Decompression | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

How do I begin to write about Decompression? That very problem has been probleming me for almost two weeks. I like to think of it as trying to fit a balloon into a thimble. I was there, but I am one person, and so, unavoidably, I didn’t really see that much. Think of it as trying to fit a blimp into a thimble. See the difficulty? Alright, enough analogies.

Decompression is an annual event put on by the participants of Burning Man who reside in New York City. It began in 2001 as a somewhat casual party in a loft in Dumbo. One attendee, “claims to have cried after the 2001 Decompression because it was so amazing.” From these humble beginnings Decompression grew, suffered many legal troubles, and was held at a variety of places including the Queens Museum of Art, and most recently at Aviator Sports (a sports complex housed inside two airplane hangars).

Decompression is a smorgasbord of various art installations, performance art, and music, all having varying degrees of interactivity. The participants (every attendee is encouraged to add to the event in some way) are generally dressed in resplendent costumes reminiscent of a Dali painting (and that’s a quite narrow interpretation). The whole atmosphere attempts to convey the ethos of Burning Man, which translates to some sort of transition out of normal functioning and into an entirely different mindset (what that might be is not the subject of this article, but it is incredibly enticing). In short, the event is aptly named. Decompression is a playground for adults, in the least derogatory and most rapturous manner.

I’ve never been to an event such as this, but according to hearsay, this Decompression was relatively lackluster. It rained through about half of it, and there was a football game going on immediately outside the premises (11pm in the rain made it all the more bizarre). There were, for the early hours, a motley collection of hamburger-eaters and sports fans, who were not conducive to artsy weirdoes having a blast. Despite that, I was impressed (literally).

When I walked through the door, I was greeted by a humongous white plastic lotus flower hanging from the ceiling, booming rave music and a couple dozen people hula hooping, roller skating and dancing. The space was divided into three sections (totaling about a football field worth of ground). The other two rooms contained such things as a igloo made from balloons, a giant moving dragon head, various constellations formed out of fluorescent lights, three foot dominoes, and a life sized metal horse on wheels. Various bands performed in various locations, most remarkably a spontaneous and excellent traveling brass band which clashed with the rave multiple times. There were fire jugglers, a Glam Rock band, a Jazz band, Hare Krishnas, and all sort of other things and people which are too numerous to list.

However, the most extraordinary of all, and the one thing that keeps me brimful of fond memories was something so magnificent that it requires its own sentence just to name. There was a pool full rose petals. Yes, there was a pool full of rose petals. I spent at least twenty minutes rolling in rose petals, throwing them at strangers and friends, smelling them, drowning in them, watching them fall, molding them. Ahhhhh!

In conclusion, I wish I’d known about it last year. I wish I’d told more people. I wish it happened more than once a year (or twice, including Burning Man). I wish more people had seen it as more than just a “cool party” (some of those present were clearly uninformed and had bought tickets online with no context). And I wish I’d been able to participate more. I wish normal life wasn’t as drab in comparison. Despite these setbacks and complications,afterwards, I cried because of how amazing it was.


First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanDecompression | The New York Optimist

Reforestation | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

When you walk inside Goodbye Blue Monday (a name taken from the alternate title of a Kurt Vonnegut novel) it looks a bit like every other coffee shop/venue; but after a few minutes, you start noticing the differences. The piles of aging books, dilapidated lamps, sculpted mirrors and silkscreened t-shirts seem to be chosen in slightly better taste than usual. This effect is accentuated when you make your way into the outlandish little back-yard filled with half finished sculptures, paintings, chairs, and various other strange things. The back-yard functions as a second stage, a sculpture studio, and a multi-purpose art space. The owner, Steve Trimboli, had some things to say about the space he’s gradually constructed in that grey area between Williamsburg and Bushwick.

“This has all been a very organic process.” Steve says, as he explains how the space went from being a an empty warehouse to its current incarnation. “After three or four years, I started putting shelves and cabinets up and I started to define the place as like a living room.” Steve has personally found all the chairs, couches, and other pieces of furniture that create the atmosphere. The space has been adding on dimensions as the years go by, starting as an antique shop and coffee house, adding the two stages, and most recently adding a theater. “I let anything happen here” — Steve describes his intent for the space — “It’s freeform booking. There’s jazz, folk, pop, some other jazz, some rock roll. I don’t listen to anything first, I just book everything. Everything gets a shot, and there’s no one else who does that.”

