Phonometricians 1: On Being Asked “Are You a Living Artist?” in 2013 2

1. Say yes — and 3

A. There’s profundity to the joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” We imagine the lost author of the joke and the first few people who never heard it before. He is standing on a rock dressed in old brown clothes. The people spiral around him. There is no chicken around because this would ruin the joke. It is day time. There is a sun. We can all see him. The joke spirals out from here towards its first confirmed print publication—1847 in the New York City monthly magazine The Nickerbocker. Within this quest for origins, we imagine ourselves hearing the joke for the first time: We are children, or the idealized “children-self” of adults in retrograde, with brains inhaling “To get to the other side” and not knowing what to do with it, what the joke means. We grow older and add questions: Is the joke a joke about us? Is it a joke by not being a joke? Is it a joke about all the other meanings of “the other side”? Time spirals us into new jokes. Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide. Why did the bear cross the road? He loved the chicken. Why did the artist cross the road? ______________<insert punch line here> 4

B. The content expands: My childhood friend (whose last name is Knickerbocker 5) told me it was time to slaughter the chickens on his farm and he could use my help if I was free. I said yes. This was because I had some notion in my head about a willingness to kill what I eat, at least once. Symbolic gesture, check. Something to do with having an experience. It was Saturday. Cloudy. By the barn, we took turns. Two long nails driven partially into a log leaving a metal V to hold the chicken’s neck. Grab the chicken by the ankles, pull the body taut, the head stays in place, and the neck gets longer and easier to hit with the hatchet. We took turns, him and I. Animals and humans. My first three chickens I killed/murdered with one whack. The fourth chicken: the first whack only went half way through the neck. I paused, tried again. Between the first whack and the second, there was no conception of the experience. Conscription(?). The fourth chicken got me, so I came to live inside a chicken.

2. After the `and,` add new information

The ball dropped towards 2013, towards the void we will live in for one year and then we/the ball/whatever will slowly leave pieces of 2013 behind—there’s my arm and that shirt covering my arm and attached—and we missed Dick Clark—my generation missing the music and the stage of New Year’s—people as things and things as people—bears somewhere and teeth: parts and pieces of us certain of this—Jenny McCarthy walks down the row of people, positioning a mike beneath them and asking, “Who do you want to say hi to?” Each interviewee answers, quickly, garbled, names, relationships—Ryan Seacrest tells us that the first celebration was held 108 years ago—the countdown clock in the lower-right hand corner dips below one minute—Seacrest tells us that 200,000 people gathered that night, but tonight there are five times as many, right now, right here with us—they are there with him and also with us—people yelling out names, Matt, Lucy, Mom—“gather everyone around the TV”—and we all know that when the countdown gets to 10 we will count out loud and everyone, which is to say everyone in this time zone, which is to say everyone counting in this time zone will be saying the same thing together, like the Pledge of Allegiance, like an Our Father at church—the ball reaches the bottom, the sign reads 2013—and Google registers a yearly total of 1.2 trillion searches in 146 languages. Among these searches was/is you. This is the latest argument. Call it a constellation or a footprint—a compendium not of what we found but what we looked for, what we could have wanted to be(?). And the “could” stands out large.

3. Don’t block

This space below is provided for your 6 thinking and/or notes on any and all of this, either now or as we progress. (Or perhaps, appearing online, there will be a comments section to this, and your comments will be part of the art/argument here. Like: we will grow wings until our wings grow into each other: a sense of air and transition<->release, i.e. the steps necessary to go from you to me seem to be neither none nor infinite.)

Note: John Cage on the premiere of 4’33”: “They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Note: Four Tet in a Future Music interview on making music from found sounds: “When I’m working on something, I’m not like sitting there with piles of old records and stuff kind of looking for sounds to make it all fit. I keep this permanent kind of sample diary which I’ve been doing for over like 10 years or something now, where every time I hear something on a record on a DVD on a cassette tape on anything I hear a sound that I like or is useful or even if I come up with something on guitar or keyboard I’ll record it into the computer, archive it away as something from that time, and then when I get to work on music it’s just me and this enormous archive of sound.”

