How Salman Rushdie Has Lived and Written Under the Threat of Death: a Free Documentary

Alfred Hitch­cock spe­cial­ized in films about marked men: inno­cents, more or less, who sud­den­ly find them­selves pur­sued by sin­is­ter forces to the ends of the Earth. Lit­tle won­der, then, that Salman Rushdie would count him­self a Hitch­cock fan. The nov­el­ist ref­er­ences the film­mak­er more than once in Salman Rushdie: Writ­ing Under Death Threats, the DW tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary above. He remem­bers a sequence from The Birds that cuts between stu­dents in a class­room and the play­ground out­side: in one shot a black­bird comes to sit on the jun­gle gym, and just a few shots lat­er it’s been joined by 500 more. “The case of what hap­pened to The Satan­ic Vers­es was, it was some­thing like the first black­bird.”

Rushdie refers, of course, to the fat­wa called down upon him in response to that nov­el­’s sup­posed blas­phemies against Islam by Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni. As a result he had to spend most of the sub­se­quent decade in hid­ing, under the pro­tec­tion of the British gov­ern­ment. By the time of this doc­u­men­tary, which came out in 2018, the dan­ger seemed to have passed.

“What’s hap­pen­ing now, as the scan­dal goes away,” he says of The Satan­ic Vers­es, “is that peo­ple are able to read it as a book, rather than as some kind of scan­dalous text.” But the dan­ger had not passed, as we learned ear­li­er this month when Rushdie was stabbed onstage at a lit­er­ary event in upstate New York, avoid­ing death by what’s been report­ed as a nar­row mar­gin indeed.

This sto­ry has its ironies, not least that Rushdie’s attack­er was born in Cal­i­for­nia a decade after the Iran­ian gov­ern­men­t’s dis­avow­al of the fat­wa. But for Rushdie him­self, the attempt on his life can’t have come entire­ly as a sur­prise: he saw the gath­er­ing black­birds of vio­lent fanati­cism as well as those of met­ro­pol­i­tan com­pla­cen­cy. Reflect­ing on the 2015 attack on French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Heb­do, he laments that “even peo­ple who are on the lib­er­al, pro­gres­sive, left­ist end of the spec­trum now find ‘prob­lem­at­ic’ the idea of sup­port­ing peo­ple who make fun of reli­gion.” Always and every­where, writ­ing has been done under the threat of one kind of pun­ish­ment or anoth­er; more than 30 years after The Satan­ic Vers­es, Rushdie’s case remains the most har­row­ing­ly extreme illus­tra­tion of the writer’s con­di­tion.

Relat­ed con­tent:

When Christo­pher Hitchens Vig­i­lant­ly Defend­ed Salman Rushdie After the Fat­wah: “It Was a Mat­ter of Every­thing I Hat­ed Ver­sus Every­thing I Loved”

Hear Salman Rushdie Read Don­ald Barthelme’s “Con­cern­ing the Body­guard” 

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Cours­es on Art, Cre­ativ­i­ty & Sto­ry­telling for Mas­ter­Class

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

What Made Better Call Saul a Master Class in Visual Storytelling: A Video Essay

A decade ago, nobody inter­est­ed in pres­tige dra­mat­ic tele­vi­sion could have ignored Break­ing Bad, Vince Gilli­gan’s AMC series about a down­trod­den high-school chem­istry teacher who becomes a cal­cu­lat­ing and sav­age crys­tal-meth deal­er. Such was the crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of the show that, less than two years after it end­ed, it was resumed in the form of Bet­ter Call Saul. The title char­ac­ter Saul Good­man had been the afore­men­tioned teacher-turned-deal­er’s lawyer in Break­ing Bad, and the lat­er series, a pre­quel, traces the half-decade jour­ney that brought him to that point: a jour­ney that began when he was a Chica­go con man named Jim­my McGill.

Bet­ter Call Saul’s six-sea­son run (one episode longer than Break­ing Bad) came to an end this week. Dur­ing that time, the show has received even stronger acco­lades than the one that spun it off. To get a sense of what makes it such an achieve­ment in a field crowd­ed with some of the most ambi­tious cre­ators of pop­u­lar cul­ture today, watch the video essay above by Youtu­ber Thomas Flight.

Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured his visu­al analy­ses of auteurs like Wes Ander­son and Bong Joon-ho as well as shows like The Wire and Cher­nobyl. Five years ago, he uploaded a video explain­ing “why Bet­ter Call Saul is bril­liant”; now he argues that it’s a “mas­ter class in visu­al sto­ry­telling.”