“This place is very adventurous. We got some sort of award last year from the Village Voice for being the best place to hear new music. We’ve had performances of Shakespeare. We had a film festival here. We do everything.” This conglomeration hasn’t been immediate, “When I first came here this place was empty. There were crack houses down the block. I knew the neighborhood was going to change, and now it has to some extent. We have young artists moving into the area, local kids come by the place.” Steve continues, “This place is just starting to pay itself off and function on its own.”

Goodbye Blue Monday seems to indeed be rather remote. However, it is mostly the impression of distance that keeps many people from other parts of the city from making the trek. It’s a couple blocks (1087 Broadway to be exact) from the J and M train stop Myrtle-Broadway. Both of the trains have picked up in speed and scope, anticipating and reacting to the expansion of Williamsburg. A place like Goodbye Blue Monday is actually about ten minutes from Manhattan. They have live music pretty much every night and a nice cozy atmosphere, which is markedly absent from a chic and unfriendly café or an overpriced bar. Goodbye Blue Monday is indeed a very apt name.


First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanReforestation | The New York Optimist

Essential Life | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen this. So, for the writing of this article, I had to do a little logistical work. I found a shitty New York Times review which I couldn’t stand actually reading, so my being judgmental isn’t entirely fair. On IMDB, some member who shared my reaction wrote a little paragraph. I’m sure there’s other press, but that’s totally irrelevant. The point is, this film went under the radar because absolutely nothing exciting happens in it. And no, it won’t give you a good time. But for me, it was the most overwhelmingly stirring film experience I think I’ve ever had. I wasn’t entirely honest in the last paragraph, To Live received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 (it’s release date). So it’s not entirely obscure. Anyway, before Zhang Yimou became conventionally popular with his martial arts flick trilogy (Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower) he mainly directed films involving tragedy. To Live is among them. It stars Ge You and Gong Li (a long time collaborator of Yimou’s). The story was originally a novel of the same name written by Yu Hua in 1992. The film was banned in China, which inadvertently won the author world acclaim. To Live was also the first Chinese film to have its foreign distribution rights pre-sold. The film covers thirty years of Chinese history. It begins with a gambler called Xu Fugui in the 1940s and spans The Chinese Civil War, subsequently The Great Leap Forward and concludes with The Cultural Revolution. The work has a number of qualities which stood out to me that I appreciated immensely. Firstly, it has no plot in the conventional sense. I’ve been yearning for a film without a formulaic climactical plot arc, and this is precisely that. There are no heroes, and there are no main characters in the conventional sense. You’re simply presented with a few people who remain under the magnifying glass. Events just happen. There is no contrivance or drama. The film flows with an uncanny similarity to a very wide river.

Throughout the film, you witness suffering of all kinds, yet, somehow, every event has an equal significance. Everything in it should seem existential and meaningless. Objectively, judging by the actual content of the movie, it should be boring. It should illicit a mild twinge of empathy and be forgotten about. But, instead it does completely the opposite. Through its unassuming nature, it becomes so pristinely rich that you open yourself to the film and comprehend its breathtaking honestly. It’s this refreshingly foreign and incredibly vivid portrait of the human condition, and beyond that, human conditions. That is to say, it holds the best of both worlds. It’s both substantive and substantial. Now I’m the kind of person who cries about twice a year. And without a doubt, this film made me cry twice.


First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanEssential Life | The New York Optimist

National Appeal | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

I got home today feeling very somber. It was late afternoon and I was alone in the house. The lights were off and I felt like leaving them that way. I was in the kind of mood where I just wanted to rock back and forth on an armchair listening to music. I found myself wishing I had something excessively Baroque to put on. I wanted to feel alienated and poetic. I wanted to enjoy being morose. Coincidentally, there’s a band that fulfills that yearning quite sublimely. They are called The National.

Now just because I think that their tone is most suited to solitary loneliness does not mean that their music is not appropriate for a variety of moods and circumstances. I always want to be listening to The National. In the morning they sound beautiful. On Sunday afternoons they make the whole day seem worthwhile. Their sound fills up that expansive emptiness that makes you wonder why you aren’t filled with a cacophony of gloom. Late at night they fill the smallest crevices with a grand and meaningful melodic scene. The National isn’t party music. It’s better. It’s rainy day music.

