The House of the Spirits
"I'm aware of the mystery around us, so I write about coincidences, premonitions, emotions, dreams, the power of nature, magic."
What? I'm not.
We were shooting second-unit footage for a friend's feature in downtown Phoenix this morning, on 1st Street, and we rounded a corner, the two of us following alongside him as he (or more accurately, his character) rode his bike down the sidewalk. It in itself was an illusion, a trick. We were supposed to be in Toronto, as he'd shot his film up there last September, so we needed to cover areas that could convincingly stand-in after some color correcting in post--with no palm trees, that was the big one, as they loom all over the city like vegetative mascots, minimal aloe vera, and you can forget about cactus. As we turned the corner down the alley, adjoining 1st and Adams, we seemed to slip between the cracks of the sleek, shiny business district into a whole different world. One that was seeping up from the pavement and spilling over, from where people had tried to bury it. There were elaborate murals sprayed all over the alley walls; huge, looming, colorful pieces depicting a transforming tapestry of heritage and culture. The alley was rife with symbols and expression. And it didn't stop on the alley walls, it bled down across the power boxes, decommissioned ice coolers, and dumpsters. It was like a shamanic vision quest of the Amazon jungles or the Navajo desert, twisted up into modernity, pop-culture, National character, and made manifest onto gritty, urban environs in brilliant technicolor. An unraveling mythoscape across the brick and concrete. I would later learn that this was done in a joint effort by the Arizona Latino Arts and Culture Center and Downtown Phoenix, Inc. A number of local artists, including Roman Reyes, José Andrés Girón, Elizabeth Toledo, and Carlos Rivas, did this over the course of a year (You can find the write-up by Lynn Trimble here, in the Phoenix New Times).
As we gathered footage in the alley, our friend riding back and forth on his bike while we followed, I watched the murals transform from one end to the other, on either side. There were Dia De Los Muertos mariachi wailing their song with anguished skeletal features, a rippling American flag with an eagle soaring across it and a burning center filled with soldiers, Selena's doomed portrait, Caesar Chavez, Carlos Santana, Frieda Kahlo, and the Virgin Mary with a banner of words unraveling near her, almost ironically now, reading, "Si se puede...Yes we can". And when we came to the end, I saw a mythic huntress of the Amazon painted onto a pillar on the side of a parking structure. Her face formed a sort of totem with the tiger headdress she wore and the owl beneath her with it's spread wings, vegetation and greenery pouring out from both sides. Like a goddess of the river. And as we rode back down to the other end I saw hidden away, in the shadow of an alcove, a mural of cartoonish Mayan priests with their gods and spirits, a pipe running above them painted green with the snake scales of looming Quetzalcoatl, his face and wings hidden in suggestion. But outside the alcove, painted above it, was an explosion of color erupting out from a beautiful Mexican maid, who was standing in front of a circular Mayan calendar with crossed arms. It was a multicolored arrangement of feathers and swirling shapes culminating into a beaked serpent's face with a tongue slithering out. A psychedelic, feathered serpent-god and a fertile river goddess, with a tapestry of vision and myth between them. And next to me was the dumpster with the exuberant boy's face stenciled onto it, a third-eye in the center of his forehead and a slogan beneath him reading, "I am not from this planet".
Did you ever hear that old saying? That we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spirits having a human experience?
The place felt almost sacred, hidden away there, against all odds, between the sober architectures of 1st and Adams. There was the Renaissance Hotel just across the street, luxurious, nice, not quite 4-stars but the perfect spot for a business person in Phoenix for a night or two. And then next to that is Hanny's Bar, which in spite of some playful weirdness, is overall a clean, chic establishment with refined sensibilities catering itself towards well-to-do younger people looking for cocktails downtown. This is all not to mention the fact that the convention center is right there on Adams, and with it is a whole slew of near-tourist level shops and attractions. Of which, included, a Hyatt Regency, which is in fact a 4-star hotel. And then there are banks and businesses and more businesses, all with this other world slipped discretely between the unknowing streets and avenues. It was like an invisible world, where pure, unadulterated expression was exploding through from an entirely different dimension. Like the sacred areas in the English countryside, the gravel pits and the mounds where, in a time long past, it was believed that Faerie folk and spirits roamed. And the only thing I could think of to describe it was the title to the Isabel Allende novel, The House of the Spirits.
