The Relevance of Irrelevance: A Dispatch From Minnesota

“The front line no longer cuts down the middle of society; it now runs through each one of us…”

--Tiqqun, This is Not a Program


First as tragedy, second as farce. So how does history repeat itself the third time around?

There is a temptation to frame this stage of Western history as a time of fragedy. Fragedy, to buck the urban dictionary trend, can be defined thusly: a drama so comical that its overwhelmingly ludicrous improbabilities trigger in its audience a pathos so fragile that the characters’ plight is no longer funny and enters the realm of the absurd. You know we are living in fragic times when Alec Baldwin and Larry David play the president-elect and the democratic socialist with a spookier believability than the Donald and Bernie who play these characters, respectively, in real life.

This is a story of inner growth in the midst of, what Lindsay Swan, our Dante, would call dire outer circumstance. Trigger warning: the following contains mention of botulism and Russian propaganda. Leave your comments below.

Messages From Above

Children of the Wild was in western Massachusetts at the time, training for The Wastelands, still unaware that around the corner victory was waiting for the Mass resistance to Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct (NED) Pipeline. The lines had been drawn years ago and all that remained was to play out the drama.

March 24, 2016: six bald eagles dropped dead out of the sky over Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. On the invisible line between North and South Dakota, less than one month before the original Sacred Stone Camp was established at Standing Rock to protect the water from the ill-fated Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the deaths were declared a mystery and launched a federal investigation. Most of us found ourselves occupied with more relevant news of the day, like the pre-primaries circus, and paid no attention to our relatives in the sky.

Over the summer, temperatures rose, both in the Great Plains and on the Great Lakes, as we toured The Wastelands across the blue firewall that would later be branded by the pundit class as Trumpland. We did not yet know, spending time as we did in the cities and dunes, that our relatives in the water were absorbing the waste of our trumped up drama of growth and circumstance.

By October, a couple of Great Lakes researchers strolling the Sleeping Bear Dunes stumbled upon a troubling sight. Strewn amidst the driftwood and litter lay dozens of birds, all dead. Over five thousand dead birds had washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan this fall, more on Superior. Ducks, scoters, loons, perhaps Mary Oliver’s wild geese, unprecedented dead on the beach, like mysterious causalities of some invisible war.

Certain mysteries are forever. But others are only mysteries until you get to work. Investigators connected dots between the six dead eagles and the landowner who sold out to Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of DAPL. Researchers found links between the legions of dead waterfowl and the Midwestern landowners who cleared a path for Trump.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me circle back. Training, I want to mention, is Children of the Wild’s method of investigation and research, and we are still training to bridge The Wastelands to The Garden, our second project in our “Rewilding” cycle of work. You will hear more about this in other posts. For now, as our time on the road comes to an end, there are mysteries we’ve encountered on The Wastelands tour that deserve some unpacking.

Bury My Heart At Standing Rock

You may not believe it, but it’s safe to say you probably suffer from an acute form of botulism.

It has been suggested by the suggesting class that we are living through the greatest media bubble in human history. Unicorn Riot, a non-commercial media collective on the front lines of many intersecting social movements, has logged over 1,722,000 viewer minutes of livestream footage in 2016 alone, covering Black Lives Matter encampments in Minneapolis, protests-cum-highway takeovers, and Standing Rock assaults in North Dakota. It would take one person, UR likes to boast, almost 14 years to watch everything that’s been streamed.

A picture is not just worth a thousand words; today a picture is worth a thousand clicks, the new currency of the postindustrial economy. The image no longer acts to verify an event, action, or person’s existence. For a culture whose modern credo is pics or it didn’t happen! the image has become, in an absurd twist, the thing itself.

As a filmmaker and a human being, I feel invested in this bubble speculation. What makes a bubble a bubble and not just the way things are? Midstream general partners like Energy Transfer Equity (ETE) are consolidating their operations. The DAPL grandparent announced it was merging its subsidiaries Energy Transfer Partners with Sunoco Logistics on the same day that Morton County police officers fired water cannons in freezing conditions at 400+ people trying to remove a military barricade from a highway entering Standing Rock. The day was November 21, the same date the following was documented from an observer of the Ghost Dance in Pine Ridge during the Sioux War 0f 1862, a period that overlapped with the American Civil War: “The dancing Indians have the agency and the surrounding country in a state of terror…[they] may consolidate their forces at Wounded Knee, and in that case a fight may be expected at any moment.” Third time a fragedy.