Allow me to be briefly biographical. The National is a Brooklyn based band formed in 1999. They released their first two albums on their own record label. These were entitled The National (2001) and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003). Then, in 2005 they joined Beggars Banquet Records and released two more albums. The first being Alligator (2005) which provided the band with increased exposure. And the latter being Boxer (2007) which was met with widespread critical acclaim. On a related note, The National is best listened to in reverse chronological order.

Most recently The National has toured with R.E.M. and Modest Mouse. I managed to see The National during that tour and (pardon the cliche) I was blown away. They seem to be playing most of Boxer with a smattering of songs from Alligator (namely Mr. November which is one of their most exciting songs- and it is indeed supremely exciting in reality). The National is a quite capable live band and there is certainly no discrepancy in terms of quality in any sense of the word (as is the case with many bands who aren’t rhythmically and sonically enraged).

Returning to the realm of subjectivity, I know we all get sick of conventional harmony, some faster than others. But it is my contention that when conventional harmony is done at the peak of excellence, the result is often the most satisfying sonic experience to be had. The National is such a band. Their sound can most simply be described with the adjective ‘grand’. The singer Matt Berninger has a remarkable deep baritone and writes lyrics which are deceptively unconventional, the drumming is reminiscent of a marching band turned dense and sundry and the other musical parts usually consist of simple but seemly violin, piano, horns and guitar.

In combination, the result is the kind of music that will make me smile (in both the joyous and despondent variety- depending on the circumstance) wherever I am. The National is a crucial supplement to life.


First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanNational Appeal | The New York Optimist

Trilogue and Division | The New York Optimist

Tola Brennan Writing

So, I finally finished Diary of a Bad Year. It is a great book. I’ve been reading it for months. No, I haven’t been savoring each page and then pondering, though I have for many of them. I first saw it in the new releases rack at our friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble. I love J.M. Coeztee. I picked it up, read the back flap and left. I was with friends. A few days later, I came back. A tradition was started. Every week or so, I would get my copy and find a corner upstairs. Anyway, enough banter. Why is this book so amazing?

In all of Coetzee’s books, his writing takes a certain dreamy but poignant quality. It manages to be halcyon while speaking of subjects such as war, torture and suffering. The words carry a gestalt which suggests but doesn’t explicate ideas which aren’t internally in the writing, or in the narrative for that matter. It lets the reader imaginatively extrapolate while never reaching the threshold of unsatisfying vagueness. It carries many of Dostoevsky’s merits, while not always stressing the dismal. It affords the negative an equality with the positive.

Diary of a Bad Year is an account of a year in the life of Señor C. He gradually becomes Coetzee when the narrator speaks of a book he wrote (Waiting for the Barbarians), which also happens to be marvelous. Señor C. is commissioned to contribute to a project entitled Strong Opinions. The project is a compilation of, as the name implies, strong opinions, on topics of the writer’s choosing, by various renowned authors worldwide. In the laundry room of his apartment complex, Señor C notices an attractive woman in a red shift. He gradually approaches her and requests that, due to his failing eyesight, she (for a salary of course) become his typist.

The opinions and the story of their creation all get combined on one page. The top of each page holds one of Señor C’s opinions (ranging from politics and current affairs to philosophy and literature, and is titled, for example, On the Origins of the State). The middle of the page covers Señor C’s relationship with the woman who does his typing. The bottom contains the typist’s opinions on the Señor.

The three stories all developing simultaneously require the reader to view the page distally. It forces the reader to hold all three stories, or rather the same story from various viewpoints, all at once. It releases the reader, in a sense, from a singular self. The three sequences of action let the reader assume a multi-faceted conception of the narrative. The effect is at first severely disconcerting but gradually become surprisingly pleasant.

Many of the opinions that Señor C takes are ones that I have considered, and it is always pleasant to see one’s views written more lucidly than the they phrase themselves in thought. The ideas range from bitingly cynical to transcendently idealistic and ruminate very often on the position of an inactive radical who ponders his own lack of brio.


First published in The New York Optimist

Tola BrennanTrilogue and Division | The New York Optimist

Life – Emotion = History | The Brooklyn Rail

Tola Brennan Writing

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. —Joan Didion

I’m trying to figure out why I’m interested in the subject of history, but as soon as I look at a history book, I get bored. Then, three weeks later, I’m just as interested again. I keep on expecting history to tell me a story, and I keep on getting disappointed. It doesn’t seem like the real deal. I think most history is like a math problem. One event plus another event leads to a third event without really telling you why things happened the way they did; and like a math problem, as soon as you know the result, all the individual numbers become irrelevant.

