Art is urgency: It pierces our awareness in a flash of brilliance, pulling us into an experience bigger than our selves, provoking a response. It is, perhaps, the activist’s most powerful messenger.
With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to compose a message. Their photographs of the rural poor encapsulate the Depression, the accompanying ecological collapse, and the mass migration of families from the Great Plains to California. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.
Their images, once urgent, have become cultural icons. Icons lose their vitality, however, and urgency must find another aperture.
Dream the Electric Sleep provide that opening on their latest release, “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky.” Shimmering in on locust wings, the album invites immersion into its mesmerizing and relentless energy.
Dream the Electric Sleep, an independent rock trio combining the force of Soundgarden with the eclecticism of Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin, take us into the 20th century collapse to shake us into awareness: We have not solved the problem. Working with producer Nick Raskulinecz, Matt Page (guitar, vocals), Chris Tackett (bass), and Joey Waters (drums) passionately connect us with the people who lived through the desolation, urging us to act.
Inspired by the work of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers from 1935 to1944, the album amplifies their activist spirit, suggesting that their present is quickly becoming ours.
Page, the band’s lyricist, faced a significant challenge: translating photographs into melodic poetry, reaching outside those images to connect with the larger, violently moving picture around them. His scenes are striking and provocative: ghostly faces compel us to purge our self interest; a mortgage is foreclosed without an antidote for the pain; migrants roam the deserts like Jesus, fleeing the black wind that chokes the life out of them. Page writes with fluid minimalism, abstracting photographic fragments into elegant dreams and devastating nightmares. Each song stands strongly on its own, but together they weave a harrowing narrative of human-induced loss.
On my inaugural listen—headphones on, lights dim, notepad in hand—I found myself in a conversation with Page as a poet. I scribbled my own lyrics into the empty spaces, interacting as if in call-and-response. We spoke of heritage, of sustenance, of bounty; the tragedy of collapse; empathy; hubris; wished-for death; the intrusion of darkness; wondrous beauty and its impermanence; the sad carnival ride of fate; and the effervescence of fleeting hope.
Some things are inexpressible with words, and “Beneath the Dark Wide Sky” has two carefully sequenced instrumentals. The gentle admonition of “Flight,”—she gave you flight and sky/and everything that you adore/then you hit the floor—summons the menacing and torrential “We Who Blackout the Sun.” This instrumental track then leads us into two songs rich with death imagery, “Hanging by Time” and the sinister “Culling the Herd.”
The second instrumental, “The Last Psalm to Silence,” appears now, a respite from the storm. Ushered in by the chirping of crickets, it scans the calm landscape, memorializing the human lives that paid for the surreal silence.
The high contrast of the two instrumentals reminds us of those photographs: black and white, stark, disquieting. We are not done with the darkness in spite of the light. It’s a gritty balancing act from here to eternity.
The band, having composed the music collaboratively, takes us on a journey that is both desperate and bucolic. They present a vast range of moods, stretching out into peaceful spaces then bearing down on us with anxiety. And though topic is dark and the trip demanding, they never wring us out completely. Scattering moments of grace throughout the snarling darkness, they perform with exhilarating equilibrium.
Purposeful, urgent art must always court balance, delivering an unattractive message via an appealing messenger. When making the messenger photogenic, we risk losing the message itself.
This problem plagued the FSA photographers who inspired Dream the Electric Sleep. Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, they hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. In pursuit of their mandate, the photographers, and the agency itself, faced unique challenges in publicizing their work.
The program had many critics, some who considered it an indefensible waste of federal funds during times of austerity. Others viewed the program as an FDR propaganda machine. These charges, levied against the photographs, don’t erase the violent reality that surrounded them: Thousands lost their farms and homes and migrated westward, drifting among hastily-erected labor camps. Many became migrant farm laborers in California, some hired into factories. Most continued to struggle. Their lives, like those in a famous book by John Steinbeck, shunned the happy ending.
Contemporary public criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—didn’t remove the truth of their displacement. Neither did technical critiques of the photos in artistic journals. The subjects in the photos, through the production of the program, had become only objects. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.
Dismissed as propaganda, blunted by critique, deflected by moralistic disdain, nullified by the mass culture industry, art can lose its urgency. The event that produced the artistic impulse is relegated to memory or irrelevance, and people move on, feeling they’ve been inoculated against future occurrences. But the impoverished are still struggling, the plains have never returned to their natural rhythm, and we find ourselves on the brink of collapse once again.
The beauty of art’s urgency is that it walks hand in hand with insurgency. Breaking through mass complacency and institutional denial, it finds another aperture, and accelerates into a torrent of light.
“Does it move you? Does it pull you?” asks the second track, “Let the Light Flood In.”
If so, then do something.
Here are some suggestions:
Work for the Right to Refuse to Kill:
Explore these rights and sovereignty organizations:
Food Empowerment Project
Human Rights Watch
The National Center for Farmworker Health
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
La Via Campesina: International Peasant’s Movement
Fair World Project
Learn more about refugees’ rights, personal experiences, and the imperatives of survival:
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program
IFRC (Red Cross/Red Crescent) Protect Humanity Program
American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights campaigns
“The Imperatives of Survival” 1974 Nobel Lecture by Sean MacBride
Read a great book:
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century – J. R. McNeill
The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs – Sidney Lens
First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology – Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr.
Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture – Edited by Andrew Kimbrell
The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945 – Cindy Hahamovitch
Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs – Cara Finnegan
And be a good human being.