Monday, July 14, 2014

The Quality of Not-Knowing

At the beginning of the year, the band Foster the People put up a mural in downtown Los Angeles. People apparently liked it. According to ABC7, its location is in an "area with beige-colored warehouses and office buildings," so "local residents welcomed a spot of brightness." However, on July 11, it emerged that the city had told the band to remove the mural. The image they put up as a mural is exactly the same as the cover of their most recent album, Supermodel. Evidently there are city regulations about advertisements vs. murals that meant their permits were not appropriate, because the image could have been construed as an advertisement.

Pretty colors, to be sure

I don't really care about Foster the People, but this story caught my interest. The band claimed that they were just trying to add art to the daily routine of ordinary citizens, but I wonder. If that was their only purpose, couldn't they have chosen another image? Surely it occurred to somebody along the line that this was a good way to get jumbo-sized advertising without paying jumbo prices. If not, if that's a cynical way to look at this incident, let's go the other way: is it fair for the city not to take into account that the band was just trying to make art? Should they give the band the benefit of the doubt, and let the mural stay up? Well, but even if the whole thing was an innocent mistake and this was just an image that the band believed in enough to plaster it on everything, letting it stay might create a foot in the door for genuine advertisements that are cynically masquerading as murals.

I find both possibilities valid, the cynical one and the innocent one. And I love news stories that demonstrate the existence of this split in life, that an incident could easily be one way or the other and there's no way to know from reportage what the truth of the matter is. That middle ground is exactly where I want to write, what I want to explore through fiction: when all sides of the story are equally plausible, and only the participants really know what their motivations were, and no one external to those participants' skulls will ever know.

One of the longest (and best, IMHO) stories I've written in the past year is about this - "Carlotta Made Flesh," a.k.a. the journalist story, which I wrote after reading many articles about catfishing, but specifically this one. The wikibook also has this split at its heart, although I'm not any closer to writing that blasted thing, so I guess I should stop bringing it up here, because I need to just put my money where my mouth is. The point is, this often comes to mind when I sit down to the notebook, this we'll-never-really-know thing, and it always gives me a little jolt of inspiration when I see it in real life. Some of the news stories that bring me food for thought about this issue are very unpleasant, but here, it's only a mural, and the stakes and harm are nice and low.

Incidentally, here, citizens petitioned in favor of the mural and Mayor Garcetti made an exception. The mural stays. And - maybe - some PR guy across town just put his feet on his desk and gave a satisfied sigh. Or maybe not.

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