Why is history like a math problem? Because it conveys no real emotion. And emotion is a vital part of what makes a story stick in our heads. History that shows no opinion or emotion makes itself valueless; it’s hard to learn from a story without heart.

Rhina, 17: “When I was in elementary school, Columbus was portrayed as a hero. In middle school they began to reveal more of the story, and in high school he was portrayed in a much darker light.” She was very frustrated that the story was visibly altered and, as a consequence, doesn’t trust the history she’s taught in school.

“You would think that people would learn from history, but that’s not the case. The thing is that history constantly repeats itself,” says 17-year-old Anthony. Without knowledge of the past, people can be easily convinced that things were always the way they are and that change is ridiculous.

However most people said they found history interesting and told me that their teachers had found ways to make it stimulating—to add emotion to it, even with the textbooks and tests. Anthony says, “I had a teacher named Mr. Spear, and he would make history interesting because he told it like a story. He would add voices, dialogue, and compare it to a modern example.”

Good history should be written like a novel with plot, characters, emotion, and connection. Even though that’s in history already, it doesn’t show up in history books very much. History needs to show the connection between events and how each individual action affects the whole instead of trying to place everything into its own isolated equation. James C. Loewen says about textbooks, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, that “none of the facts are remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn thing after another. While textbook authors tend to include most of the trees and all too many twigs, they neglect to give readers even a glimpse of what they might find memorable: the forests.”

I’ve been reading quite a bit of history these days. Some I finally did find interesting. Here are a few suggestions for those bored by history: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins; The Revolution of 1774, by Ray Raphael and The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James. These books were about real people, rather than cardboard cutouts.


First published in The Brooklyn Rail

Tola BrennanLife – Emotion = History | The Brooklyn Rail

Art on the Corner | The Brooklyn Rail

Tola Brennan Writing

I am an aspiring artist. Two months ago I set up a table on the street in SoHo. I went partly because my mother sells her paintings there, and because another street artist, Patrick-Earl Barnes, inspired me to get serious about my art and take it out to be seen. I was surprised to receive such a positive response. Selling my art as much as I have encouraged me to keep working. The street should be as esteemed as any gallery and any artist should consider selling there.

The street gives artists absolute freedom as to what they can exhibit. As long as you have a table and hopefully a tax ID, you can display art without having to cater to gallery owners or anyone else who decides what gets seen and what doesn’t. The street is free. Anyone can bring their art to the street and wait to be discovered—one never knows who will walk by. “The street gives me the opportunity to be accessible to the masses,” says Barnes. “On letting them know how I think.”

It’s a popular misconception that all art sold on the street is mediocre and just stuff that doesn’t make it into the galleries. There are actually a substantial number of first-rate artists who choose to sell on the street as an alternative to hustling in the chaotic gallery scene. Working with painting, collage and mixed media on canvas and found wood, Barnes creates art that is stylish and contemporary, and many of his pieces contain political and social commentary.

“My style is my vernacular,” explains Barnes. “It is comprised of things from my history.” Originally from Shrevesport, Louisiana, he has been displaying his at the corner of Broome and West Broadway for the last five years and is currently working on projects he calls “Shirts & Ties,” “Shotgun Houses,” “Art of Fashion,” “Storefronts,” “Deep Ties,” and a new series called “DJ Booths.” As a distinct and charismatic example of an artist expressing himself and showing his art on his own terms, Barnes says he meets many of his contacts on the street.

Selling on the street takes a lot of patience. It’s hit and miss—it all depends on who walks by. Some artists believe it’s all about location; others feel that it’s all about the work. A few artists compete fiercely over what they think are the best spots. To keep their chosen spot they arrive as early as six in the morning; some even sleep in their cars overnight. For artists like Barnes, however, that’s a bagatelle for artistic freedom. “I realized that it was my obligation as an artist to this society to open ways for a better understanding,” he says. “My art is used for the needs of the people and to say, ‘this way, please.’”


First published in The Brooklyn Rail

Tola BrennanArt on the Corner | The Brooklyn Rail