REVIEW // Reading Experience: The Insistent Urgency of the Forgotten
By Michael Workman
Hosted in the gargantuan confines of Chicago’s Harris Theater, the Pop-Up Magazine show didn’t offer anything new in terms of format or presentation, not really. Styled after how a reader might make their way through a magazine, the idea is to bring that experience to life. I don’t know how well it mirrors my take; I usually skip what I’m not interested in, usually almost everything, sometimes reading back-to-front, or just the movie reviews or whatever intellectual minutiae, depending on my mood. In any case, if you’ve ever sat in the audience of a stage version of This American Life, you get the idea. Vaudevillian, variety-like, with all the unctuously twee storytelling that is the de rigeur standard of much of today’s public radio, the Pop Up Magazine show wants to derive its trajectory from that sort of premise and in that, it manages a few notable, actually powerful enlargements upon the format. But, let’s not get too far ahead.
At a run time of nearly 90 minutes without a pee pee break, it’s a testament to the quality of the programming that it swept by at a transporting pace. Set to musical accompaniment by the first rate, occasionally ace efforts of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, the group provides the background tapestry against which much of the show operates and which the story’s audience-emotion highs and lows rely for their illustrative cues. My favorite presentation by a magnitude or so was Jon Ronson (of The Men Who Stare at Goats authorship fame, among other notable investigations into quasi-institutionalized oddball veer-offs into fringe culture), whose surprising and compelling Bespoke Porn continued in the vein. A niche within the porn-producing industry, studios produce video upon request by individual clients, articulated in as sophisticated detail as requested. Ronson’s moving investigation threads the needles of an industry that punctures the private imagination of the public, especially in his depiction of one bespoke client who asks simply for a video of a porn model encouraging him not to commit suicide. Though the studio loses touch with said client, they go ahead and produce the video and send it along anyway, interpolating a needle of compassion into the perception of an industry that, while starting with the surface of humanity at its best, all too often collapses into depictions of humanity at its worst.
Armed Poetry by Lu Olkowski ranks equally as high. Existing without a written language until the 1970’s, it was finally introduced by dictator Siad Barre in the country, the opposition to whose rule manifested in the form of oral poetry recorded on easily reproducible cassette tapes that circulated hand to hand across the country, most notably by poets including Hadraawi and Gaarriye, together with others whose work forged a channel of open, free thinking, human communicative resistance to tyranny. Unable to intimidate them and other revolutionary poets into collusion, Barre had many of them forcibly confined or in other ways silenced — a move which eventually presaged his downfall. Olkowski’s telling of the story, set to a large-scale projection of animations by Clay Rodery, opens up a cultural history not accessible in today’s commercial contexts to spotlight not just a struggle for free expression, but for liberty in general by artists historically on the front line in the struggle over fulcrums that can determine either the possibility of its existence or complete eradication.
Similarly compelling is media savvy VICE correspondent Fazeelat Aslam’s profile of anti-slavery activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, General Secretary of Lahore-based Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan (BLLF), simply titled Fatima. Set to music by Inna Choi, it tells the story of the Pakistani activist’s struggle to wipe out the shameful practice of debt bondage, especially against the wishes of her country’s powerful and wealthy brick kiln industry ownership classes. Raised up by the international community and celebrated for her efforts after a 7-part profile series on the popular photojournalism site Humans Of New York went viral, fundraising began flooding in to the tune of several million USD in donations. Seizing on her newfound celebrity, brick kiln owners subsequently engaged in a character assassination campaign claiming she only sought to use her status as a reformer to enrich herself, the potential violent response to which subsequently drove her into hiding. Taken together, these stories achingly depict the perils and internal struggles of modernity’s effect on third world societies split down the middle as to the choices of conscience it offers. Much of the rest of the program I enjoyed and found entertaining and redeeming, though perhaps without the sense of urgency these stories left me feeling.
Fluctuating on a wavelength from middle- to highbrow, everything that otherwise took place onstage did so inside of somewhat standardized human interest narratives that consistently attempted to squarely land otherwise uplifting messages of hope and inspiration. All of it enjoyable. At times though, I felt myself wishing one would just, out of nowhere, surge past the sponsor-friendly format in a way that could reflect the necessary outrage at the despair and injustice on display in some of these stories. But then, there wouldn’t be those supporters with their “embedded” programming that came on throughout the event to tell you how appropriate their products are for those with a socially-conscious approach to the power of a consciously consumer lifestyle. Blech! Still, it provides the tent-pole for putting Magazine on in places like the Harris, doesn’t it? Much of the audience gets the commercial trade-off here, even if it’s a little less easy to stomach sitting through ad-spots after paying a ticket price — because these stories matter. And, actually, they do. So much more.