repetition, repetition, repetiton, reptition, repetion, repetion, repetiont, reptiont, reption

03/06/2011 § 1 Comment

top: versioned thonet no. 14 chair (michael thonet, sam jacob, lionel eid, kit bencharongkul)
middle: versioned tom vac (ron arad, sam jacob, lionel eid, akhil bakhda)
bottom: sam jacob, versioned chairs (2010)

this is what was heard at one time: the supreme buddha, serene in his bottomless wisdom, finding himself on the high line, the elevated greenway in chelsea, on a brisk, bright spring saturday, stood directly beneath the standard hotel, whose uber-ness defied quantification, smiled cryptically, and said this to his followers…

wait, scratch that, rewind. o.k., same setting, but no supreme buddha, who, let’s not kid ourselves, had a prior engagement in a different millennium.  instead in the here and now, pema wangdak – a tibetan monk addressed as lama pema by his acolytes at the palden sakya center, on central park west – waited on the highline for an event that he knew better than to burden with his own expectations.  it was the next-to-last day of the pen world voices festival of international literature and, with an assist from the rubin museum of art, lama pema had been enlisted to set in motion a “karma chain.”  three hundred or so souls from scattered metropolitan zip codes – vessels prepared, more or less, to receive a message – would stand in a line extending three blocks and play a version of telephone, with each participant listening to and repeating to the next player a phrase from a tibetan buddhist sutra, the idea being to test the proposition that, in lama pema’s phrase, “information can be extremely volatile when words pass from one person to another.”

also on hand was another authority on the volatility of words, salman rushdie, the chair of the world voices festival.  when the sutra had travelled the length of the chain, he would be waiting at the end.  “my role is to be very passive, and that’s extremely zen of me,” he said.  “to see how language is transformed – that’s the serious part of this.  and if what comes out in the end is ridiculous, maybe it should be ridiculous.  by the way, what americans call telephone in england we call chinese whispers.  not very pro-tibetan, that name.  anyway, i’ll just do as i’m told, even though i’m not really accustomed to that.”

at 11 a.m., lama pema, dressed in a burgundy robe, matching down jacket and penny loafers, proceeded north on the high line with a retinue that included three fellow-tibetans, two of whom carried ten-foot-long brass-and-copper horns.  when they reached sixteenth street, there was a pause while lama pema, in a slight departure from time-honored tibetan tradition, faced east and tapped at his iphone.

what are you doing? he was asked.

“i’m typing the lines from the sutra,” he said, graciously refraining from the traditional badinage of the upper west side, where he has lived for almost thirty years (“schmuck, what does it look like i’m doing?”).  he approached the first person in line, anna ivara, a chelsea resident and, fittingly or ominously, a dialogue coach.  lama pema whispered the preamble of every sutra – “this is what i heard at one time” – and then its opening phrase: “like a shimmering star, or a flickering lamp.”  the game had begun.  when it reached the thirtieth person in the chain, olivia cucinotta, of brooklyn, age fifteen, coherence still prevailed: “shivering style, flickering lamp.”  meanwhile, at the head of the chain, lama pema launched the second phrase – “a fleeting autumn cloud, or a shining drop of morning dew” – and then the third, “a phantom, a dream, a bubble, so is all the existence to be seen.”  poetry and profundity, to be sure, and utterly doomed.

larry bole, a retired planning coordinator from queens, no. 50 in the chain heard the first phrase as “locus star focus,” which by the time it had reached marshall marcovitz (no. 100), had deteriorated further: “fica sta.”  lotus do, standing next in line, detected hidden meaning.  “fica,” she said.  “social security.  we all just finished filing our tax returns with the i.r.s.  this comes from the collective subliminal consciousness.” yes, perhaps, but what of the fleeting autumn cloud and shining drop of morning dew,  now rendered as “rashomon it’s odd, rashomon it’s weird?”

further weirdness: amanda lugo (no. 200), a ninth grader at brooklyn latin school, heard the entire sutra as: “follow the glass stone…actually bongo… if anything exists it’s change.”  which the ancient scribes presumably would have rendered in the sanskrit equivalent of “go figure.”

at noon, lama pema, rushdie, and the players who hadn’t wandered off into the next phase of life’s journey reassembled beneath the standard.  “the teaching we’ve experienced this morning is a lesson about the transformative wisdom of new york city,” rushdie said.  “i’m about to read you the phrases that i received.  the middle one, i’m sorry to say, seems to have come from a galaxy far, far away.

“no. 1: ‘follow the glass stone. follow the glass stone.’ no. 2: ‘the droid from hell.’ and the last: ‘if anything exists it changes.'”

afterward, lama pema said, “a central teaching of buddhism is that everything is ephemeral.”  he continued, “what salman read was one hundred per cent pure wrong.  yet there was one right word and that was the gist of the message.  in the end, the words were not my message – those got completely lost.  but it was very fascinating because coincidentally, accidentally, the listeners got the sentiment.  and then they created their own words.”

[text] – mark singer  saturday sutra (the new yorker, may, 23 2011)

[images] – sam jacob versioned chairs

enjoy your weekend; play games.

a young hare

§ One Response to repetition, repetition, repetiton, reptition, repetion, repetion, repetiont, reptiont, reption

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