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Detangling Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’:

What It Is And Isn’t

 Please click- the visuals of NIKES is mesmerizingly beautiful:
http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/08/22/490918270/detangling-frank-oceans-blonde-what-it-is-and-isnt

 

August 22, 20164:23 PM ET

Frank Ocean's raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling guides Blonde.
Frank Ocean’s raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling guides Blonde.
Courtesy of the artist

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Over the weekend we asked Ann Powers and Jason King to wrestle with Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange. They did so across many time zones and man hours; what emerged is a conversation that stays fair-minded and grounded and ends in questioning both the artist and his audience. We find it impossible and personally limiting to consider this album outside of its context, so the below is as much a state of affairs as it is a straight-ahead review.

(Ann Powers and Jason King write about both the physical and digital versions of the album interchangeably. And without clarity regarding the whole listing vs. cover art spelling situation, we’re calling it Blonde throughout.)

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Ann Powers: When he began to put himself into the mind-frame that would inspire his new album Blonde, Frank Ocean imagined himself in a moving car. He was, in this waking dream, a girl. “Two years ago I found an image of a kid with her hands covering her face,” the artist wrote in an essay posted on his Tumblr the day this weekend the album, four years in the making, finally became available.” A seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair stayed swept, for the moment, behind her ears. Her eyes seemed clear and calm but not blank, the road behind her seemed the same. I put myself in her seat then I played it all out in my head.” Ocean imagined himself wriggling against the seatbelt, he wrote, playing with its tension until it no longer constrained him. This feeling of freedom within containment, of traveling at a high speed on a course that is smooth and open — and of being comfortable with motion even in your most vulnerable, childlike moods — was the one that best fed the creativity he needed to complete an album as highly anticipated as any to come out this year, even though, since he relocated from California to the clogged streets of London, Ocean doesn’t even drive much any more.

Ocean is a car enthusiast in real life. When he lived in Los Angeles, he owned three BMWs and was rebuilding a fourth. He populates his artistic world with references to Ferraris and Bugattis, the way many rappers do, but also to Acuras and Camrys, conduits to solitude, pleasure and escape for more average folk. In “Nights,” one of the 17 circuitous, absorbing tracks on the digital version of Blonde, the New Orleans-born Ocean remembers cruising in his family’s Honda before Katrina forced him out of the city. “Kept at least six discs in the changer,” he recalls, rhyming in a sing-song cadence over a woozy keyboard line. It’s easy to imagine that CD changer containing the music that drifts and melds within the hard-to-define sound Ocean cultivates on Blonde: Stevie Wonder next to The Beatles next to Crescent City rappers and his mom’s Hammond organ-driven gospel favorites. In other songs, Ocean locates erotic pleasure within car interiors, and safety “like an armored truck,” and even rebirth, when he finds the feathers of a mythical phoenix on his dashboard. (It must have been a Pontiac.) But “Nights” places the sound of Blonde itself within that cocoon-like space, connecting it to a process of listening and absorbing hours of source material which, though it might be shared with one or two fellow riders, is ultimately private and introspective, the quiet side of taking the open road.

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“The stillness is the move,” goes the hook of a song by the Dirty Projectors, whose vocalist Amber Coffman is one of many guests from the cutting edges of various music scenes who appear on Blonde. The idea expressed in that phrase is fundamental to Ocean’s musical approach, even more so now than in his earlier work that challenged received ideas of both R&B and indie pop. The rhythms on Blonde are cool, languid and minimal. Guitar and keyboard lines swell and brush against each other, rarely coalescing into hooks or stirring choruses. Some tracks are as dense as they are short, while others segment and land in structures that don’t conform to traditional songcraft at all. The stories he tells within these prismatic songs, many explicitly erotic, gain their power from the music’s tonal shifts and hard to track reference points. The lyrics only half-tell them, though, and only in deep dialogue with music that carries the listener deeper into reflection.

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Introversion defines Ocean’s stance throughout Blonde, even when he’s reaching out to a lover; those lovers are often merely shadows on the passenger seat anyway. One reason his music captures so many people’s imaginations now is that it’s supremely ruminative, dedicated to exploring how memories drift, dissolve, reassemble themselves to form the narratives that inwardly define us, and how desire arises within a story each person tells herself as she reaches toward another. “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer in the thought,” Ocean rhymes in “Seigfried,” imagining God at the end of that particular road, but not the lover for whom he longs. A guitar loop forms a membrane around the image, expanding it infinitely. When, moments later, he murmurs, “I’d do anything for you” to the object of his longing, the feeling is peaceful, infusing heartache with mindfulness. This is what Ocean offers that listeners crave — an antidote to the industrious and cynical persona building that dominates so much of popular culture now; a focus on process that feels so foreign to many listeners that they consider it a mystery. It’s not a mystery. It’s an articulation of what happens when each of us keeps her thoughts to herself.
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Jason King: So Blonde is the album that was formerly going to be known as Boys Don’t Cry (which has now become the name of a one-off 360-page magazine associated with the physical release of the album that you could, briefly, pick up in four pop-ups, newsstands and a bookstore, in LA, New York, Evanston, Ill. and London). The original album title would have been especially fitting this week, as it so eerily resonates with the arresting photograph and accompanying video of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, the baby from Aleppo who sat drenched in blood and dust and stunned into silence after rescue workers removed him from post-airstrike rubble and propped him up in an emergency vehicle. Part of the reason that image has circulated so widely as a profound commentary on the horrors of the Syrian conflict is that Omran doesn’t cry in the face of such catastrophe; instead, he looks like the oldest of old souls, and we find ourselves watching him work through unimaginable trauma in real-time. Indeed, we’re watching him while his life is splitting in two and tearing apart; if he’s frazzled, or discombobulated, Omran is bravely keeping it inside, or he has no expression for what he’s feeling. Boys don’t cry, in part, because men refuse to cry: the toxic masculinity and weaponized lack of empathy that underwrite so many of our most pressing contemporary geopolitical conflicts are just two of the elements that have helped foment the incredibly tragic situation that Omran finds himself in.

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And so it’s fitting, given the times in which we live, that Frank Ocean has made a deeply empathetic and passionate album that’s partly about his own ongoing struggle with masculinity and emotionalism. Quilted from fragmented ideas, observations and submerged memories around the vicissitudes of heartbreak and loss, Ocean manages to process his relation to that personal trauma for us in the most intimate and fragile of ways. We’re listening to him work through some deeply personal moments, even if we don’t always know what the referents for those moments are. I can’t help but note that some of the most potent recordings this year made by black men — such as The Life of Pablo by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book — wade deeply, and even self-consciously, into impressionistic emotionalism and into gospel-influenced questions of existence. And they offer us existential musings at a crucial time, when far too many people still can’t seem to figure out whether black lives matter enough to change their own.

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And yet nothing is ever so straight-ahead or open-faced with Ocean. His music, like his career as a whole, more often than not revolves around ambiguities and offhand non sequiturs. Apple Music lists the digital version as Blonde, as does the magazine page that serves as the physical’s gatefold, but the cover art reads Blond. Here, as on previous efforts, Ocean seems profoundly interested in identities that, for any number of reasons, have become torn apart (his own and those of the other characters he observes, too). He’s obsessed with people whose lives are split between past and present realities, people who move erotically between men and women, between warring ideals of masculine and feminine, and black and white, and gay and straight. This weekend alone, he released one audiovisual work and two different versions of the same album, and, though the two versions are not radically different from each other (there are five more tracks on the digital than the physical, but the physical includes two that aren’t on the digital), I think he wants us to know he goes both ways in all aspects of life. At the very least, he doesn’t subscribe to the idea of one thing or the other.