Analysts speculate this ETE merger is standard business practice, not a forecast of emergency: nothing to see here. But who trusts the analysts anymore? Those on the ground see the corporate enclosure of inroads as a strategy of sheltering their fragile assets from the coming storms of popular resistance, climate change and depressing oil prices. Those in the cloud see the grounded resistance as a bunch of clowns and terrorists who, echoing Bush who parodied his dad, hate America. The cannons and cameras aim at each other in a fragic stand-off; meanwhile the oil still flows through a fragile network of pipelines, underground for the time being (see Enbridge’s Line 5) fueling both sides of this growing civil war.

When I try to peer closely at this media membrane from the inside, to see the stories we consume through the portholes of my viewfinder and screen, my vision gets cloudy, language eludes me, and every rock I find myself standing on starts to feel as vaporous and slippery as natural gas and oil. Then I realize I have no arms.

I feel disgusted, the longer I stare at my screen. A grenade nearly takes the arm from an accomplice at Standing Rock as the cops fire water on the camp. Friendly fire, if you ask the sheriff. Perhaps it was the Russians. The fact remains that the world trades in oil, kills for it, and the comforts this killing produces seep into every last crevasse of our culture, touching even the countercurrents, even the activists. Even the deep freeze itself is warming up to the attention.

Even poetry. On the drive back from North Dakota, I listen to Fresh Air breeze through a section of Upstream, which I’m sure would be tranquil if I were communing with wild nature, not tuning into a rebroadcasted program on NPR. Mary Oliver would be spinning in her grave if she were dead. In a world where wild nature is a metaphor, it appears we are all situationists, and all poetry is political.

Social media determines the content of civil conversation in the car and around the dinner table, conversations determined to make us irritable. I feel a certain paralysis setting in, like a post-meal coma that never ends, as we talk about how powerless we feel to change the system. I read online that Facebook’s algorithms engineer an echo chamber of relevancy; the system prefigures what we see based on what our friends already like. Then I read that Russia is using Facebook to spread fake-news in order to sow distrust in our media and political system, a story that may or may not be a source of Russian propaganda itself. Did you read the latest? The “rumor of total welcome” that Oliver rhapsodizes about in Upstream’s “frost of a winter morning” has lifted into the clouds of war by lunchtime. As the discourse of distrust and exclusion rages on, total welcome waits only on the battlefield, and the battlefield is now everywhere. What does it mean to stay safe when we live in such a bubble?

Here’s my wager. As “safe spaces” fail to protect us from the instruments of power—that is to say, from the tech companies that run social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the oil and gas industry that fuels the tech-industry’s growth, and military-financial complex that props up the whole house of cards—red zones will grow and come to engulf every corner of our life. Safe space is a front line that is shifting within us. How do we pick a side?

I believe safe spaces will fail because safety is a myth deeply entwined with the myth of progress. Trump uses “safety” as a codeword to talk about policing black neighborhoods; the democratic managers of social movements use the same code to negotiate with police as a way of keeping crowds in control. To be safe is to be free from danger, but neither the police nor party managers can engineer an environment free from risk, no matter what less-than-lethal tools they use. The job of the police is to protect and serve society. The job of the political parties is to serve society. But the nature of this servitude is shifting as we move from a time of farce to a period of fragedy.

Back in Minneapolis, I pick up a little white book by Czech-Brazilian philosopher Vilem Flusser called Post-History. It’s snowing softly inside. In a series of insightful chapters, Flusser prognosticates on the future world into which we in the twenty-first century have now moved. “The shift from agrarian to industrial society had ontological effects. The farmer experiences reality different from the worker. The current shift from industrial to postindustrial society will have comparable effects. The worker experiences reality different from the functionary.” But how do we function these days?

