Behind the Zine

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Posted March 11, 2010 in Feature Story

The Volkswagon Vanagon barfs out cloth that makes you think that earlier that day it had eaten the Sixties, an Amish sewing circle and a T-shirt rack at the world’s most ironic thrift store. Doors thrown open, the hulking neutral-tone van is festooned with massive quilts stitched from concert shirts, denim, the odd scrap of paper, quilts draped over speakers, easels—anything, everything—and the effect in the uncharacteristic wind is of some benign kraken extending its tentacles out to embrace you. The van’s squatting in a parking lot on Third and Commerce in Riverside. Behind it stands an old citrus packing house shaped like a giant hotdog cut in half lengthwise, and in front of it mill a few dozen people, some eating hardshell tacos and vegan cupcakes. Schools of clouds are swooping across the sky, but while the wind is chill, the sun is hot: it’s the sort of day that doesn’t know what it wants to be. 

 

Only one person seems to know everyone: a pale young man in a partially knit, partially sidecocked baseball cap who flits about smiling and hugging and chit-chatting in his yellow windbreaker, kelly green track pants, and multi-colored old skool sneaks. He’s a less paranoid, Day-Glo Hunter S. Thompson, and it seems as though anything could happen next: a rave, a protest, a cockfight, an AA meeting.    

 

All the Night Moves

What does eventually happen is that the man makes his way to the van and calls the ragtag coterie to order, tells them he’s Lee Tusman, thanks them for coming, then tells them what they’re about to experience is called “Running with the Night.”

 

Without further ado, he introduces the first act, one half of which is a Middle Eastern man of college-age wearing one of those knit tams so stuffed with dreadlocks it looks like a hive. Sitting on the floor of the van, his feet on the pavement, he begins slapping out a slow syncopated rhythm on the bongo between his knees, while the second half of the act, a lithe MFA dance student from UCR, takes her place in front of him, folded in on herself. Blossom-like, her body begins to open and she moves as though submerged, in ways that suggest Busby Berkeley as much as traditional ballet. Gradually her speed increases from anemone to frenzied shark, before she finally slows again, and while the performance suffers a bit from the overseriousness that afflicts much of interpretive dance, the woman’s control is impressive, her routine carefully plotted.

 

Next up is a middle-aged African-American woman with a cotton ball of hair who begins her set with a minute of impressive scatting accompanied by the hand-drummer, followed by a rambling anecdote about feeling awkward eating out at an L.A. restaurant whose other patrons were all white, a story that meanders its way to a sort of non-ending, but which does contain the great line, “I was so hungry my stomach forgot how to make noise.” When she finishes, Lee cheers and whoops as he does with each of the performers, boostering nonstop.  

 

A long break until the next act, a white duo in skinny jeans who seem to be having a hard time making their electronics work. Lee encourages people to eat more tacos and regrets to inform them they’ve run out of vegan cupcakes. “Get here earlier next time!” he says. Opposite the van on the other side of the packing house’s entrance a kitten is nesting in a pile of dried palm fronds, watching people eating and tuning and figuring out which friends they have in common.

 

Shoe’s Clues

The crowd is an odd mix, but rather than trying to characterize them individually or categorize them by type, the best way to describe them might simply be listing what shoes they wear: brown suede Vans; Pumas half-covered in leggings (the dancer’s); black DC skate shoes; combat boots; flip-flops (2); hipster douchebag leather inlay boots; what appear to be huarache slippers; leather Timberland sneakers; black Chuck Taylors (2); motorcycle boots; six-color Adidas sneakers with green laces (Lee’s); sparkly gold slippers; blue combat boots worn over fishnets; red Puma walking shoes that look like they weigh half an ounce. Noticing the gold shoes a woman says to a friend, “Toms. I love those. And for every pair you buy, they donate a pair to the children in Central America or whatever.” 

 

Finally, after Lee’s prodding, the skinny-jeaned duo begins, one of them forced to go acoustic, walking around the standing/squatting/seated crowd, drolly strumming his guitar while his bandmate plays electric and sings, vocals so modulated by the mixer they make you feel as though you’re underwater and overmedicated. Behind him Lee’s quilts billow in the wind, one of the most prominent patches of which is a silkscreened skull composed—in the fashion of Dali—of the bodies of nude women.  

 

The last of the brief performers is a young guy who looks like a grown-up version of Data from The Goonies, and in true Eighties fashion, his instrument is an effects box that looks like an oversized Nintendo controller. Indeed his thumbs move over the buttons and knobs as though he were leading Mario through a particularly difficult level. He’s bent over 90 degrees, and the crown of his head, pointed out at the audience, is shuttling around in time to the music emerging from the speakers, which sounds like a cross between a Victorian music box, the original Nintendo’s beepy theme music, Nine Inch Nails, machine gunfire and the cries of the damned.

 

“My Art is My Dick”

All told, the show runs less than an hour, and at the end, Lee thanks everyone and tells them about upcoming events, including the next “Running with the Night,” a monthly parking lot event. After many hugs and goodbyes, he enters his studio, housed inside the packing house with three other artists, and a smattering of young, male, alternative-looking audience members drifts in behind. They follow Lee around as he shows them his work and that of his studio mates. They leaf through concert posters of bands you’ve never heard of and chuckle at the often ribald silkscreens of one of the other artists. 

 

My Art is My Dick,” reads one. “I like that.”  