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To be fair, I’m also of two minds about Blonde: musically and sonically, it’s certainly consistent with today’s conceptually-artsy hip-hop and R&B-influenced pop, including Rihanna’s ANTI and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, as well James Blake’s The Colour in Anything and maybe even Banks’ forthcoming The Altar. But critics’ gleeful celebration these days of anything that registers as experimental “avant-soul” — if that term ever even really suits the music — usually neglects to mention intrinsic flaws such as drifty songwriting that is too often formless and the pursuit of tone that is too often samey. It’s hard to be definitive about these critiques with Ocean’s newest releases. Taken together, Endless and Blonde were designed to flood the commercial marketplace in the late summer, and they’ve done so in a way that means — at least for journalists tasked with covering the musical and pop cultural moment — there’s really just too much complex music to digest well in such a compressed time. Both records could gain in their power and resonance as we have a chance to really dig in a bit more; or their flaws may appear more pronounced in the absence of hype and four long years of expectation and anticipation.

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Ann Powers: Though Ocean is often romanticized as a mysterious figure and his music cast as avant-garde, it’s perhaps more informative to think of Blonde as his way of revisiting and, in so doing, recasting the canon of classic rock. He’s been open about the influence of The Beatles, whose “Here, There, and Everywhere” he quotes in the song “White Ferrari,” and The Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson almost enlisted him as a collaborator last year (although Wilson has said that didn’t work out because Ocean “wanted to do rap”). Wilson’s influence is strong throughout Blonde, ringing through its lyrical melodies and ornate yet cleanly constructed arrangements. There’s also something very Brian about the way Ocean always seems to stand alone within his compositions, even though his list of collaborators numbers in the dozens. Frequently dwelling over states of dislocation and loneliness, Ocean’s songs touch a nerve similar to those that The Beach Boys’ sad auteur captured. When Wilson, as an adult, was making Smile, he called his grandiose, innocent-sounding songs “a teenage symphony to God.” Parts of Blonde are more psychedelic than even Wilson’s more far-out efforts, exhibiting less craving for radio airplay. It could be called a teenage symphony to weed.

 

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Frank Ocean’s Blonde, styled on the physical album release as Blond… it’s confusing.

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Yet Ocean’s mind games never stray too far from his grounding in sensuality. This is something he shares with the Beatle I’d bet is his favorite, Paul McCartney, along with a wry sense of humor that shows itself in punny wordplay (boy, does Frank love homonym-ish pairings like “solo” and “so low” or “inhale and “in hell”) and in colorful descriptions of street scenes and shady characters. Something essential in Ocean’s songs celebrates the pleasure of music itself. It feels so good when he lets his voice loose on an arching chorus or croons his way through a well-modulated verse, exhibiting the same kind of tunefulness that got Macca labeled “the cute one.” Ocean’s cute bona fides are reinforced by other reference points: in the essence of Burt Bacharach that infuses his Beyoncé collaboration, “Pink + White,” and the way he pays homage to Stevie Wonder paying homage to the easy-listening, hard-loving Carpenters in his attenuated but striking retake of “Close To You.”

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Wonder is a crucial figure within Ocean’s realm of influence, another African-American emissary between musical genres whose experimentalism was tempered by a killer pop sense. With the inimitable run of joyfully mind-expanding albums that began with 1972’s Music of My Mind, Wonder toppled the racist hierarchies that placed the efforts of white musicians like Wilson and The Beatles above those by the African-American “entertainers” whose innovations had, in fact, provided the basis for all of rock. On his last album, Channel Orange, Ocean made the Wonder connections obvious, whereas here they’re more confined as he explores other palettes, including a host of guitar effects inspired by British bands like U2. (Brian Eno, who pioneered the “infinite guitar” sound frequently invoked on Blonde, is listed in the album’s credits, though whether he worked on the recording or was merely sampled is unclear.) But Ocean continues to aim for that spirit of effortless artiness, and of experimentation grounded in pleasure and the pursuit of beauty, at the heart of Wonder’s work.

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Pleasure is one of Ocean’s main preoccupations. One way to listen to Blonde is as an album about sex: from the droll reference to masturbation that begins “Solo,” to the lascivious come-ons of “Self Control” to the blatant descriptions that still come off as romantic in “Skyline To,” Ocean embraces carnality as a treasure, sometimes frustrating because of its elusiveness but always worth pursuing. The frankness Ocean embraces is, of course, a central element of much American popular music and has been since the women who made the blues popular in the early 20th century spoke openly of the power, heat and sorrow in their own hips. In some ways, pop today is more explicit than ever; hip-hop has considerably furthered the artistry of the off-color metaphor, and R&B’s bedroom jams celebrate sexual satisfaction in no uncertain terms. (Rock has actually grown more prudish in recent years, tending toward a sort of chaste earnestness or the high school-level jokes of the Warped Tour.) Ocean connects with those histories in his work. Yet throughout Blonde, he tells stories of sexual connection and disconnection that take on a different character than is often evident in current pop. His very matter-of-factness strips away the posturing that demands sexuality be a public performance and reinstates a believable sense of intimacy. That Ocean’s own sexuality is, as he describes it, “dynamic” — a quality he shares with many millennials and teens, who increasingly reject binary terms to describe both gender and desire — makes Blonde radical, not because he is anywhere near alone, but because he calmly insists that the listener embrace his view of pleasure as unexceptional, healthy, canonical.

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Jason King: Ann, although intimacy and interiority are clearly part of what’s compelling about Frank Ocean in 2016, he’s also defined by a profound exteriority — his trickster-like fondness for showbiz hype. There aren’t that many musicians left in 2016 who can conjure up Event Pop: in the ’80s, Michael Jackson turned every album release into a full-fledged cultural happening; and more recently, entertainers like Beyoncé and Kanye West (and Radiohead, to a lesser degree) have carried the gloved one’s baton with aplomb. Ocean’s palette of tools, like enigma, teasing, misdirection and outright silence, may have ultimately managed to turn Blonde and Endless into cultural phenomena rather than just product.

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Even in the streaming music era, in which increasingly fewer listeners have any real need to digest albums as integral wholes, Ocean remains that rare musician who has never not been an album artist. It’s not just that he clearly knows how to put out albums with maximum fanfare, it’s that he knows how to make art with a capital A, aided and abetted by a tightly-curated VIP list of collaborators on Blonde that includes Andre 3000, Tyler the Creator, Pharrell Williams and Endless’ Jonny Greenwood. Plus, the twisted, lo-fi images of the music video for “Nikes” (directed by Tyrone Lebon) remind us that Ocean’s music can never be fully extracted from the visuals (his lyrics are already themselves cinematic). If Ocean weren’t making music, he’d probably be raking in bucks at an ad agency.

