"There’s something to be said for a global outlook as a necessity of citizenship.... Jim Gabbe certainly projects this ethos of citizenship in his creative work .... CITIZENARTS is in some ways an extension of this ethos of citizenship…as a humanist activity of global perspective that crosses oceans and borders." 

 

This excerpt from an article prepared for the prestigious Prague Writers' Festival about CITIZENARTS and its founder and Senior Partner Jim Gabbe captures the CITIZENARTS mission: to encourage thoughtful dialogue and creative thinking around important, sometimes contentious subjects of vital importance to all of us as global citizens. Jim has had the honor of being selected to represent the work of CITIZENARTS at the Prague Writers’ Festival.

The original article can be found here.

Please let us know if you are interested in discussing ways that CITIZENARTS can bring a forum to your classroom, organization, conference or other venue. Many of our forums are free of charge. 

On James Gabbe: Paint Whatever Kind of Houses

04. May 2021 13:44

By Joshua Jones 

james-gabbe-in-beijing-609136a2b01cb.jpg

For twentieth-century America, the Vietnam War, given its military catastrophes in overseas guerilla combat, catalyzed something of its own in its production of homeland culture. This is the dichotomy. That this cultural revolution would shape the later-century United States, affecting music, fashion, literature, and all that can be considered countercultural. That it came at the cost of war is a question for the moralists, more than the aesthetes, as to whether the cause can justify the symptoms. This is the territory that James Gabbe has no choice but to navigate, as a journalist, soldier and novelist, in his writing of his 2007 novel, LaRue’s Maneuvers.

 

The question then, is why write such a novel? The answer is perhaps the cultural revolution doesn’t quite speak for itself. Gabbe, a veteran of the Vietnam war and a journalist, is in a prime position to undertake this task. How did the war, in conjunction with the internal struggles within mid-century America, generate a positive movement out of a negative situation? But Gabbe’s novel doesn’t so much as confront the moral question of the American aesthetic revolution, the culture of resistance and the Vietnam War, as lay its images and narratives out in a given order. It isn’t a study of this exact moral conundrum, it is its product.

 

Call me LaRue.

 

You know, the street.

 

Paint whatever kind of houses on it you

 

like and whatever kind of people.

 

and give those people any ideas and

 

chatter you want.

 

And colour the sky your colors.

 

That’s how I feel,

 

so near so much that puzzles me,

 

so far away from myself.

 

Throughout the novel, which moves through reminiscences and traumas not only of wartime, LaRue becomes a cipher through which Gabbe, himself a Captain in the U.S. Military during his time in Vietnam, can write his own experience of the conflict, fictionalizing it to a safe distance. At the same time, the novel also tells the story of Dunbar, who is himself trying to narrativise his own life and his own coming-of-age, bridging the third-person memoir form through the shared element of fictionalisation. At this point, it should be clear that a number of meta-narratives are in play. 

 

Prior to writing the novel, Gabbe had also contributed an official account for the U.S. Department of Defense of his experiences deployed overseas, for the Official History of the Vietnam War. A reader aware of this fact could be forgiven if the questions of authenticity and authorship these twin accounts pose deepens their intrigue in the cipher of LaRue. At which point is Captain J.I. Gabbe, writing; at which point Dunbar; and at which point LaRue? And at which point does the novelised version begin and the official account terminate? Can one be considered the spiritual sequel to the other? These seem to be the undercurrents embedded in the use of LaRue. Though in the narrative, the purpose of LaRue is as a kind of Othered self, the question of where Captain Gabbe ends and Jim Gabbe begins lingers underneath this.

 

But this isn’t strictly explored in the narrative. The characters move through the essential contradiction of resistance against a home-nation, illustrating just how much such imaginary conundrums pose to the very real landscape of America. In one scene, Dunbar finds himself at an aborted act of civil disobedience: the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. The narrative soon comes into focus on the Battle of Michigan Avenue, in which protestors were notoriously bludgeoned by armed police.

 

The cops charged and our eyes linked as we were sundered, the smack

 

of clubs on flesh spurring me back up Michigan Avenue – back through

 

a metropolis over the brink, and into a cataclysm of stalled, honking

 

vehicles, madly flickering lights, streaming toilet paper. Trashcans 

 

blazed and warlike shadows pranced in huge relief on the Loop’s 

 

sedentary, proper, high-income real estate. Abandoned cop cars and

 

motorcycles were pulverized, and skirmishes flared.