 4. Avoid questions

Sat, Apr 6, 2013 at 6:10 PM

Hi Mom,

I’m working on an essay about “Living Artists” and I’m just trying to collect tons of possible ideas right now, so I was thinking about you and quilting, basketing, etc.

I know you think of yourself as a “crafter”, but I was curious if you would consider yourself a “living artist” or not? And perhaps, more interestingly, why or why not? If you don’t mind I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on this 🙂 If you don’t, that’s also cool 😀


Sat, Apr 6, 2013 at 6:23 PM

Hi Devon,

I think I would consider myself an artist only in the aspect of when I do theorem painting7, and only then because I have a feel and sense of color that I can create something slightly artistic. For quilting I consider myself more a mathematician and a seamstress, as I don’t consider what I do art…yes, I’m creating something, but it is more a well-honed skill than an artistic talent. Yes some quilters are artists, but those would be the free form people…not patchwork people.

Baskets again was mostly following a pattern…very seldom did I do anything beyond a set form developed by someone else. most everything I do is mathematical…something figured out and created from a pattern. I feel like I’m not an artist because I couldn’t sit down and draw something original…but then what is original? hard to say.

Of course lots of artists might say the same thing…There are certain techniques that most artists use…like painting a tree with a certain brush, certain colors, certain specific brush strokes. That old adage, there is nothing new…just things done slightly different, in a different order….whatever… like a musician…they can’t create new sounds, really, just the order in which they are played, etc…

I’m rambling…

5. Focus on the here and now

A. “There are several lists of ‘improv rules’ to be found on the internet – because we get so many questions about Rules of Improv we are listing a few here; if known we list the origin (let us know if you know more). We are not necessarily endorsing these rules; your mileage may vary. And never forget: it`s good to know and understand rules (some rules) but once you have mastered them, by all means feel free to break them.”8

B. There are trails in the woods. One of my friends is sick. Another one died recently. They say the problem is that the sun keeps going, but we do not. The part we love as we look into the forest and think, “There are so many lines.” No line segments. Have you heard how incredibly big and small our universe is? Have you imagined how much of it can be, must be, left out? One of the facts might be that the earth is rotating quicker than a jet airplane can circumnavigate the earth. Another might be the inability to say what you want to hear.

C. There are lists of things as artists: the fence at the zoo, the woods, the coffee mug, the mirror, the bones, the doorway, the statue, the coffin, a list of Google Zeitgeist possibilities for 2013, a list of permutations, the heavy heart at the bottom of the left leg, a chicken, a list of the clothes—the ones they wore when they were young, the ones they wore when they were old.

D. There is now a Memorialization Request form on Facebook:

“Please use this form to request the memorialization of a deceased person’s account. We extend our condolences and appreciate your patience and understanding throughout this process. Note: Under penalty of perjury, this form is solely for reporting a deceased person’s timeline to be memorialized.”

 6. Establish the location

My girlfriend went to high school with David Villalobos. You might recognize the name. He’s the man who jumped out of the monorail at the Bronx Zoo, clearing a 16 foot fence and landing in the tiger’s den. He broke an ankle (right). The tiger broke the rest of him. This is the easy joke. Somewhere in there a tooth went through his lungs. The zookeeper used a fire extinguisher to distract the tiger. “When someone is determined to do something harmful to themselves, it’s very hard to stop that,” said Bronx Zoo Director Jim Breheny. “The tiger did nothing wrong in this episode.”9 The zoo saved Villalobos’ life. And the life of the tiger. Third position for a hero. The news said Villalobos said (according to a cop) that he wanted to be “one with the tiger.” If you research the story, this quote spirals into many jokes within the comments section that take the following platonic form: The tiger un-accompanied/-interrupted would not have stopped his dinner service on his own freewill until at least part of Mr. Villalobos would be one with the tiger’s gastrointestinal system. Searches spike 10 for nine days across September 21 to September 30 and then disappear. On January 11, 2013, we hear from the New York Post 11 that his “gym buddies” hear him say, “This is a good thing that happened; maybe I can make some money, write a book.”