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On Blonde, Ocean continues to make music that’s an artistic distillation of Lexapro-era tristesse; he’s got that in common with failure-obsessed millennial peers, everyone from album collaborator James Blake to Lena Dunham to The Weeknd. And even more than Channel Orange, Blonde — equal parts psychedelic indie rock, post-IDM electronica, post-U2/Coldplay-esque Eno-pop, post-Drake hip-hop, and post-Maxwell drifty soul/R&B —becomes an impressive showcase for Frank Ocean the creative producer. Those experimental, druggy sonics abound, showing up in the fried vocals and pitch-shifting on “Nikes” to the ambient whistles in “Solo” to the Rotary-Connection-like delayed vocals on “Pretty Sweet” to the scraping, backwards effects on “Seigfried.”

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Blonde’s raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling somehow makes me think about Sinead O’Connor, whose 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got was one of the first to seamlessly merge R&B, pop, rock and sampled hip-hop beats, in the context of confessional, warts-and-all lyrics about relationships lost and existential interiority. I’d argue that more than 25 years later, Blonde takes root in the world Sinead made possible: its best songs are troubled relationship tunes that feel like ripped pages in a worn diary, and they’re often dark, moody and dream-like sinister, like the work of David Lynch or Frank Miller. On “Ivy,” Ocean writes breathlessly poetic lyrics: “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me / It started from nothing / I had no chance to prepare / I couldn’t see you coming.” And on tuneful “Solo” he eloquently writes of “A bull and a matador dueling in heaven / It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, inhale, that’s heaven.”

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Blonde also owes some debt to Meshell Ndegeocello, whose underappreciated 2000s albums like Cookie, Comfort Woman and Devil’s Halo directly laid ground for the eccentric fusion of experimental soul, pop, R&B, rock and hip-hop we hear on Blonde. Like Ocean, Ndegeocello is black and queer, and raps and sings, and has always had an interest in alternative imaginings of masculinity in the context of either/or identities (the title of her outré 2007 album The World Has Made Me the Man of Our Dreams says it all). But bassist Meshell is known as a musician’s musician with technical chops, whereas Ocean comes by much of his conventional musicianship externally, via collaborators (when, as Ann mentioned, on “Close to You,” he reworks Stevie Wonder vocoder samples and on “White Ferrari,” as he interpolates The Beatles; on “Seigfried,” where he draws liberally on an Elliot Smith melody).

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You’ve noted that Ocean’s songs come to us as fragments and ideas that challenge the conventions of pop and R&B, and yet he seems to have strayed very far from the tight slickness of songs like “Novocaine” on Nostalgia, Ultra. I’m not sure whether that’s a step forward or backward. Certainly, anyone looking for Frank Ocean the strategic songsmith who once crafted a melodic nugget like “I Miss You” for Queen B might find far too much of Blonde meandering or unhemmed. The challenge for me is less about songwriting, and more about the deliberate lack of groove that comes as a result of Blonde’s neglect of drums or basslines on songs like “Skyline To.” To draw on that car metaphor, I want Blonde’s engine to rev up more often than it does, and I’m occasionally disappointed when it doesn’t.

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Ann Powers: Jason, you address crucial issues that are so often overlooked, especially today, when the symbolic gestures of identity and power that our pop stars enact are mistaken for actual heroism. Ocean has the potential to influence people’s views on love, sex, race and identity, and maybe the most open-hearted elements of Blonde will do so. Or, in the mainstream, he could just be another transient sensation. The helium atmosphere of sudden album releases and other highly engaging pseudo-events makes it hard to know how this album’s impact will translate over time. Like a sullen millennial taking his most important college admissions test, Ocean answered years of hanging in the background with a weekend of high-profile overachieving. Music fans and the media were stunned to attention, as you’ve noted, by fancy graphics and a poem about McDonald’s by Kanye West, confusing streaming options and the lines at those pop-ups. Will we still be listening to Blonde when the fall leaves turn? Only time will reveal its place in pop history. That lineage itself is changing; no longer do artifacts like albums occupy its center.

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When an album does make a noticeable impact today, it’s because a community coalesces around it. That’s what happened with Lemonade, another collection of first-person songs that employed visuals to amplify its meanings and capture a larger audience than it likely would have as a mere musical release. Calling on a history book’s worth of African-American women’s expressive culture, Beyoncé’s very personal (or, at least, strategically confessional) account of a rocky period in a marriage was embraced as a monumental act of making lives visible and audible. “Lemonade is Beyoncé’s intimate look into the multigenerational making and magic of black womanhood,” wrote Zandria F. Robinson in Rolling Stone. The superstar’s ability to connect her “I” with that “we” made not just a hit, but history.

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Ocean does not seem inclined to reach out in this way. His own visual album, as I said in our previous discussion of Endless, felt more like a process-oriented conceptual art piece. And you’re right about the songs on Blonde sparsely containing the elements that usually unite people behind a pop offering — most notably memorable beats. If the people can’t dance, will anyone be part of your revolution?

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Maybe Ocean doesn’t really care. If the most prominent voices besides his own on Blonde indicate anything, it’s that he’s chosen a peer group only marginally interested in cultivating renown. Andre 3000, a legendary rapper who’s repeatedly rejected the spotlight, claims the central cameo. Kendrick Lamar, whose recent success does demonstrate a strong sense of mission connected to fame, is present on one track, but mostly as a sound-effects generator. Ocean also relegates Beyoncé to background status in the last few bars of “Pink + White.” It takes some chutzpah to put the Queen in that position.

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A more telling partnership is the one Ocean shares on “White Ferrari” with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and James Blake, his bros in Auto-Tuned anguish. Beyond the lyrical references to both tripping and getting naked, which are very Frank, the track could have been made by any of those three beloved artistes. Here’s where Ocean lives most comfortably right now, it seems: in the middle ground between high art and the arena, where a sympathetic audience will be patient with his musical wandering and lyrical obfuscations.

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Yet Ocean also still pledges fealty to the crew that first nurtured him, the hip-hop iconoclasts of Odd Future. The final track on Blonde is “Futura Free,” a vocally distorted meditation on the tedium of success that concludes with a conversation, recorded long ago, with a couple of Ocean’s old pals from that milieu. (One is his brother, the other, the skateboarder Sage Elsasser.) The voices, just kids’ then, try to put a finger on their ambitions; nobody can really articulate what he wants. “How far is a light year?” someone asks. Ocean muddles this final question in noise. Is he ready to trace how far he’s come? For now, he seems content to just share his view of the ride.

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Jason King: Ocean’s interest in the choreography of interpersonal relationships, and his poetic approach to missed opportunities for connection — people coming together, getting together, drifting apart — is certainly part of the melancholic beauty of his music. He paints erotic desire in complex hues and colors when so many of his musical peers are still using Crayolas.

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We all know that in 2012, Ocean came out of the closet by refuting a cut-and-dry interpretation of his sexuality (and his lyrics), causing a seismic ripple in the default heteronormativity of hip-hop and R&B. In retrospect, he helped spawn the post-closet overground, creating space for the likes of queer, queer-identified and queer-allied artists ranging from Azealia Banks to Sam Smith and, yes, even Macklemore. Ann, as you note, Ocean has always approached sexual preference as fluid and dynamic, and he’s mostly performed being queer more as a casual, implicit reality than some sort of external public achievement.