 

Before they leave, Lee shows them something he’d been describing outside. It’s a synthesizer/effects box he recently commissioned, built inside a Mouton Cadet Rothschild casket. When you open up the box, originally made to house a pair of Bordeaux bottles, there are instead rows of switches and knobs. Lee explains. “Let’s say you start here, and it’s like eeeeennnnnnnnnngggggh,” he keens in falsetto, “but then you turn it too high, and it’s like “Deeep, deeep, deeep, deeep,” he intones, sounding like an electronic metronome. They like it. 

 

Then one of them asks about playing at the next “Running with the Night.”

 

“What do you do?” asks Lee. 

 

“Johnny Cash covers,” he says, air-strumming.  

 

“Cool,” says Lee. “Let’s do it.” You get the impression Lee would have said the same thing if the guy had said he juggled kiwis while reciting from memory the Baltimore catechism.  

 

The young guys seem willing to hang out all day, but Lee gently hints he has some things to do that afternoon, and they slowly mosey out, telling him they want to see him soon.

 

Kickstarting Art

For Lee, “Running with the Night” is only moonlighting: his day job is curator of the Riverside Art Museum, but his list of artistic extracurriculars is extensive. He created the quilts (or “quiltz” as he likes to call them) that spill out of the Vanagon, as well as many others; he runs a micro-record label called Jewish Noise, which combines abstract electronica/noise with traditional chanting and singing; he sews one-armed cloth dolls; he operates an occasional pizza delivery service out of the Vanagon—people call him, and he makes a gourmet pie from scratch, puts it into a hand-painted pizza box and drives it to the door; he curates the Vanagallery, a mobile art space that’s housed a carousel of artistic works; and most recently, he’s producing a magazine called JANKY

 

JANKY’s content is unusual—more on that below—just as intriguing is the way in which Lee paid for it. JANKY was funded through a website called Kickstarter.com, an online artistic fundraising platform in which artists of all stripes pitch projects to the world and ask for small donations to help complete them. Artists set their target sum and time window, and only receive pledge money from donors if they meet their goal by their deadline. On Valentine’s Day, the 44 contributors to JANKY had pledged enough to reach Lee’s goal of $2,500, and in return the contributors, depending on the level of their donation, would receive anything from their name included in the credits of the magazine to everything contained under the JANKY umbrella.

 

Not Quite Right

What is contained under JANKY portfolio? It’s not easy to describe, but on the Kickstarter page, Lee tries, describing it as “a crazy new participatory junked-up art, photo and noize maga/zine/publication complete with mobile pop-up art show and Zine Fest!” He enumerates seven different things that JANKY is/does/includes: Janky Magazine itself, “a glossy mag featuring contemporary urban photography including grimy graffiti, protests, bike assaults, suburban wasteland development, and pies that insult the eater;” a mash-up of professional and amateur photography; a contact print of abandoned sites in the IE; Telephony SoundZine, a compilation of contemporary noise music recorded over the phone; and perhaps the best, “Receipts or other ephemera from burrito stands in my neighborhood.” Lee plans to release 200 copies of JANKY by the end of March.  

 

Much of the subject matter is familiar zine territory—gritty post-industrial urbanism, bikes, the grotesque, the violent, parties in dirty lofts, taco trucks, moustaches—and “pies that insult the eater” isn’t an overstatement: one delicious-looking blueberry number, instead of being latticed in the usual grid, was topped with the piecrust words “Fuck the Hudson.” But the quality is high, even if content isn’t wholly new. What is new is the massively collaborative nature of the project; JANKY includes work from dozens of artists across the nation, musicians and photographers whose work often lies outside the mainstream of galleries and major record labels. As Lee says of the word “Janky,” “Janky is something that’s kind of broken, improvised, finding things that aren’t quite right and making them seem normal.”

 

“It’s okay to be amateurs”

After the young men leave, Lee experiments with his new synth/effects box, aesthetic curiosity mixed with more than a little bit of a child’s giddiness on Christmas morning. He flips switches, he turns knobs, he chants into an old rotary phone receiver that’s been connected to the machine, then loops it along with a few other effects, building layers of sound, and taken together it’s a concerto for washing machine, lawn mower, busted radio. The music, like the word “Janky” itself, seems appropriate for the IE. Its beauty is elusive, slantwise.   

 

There’s an undeniable hipsterness about Lee—he makes fogey-ish 4-H-style crafts cool! He runs his own micro-record label! His vehicle of choice is ancient and European!—and about JANKY more generally—kids on unicycles! With moustaches! Eating tacos! Getting dirty! Protesting capitalism! Making music that sounds like steampunk machinery and malfunctioning electronics!—but the whole project is remarkably and refreshingly devoid of the usual hipster name-dropping, I-was-there-and-did-it-before-it-was-popular snobbery. Instead of that bored world-weariness, Lee projects an excitement about practically everything artistic, an enthusiasm he wants to spread. For him, art shouldn’t solely be the province of the professional one-percent who get paid to create. Rather, as he says, “The art scene can be so aloof. But we don’t want to be standoffish. We want to bring people in.”  

 

That’s what’s most unusual about JANKY and Lee’s interests more generally: his tastes are both populist and avant-garde. He wants everyone who wants to to do art, and he wants them to try more than just acoustic covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Bob Ross-style landscapes. Art that’s everyone’s, art that’s everything. As he says, “It’s okay to be amateurs. But in a quality way.” 

 

Earlier that afternoon, before “Running with the Night” began, someone asked Lee if there was an art colony in the Inland Empire. 

 

“No,” Lee said. “Not that I know of.” 

 

“There is now,” said the man. “And you’re the president.”

 

The JANKY release party is scheduled for March 27, Back 2 the Grind, 3575 University Ave., Riverside; http://leetusman.com. 7-9PM.


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