According to Flusser, a profound change in our knowledge, our work, our dwelling, our communication, our relations, our sky, and the ground we tread is underway, a change not seen since the industrial revolution, and not since the agricultural revolution before that. For the farmer, reality is a living being put under his care; for the worker it’s an inanimate material to be hammered, burnt, and gasified. For the functionary today, reality is a virtual field of possibilities to be analyzed and inserted into a database. As BBC documentarian and professional contrarian Adam Curtis demonstrates in his 2016 film HyperNormalization, society is programmed by banking algorithms to serve the free market. It’s as simple and absurd as that. A free-market economy has no need for external factors like justice, virtue, or healthy interpersonal relationships. Irrational humans and an even more irrational wild nature are irrelevant to global finance capitalism. But as the postelection riots in Portland and the perseverance of Standing Rock point to, irrational beings have a tendency to defy the algorithms. The outer circumstances—the peril of our water and sacred sites, industry-induced climate change and widening inequality—are growing increasingly dire. Safety sets the stage for an unavoidably dangerous world.

This may sound a bit absurd. After all, what do pipelines, social media, civil war, and the myth of safety have in common with mysterious dead birds and the end of The Wastelands?

The answer can be found, in all places, on the bottom of the Great Lakes. It has to do with tiny, secret cultures the investigators and researchers found inside the dead birds’ stomachs. But within every answer lies at least six more questions waiting to hatch.


Colonization of the Gut

 The problem, it turns out, has much to do with a certain kind of clarity.

Two days after the November 21 Standing Rock stand off, The Great Lakes Echo published a story on the two researchers who stumbled upon the dead dune birds. In the story the researchers discover the culprit: avian botulism—rare in humans but common in fowl. The deadly disease breeds in conditions I happened to write about in two previous posts, namely conditions generated by quagga and zebra mussels, those white invasive species that hasten the bloom.

As the Echo repeats, botulism colonizes oxygen-depleted environments, like the inside of infant stomachs or the dappled crevasses of an algae-infested lake. Here’s how it goes down: as the mussels infest the lakes, they consume everything around them, filtering the nutrients out of the water, thereby increasing water clarity. The clearer water allows sunlight to penetrate to the bottom, which fuels, when combined with the now-nutrient-rich mussel shit (not to mention the warmer conditions attributed by science to climate change), the explosion of blue-green algae. At the end of the summer the algae blooms die and settle on the cavernous bottom. Their decomposition absorbs local oxygen, creating undersea toxic zones. It’s in these oxygen-free zones that botulism enters the picture.

Botulism is the popular term for Clostridium botulinum, an anaerobic bacterium that produces seven classes of neurotoxin called botulinum, the most deadly toxin known to science. The neurotoxin can cause blurred vision, trouble breathing, nausea, irritability, paralysis, and ultimately death. Zebra-and-quagga-mussel-powered clarity creates the conditions for C. botulinum to thrive. The fish eat the bacteria; birds eat the fish; humans are OK as long as we don’t eat the birds. Mystery solved.

But the actual story is not so clear. One question that comes up: why this year did we see more avian deaths than previous years? And moreover, what do I care that the birds are dying? Why are they relevant to my life? It’s not like I was going to eat them anyway.

Birds, it turns out, are an indicator species. Their deaths indicate a troubling pattern that has much to do with our waste. Phosphorous and nitrogen stream from US farms into the Great Lakes basin in the form of GM fertilizers, along with household waste and industrial legacy chemicals from the Rust Belt. This waste provides the nutrients for the mussels to consume. Neither Clinton nor Trump, desperate for those Rust Belt votes, challenged the farming industry on waste practices. As figureheads of the dominant two-party system, their political relevance—that is, their survival—depends on serving society what it wants. The problem is, no one in society knows what they want, because everyone in society is struggling just to function.

Democrat or Republican, we in the United States live in a nation dictated by the logic of capitalism. That logic is very clear; since the 1970s it has been determined by the simple functioning of financial algorithms. The algorithms program society to produce as much food as possible because a free-market demands growth, and a growing economy begets a growing population, birds be damned. It’s an insurance worldview with no agenda and no direction for the future apart from minimizing risk. Feed the economy or get out of the way. Anything that doesn’t compute the program deems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if they die as long as the market tramples on. What happens to the birds can eventually happen to us.