7. Be specific—provide details

The old dream spirals off of Star Trek. Someday we’ll have teleporters and be able to go anywhere we want. We will walk up to the machine, to this thing, and speak to it and whisper the code we have assigned ourselves and this may not make us think we are beautiful, but it will take us wherever we want to go. You and I go on a walk through the Rodin Museum in Paris.

The dream gets cut off, or extended, with virtual reality. Why move the body somewhere else when you can bring somewhere else to the body? One puts on goggles, headphones, a smell dispenser gently placed beneath the nose.You and I go on a walk through the Rodin Museum in Paris. We buy the audio guides. We are firm believers in getting the audio guides.

Someone interrupts this latest dream by arguing that nothing is new. They claim that our imagination could do this already. Imagine. This new technology changes the world in degrees, not dichotomies. Virtual reality is just another set of words for closing your eyes. Etc.

Or perhaps this last interruption has too much faith in the imagination pulled away from the world. Some of us feel this. We need our goggles, our teleporters. We run around tying ropes between the sky and the ground. We take photographs of our trips. We kiss people after knowing them for only a short time.

8. Change, change, change

So here’s my list for (possible) top Google Zeitgeist searches of 2013 (so far):

  • The Pope
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • The Harlem Shake
  • iPhone 6
  • Royal Baby

According to Google, “‘Zeitgeist’ means ‘the spirit of the times,’ and this spirit can be seen through the aggregation of millions of search queries Google receives every day. The annual Zeitgeist report reveals what captured the world’s attention in the past year—our passions, interests and defining moments as seen through search.”

More specifically, Google Zeitgeist highlights what “trended,” which means what searches were most popular that year that were not popular the year before. This is different than “most searched,” which would make “Facebook” the grand champion of all Google Zeitgeist-ing, beating out even “porn” by five to one.

In January 2014, we’ll be able to look back at 2013 and the Google Zeitgeist list, while I’m here writing this sentence on April 7, 2013, unable to tell you what searches will “trend” by the end of 2013. This gap in knowing is a type of “road.” You can take it in years or days or _________. It allows the chicken enough time to become a centipede. It gives artists more chances to trip over themselves.

9. For serious and emotional scenes, focus on characters and relationships

When I was twelve I was in a cemetery with Mom and Grandpa. We visited cemeteries often because my mother and her dad were bonding over the quest for their genealogy, each progressively proving it with three-ring binders full of names and dates and photographs of the tombstones. On this day I remember it was sunny and summer because there were bright leaves on the tree. I see the tree and Grandpa bending down to its roots. He calls me over. Shows me how there’s a squirrel hole and how the squirrel has dug down into somebody’s grave and brought back a brass coffin foot and (what he claims is) an ankle bone. He hands both to me and tells me to keep them.

Three nights ago I get drunk and tell my friends this story. They argue back a convincing case that my childhood and I are strange. (This is the eventual realization of talkers.) Some friends say they’d never take a kid to a cemetery. Others ask what is the role of the guy whose ankle bone you held, what is his stake in this discussion of bone-meaning making, or, in philosophical terms, what is the role of the Other inside your experience? Your art? I explain that the day in the cemetery was the first day I ever realized the circular nature of life. They say that’s bullshit. They argue that I’m pushing back into memory. I admit I did not think that phrase, my mind did not create “circle of life” back then, but I do remember feeling like the fact that the squirrel had carried the casket foot and bone back up into the light was a really good thing.

10. For humor, commit and take choices to the nth degree or focus on actions/objects

Because we’re looking for patterns between the moments of now and now. Because the hand hangs at the side almost twitching. Because the hands are like lungs. Because of this and more, the gimmick of “because” spreads (spirals) out, and enumerates, pushing buttons of boredom and rights and waiting for longing for…validity, for argument, for the simple faith that there are roads through the woods. We hear a cat[…]we’ve been hearing a cat. Tonight, it was raining. The evolution of cat adorableness as a means to win food and shelter, the mewing bore down on us, and my girlfriend asked if I’d go with her to feed it.

