Rich Dana, is not just the editor of the retro-future activist aesthetics journal Obsolete but also a guy doing battle – and making his own peace – with the various seemingly overwhelming forces of displacement, corporate branding, the government, neo-colonialism via Monsanto seed patents, which is creating an entire caste destined for long-term indentured servitude and various other nefarious forces. His approach is one of spirited pragmatism, iconoclastic critique, and a holistic approach to one’s existence on the land – not easy in the designated most-normal state in the union, Iowa.
b: In an effort to profile the hosts of the Beer Mystic Global Pub Crawl, I’m interested in hearing about your general approach to issues concerning the environment, political activism and how they relate to things like art, writing, bohemianism, individual resistance and beer.
Your magazine is called Obsolete, and I was honored when you hosted a chapter of the Beer Mystic in the first issue. Obsolete is an ironic title. Does it refer to the print medium or to the idea of classic resistance or to the contemporary dead end of politics as usual between 2 dying Republicratic dinosaurs who keep getting massive, expensive heart transplants that, in a sense, makes it imperative that the massive investments of blackmail money from special interests keeps them artificially alive?
R: Obsolete! came out of my own simple desire to read a real underground tabloid newspaper. I miss that format. As much as I actually love technology and computers, I just don’t enjoy reading in a digital format. I figured there might be some other analog dinosaurs like myself out there.
The name comes from the Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” in which Burgess Meredith plays a former librarian in a 1984/Fahrenheit 451-style, anti-intellectual, totalitarian state. This was a popular theme among the 1950’s and 60’s libertarian-leaning sci-fi that I grew up on. That type of distrust in government – any government, any authority, actually – was prevalent in my youth, even in the movies. Serpico, Dirty Harry, the anti-heroes of the 70’s all fought the corruption within. The Weathermen and the Panthers were heroes. My civics teacher took us to the Cedar Rapids courthouse to see the trial of Leonard Peltier when I was a sophomore in high school. That was a formative experience. About that time punk came along.
b: “The board finds you Obsolete.” “You come to my room to prove that the state is not afraid of me. What an incredible burden that must be; to prove that the state is not afraid of an obsolete librarian like myself. Well, I’ll tell you the reason you came… I don’t fit your formulae…” In other words, can out-of-the-box progressive thinking succeed or even survive in this stultifying climate? I know my partner was called a traitor for voting Green rather than for the lesser of two evils in the hope that this lesser – Obama – will respect this hope that he might be something other than business as usual…
R: I have never been a member of a major political party, and I don’t believe in them. They both rely on the fear and/or faith of their members. I don’t do religion. Ericka [former WFMU DJ “Wildgirl” and hot rod fanatic] ran the Nader campaign in 2000 and we still have Democrats who won’t talk to us. Honestly, I feel like soon, the whole fake representative system will become obsolete- that people will continue to ignore it more and obey it less. If we ignore it long enough, maybe it will just go away.
b: Nina was a Nader supporter. Among some – wasn’t Bush’s approval rating around 2003 around 89%!? – we were also non-patriotic [I’m not even american, so moot point] regarding the invasion of iraq. now Johnny-come-lately Dems act as if they came upon the WMD revelations themselves. To me, the Republicans are bad fucks but Obama is a bad fuck wearing a smilie mask who can beguile with his smooth lay-up. Nina now works for friends of the earth international, which early on denounced Obama’s energy plans as totally antagonistic to sustainable strategies banged out in international conferences – goodbye campaign promises.
The Netherlands has a system of about 6-8 parties repped in the equivalent of Congress. It is also relatively easy for marginal parties to at least get heard. The campaign only lasts a few months so the window of opportunity for moneyed corruption is smaller and money does not really BUY elections here. The electorate is vaguely split along left and right leaners: 3 major parties are conservative [1 of which is tea-partyish] with numerous left-leaning parties like Christian Union, D-66 [think Kennedy-style liberal dems], the Animal Rights Party [leftoid with 2 reps in Congress – Wildgirl will like them], Socialist Party [a major party] and Groen-Links [green-left].
The name of your organization or alternative persona is feral tech. Does that refer to off-the-map-out-of-the-box thinking beyond the current media-defined choices?