I see the rise of avian botulism as a haunting yet profound metaphor for our present situation. It looks something like this: the white mussels stand for the Market, a field of invasive shells that has permeated every nook and cranny of society due to a lack of natural defenses (every predatory bank, every speculator, every private development, every piece of stock, every data point in the algorithm is an individual mussel; taken as an aggregate, they comprise the Market). The lake is society itself, the water in which we swim. As the Market devours most nutrients in the lake—i.e. the human and “natural resources” of society—it filters the murky water (diverse cultures) and lets the clear light of rational, me-first decision-making shine through. The algae are the modern blooms of displaced and displeased people: the upstarts, the “creative class”, the entrepreneurs. A rootless mass, the blooms feed off the struggling neighborhoods, the repurposed detritus, the kitsch, the “street food”, the cheap deals, the “hot spots” of former industrial zones, the wastelands: all the living things that the Market turns to shit, fueled by a rational me-first logic until each city is overtaken by pockets of toxic dead zones called gentrification, whose microbrew-and-pour-over consumption patterns poison even the intact communities nearby—the fish—with the me-first disease. Even those wild ones who exist outside this society—think of the camps at Standing Rock—depend on a healthy environment to survive. Even Standing Rock needs donations. Even the birds depend on the fish.

Suddenly everything becomes dangerously clear. The market creates the conditions for gentrification to colonize not just physical space, but our minds and bodies as well. A gentrification of the soul enables this disease to blur our vision, making it hard to imagine a livable future; it saps our strength to change things, paralysis sets it, makes us feel powerless, disgusted with ourselves and with each other; eventually we die in spirit.

Cultural botulism is an indicator, not the cause, of a poisoned environment. So, how do we defend ourselves from a cultural disease without exposing ourselves to the poison? How do we protect our environment from the market when the market is everywhere? How do we stay safe when safety is not an option?

From September through November this year, a time when the protectors and their allies at Standing Rock swelled to over 5,000 at camp, we Children of the Wild were in residence at an arts high school in Minnesota called Perpich, teaching theatre and literary arts students our method of training. Outside on campus live gaggles of wild geese. Their shit is everywhere and they contribute nothing financially to the school; the geese make no business sense for the administration to tolerate.

As theatre-makers, as filmmakers, as writers, as artists, it’s not clear how to keep swimming in these poisoned waters. But every day I looked up through the dorm windows to see wedges of defiance in the sky over school. 5,000 wild birds may have died this fall, but many more are still out there, defying the logic of the market, in flocks. We can make ourselves like the birds. We can make ourselves irrelevant.

We can obfuscate.

Beyond Metaphor

The media bubble consumes our lives by demanding we stay relevant, forever trapped in a reactive cycle of now, never standing long enough to breathe deeply and see where we’re going or where we’ve been. How do we break out of this bubble of relevancy? How do we make ourselves irrelevant?

As the situation at Standing Rock rages on, I sit in my dorm room at Perpich and watch Adam Curtis’ new documentary HyperNormalization. It’s a few weeks before the election. Curtis soothingly explains over an eclectic Brian Eno-esque score:

“You know that the politicians today have no idea what is happening. They pretend to be in control, but they are helpless in the face of the refugee crisis, and they do nothing to stop the corruption, the growing inequality, the emptying of the cities by the waves of money. But maybe they aren’t really politicians any longer. They have become instead pantomime villains whose real job is to make us angry. And when we are angry, we click more. And clicks feed the ever-growing power and wealth of the corporations that run social media. We think that we are expressing ourselves. But really we are just components in their system. At the moment, that system absorbs all opposition, which is why nothing ever changes.”

Right now, Trump’s twitter bombs are (all too) relevant. DAPL is relevant. Putin is relevant. Botulism is irrelevant. The Great Lakes are irrelevant. Matters of the sacred are (all too) irrelevant.

So how do we become more like the birds, wild souls who contribute nothing to the system of relevancy? How do we move freely outside a society that insists after every election it’s the economy, stupid!?

I think about the eagles over Standing Rock.           

This is what I find: The investigator with the US Fish and Wildlife Service discovered a noxious chemical product called Rozol spread across a 1,000-acre site where the eagle bodies were found. Rozol is a poison used by ranchers to control (re: kill) prairie dogs. The 20,000-acre Dakota ranch is owned by a man named David Meyer. According to the Bismarck Tribune, “Meyer is also former owner of Cannonball Ranch, which he recently sold for $18 million to Dakota Access LLC in a sale that’s being investigated by the North Dakota attorney general’s office for possible violation of the state’s anti-corporate farming law.”