Something about ethics, interpretations, quick hypothetical shout-outs. I remembered someone at some point said something about not feeding strays because the stray will become dependent on you, so your options are either let the cat live with you and your already two cats in an apartment already too small, or let them starve… we could’ve Googled up a morality, a suggestion, but we didn’t… I mumble softer translations of this at her while agreeing to feed it/him/her today and sometimes, but not always. This gesture might be wrong. In fact it surely is.

We take the food outside. We grab a shitty flashlight that barely helps. We can’t find the cat. She asks if we should leave the food in the rain. I say if you want to feed that specific cat and not some fat neighborhood cat, we should go inside. (I don’t know. How does one. Where are we. Why. Why does the chicken love the cat. Etc. The cat grows one hundred human legs. One hundred ankles.) I say we can feed him next time we hear him. The duration of sound between sounds. The remainder of real hope.

So: If we hear him and feed him, do we hear him again and do we feed him again? The question repeats. If we don’t hear him, when do we stop listening for him? The man in the old brown clothes makes a joke. 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 20—

Update (4/29/13)

I get distracted from this essay by the Boston Marathon Bombing. I find myself reading every news story, opinion piece, and Facebook status I can find on it for roughly two weeks. Then I have a four hour argument with my girlfriend about whether or not I should mention how the Boston Marathon Bombing affected my writing and editing of this essay. Outside, the stray cat appears, in the middle of our yard. We hear him mewing, so we lower our voices. It is day time. There is a sun. We can see him. He doesn’t look skinny or malnourished, which means we didn’t need to feed him. We could not have saved him. Realizing this feels somehow […] good and bad.


1 A word created by Erik Satie (1866-1925) to describe his process of musical composition. It roughly means “someone who measures sounds”.
2 January to April, as this essay is due May 1, 2013.
3 The section titles come from David Alger’s 10 Rules of Improv. Improv.html
4 Note to self so I can move: [insert David Foster Wallace-esque “street cred” argument/(slightly too long) footnote/escape hatch about self-awareness/shame/fearfulness in regards to labeling/art/self-anointing while also needing to be allowed to ask what next/to be wrong/to be naïve/to admit our completely fearful bullshitty yet totally possibly true desire to be an artist just because we want to be an “artist”, i.e. being someone/somewhat caught up in the questions of how to interact/communicate with another (lonely) human brain that exists outside of you and also inside of her own set of skin and shadows and light color gradients of precise ways/weights laid over the world in her very own attempt/plan “to get to the other side”, whatever this grouping of words might mean for her, for you, for me.]
5 The coincidence here being something we lack a better word for than “coincidence” (and/or “accident”, “luck”, “happenstance”, “concurrence”, etc.), and also the constantly returning question of what we’re willing to count as “art” if it is not everything.
6 It’s been seven years since “You” was/were named Time’s Person of the Year. All of us as one you, not noticed, waiting for the attention of who? You? Seven years?
7 My mom’s definition: “Theorem painting is a mathematical process of breaking down a composition of art into distinctive parts. The parts are numbered so that no number touches the same number. Then each set of the same numbers becomes one layer. Most compositions will contain a maximum of 5 layers. Stencils are made for each set of numbers and paint is applied to a surface using the stencils. By breaking the composition down in this manner, the paint can be applied so that no breaks appear between the parts (as in regular stenciling) and so there are definite edges to the color & shapes. Color, shading and shaping can be achieved by mixing and applying the paint in differing manners.

Theorem painting began as ‘school girl art’ in the early 1800s so that most any young lady could be taught by traveling teachers in an easy way to achieve proficient results. Paintings in this style ranged from very primitive to very advanced, depending on the person.”

10 Google Trends.
11 Wikipedia description of the credibility of the New York Post: “According to a survey conducted by Pace University in 2004, the Post was rated the least-credible major news outlet in New York, and the only news outlet to receive more responses calling it ‘not credible’ than credible (44% not credible to 39% credible).”

Devon Branca teaches Literature and Writing at Morrisville State College. His work is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Southern Humanities Review.

Devon Branca teaches Literature and Writing at Morrisville State College. His work is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Southern Humanities Review.