R: It’s a catch-all for my personal hands-on projects. I’m always looking to mine the effluvium of culture to make art, tools, energy, dwellings, vehicles. I tell people that the goal is to bring third-world technology to the first world.
b: How are you coping in Iowa as the designated bellwether of normalcy in America? Although it’s in the “middle of nowhere” that nowhere seems critical on numerous levels, not the least of which are environmental and political as in several thousand Iowans deciding on this year’s flavor of Republicrat.
R: We left New York at the onset of Gulliani-fication of the city. Now, it’s really not that different from anywhere else in this country.
b: I think this opening up to mega-stores and chains and the mallification of NY began before Giuliani with Dinkins. But Giuliani probably embraced it as some kind of genius political move…
R: Iowa’s political significance as the so-called “first in the nation” makes it a very strange place every four years. There are days when you literally see 3 or 4 presidential candidates a day on the street. It’s a cottage industry for a lot of small-time political hustlers in both parties.
Basically though, the rural image of Iowa is just a farce. Farming is all industrial, and the fields are just production facilities. Only a few Iowans actually farm anymore. Insurance is the biggest industry in the state, not farming, although they need to keep up the pastoral image in order to keep those farm subsidies flowing into corporate troughs. A few people are making advances in the “local food” movement, but the deck is definitely stacked against them. I can see a time in the near future where it will be easier to grow food in urban areas, because the countryside is just too contaminated.
b: it’s weird, its the same in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, France… This need to hang onto, this deference paid to, the illusion of bucolic farming and small farmers – there is something instinctual or religious, which leads us to float toward romantic illusions of a past that probably never really existed anyway. I seem to remember you mentioning that you had been advocating against Monsanto’s gen-tech scenarios as not good for farming and its patents on seeds that would make farmers beholden to this multi-nat like indentured servants who can never again buy back their freedom/ independence.
R: That’s true. MonSatan’s model has been to crush any competition by intentionally allowing genetic contamination to occur and then claiming ownership of anything that contains their proprietary genetics. Their plan is, apparently, to control markets in vital resources like food and water. A while back they were buying up water rights in developing countries. This is not about competing in a free market by making a superior product. It’s about controlling life on a genetic level on up. It’s God-tripping shit.
b: There is definitely some bio-tech hubris going on. The assurances of the snake oil salesman but all good cons come to an end. Read Mother Jones recent portrayal of bold, self-assured Monsanto declaring that their products would kill insects and weeds and the rest is farmer heaven: Attack of the Monsanto Superinsects. How do you see aesthetics – anything from locally brewed beer to local resistance via alternative artistic visions – as a way to critique mass corporate, conformist culture?
R: I am a big fan of regionalism, and hope to do what I can to preserve and/or reestablish it. I moved around a lot in my younger years. I loved living in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, The Irish Channel in New Orleans and Fort Greene in Brooklyn. I loved that the food, the art, the writing, the music – they were all different and all reflected life in their place. William Gibson talks about how Bohemias are the product of cultural backwaters, where ideas and aesthetics have time to cook into a tasty stew. I don’t think that happens a lot in the era of the internet. That’s one thing I like about Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s just a smelly backwater industrial town, but it’s full of talented people, just doing their own damn thing.
b: We seem to have a lot of geo-psycho-historical inspiration overlap – I also grew up with posters of the Panthers, SDS books, Steal This Book, MC5, music and resistance, poetic resistance, alternative film, Weather Underground, Catch-22 and on and on. I once wrote a term paper on the plight of the Native American in Michigan and the US. Still a pretty amazing story of genocide. Are you combining aesthetic resistance to conformity / the cynical erosion of pleasure in the thrall of mass consumerism with pragmatic local solutions – recycling, grow your own, solar panels…?
R: Yeah, my money work is doing construction and installing solar equipment, renovating old buildings in efficient way, re-using salvaged materials, all that stuff. I just really like old buildings, and I don’t do well in an office environment- we aren’t independently wealthy, so I’ve always found problem-solving and working with my hands to be my marketable skills and that helps pay for my other less lucrative endeavors. It kinda seems like people might be waking up to those ideas lately. I’m not talking about “buying green”. You can’t buy “green”. A new house or car can never be truly green if there is an option to reuse an older one. I drive a 1986 army surplus Blazer that burns used fryer grease biodiesel. No hybrid car is as green as that. Ericka is working on repopulating an heirloom native peach tree that was once in every farm kitchen garden, before they were all torn out to make nicer lawns. We grow food and buy beef from the local cattleman. I just had my work boots re-soled. Fuck, even that is a radical anti-consumerist act these days.
b: Great to hear this. I think that commerce is so strong, like faith, that contrary messages just seem weird, or when not backed by ad dollars they seem suspect, because the norm is so well funded and the outlet of consumable extremes [extreme sports, mtv reality shows, binge drinking, whatever] has made buffoonish behavior a kind of new controlled nonconformity but if you are TRULY weird, like alternative thinking/living you can still easily be ostracized because you’re not playing the ironic-nonconformist game. Did you move out of NYC – wasn’t it the late 1980s, about the time I moved to Paris – to return to your roots to have an effect there?