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“Good Guy” is a sketch of a song that appears to be the only explicit lyrical mention of same gender desire on Blonde. And even still, the narrative is broken in two: the first half is about a failed date at a gay bar, the second half is a conversation between two guys complaining about “not having b****** no more.” Other songs (like “Self Control,” “Ivy” and “Nights”) and sections of songs that deal with troubled love affairs specify no clear gender; they could go either way. Perhaps much of the album is about failed same-sex love; perhaps it is not. (We also don’t really know yet to whom or what “Seigfried” refers). Other songs like “Nikes” make very specific reference to women (“these b****** want Nikes / they looking for a check”). While the promotion of sexual fluidity is rooted in allowing people to define sexuality away from conventions and binaries — though increasing research is demonstrating that sexuality is not quite as fluid a spectrum as Kinsey once argued — Ocean’s circumscribed discussions of explicit same sex desire could be frustrating, rather than liberating, for many within and outside of LGBTQ communities.

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In this light, Ann, Ocean’s car motifs continue to fascinate, but I can’t help also think that they are his main performative connection to a highly conventional symbol of machismo (which he, to his credit, acknowledges in his magazine when he says it might be linked to a “deep, subconscious straight boy fantasy”). This is to say nothing of his continued evocation of drug-use, his lyrical use of invectives like “n****” and “b******” and not-uncommon mention of the word “p****” — all of which cosmologically connects him more closely to the PMRC sticker hip-hop tradition than to a sensual, retro R&B one.

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I’ve written before that one of the reasons Ocean found widespread acceptance where other queer R&B and pop artists have failed — beyond his evocation of rock tropes like the guitar and his tales of straight women in strip clubs — is because there’s a total absence of camp in his work. Moreover, in a song like “Nikes,” he shouts-out felled influences like A$AP Yams and Pimp C (rest in peace) and even Trayvon Martin — but there’s no similar mention of slain LGB and trans folk (his emotional outpouring on Tumblr following the Orlando mass shooting doesn’t explicitly show up in his Blonde lyrics). I say this not to police what Frank Ocean can or should say, nor how he should say it — only to mention there is a long venerable tradition where queer artists (in or out of the closet) engage in pre-emptive heteronormativity in the effort to avoid stigma and to fully crossover to straight audiences. It would be terribly tragic if Ocean’s minimal attention to these matters in his lyrics happened to follow suit in that tradition.

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I’ve recently been considering the idea that Napster helped create the reluctant pop star: so many musicians after 1999, in the absence of traditional record sales, found other ways to earn or bolster incomes, and found more stable lives to live. You see the evolution of the reluctant pop star today in the form of actor Donald Glover or golfer Justin Timberlake, where pop stardom is something you do on the side while you’re doing everything else. You also see it in the form of Sia or Zayn, where being a pop star (beyond making pop music) is simply a burden to be dealt with, or a way of life that you shuttle off to the corner, like the act of moving a mound of wasabi away from your sushi.

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Ocean seems to me the epitome of this millenia’s reluctant pop star — he’s a shrinking violet who went mostly invisible for the last four years; he rarely shows up to public events; and while he obviously knows how to write a solid radio-friendly pop song, he’s become largely absorbed by other aesthetic pursuits. But the concept of the reluctant pop star has also merged into the concept of the silent pop star — that reclusive artist who rarely, if ever, does interviews, has highly controlled outgoing communications and practices withholding information from the public and press as a matter of course. Caginess and silence also happen to be the strategies of those of who know, or have known, something about living in closets.

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In that sense, it’s a bit of letdown that other than that off-the-cuff mention of Trayvon Martin in “Nikes” (“RIP Trayvon, that n**** look just like me”), nothing on Blonde speaks explicitly to the #blacklivesmatter movement (though one could generously look the album as a whole as impressionistically arguing for the importance of black life). Nothing on Blonde addresses the extreme crisis that is happening right now in black LGBT communities where the CDC has found that one out of every two black men who has sex with men is projected to become infected with HIV. This crisis is not just limited to the U.S.: it connects with the devastating criminalization of homosexuality in African nations like Nigeria and Uganda and European countries like Russia, and to the unacceptable persecution and brutalization of LGBT communities by terrorist groups like ISIS.

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To be clear, I’m not making an argument that Ocean doesn’t think about such things or that his heart doesn’t bleed like everyone else’s. It’s also perfectly OK to not be a spokesperson or a role model or an activist, especially as pop and politics do not always make comfortable bedfellows. It’s OK, and even progressive in some ways, to pursue a more sophisticated vision/version of what it means to be “out” than the rigid binary model currently embraced by global pride movements. And yet, given that he’s released an album that’s so raw, stripped-down and intimate, and believing as of course I do that Frank Ocean does indeed cry over the real time, existential threats that surely inform his everyday life as a not-completely-straight black American man making mainstream pop music given his considerable platform in 2016, I have to ask where, years after hauntingly evocative tracks like “Bad Religion,” is his will and courage — and maybe even his skill — to bring those life-and-death, topical concerns into his recordings? Or does his crossover super-ambition — as James Baldwin might put it, the price of the ticket — make the act of doing so simply out of his reach?

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A Critical Conversation About Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’ Video Album

AUDIO: http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/08/19/490632472/a-critical-conversation-about-frank-oceans-endless-video-album
A still from Frank Ocean's Endless visual album.
A still from Frank Ocean’s Endless visual album. Apple Music

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Jason King: Discombobulation — to be confused, or upset, or disconcerted, or pained, or to feel like you’ve come apart, that you’re all over the place — is the word that randomly popped into my mind this morning. Feeling discombobulated is the way many of us live these days, given the crushing weight that our overdeveloped media and war industrial complexes seem to impose upon us; living in the era of Trump swagger and Syrian warfare and Ryan Lochte falsehoods and music you want to hear but can’t because it’s locked behind a streaming-service paywall feels jarring more often than not. In some ways, discombobulation has become the new normal; even the randomness of feeling out of sorts can work like perfect serendipity, if you look at it from another perspective.

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Discombobulation is also a word that suits the unconventional, messy rollout of two of this year’s most highly influential albums: Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Rihanna’s Anti. We can now add Frank Ocean’s to the list of pop releases surrounded by misinformation and controlled by someone disinterested in getting with the program. Since going largely off-the-radar after his watershed 2012 studio debut Channel Orange, and teasing fans in the interim with numerous false starts and canceled deadlines, Ocean’s new project, called Endless, finally dropped today. What’s frustrating is that we haven’t been given enough information to know if Endless is just a teaser for a more pop-oriented album that’s rumored to be coming or if this is it. Indeed, Endless provokes a crisis of legibility — how to effectively read its value and meaning given the deliberate withholding of information that would help contextualize it. But context may be overrated these days.

 

Endless is billed as a visual album, meaning there are 18 tracks you listen to as you watch a 45-minute video (directed, executive produced and creatively directed by Ocean himself) in which the singer engages in some sort of unexplained power-tools construction project. If I were feeling especially generous I’d say the black-and-white video is wonderfully Warhol-esque in its pursuit of anti-narrative, but I can’t help think that it’s really painfully slow, visually inert and much less stimulating than Beyoncé’s highly considered Lemonade. Far more compelling is Frank Ocean’s new music itself, featuring buzzy-hip collaborators like Jazmine Sullivan, Sampha and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. The music and sonics of Endless are hydra-like, featuring a surfeit of creative ideas: The whole affair can be dark, moody, drifty, ambient, textured, druggy, somnambulant, melancholic, Eno-ghostly, synthy and depressive. It can be melodically rich, even if its lethargic sameness can sometimes be snoozy.

