My birthday is on inauguration day. This has been, as you might imagine, both a blessing and a curse. In terms of pure numbers over my lifetime — which began on the day that Richard Nixon was inaugurated to his first term — more of the latter. Now, I can’t say that this is the main reason that I’ve taken a serious interest in politics since I became an adult. Both my parents were very politically active in fighting for civil rights and civil liberties throughout my childhood (it was, in fact, my dad’s job at the time), and this apple could never have fallen far from that tree. But it’s a factor in why, every four years at least, my birthday can’t just be about me.
Eight years ago, that worked out pretty well. I was turning 40. Like most people, I really wasn’t psyched about turning 40. But we were also getting our first Black president, someone who I’d voted for and about whom I was really excited. It was a great moment in history that was inevitably going to be about much more than me getting old…and that’s how I survived turning 40. Thanks Obama!
This year, it was kind of the opposite. I was turning 48, but as if hitting my late forties didn’t suck quite enough, there was something else going on that sucked much, much more. Sure, it took the focus off my ever-more-wrinkly-and-saggy-existence, but it also kind of contributed to making me feel even more wrinkly and saggy. So what to do?
One thing I decided was to have a birthday celebration not on 1/20 but on 1/21, and I invited a bunch of my friends and anyone they wanted to bring to join me in marching in the Women’s March on NYC and to go out afterwards. The march on Saturday was peaceful, fun, and empowering as hell, I got to hang out with some good friends I see a lot and some I don’t get to see nearly often enough, and I’m so glad I didn’t go for my other option, which was just to curl up into a ball and cry/sulk/wallow in Facebook. And that’s how I survived turning 48, in spite of the Cheetoh.
But…now what? The march is over, it’s January 23rd, and we’ve got this fucking guy for the next four years — and this Congress for at least the next two. I mean, I know I’m going to take more civic action. I’ve already started writing letters, and there’s going to be a lot more of that. There’s this group and this campaign that builds on the march, and we all know organizations like MoveOn and the Sierra Club and the WFP and so on are planning stuff (although right now they just seem to be asking me for money every single day, which is really, really annoying, but more on that later). So there will be things to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot since the election, however, about how I can contribute not just as a number at a march or on a petition or on the clipboard of that poor Senator’s aide’s who has to take my calls, but as an artist. Right after that shitty day, November 8th, I told my students in Documentary Production at Brooklyn College – a lot of whom were upset because the majority are either LGBTQ, women, people of color, immigrants, or some combination thereof – that this is why we’re filmmakers, to tell stories about all this, about what’s going on now, in our unique voices. I’ve had to write some artist statements lately too and I’ve talked about how making art that raises awareness and makes people think is more important than ever. But of course making a film takes time. I’ve had a new film project in “development” for the past three years. Games, apps, novels, these also take time. I’ve got so many things “in progress” right now that it’s making me question the meaning of the word “progress” – and maybe also of the word “in.”
So, what do you do when you want to make something, and make something now? You make a bot. Last year, Damon and I got frustrated with how long it was taking to finish the projects we were working on together, so we started coming up with little art project Twitter bots, things that we could get done and out there in a few days, and that we could expand and improve upon over time. The first one we made was Jerry Botheimer (@jerrybotheimer), who generates blockbuster movie pitches by plugging the names of random actors, genres, adjectives, pets, etc into forumulae that reflect the formulaic nature of Hollywood filmmaking. It was a fun way to creatively experiment with bot-making and tweak the entertainment industry at the same time. Then we wanted to do something visual, to play around with the #kiddieridesofbrooklyn pictures I’d been posting on Instagram – photographs of those strange and occasionally creepy-looking 50-cent rides you find outside of laundromats and bodegas around the borough – so we came up with Kiddie Rides Bklyn (@kiddieridesbk), which takes those figures and randomly places them into historical photos in the public domain. Over time we’ve added to both of the corpora that each of these bots draws from, adding more formulae, actor names, photos of kiddie rides, and background photos (we started in black and white, then moved on to color), so that the two bots don’t get stale, and can continue to evolve a little bit.
On 1/20, we decided it was time to take a turn for the political. We added a bunch of special pitches to Jerry’s list, some new movie ideas that reflect our current reality and its potential dramatic denouement. They’re meant to be both darkly comic and thought-provoking, but on which side the majority fall will probably depend on how prophetic they turn out to be. We also added a bunch of new background photos to the kiddie rides canon from Obama’s first 100 days, as both a tribute to our 44th president and to provide a contrast with the first 100 days of #45. Both bots will exclusively tweet this new content for the rest of January, and then it’ll be added into their regular streams from here on out. But that still didn’t feel like enough, so after a little back-and-forth about how frustrated and pissed off we were feeling on inauguration day, we created About a Bully (@insultingdonald), a bot that tweets all of Trump’s Twitter insults, but about him. (Yes, this is the great thing about the internet: somebody is always keeping track of that shit, and you can find it). It’s a cathartic stream of ugliness to watch him unload on himself, and also revealing. If you ever needed proof that the mean things we say to other people are often just things that we are insecure about ourselves, it’s all here in About a Bully’s Twitter feed.
These bots aren’t complicated and they aren’t making huge statements, and that’s kind of the point. We want them to provide you with a chuckle and maybe a little bit of a think that won’t take too much of your time, in the same way that they didn’t take too much of ours. And just maybe they’ll also inspire you to take the next step to think, How can I resist, and do it intelligently, uniquely, creatively? What special talents do I have to offer this moment, this movement, and how can I use them, starting now?
1/21 was just day one.