may lead some people to get angry and dismiss protesters, and it may even turn “public sentiment” against them, but often it’s a choice between doing that, or having no impact at all. It’s also worth noting that direct action, meaning occupations, strikes, sabotage, etc., is almost always a last resort, something that happens after “official channels” have already proven to be dead ends.
Night of the Quicken Trees, Claire Keegan
Holy. Shit. Everything I’ve ever wanted in a short story is in this short story. It left me devastated but emboldened. The prose felt at times soaring and at other times mouse-quiet, but always shimmering.
Driving back, the roads looked steeper, the hedges taller. The ponies seemed enormous. It took her several minutes to get the key in the lock and when she did she stripped and sat in front of the fire. She lay down on the floor not realising, until she tasted salt, that she was crying. She began to wail. Stack heard her grief floating through the stone wall.
A few hours later she was out again, naked but for the big sheepskin and her leather boots, walking the road to the cliffs. Stack followed her but his legs were not as long as hers, and he did not catch up until she stopped at Moher. She was down on her belly in the wet grass looking over the precipice. Ages passed. It was getting darker. Stack kept well away but stared at the back of her neck until she turned and faced him. She looked wild but her voice was calm.
”I was in love with him,” she said simply.
”Don’t I know.”
”I lost his child. Look.” She opened two buttons and showed him her caesarean scar.
”That must have been awful.”
”It was,” she said. “It was terrible.”
Waves kept forming on the surface of the ocean. The wind wasn’t blowing hard but neither would it stop. Neither one of them wanted anything to stop.
Retribution, Tanya Tagaq
There is so much that can be written about Tanya Tagaq and there is so much that needs to be written about Tanya Tagaq. She has decisively become my favourite artist to watch live and to listen on my phone. Her voice seems undaunted by what convention dictates physically insurmountable. I’ve seen her on stage a few times (the first time I saw Tanya Tagaq perform, I honestly wasn't positive I was entirely awake), including once in 2016 where she performed live the on-stage creation of a soundtrack for the documentary Nanook of the North.
Her most recent album, Retribution, is nothing short of a masterpiece.
“I wanted to draw a line with non-consensual land grabs and non-consensual, non-renewable resource development and the day-to-day horrors we inflict on each other and in particular, women,” Tagaq says. “That kind of violent, unscrupulous, and unethical way of dealing with what you want and what you can have.”
"There’s such a revolution brewing everywhere. More and more people are beginning to understand the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous people. It’s just amazing that we’re still around, and it’s a blessing. There’s a positive light to retribution, too. Decolonization isn’t about going back to the way things were—it’s about stitching together the knowledge that we still have from the past and applying it to today.
What do you do with all those years of residential schools? Well, the equal and opposite reaction is building schools where people learn the languages. Rehabilitation facilities and proper mental health services are desperately needed in all the Indigenous communities. And, yeah, how ‘bout paying all that you owe to the Indigenous populations? It’s our constitutional right, and people don’t understand why we’re upset. Of course the system wants to keep the wool over everyone’s eyes—to keep the country running in the way that it’s been running, which is to eat, eat, eat, eat the resources.
I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I know the land. I know what we were supposed to be before. And sometimes that gets woken up. I hadn’t been hunting in a long time, and I went with some elders who were hunting seal. I hadn’t had raw seal meat for a long time and they were eating the liver and this elder offered me some. In my mind, I’m like, ‘Oh, I have to do this because I’m Inuk and it’ll be weird if I don’t.’ I put it in my mouth and my whole spine, one by one, got taller. A gushing warmth came into my whole body. Something woke up in me that remembered hundreds of years ago—that [reminded me] we are animals, and that hundreds of years ago, that’s what we did. Technology isn’t who we are. It just made me taste what’s missing out of this life experience." (Pitchfork)
On a cool November day I found myself in Paris while visiting family. My sister and I, seeing as we had a day to ourselves, decided to go visit a museum on uprisings at the Jeu de Paume. The exhibit was a bright, soothing moment on an already dreamy day. That trip to Paris, days after the American elections, offered us a brief break from the emergent fascist and imploding capitalist reality of North America (with the disturbing understanding that the situation in France is a veritable parallel that whispers: won't be much longer, now) and the textured history of popular uprisings curated and collected together at the Jeu de Paume offered an oasis of remembrance—just for a moment—with which to brace ourselves for what inevitably comes next.
Notably, the exhibit featured a very fragile daguerreotype captured the 25th of June, 1848, titled La Barricade de la rue Saint-Maur-Popincourt avant l’attaque par les troupes du général Lamoricière. It is thought to be the very first "photograph" of a protest (or riot) ever taken. We left the exhibit only to have to ask to go back inside, as we very nearly missed our chance to see it, hidden away under a black velvet curtain to protect it from the ambient lights that would degrade it beyond salvation.
« Soulèvements » est une exposition transdisciplinaire sur le thème des émotions collectives, des événements politiques en tant qu’ils supposent des mouvements de foules en lutte : il y est donc question de désordres sociaux, d’agitations politiques, d’insoumissions, d’insurrections, de révoltes, de révolutions, de vacarmes, d’émeutes, de bouleversements en tous genres. (soulevements.jeudepaume.org)
This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein
If the connection between capitalism and climate change does not seem clear to you, Naomi Klein in this book does a good job of peeling back the layers, looking at the data, and arriving at explanations that are sensical and pertinent.
So my mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets. (…)
For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into the atmosphere–because we can can’t see them–will have no effect whatsoever...
(…) At every state our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing–a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt us.
Towards an Art History for Videogames, Lana Polansky
I finish this list with this incisive-as-always essay by Lana Polanksy on the creation of an art history of videogames, and the root of much unease in the art world as it contends with the overt and unmistakeable commercial origins and development of videogames as a genre.
All of this foregrounds the growth of multimillion dollar franchises and legacy IPs owned more or less exclusively by a corporate oligopoly with an iron grip on both the culture and the market. The videogame industry has eagerly adopted the narrative of building a better machine and of selling a better product. The very argument of “games vs. art,” which was for a brief period stoked by Roger Ebert’s claims that “games can never be art,” has always been a sham that was willed into existence and accepted as fact by critics, academics, industrialists, and gamers themselves. But we should call this what it is: it’s not a struggle between “art” and “games,” it’s a struggle between “art” and “commerce.”
Much love to you, to us, the dead, the alive. I just heard the call of the rooster as the sun sets on the last evening of 2016.
May we greet 2017 prepared.