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But the ADD way that Endless’ songs and interludes change, move, shift and blend and bleed into each other, as Frank himself moves between languorous singing and draggy rapping, makes the hyperactive scrawl aesthetic Dev Hynes / Blood Orange recently explored on this year’s Freetown Sound album seem comparatively straight ahead and conventional. Standout lyrics like “How come the ecstasy always depresses me?” on Arca-assisted interlude “Mine” and Ocean’s ranty, freestyle-type delivery on “U-N-I-T-Y” are among the album’s most artistically impressive moments.

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Still, after the first few listens, I’m not particularly sure what Endless adds up to or if it’s even supposed to gel at all. It’s like having only one corner section of a jigsaw puzzle — it just so happens to be a musically gorgeous one. Keeping fans in the dark and teasing them only with eccentric, confounding parts of a larger whole is certainly one way to hijack their short-span attention. And if it’s too early for my definitive critique of a 45-minute audio-visual project that probably needs more time to wash over me, props to Frank Ocean for releasing the most bizarre and artsy example of corporate-event pop ever. We all know that Ocean has collaborated with Apple as exclusive distributor of the album (at least for now), and it’s more than a bit strange that he chooses to close the album with “Device Control,” a Euro-disco-esque track featuring Wolfgang Tillmans chatting about a range of smartphones including ones made by Apple, Sony and Samsung. Given that it’s the last track, the idea of Frank giving so much shine to Apple’s competitors on an Apple-distributed project is either a curious F-you to the hand that’s just fed him, or it’s one blithely WTF moment in an album that seems to be full of them. So double props to Frank for introducing a potentially discombobulating, disruptive moment to the usually unassailable Apple.

Ann, I’d be curious to know your initial impressions of the album.

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Ann Powers:

Jason,

Last night, when Frank Ocean’s livestream workshop came back to life after sitting dormant for two weeks and it became clear he was building a stairway to sudden-release heaven, I sat listening to the muffled music coming from his speakers in the background and started to think about other staircases: ones that lead nowhere, like those in the Winchester Mystery House, a famous haunted California manse where carpenters worked around the clock to stave off the demons of its mistress. That house has doors that open to walls, weird turrets and twisted hallways, and a Séance Room that only those who understand its mazes can reach. Endless is the sonic equivalent of that structure. Even after several listens to the actual album, I feel like this music is still being constructed. Ocean welds these tracks together in spiral patterns; the video asks us to observe this process of creation, to slow down and ponder how this carpenter builds along the lines of his story pole. As someone with a 2016-appropriate short attention span, I have always found such process-oriented music somewhat difficult to absorb. But I welcome Ocean’s challenge that we do so.

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Endless does fit in with the year’s other “discombobulated” releases, especially Rihanna’s, which has a similarly labyrinthine structure and depressive ambiance. The associations it immediately brings to mind, however, come from the art world. Ocean made his aspirations toward gallery life explicit by enlisting sculptor Tom Sachs as a collaborator, recreating his Jamaican-style sound system simulacrum and getting his advice on those stairs. Making his fans live with that off-and-on live stream, where he only tinkered for so long, did both challenge the norms of corporate product and make gentle fun of Apple’s own irritating roll-out delays (come on, I really need a new Macbook Pro). But it also was part of the longstanding tradition of endurance-oriented performance art, which stretches back at least to the days when The Velvet Underground performed as part of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

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Hip-hop has always been intertwined with the gallery scene, from graffiti genius Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1980s heyday to Kehinde Wiley’s current streetwise classical portraiture. Both Kanye West and Jay Z have extended this connection in recent performances: West has worked extensively with Vanessa Beecroft, known for her discomfiting use of live mannequins who must stay silent for long periods of time; Jay Z formed a brief, controversial partnership with Marina Abramović, who sat for nearly a month in MoMA’s Atrium, welcoming silent interlocutors. In the rock world, PJ Harvey did something similar when she recorded her last album inside a glass studio in London’s Somerset House. Waiting for Ocean to do something, anything with his power tools also made me think about the time-stretching magic of Christian Marclay’s work, which is aesthetically and formally enmeshed with punk and art rock: the rough textures of Endless as heard in that first live-stream made me think of his film Guitar Drag, which, like much of this new release, confronts the tensions of a violent, racist world by releasing some noise into it. There’s no getting past it — Ocean is super-arty. Releasing Endless before his hotly anticipated, “official” new album, Boys Don’t Cry, tells us something about where he feels at home as a creator.

 

He also clearly wants to connect with an eclectic library of classic recordings. Many of the songs on Endless are very personal, with lyrics about Ocean’s family troubles (“Alabama” is poignant and angry), his chemical proclivities (alcohol, ecstasy, insomnia), and his sex life (“He came up in Dallas / He had no hazel in his eyes / Had them sailors on his thighs,” from the sexplicit “Commes Des Garcons,” is a line Jean Genet would have recognized). But it’s also essentially, slyly referential. Tom Sachs is known for jerry-rigging versions of other people’s masterpieces, using duct tape and foamcore to comment on the ersatz nature of creativity. Ocean does something like that throughout Endless. As I listen, I hear so many ghosts of other gnomic masterworks and the artists who made them. He name-checks the Fugees at one point, and offers a homonym of The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer at another, when he sings, as if from inside a wave, “I know you’re in there somewhere.” Production-wise, he and his collaborators are deeply indebted to Lee “Scratch” Perry and the experimental reggae of the great On-U Sound crew; I’d argue that his version of the Isley Brothers ballad “At Your Best You Are Love” is more evocative of the Caribbean than of standard quiet-storm R&B. The simmering thickness of these tracks, the way they veer from druggily rhythmic to diffuse — not to mention Ocean’s self-tortured grapplings with success in songs like the moving lament, “Rushes To” — also makes me think about Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, another album deeply reflective of the dark political moment in which it was produced.

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From this sawdust-covered pile of reference points, Ocean constructs his own meanings, grounded in an artistic identity that probably couldn’t have sustained itself in earlier pop moments. His frankness about erotically fluid desire harkens back to the urban night wanderings of Lou Reed and the poetic challenges of Essex Hemphill. Has Ocean read Hemphill’s profanely gorgeous “American Wedding,” or spent time with Reed’s odes to abjection on Berlin? I don’t know, but those sources that never mingled in the past all seem to run through him. Ocean does strike me as an artist who absorbs source material eagerly, always adding more to the process he so openly shares. (And yes, I think of Kurt Cobain, too, of the hidden Nevermind track “Endless, Nameless,” which announced the Seattle rock savior’s refusal to conform to anyone’s commercial hopes.) If Endless is merely the precursor to the larger reveal of Ocean’s intentions and realizations that Boys Don’t Cry will offer, it’s still a work with plenty of currents that draw me in. I’ll see you at the top of that never-ending staircase.