And to be clear, to me this House of Spirits was not a singular place, not in the way that we would think of a home or a domain in classical, three-dimensional terms. Like a shoe-box, to paraphrase Adam Driver in the film Paterson, with a bottom, sides, and a top. This House, as I'd thought of it, transcended time and space, and would spill out at random intervals across the city and across the world. When we drove down to Roosevelt Row to gather more b-roll this morning, I realized this, as we walked past the beautifully tagged fences and abandoned buildings, bursting with color and image, a non-stop mural that would continue and continue to flood the world forever until someone decided to dam it up, with structure, with rules, control. This was also their home in my eyes, anywhere where the facade of civilization and complex ideology melted away, and pure fluid expression was released from the other place. It exists and penetrates our world all around us, these points of intersection and color are simply the wonderful, magic junctions where by chance, it is allowed to bleed through visibly. And to think this whole area is going down the tubes, to gentrification and expensive land development. It's ever so fleeting in that it may not be here much longer, these bright, blinding murals where human beauty is allowed to exist unrestrained. It's an inspiring sight to see that Roosevelt Row simply laid back, relaxed, and allowed pure expression to consume the whole stretch. But when the powers-that-be, the developers, the business men, caught wind of it they began systematically moving in, shrinking it down, further and further. It's okay for people to live, for their purposes, but not to be pure life, to exist in a constant state of present exuberance, such pure humanity would be content and have no need for money. Have you never felt that tingle in the tips of your fingers when you walk through an art gallery? Or go to the theater and see a truly great movie? The shiver that travels up your spine and moves into your brain stem, all the molecules buzzing. This is reality, form is the illusion.
There was one abandoned building on Roosevelt Row, next to the Lawn Gnome, that I particularly liked. Its a squat little house with boarded up doors and windows, which seems to exist now entirely for the purposes of tagging, an evolving piece of urban art which changes little by little, like the passers by with their paint cans are weather against the face of a rock or water running down a stream. And across the street there are a series of buildings like this, the most striking one being an electric blue two-story building which sits just off an alley behind the bar Bliss. The side of the building almost looks like an altar, with the entrance inlaid between two pillars and a monstrous, furred face with twisting horns painted large, made to be gazed upon in veneration. Like a howling frost giant or a living blizzard condensed from snow and wind into some kind of animal. The three of us moved block to block and gathered what footage we could, making a quick stop at the Songbird down the street for some coffee. We had a pleasant exchange with the woman working the counter, who was very pregnant, about three weeks from the date, but none the less capable of straddling out of her arm chair, without our help, which we offered, and entertaining us and making some damned good coffee. And the three of us stood on the back porch and drank our coffee, talking about the unique character of the city, the striking quality of it against any other place any of us had ever been. Even compared to Los Angeles, it's just so unique and singular, its like an intersection of everything that is the Southwest in this one area; the mountains, the streets, the way that the vibrant orange of the sun animates it all. I've never seen anything like it before, the way the city crackles and glows.
As we left and drove to the next location, near Cibo and the Vig, I watched a large swarm of birds circling in the sky from the car. They flowed like a ribbon, expanding and contracting over the houses and buildings. When we got closer, near our parking place next to Cibo, I saw the inside of their swarm, like they were living stars or flecks of dust in a haze all moving and swirling in space. Up there, above us, they had their own universe, their own context. In fact "universe" itself is such a relative word, universe seems to be a quantitative term for reality and can only really ever exist as far as we can see. We tend to think of universes as individual, closed-circuits, when the universe is said to be infinite, existing itself in an arrangement of infinite parallel universes. These exploding mandala repeating all across eternity with no definitive beginning or end, lotuses blooming endlessly like fountains pouring into and replenishing themselves. Watching the birds circle through the sky, it struck me that reality is more psychedelic and mesmerizing than most people ever consider. In its infinity, its fractal repetitions of uniform similarity. Sometimes trying to put the feeling into words almost, in itself, feels demeaning, or trying to capture it on a thing as crude as a camera or with simple colored paints. It seems, more often than not, in day to day life, we can only express reality as far as we can throw it. We can only use the tools that we have at our disposal, however so mundane. But every so often, something magical happens, and the feeling itself bleeds through onto the canvas with the medium. There is a crossing of worlds, of universes. And when this happens, it cannot be stopped, not totally.
Because in a universe of infinite possibility, it will always find a new place to bleed through.