 

The flickering bas-relief of shadows played out on the walls of high-income real-estate -- a backdrop of smoke and fire, pulverized vehicles and honking traffic --  endures as much as an image, as a reality, of protest, police brutality, and civil disobedience extending far beyond the Vietnam Era. Before long, our narrator falls foul of a cop. If it seems like pulp, the quip of the officer and the blink of the blast are quick and saddening realities when held up against the world.

 

“Shut-up!” His breath was in spurts. He smelled like an athlete. He 

 

yanked me up by the polka-dot scarf. I choked, spun in and out of blackout, 

 

pins and needles. “I’m gonna’ learn you a lesson, hippie. A lesson in

 

loyalty – to the U.S.A.” The .22 clunked the back of my head. I wailed.

 

There was a blast and nothing.

 

What remains current in the body of work that Gabbe has produced is an engagement with what could be described as the tremors, shifts and upheavals of global life, but that might just as well be called History. His engagement with these narratives isn’t purely literary, and the first decades of the 2000’s saw him transition towards documentary filmmaking, his subject matter continually macro in scale. His 2012 film, Journey with The Giant, explores the Chinese economic miracle of the twentieth-century, considering the growing economic scale of China, the sole major state to remain (ostensibly) Communist, as it appears to the rest of the world, who observe this growth. 

 

A double-attendee of the Prague Writers’ Festival, Gabbe appeared as a guest first in 2015, and again in 2019. But it was his film work during these visits that took focus. His film A More – Or Less – Perfect Union, on the nature of the United States and its internal balance, was screened, exploring the condition of union and disunion between the nation’s sometimes fractious fifty states. As was his film Pacific Destiny, a cinematic examination of the similarities and dissimilarities between the U.S.A. and China in their foreign, domestic and economic policies. As an individual with a global outlook, the nature of economic developments seems a key interest for Gabbe, as does the sharing of knowledge, perspective and experience. But this is not always welcomed. At least one presentation hosted by his foundation, CITIZENARTS, at a university in China, was rapidly disbanded by police.

 

There’s something to be said for a global outlook as a necessity of citizenship (if such a thing can be said to exist) especially for the citizens of a major global power, and if any such power has consistently shaken the world in decades past, there can be little-to-no dispute that that power is the United States. Gabbe certainly projects this ethos of citizenship in his creative work, as in his other projects. CITIZENARTS, the educational charitable foundationestablished by Gabbe, is in some ways an extension of this ethos of citizenship: a humanist activity of global perspective that crosses oceans and borders.

 

CITIZENARTS comes as a culmination in Gabbe’s movement through media: from print journalism, to the novel, to the screen, to the web. If there’s a master-trajectory in contemporary authorship, it might run along these lines, with some changes of direction here and there. CITIZENARTS is built around cultural forums that reflect on the contemporary world and encourage discourse between individuals within and between nations. CITIZENARTS conducts events both virtually and in-person, drawing together participants from China, India, the US and Latin America. Forums can focus on specific topics and are often national in scope – including, recently, the Czech Republic.

 

Such efforts encompass the aspiration that they bring citizens of different states together, and ameliorate the conflicts pressed by propaganda and ignorance. Gabbe’s two-act play, MARCH, first staged in  2014, fits within this panorama. It charts an often mythologized chapter of history, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and of the earlier life of Hitler. The play mimics the vitriol and rhetoric of the explosive Nazi rallies, transposing those settings to a salon soirée in the early 1920s where a hopeful young Adolf attends the evening’s festivities. Almost all of the key characters are present for the duration of the dramatics. And the play isn’t for the faint of heart, or delicate of taste. It produces a microcosm of history to such a focused degree that it at times seems allegorical. At one point, the players march to a military song until one of them – a veteran – escalates to horrified screams as though in combat and suffers a seizure. In this light, the single-word imperative of the title takes on something of a menacing, solemn and relentlessly mechanical meaning.

 

Out of all of these initiatives, a picture of Gabbe emerges of a man  with a strong sense of citizenship and of history, for whom the medium he chooses, be it film, theatre, journal or novel, is the means to express a humanist vision that is both frantic and difficult to pin down. As a photojournalist, he undertook a project to document the events that have taken place in one particular square of New York. This work, titled The Universe of Union Square, was published in 2010. Its scope spans from the fall of the Lenape Nation, to Emma Goldman’s demand to demonstrate the needs of the poor before the palaces of the rich. From beginning to end, it encompasses a spirit of global citizenship. Of James Gabbe’s work, much can be said the same.