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YES IT IS:
BE
aUtyBeaUtifulbeaUtiFULBEAUTIFULbeaUtiFULLY

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MercyMercyMercy_#8_2008_np_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BMERCYMERCYMERCY #8                                      Catherine L. Johnson  2008

 

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MERCYMERCYMERCY_#7_ 2008_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BMERCYMERCYMERCY #7                                                           Catherine L. Johnson 2008

 

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SOUL and BODY + FULL MOON + NEW eMOTION + 3 am

https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/soul-and-body-full-moon-new-emotion-3-am/

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABODY&SOUL (re/VERSE)                                              Catherine L. Johnson  2011

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PLEASE CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE

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VERDEBLACK

#1/ #2/ #3 / #4/ #5/ #6/ #7/ #8

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Please click for further information:

http://www.mnartists.org/artwork/verdeblack-1-2-3-4

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The VERDEBLACK works resonated with 
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spectrograms of bird songs:
graphs that show you the frequency, or pitch,
 of a sound, 
its loudness, and how these change
over the course of the sound; 

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electrocardiograms of the heart: 
recordings of the electrical activity of the heart
 over a period of time 

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polygraphs of a lie detector tests: 
recording the person’s breathing rate,
the person’s pulse, 
the person’s blood pressure
 and
the person’s perspiration. 

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The VERDEBLACK  series
is driven by the energy of regeneration;
 rebirth;
 lush wilderness;
glorious gardens
 and
fertility
signified in the color green.

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The black is the rich black color,
the nutritious black, of topsoil.
The single black line visually “tilts” each piece
and
“plays” with the dimensions of the background.

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Green has great healing power.
It is the most restful color for the human eye;
it can improve vision.

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Green suggests stability and endurance.

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Green is said to be the favorite color of Prophet Muhammad.
The Islamic prophet is said to have worn a green cloak and turban,
and his writings are full of references to the color. 
A passage from the Quran describes paradise as a place
where people “will wear green garments of fine silk.”

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Black is associated with power; 
elegance; formality and mystery.

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Black denotes strength and authority;
it is considered to be a very formal, elegant, and prestigious color.

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In heraldry, black is the symbol of grief.

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Black was one of the first colors used by artists
in neolithic cave paintings.

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PLEASE CLICK ON EACH IMAGE TO ENLARGE

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VERDEBLACK_#1_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BVERDEBLACK #1                                                                   Catherine L. Johnson  2016

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VERDEBLACK_#2_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BVERDEBLACK #2                                                                        Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#3_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BVERDEBLACK #3                                                                         Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#4_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_BVERDEBLACK #4                                                                         Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#5_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_AVERDEBLACK #5                                                                 Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#6_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_AVERDEBLACK #6                                                                    Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#7_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_AVERDEBLACK #7                                                                      Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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VERDEBLACK_#8_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON_AVERDEBLACK #8                                                                   Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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CALL + RESPONSE.

BREATHING.

LISTENING.

BLOOMING.

LOVING.

NATURE.

A/LIVE.

BLESSINGS FLOW…

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VERDEBLACK_PHOTO_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSON
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The VERDEBLACK series is dedicated to my BGB,
my O- sister, a soul friend since
we were TEN years old! 

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Our friendship has a remarkable soul,
and is a testament and the blessed gift
of an enduring/dynamic/evolving friendship.
I am describing my cherished friend – the unique,
sparkling jewel; irreplaceable Sher.

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Our friendship is an immeasurable,
sacred garden of all seasons
– ever blooming and an awakening of blessings and love.

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Her most favored color is green, of course…

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THE BLESSINGS OF A TREASURED FRIENDSHIP:

“I HEAR THE BLOOM WITHIN THE SEED”

We “SEE” each other.

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https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/9d/f0/f8/9df0f8774de8a126b693a139c7a0c246.jpg

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https://i0.wp.com/data.whicdn.com/images/60379882/large.gif

https://secure.static.tumblr.com/794e1e17d7eb2d6ab30a47e92c58fc2a/zt3xsze/gGMo5ucvx/tumblr_static_tumblr_static_8b7pptu1o0w084k0soskk8osc_640.gif

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HALCYON DAYS

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The writings: “HERHYMNS: BE BRAVE Lullaby” +
“I /ThoU” poem – a lullaby for a lover +
CATHERINE L. JOHNSON / INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTIST
+ “HUMANLY POSSIBLE: THE EMPATHY EXHIBITION
@ INSTINCT Art Gallery / MPLS
21 November 2015 – 16 January 2016
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/the-writings-herhymns-be-brave-lullaby-i-thou-poem-a-lullaby-for-a-lover-catherine-l-johnson-interdisciplinary-artist-humanly-possible-the-empathy-exhibition-instinct-art/

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KATHERINEANNEOMLIELUTJENS_70_17JULY2016_CUTOUT_8x10_AFor my sister’s SEVEN/Oh!  17 July 2016                                     Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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THE CARLSON’S SUITES

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IMPROVISATIONAL

CALL + RESPONSE – LIKE LIVING LIFE
FROM START TO FINISH – CALL + RESPONSE

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https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/yaay-get-your-dance-out-the-carlsons-suites-matisses-late-work-scandinavian-international-design-marimekko-improvisational-music/

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https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/get-your-dance-out-the-carlsons-suites-matisses-late-work-scandinavian-international-design-marimekko-improvisational-music/

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https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/start-1-total-improvisational-exercises-in-color-shape-and-composition-catherine-l-johnson/

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PLEASE CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

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THE HALL OF LAMENT: STAND YOUR GROUND FOR TRAYVON MARTIN; Catherine L. Johnson;

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THE HALL OF LAMENT:

STAND YOUR GROUND FOR TRAYVON MARTIN

2013 

MULTI-MEDIA INSTALLATION   CATHERINE L. JOHNSON
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/hall-of-lament-stand-your-ground-for-trayvon-martin-call-out-for-social-justice-moral-couragetruth-2012-st-paul-spring-art-crawl/

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ISAIAH ( 6 PANELS) 2013 SPRING ST. PAUL ART CRAWL CATHERINELJOHNSON; CATHERINE L. JOHNSON;ISAIAH ( 6 panels + headphones with sonics that dropped from ceiling) 2013

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ISAIAH  2013

MULTI-MEDIA INSTALLATION  CATHERINE L. JOHNSON
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/isaiah-and-first-light-night-multimedia-installation-catherine-l-johnson-dan-choma-spring-2013-st-paul-art-crawl/

 

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HUMANITY SERIES : FRESHDRIEDBLOODIAMHUMAN_CATHERINE L.JOHNSON 2013; CATHERINE L. JOHNSON;FRESHDRIEDBLOODIAMHUMAN                                             Catherine L. Johnson 2012

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WHITEWASH/ LIARSBELIEVEONLYTHEIRTRUTH CATHERINE L JOHNSON 2013; CATHERINE L. JOHNSON;  WHITEWASH/LIARSONLYBELIEVETHEIRTRUTH     CATHERINE L. JOHNSON 2013

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WAHTCOLOROFSKINDOYOUWEAR CATHERINE L. JOHNSON 2013;Catherine L. Johnson; WHATCOLOROFSKINDOYOUFEAR                   CATHERINE L. JOHNSON 2013