R: Not so much. We just wanted to get the fuck out of the city. Things had really run their course in NYC for us and we had a sort of poorly formulated back-to-the-land fantasy. We got here and were faced with chemical farming contamination, government run by agri-business, and a bunch of corrupt corporate fist-puppets like Governor Tom Vilsack (who Obama named to head the USDA) to contend with. Ericka really got into politics in a big way first, running the Green Party. I tried my hand later- I actually served as a lobbyist for the Iowa Farmers Union and the Iowa Renewable Energy Association at the state capitol. What a soul sucking vortex of hell that place turned out to be.
b: Since I’m dealing with the projection of my novel Beer Mystic, a novel of beer, mysticism and cantankerous resistance to the urban plight of residents whose souls are compromised by the effects of banking machinations and the greed of landlordism but also by the omniscience of the car as invasive projectile into every aspect of our being. It also deals with the blight of light pollution – New York may be the city that never sleeps but it is also the city that never lets it denizens sleep: this leads to an almost insane wakefulness that has its effects on our abilities to logically and successfully interpret our position in our surroundings. New Yorkers [urbanites in general – of course people in the suburbs and rural areas have entirely different sets of issues] must learn a series of coping mechanisms: mass consumption is one that makes it look like life is dandy. Another is obliteration of surroundings via headphones, psychological withdrawal into obsessions, drink and drugs. Turning to beer was one way to prevent New York [in my case] from getting a total hold of my soul. Does that speak to you in any way?
R: It does to a degree, but to be honest, I was a pretty hard drinking fucker when I got to New York. Maybe that’s why I went there. Drinking always took me to a place where everything was okay- but it was so fragile. I could never drink one beer. I had to drink enough to flip the switch, and then it was walking a tight rope to stay in the zone without falling overboard. I’ve been sober for 8 years now – so is Ericka – and it really has allowed me to clarify my ideas and do things I never could as a drinker. I miss the escape, I miss the social aspect, but not a lot else.
It was a huge part of my life in New York, though. The ritual of the afternoon 40, the evening pints of Guinness at the Alibi Club on Dekalb Ave., the smell of the paper bag around the Budweiser tallboy on a bench in Tompkins square, the taste of that first beer after 36 hours in King’s County lockup….but that’s another story. I would not be who I am without lots and lots of beer. And all of the experiences, good and bad, that came with it. Maybe I’ll have one again someday. Not today.
b: Beer combats urban hyper-stimulation, over-caffination and over-documentation-justification…
R: Beer has a really different connotation here. There is the micro-brewed goodness and the nice head that comes with it, and all of that. Then, there is the Busch lite 18-pack drinker. The blue cans in the ditch, tossed there by the anesthetized NASCAR fan. Who can blame them? This world is too fucked up to figure out. Why not just suck down a shitload of crappy beer and forget about it? Sleep, motherfucker. Payday is friday and the boat payment is due.
b: Its finding that fine line between taste [before it becomes snobbish branding] and getting soused [a necessary escape that is considered declassé by the new beeroisie] and perhaps drinking beer that tastes good instead of just the cheapest piss but not needing to congratulate oneself on your genius craft beer purchases with a hundred tweets and a few blog entries. Just drink it and enjoy the human interactions it creates.
R: One more thought about beer, aesthetics and regionalism: Before I quit drinking, microbrews were just finding their way into grocery stores. The big brewers were trying to market fake “premium” beers to go after the Sam Adams dollar. Still, and I don’t know about now, but I always loved the regional cheap beers. I don’t know if they still make it, but once a year Rhinelander would sell Bock. It came in the same brown bar bottles with the same label; it just had red caps that said “Bock”. It was great, and a big treat and when it was gone it was gone, until next year. I hate having “everything all the time”. It’s the same with the internet. Nothing is special; it’s all just 1s and 0s, (and $s).