Thursday, November 29, 2007

Baltimore: Astra inclinant, non necessitant! Ambiguity 1972 and possibly otherwise...

This is a blog about Baltimore, and its obvious, special, transcendent natural resource: AMBIGUITY.

Or perhaps not.

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I grew up in Baltimore and had a fairly broad and uncensored experience of different aspects of the city as a kid, certainly with some very unusual experiences--but even so I assumed it was a fairly typical Eastern Seaboard city (perhaps more impoverished and provincial than many).

However, as I traveled the U.S. and Europe quite a bit over the years, it slowly came upon me (rather like a clammy severed hand in the night) that my home town was somehow... deeply unusual. This itself was quietly disturbing (like finding out that your family are the only people who practice some strange rite)--both a source of pride and growing love, but also a complicating source of existential confusion.

Explaining my experience Baltimore to other people, even other Baltimorians, has often bogged me down in descriptions of the unrelated strange, ambiguous, intermediate, and contradictory; and further, in the existence of shadowy things or behaviors that seemed to have no clear publicly recognized equivalent elsewhere. It is as if it is a very unusual place dressed up as a banal place--like a transvestite who turns out to be a zombie. (Since my own life has frequently intersected with the outre and odd aspects of city life over the years, I was far from a detached voyeur in these matters, and if anything it was often my natural urge to add to the strangeness of the city, but that is a bit like spitting in the ocean...).

In the early part of this decade, a good friend showed me a reel of 16mm film that had been found under a sink in a darkroom in the local art college where it had sat for a long time. It was local television footage of the 1972 "Ambiguity Day Parade," a sprawling, spirited and disruptive event where one side of Baltimore's distinctive "otherness" was well displayed. Led by an older couple, she with an webless umbrella, he dressed as the king from a giant playing card, and surrounded by dozens of people of all ages attended, in "mixed" or otherwise hard-to-place costumes, the event was a big breach in the easily identifiable use of public space. It was also a... symbolic moment.

This event, of which I've been utterly unable to find any other trace, was so in line with what Baltimore has meant to me, and so harmonious (or dissonant) with the waves of similar public actions that came later (notably confusionist street action groups in the 70's and 80's like the Baltimore Oblivion Marching Band (B.O.M.B.) and Balti-Media Edition) that it made me giddy to discover. It also greatly amplified my sense of "perhaps there is something in the drinking water." I'd drunk a lot of it, and seemed compelled to get others to drink it too...

There was a huge history of the city oscillating with an ineffable, often immoderate (but often also strangely transitory) weirdness; the berserk early John Waters movies are just one tiny tip of the iceberg of this that managed to somehow slip into a broader geographic consciousness. Its worthy to mention to anyone reading this from outside of Baltimore that what Water's essentially did (with a healthy sense of hyperbolic humor) was to capture what were and are real unsocialized and deviant ambiances easily found on a stroll through the city; a particularly resistant set of strains of low-ball exoticism that we have I see nowhere else.

So it was that in 2003 I wrote Martin O'Malley, then Mayor of Baltimore, a letter asking if he would change the masthead from "Baltimore, The Greatest City in America" to "Baltimore, The Ambiguity City." I was dead serious, but O'Malley failed to take the bait--I had hoped he would be able to see it as "capitalizing on our strengths." For one thing, the later slogan is ironically less ambiguous, more true to what is vivid. Baltimore has so many indeterminate and ambiguous qualities, to name a few...

...it is an deeply Southern city which mistakenly believes itself to be Northern...
...it is both extremely highbrow and lowbrow culturally, and fails to make the distinction...
...its character and vibe can radically, sometimes startlingly change, block by block...
...it has a highly unique population with a specific language who often don't see themselves as such...
...it is full of the worst crime but also relatively safe for many of its citizens...
...it is full of the worst poverty and the most powerful science...
...it full-on abuts a very conservative and parochial outlook with extreme radicality...
...it has a rather large population of transgendered people, and was a center for the medical advent of sex changes in North America...
...has a number of "wrong-scale" recreations of city blocks within the city...
...it is built on a complex of tunnels and catacombs, including a huge dysfunctional steam heating system...
...it seems to have a disproportionate effect on world culture, given its relative "second status" in American cities...
...it has Gertrude Stein and Poe's houses, but was a waystation for them both...
...it's home to the Visionary Art Museum but most people who live here don't know it...


and I could go on and on. In fact, that is what I plan to do within this blog, in considerable detail. Or do I?


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