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XTHE HUMANITY PORTFOLIO 2013  

https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2013/07/26/the-humanity-portfolio-2013-catherine-l-johnson-humanity-blood-is-red-is-blood-red/
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/fifteen-paintings-28-august-2013-the-humanity-portfolio-28-august-2013-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-march-on-washington-for-freedom-jobs-rev-dr-martin-luther-kings-i-have-a-dream-s/

 

 

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ICANFEEL_I_2015_CATHERINELJOHNSON_DICANFEEL I                                                                  CATHERINE L. JOHNSON   2015

 

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ICANFEEL_II_2015_CATHERINELJOHNSON_C   ICANFEEL II                                                                           Catherine L. Johnson 2015

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MAS/SACRE @ MOTHER EMANUEL 2015

ICANFEEL SERIES  2015  WAS CREATED IN RESPONSE FOR THE MAS/SACRED.
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/icanfeel-summer-2015-catherine-l-johnson/
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/icanfeel-your-wings-2015-icanfeel-your-skin-2015-icanfeel-your-soul-2015-tripych-catherine-l-johnson-artist/

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A

Cri de Coeur

From Jazz Musicians

in a

Black Lives Matter

Age

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The composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island on Friday.
Credit Ian Douglas for The New York Times

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The emotional climax of Terence Blanchard’s SummerStage concert on Friday night, at Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island, arrived precisely one hour in, like a timed detonation. It was the title track of his most recent album, “Breathless” — an elegy for Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police officers on Staten Island just over two years ago. Mr. Blanchard, in his trumpet solo over the plaintive theme, struck a careful tonal balance, sounding haunted but unflinching.

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Mr. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry soon after his death, which was caught on video and viewed by millions. The phrase served a blunt, potent role at protests and on social media, bolstering the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been printed on T-shirts, signs and buttons, like the one worn on Friday by Mr. Garner’s 2-year-old daughter, Legacy, as she distractedly took in Mr. Blanchard’s performance near the foot of the stage.

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The saying also surfaced, pluralized, in Breathless,” via a recorded spoken-word recitation by Mr. Blanchard’s son, who goes by JRei Oliver. “Am I wrong for believing that one day black and blue would not equal pain?” he said. Then, a moment later:

These black roses grow from cracked pavements
Freshly watered with the tears of the voiceless
As we’ll emit a muted scream to the heavens:
We. Can’t. Breathe.

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During a long, hard season of activist urgency in black popular music — among artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and now Beyoncé — jazz has by no means lagged behind. Mr. Blanchard’s album, released on Blue Note last year, is just one recent statement of many, driven by indignation, the push for justice and the urge to bear witness.

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Of course, there’s deep lineage for this in jazz, stretching even further than Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” which inspired a crucial early passage in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Any discussion of this topic would have to include Billie Holiday’s bloodcurdling lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit” (1939); Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” (1959), about the fight for school integration; Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” (1960), a civil rights cri de coeur; and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (1963), a lament made in response to the notorious church bombing in Birmingham.

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The current upswell has been built on this granite foundation: Jazz musicians are nothing if not self-conscious about their forebears. But the dimensions of today’s moment have also shaped the music. When the pianist Vijay Iyer began a 2014 performance in Brooklyn with a “die-in,” dancers lying on the stage, he was bringing Black Lives Matter into the concert hall. When the keyboardist Kris Bowers performed his song “#TheProtestor” in Harlem two years ago, it featured a bracing topical digression by the vocalist Chris Turner.

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The drummer Max Roach and the singer Abbey Lincoln
collaborated on “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” (1960), a civil rights cri de coeur.
Credit Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

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Last year another singer, José James, released an album in centennial tribute to Holiday, inevitably closing with “Strange Fruit.” He sings it as an a cappella dirge, with a looping, multitracked moan. It flew mostly under the radar, but Mr. James also collaborated around the same time with the artist Talia Billig for “Peace Power Change,” a video set to his acoustic cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

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The pianist Vijay Iyer began a 2014 performance with a “die-in,” in which dancers lay on the stage,
thus bringing Black Lives Matter into the concert hall.
Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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Part of the power of that song, in its original context, was a yearning faith in the great sweep of history. “Peace Power Change” embraces a more intimate premise: A succession of musicians look into the camera, serious or smiling, and hold up handwritten signs bearing the names of victims of police violence, or “#blacklivesmatter,” or simply “Justice.”

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One of the artists in the video is Keyon Harrold, a trumpeter born and raised in Ferguson, Mo., where the most wrenching confrontations between protesters and the police have taken place. Mr. Harrold tells his story in brief on one track of “Nihil Novi,” a new album by the multireedist Marcus Strickland; he begins by stating his name, as in a testimony.

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The singer José James has covered Billie Holiday’s haunting anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,”
and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

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Names are central to this era of jazz protest, partly because of the influence of social media: When another African-American falls victim to violence by the state, his or her name becomes a hashtag, a trending topic, a tragic new meme. It’s a bulwark against the dehumanizing mode of the opposition, and a way of keeping injustice from glazing into an abstraction. The trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire grasped this idea when he put “My Name Is Oscar” on his major-label debut five years ago. The track features a spoken-word poem read by Mr. Akinmusire in the voice of Oscar Grant III, who was shot and killed by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif. (and later inspired the film “Fruitvale Station”). In 2014, Mr. Akinmusire released a more chilling and expansive follow-up, “Roll Call for Those Absent,” consisting of the names of casualties sounded out by a child, over a darkly unsettled synthesizer hum.
https://youtu.be/wGFaNHrvY7ohttps://youtu.be/Zw6H-7VZgcE

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Ambrose Akinmusire paid tribute to Oscar Grant III on his major-label debut album, “My Name Is Oscar.”
Credit Eva Hambach/Agence France-Press — Getty Images

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You can find more outright fury elsewhere, as in “K.K.P.D.” (for “Ku Klux Police Department”), a 2010 track by the trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, which he performed recently the Newport Jazz Festival. Mr. James could be seen at the same festival covering the outspoken hip-hop group Dead Prez, segueing from “Police State” into “Behind Enemy Lines.”

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Mr. Blanchard, who has long been the composer of Spike Lee’s film scores (including “Chi-Raq” and “Malcolm X”), has a more mournful disposition. Even when he has mobilized behind his social statement, his natural mode is reflection: The most telling word in his 2007 album “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” inspired by events that literally hit home, is “requiem.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/12/arts/music/12chin.html

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On Staten Island he led his fusionesque young band, the E-Collective, in a set that often bounded toward turbocharged dynamism, with tragedy seemingly far from the picture. But near the concert’s close, after he delivered his most pugilistic trumpet solo on a tune called “Cosmic Warrior,” to cheers and applause from a crowd with an obvious stake in the moment,

Mr. Blanchard leaned into the microphone with a message.

We hope

we are a small part

of the healing process,”

he said.

“Love triumphs

over hate,

every time.”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABODY & SOUL                                                                     Catherine L. Johnson  2011       

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TOUCHSTONE

OF WHAT IS PURE GOLD OR SILVER

AND/OR WHAT IS  COUNTERFEIT – FAKE/ TINSEL.

noun

1.
a test or criterion for the qualities of a thing.
2.
a black siliceous stone formerly used to test the purity of gold and silver
by the color of the streak produced on it by rubbing it with either metal.

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SundayReview | News Analysis

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Do Your Friends

Actually

Like You?