This last point, which the Tribune included to make the story more relevant, is in fact irrelevant to the larger picture. What the Tribune considers irrelevant is the fact that the eagles did not directly consume the poison. They consumed the prairie dogs who consumed the poison. I think this point deserves more attention.

I believe this story, underreported outside North Dakota news, speaks to the indirect ways in which we communicate truth. For many of us, truth is so hidden by the smoke bombs of the daily news that we cannot see the trees for the forest or the forest for the trees. Too many bloggers in a sea of internet babble. As Rebecca Solnit explains to me, “at any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.”

But even for those stars, those conches who come to the front lines prepared, armed with gas masks and goggles, the truth is still ineffable, because there is poison in the groundwater.

We still have to survive in this world. The protectors at Standing Rock are receiving donations of lumber, food, clothing, medical supplies, human power, warm things, and not least of all money, in order to build another society ultimately sovereign from the market society; the birds rely on the fish. But they receive these gifts with a marvelous approach that I think we can all learn from: an obscure presence of prayer.

Standing Rock presents a radically different approach to civil war: protest as protection, protection as prayer. This is what the media reports on but cannot fully capture: every action, every movement is a prayerful intention; surrounding the camps is not a force field of armed guards or even cameras: guns and cameras are prohibited in camp. Protecting the protectors is a field the Lakota call Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. This mystery is what the market cannot grasp.

“I just got here last night, had a hell of a time finding this place,” a tall white man asserts during a daily community meeting in a green tent at the main Oceti Sakowin camp. “You might think about printing maps to help folks navigate here.”

The slender man leading this meeting responds with a swift patience as helicopters circle overhead: “We’ve tried that before. Do you know what happens when you give out detailed maps of your camp? The government sends infiltrators to spy on you and disrupt you. It’s already happened here.”

Maneuvering through camp is not straightforward. There is a corner next to the media tent in Oceti Sakowin dubbed Facebook Hill where you can find the shivering press calling home, but for the most part Standing Rock is strong insofar as it remains offline. That is how it remains unpredictable, but the purposeful obscurity is more than strategic security culture. There is much to the ever-present sacred ceremonies that a nonnative cannot understand.

Miraculously, the mystery does not divide people; it tends to unite. The mystic catholic St. John of the Cross speaks of the dark night of unknowing. This darkness becomes a companion to the true contemplative. This darkness I believe is what the market fears most; it is uncontrollable, unprogrammable. That’s why native spiritual practices were outlawed in the United States until 1978. That’s why the Ghost Dance was violently suppressed. That’s why monks cloister. This mystery, like poetry, like art, leads to a place beyond the logic of progress, to a dark but growing corner of the world that is offline.

For many of the water protectors, this battle is not over a pipeline. The Lakota

Sioux have a prophecy that forewarns of a time when a black snake will cover the Earth, a time that precedes the great purification. Good luck finding this prophecy online. The black snake is more than metaphor; it is the pipeline, it is every oil pipeline, and the pipeline is coming. For some on the ground this is a Revelation. The culmination of prophecies does not compute for the algorithms.

If you believe in the market or you believe in the mystery, either way, it’s easy to see we are not in control of what happens next. But we can take a side. Nothing says that history has to repeat itself endlessly.

Eternal Return of the Sane

“I have no land.”

An Arapaho man named Ernie says before a shivering audience at the end our final performance of The Wastelands in Minneapolis, as he recounts in a personal testimony that weaves hypnotically with his partner Christina’s testimony of standing to lose her community garden to private condo development. The government forced his people to migrate from their homeland to the western mountains of the Shoshone, known to the Arapaho as the “snake people”.

In the coming darkness of this early October night, Ernie’s words serve as a chilling reminder that we are living through a time of intersecting prophecies, a time of profound choice.

“It was the thought of the government to divide and conquer the people. It worked. A downward spiral, this was the beginning… The Army Corps of Engineers had a plan to divert the water. When everything was in place, they challenged us for the water. We went to court. We lost the battle. We lost the water. And we lost our water rights. What happened to us can happen to you.”


In future posts I hope to retrace the steps we took across The Wastelands tour and show more of the irrelevancies that just might point a way out of the present absurdity. Because, to subvert a saying from the desert, what happens in The Wastelands does not stay in the wastelands.