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/do-your-friends-actually-like-you.html?emc=edit_th_20160807&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=49110186&_r=0

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THINK of all the people with whom you interact during the course of a day, week, month and year. The many souls with whom you might exchange a greeting or give a warm embrace; engage in chitchat or have a deeper conversation. All those who, by some accident of fate, inhabit your world. And then ask yourself who among them are your friends — your true friends. Recent research indicates that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual. That is, someone you think is your friend might not be so keen on you. Or, vice versa, as when someone you feel you hardly know claims you as a bestie.

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It’s a startling finding that has prompted much discussion among psychologists, neuroscientists, organizational behavior experts, sociologists and philosophers. Some blame human beings’ basic optimism, if not egocentrism, for the disconnect between perceived and actual friendships. Others point to a misunderstanding of the very notion of friendship in an age when “friend” is used as a verb, and social inclusion and exclusion are as easy as a swipe or a tap on a smartphone screen. It’s a concern because the authenticity of one’s relationships has an enormous impact on one’s health and well-being.

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“People don’t like to hear that the people they think of as friends don’t name them as friends,” said Alex Pentland, a computational social science researcher at M.I.T. and co-author of a recent study published in the journal PLOS One titled “Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change.”

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The study analyzed friendship ties among 84 subjects (ages 23 to 38) in a business management class by asking them to rank one another on a five-point continuum of closeness from “I don’t know this person” to “One of my best friends.” The feelings were mutual 53 percent of the time while the expectation of reciprocity was pegged at 94 percent. This is consistent with data from several other friendship studies conducted over the past decade, encompassing more than 92,000 subjects, in which the reciprocity rates ranged from 34 percent to 53 percent.

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Mr. Pentland said it could be that “the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.” But the problem may have more to do with confusion over what friendship is. Ask people to define friendship — even researchers like Mr. Pentland who study it — and you’ll get an uncomfortable silence followed by “er” or “um.”

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“Friendship is difficult to describe,” said Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, who in his latest book, “On Friendship,” spends almost 300 pages trying to do just that. “It’s easier to say what friendship is not and, foremost, it is not instrumental.”

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It is not a means to obtain higher status, wangle an invitation to someone’s vacation home or simply escape your own boredom. Rather, Mr. Nehamas said, friendship is more like beauty or art, which kindles something deep within us and is “appreciated for its own sake.”

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Yet one of the most recognized treatises on friendship is Dale Carnegie’s decidedly instrumental “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Pop stars like Taylor Swift and Drake are admired for their strategic, if not propagandist, friendships. And, of course, social media sites are platforms for showcasing friendships to enhance personal image.

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“Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship,” said Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship. “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”

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He recalled the many hours he spent in engrossing conversation with his friend Eudora Welty, who was known not only for her Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction but also for her capacity for friendship. Together they edited “The Norton Book of Friendship,” an anthology of works on the topic. “The notion of doing nothing but spending time in each other’s company has, in a way, become a lost art,” replaced by volleys of texts and tweets, Mr. Sharp said. “People are so eager to maximize efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend.”

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By his definition, friends are people you take the time to understand and allow to understand you.

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Because time is limited, so, too, is the number of friends you can have, according to the work of the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily. The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren’t friends.

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“There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship,” Mr. Dunbar said. “People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships.”

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Such boasting implies they have soul mates to spare in a culture where we are taught that leaning on someone is a sign of weakness and power is not letting others affect you. But friendship requires the vulnerability of caring as well as revealing things about yourself that don’t match the polished image in your Facebook profile or Instagram feed, said Mr. Nehamas at Princeton. Trusting that your bond will continue, and might even be strengthened, despite your shortcomings and inevitable misfortunes, he said, is a risk many aren’t willing to take.

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According to medical experts, playing it safe by engaging in shallow, unfulfilling or nonreciprocal relationships has physical repercussions. Not only do the resulting feelings of loneliness and isolation increase the risk of death as much as smoking, alcoholism and obesity; you may also lose tone, or function, in the so-called smart vagus nerve, which brain researchers think allows us to be in intimate, supportive and reciprocal relationships in the first place.

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“It’s huge to have good vagal tone, because it modulates our instinctive fight, flight or freeze response,” said Amy Banks, a psychiatrist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who specializes in the growing field of interpersonal neurobiology and is the author of “Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships.”

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In the presence of a true friend, Dr. Banks said, the smart or modulating aspect of the vagus nerve is what makes us feel at ease rather than on guard as when we are with a stranger or someone judgmental. It’s what enables us to feel O.K. about exposing the soft underbelly of our psyche and helps us stay engaged and present in times of conflict. Lacking authentic friendships, the smart vagus nerve is not exercised. It loses tone and one’s anxiety remains high, making abiding, deep connections difficult.

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So it’s worth identifying who among the many people you encounter in your life are truly friends. Who makes time for you? Whose company enlivens, enriches and maybe even humbles you? Whom would you miss? Who would miss you? While there is no easy or agreed upon definition, what friendships have in common is that they shape us and create other dimensions through which to see the world. This can be for better or worse depending on whom we choose as friends.

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As the saying goes,

“Show me your friends

and

I will show you

who you are.”

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Call_and_ Response_ Frequency-and-Resonance_2008_CATHERINELJOHNSON_VISUAL_I_ThoU_poem_2011CALL + RESPONSE                                                              Catherine L. Johnson  2004

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https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/call-and-response-frequency-and-resonance/
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/the-truth-of-me-is-in-your-wing-of-motion-moving-forward/
https://catherineljohnson.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/the-writings-herhymns-be-brave-lullaby-i-thou-poem-a-lullaby-for-a-lover-catherine-l-johnson-interdisciplinary-artist-humanly-possible-the-empathy-exhibition-instinct-art/

TAKEFIERCEFIRE

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Please click for further information:

http://www.mnartists.org/artwork/takefiercefire-1-8

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The TAKEFIERCEFIRE works resonated with 
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spectrograms of bird songs:
graphs that show you the frequency, or pitch,
 of a sound, 
its loudness, and how these change
over the course of the sound; 

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electrocardiograms of the heart: 
recordings of the electrical activity of the heart
 over a period of time 

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polygraphs of a lie detector tests: 
recording the person’s breathing rate,
the person’s pulse, 
the person’s blood pressure
 and
the person’s perspiration. 

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The TAKEFIERCEFIRE  #1 – #8 series
is driven by the same energy of desire,
a blazing wildfire,
and
the accelerated breath, the pulse
of
rage’s fury and/or the arousal of sexual ecstasy.

 

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PLEASE CLICK ON EACH IMAGE TO ENLARGE

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#1_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #1                                                                   Catherine L. Johnson  2016

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#2_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #2                                                          Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#3_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #3                                                             Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#4_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #4                                                            Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#5_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #5                                                           Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#6_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #6                                                            Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#7_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #7                                                              Catherine L. Johnson 2016

 

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TAKEFIERCEFIRE_#8_2016_CATHERINELJOHNSONTAKEFIERCEFIRE #8                                                       Catherine L. Johnson 2016

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CALL + RESPONSE.

BREATHING.

LISTENING.

FIERCE.

HEART BEAT.

NATURE.

SENSORY/ SENSUOUS.

A/LIVE.

FIRE.

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LIGHT MY FIRE

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