“ ‘Show, don’t tell’ is such com­mon advice in film­mak­ing and screen­writ­ing that it’s basi­cal­ly a cliché at this point,” says Flight, “but it’s also much eas­i­er said than done.” He goes on to draw from Bet­ter Call Saul a host of prime exam­ples of show­ing-not-telling, orga­nized into four cat­e­gories of its spe­cial strengths: “props as sym­bol­ic objects,” “visu­al per­for­mances,” “char­ac­ters in process,” and “sto­ry­telling with cin­e­matog­ra­phy.” Bet­ter Call Saul’s cre­ators make rich use of objects, ges­tures, expres­sions, places, angles, and much else besides to tell — or rather, show — the sto­ry of Jimmy/Saul’s trans­for­ma­tion, as well as the trans­for­ma­tions of those around him. But which of those char­ac­ters will star in Gilli­gan’s next, sure­ly even more ambi­tious series?

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Break­ing Bad Craft­ed the Per­fect TV Pilot: A Video Essay

Watch the Pilot of Break­ing Bad with a Chem­istry Pro­fes­sor: How Sound Was the Sci­ence?

The Sci­ence of Break­ing Bad: Pro­fes­sor Don­na Nel­son Explains How the Show Gets it Right

Watch the Orig­i­nal Audi­tion Tapes for Break­ing Bad Before the Final Sea­son Debuts

Break­ing Bad Illus­trat­ed by Gonzo Artist Ralph Stead­man

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Has Given Away 186 Million Free Books to Kids, Boosting Literacy Worldwide

Dol­ly Par­ton cre­at­ed her Imag­i­na­tion Library, a non-prof­it which gives books to mil­lions of chil­dren every month, with her father, Robert Lee Par­ton, in mind.

“I always thought that if Dad­dy had an edu­ca­tion, there’s no telling what he could have been,” she mused in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics:

Because he knew how to barter, he knew how to bar­gain. He knew how to make every­thing work, and he knew how to count mon­ey. He knew exact­ly what every­thing was worth, how much he was going to make from that tobac­co crop, what he could trade, and how he could make it all work

Despite his busi­ness acu­men, Parton’s father nev­er learned to read or write, a source of shame.

Par­ton explains how there was a time when school­ing was nev­er con­sid­ered a giv­en for chil­dren in the moun­tains of East Ten­nessee, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those like her father, who came from a fam­i­ly of 15:

Kids had to go to work in the fields to help feed the fam­i­ly. Because of the weath­er and because of con­di­tions, a lot of kids couldn’t go to school.

I told him, “Dad­dy, there are prob­a­bly mil­lions of peo­ple in this world who don’t know how to read and write, who didn’t get the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Don’t be ashamed of that. Let’s do some­thing spe­cial.”

Par­ton is con­vinced that her father, whose pride in her musi­cal accom­plish­ments was so great he drove over with a buck­et of soapy water to clean the bronze stat­ue her home­town erect­ed in her hon­or, was proud­er still of a nick­name bestowed on her by the Imag­i­na­tion Library’s child ben­e­fi­cia­ries — the Book Lady.

Togeth­er with the com­mu­ni­ty part­ners who secure fund­ing for postage and non-admin­is­tra­tive costs, the Book Lady has giv­en away some 186,680,000 books since the project launched in 1995.

Orig­i­nal­ly lim­it­ed to chil­dren resid­ing in Sevi­er Coun­ty, Ten­nessee, the pro­gram has expand­ed to serve over 2,000,000 kids in the US, UK, Aus­tralia, Cana­da and the Repub­lic of Ire­land.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion can start well before a child is old enough to attempt their ABCs. Par­ents and guardians are encour­aged to enroll them at birth.

The Imag­i­na­tion Library’s lit­tlest par­tic­i­pants’ love of books is fos­tered with col­or­ful illus­tra­tions and sim­ple texts, often rhymes hav­ing to do with ani­mals or bed­time.

By the time a read­er hits their final year of the pro­gram at age 5, the focus will have shift­ed to school readi­ness, with sub­jects includ­ing sci­ence, folk­tales, and poet­ry.

The books — all Pen­guin Ran­dom House titles — are cho­sen by a pan­el of ear­ly child­hood lit­er­a­cy experts. 

This year’s selec­tion includes such old favorites as The Tale of Peter Rab­bit, Good Night, Goril­la, and The Snowy Day, as well as Parton’s own Coat of Many Col­ors, based on the song in which she famous­ly paid trib­ute to her moth­er’s ten­der resource­ful­ness:

Back through the years

I go won­derin’ once again

Back to the sea­sons of my youth

I recall a box of rags that some­one gave us

And how my mom­ma put the rags to use

There were rags of many col­ors

Every piece was small

And I did­n’t have a coat

And it was way down in the fall

Mom­ma sewed the rags togeth­er

Sewin’ every piece with love

She made my coat of many col­ors

That I was so proud of

The Imag­i­na­tion Library is clear­ly a boon to chil­dren liv­ing, as Par­ton once did, in pover­ty, but par­tic­i­pa­tion is open to any­one under age 5 liv­ing in an area served by an Imag­i­na­tion Library affil­i­ate.

Pro­mot­ing ear­ly engage­ment with books in such a sig­nif­i­cant way has also helped Par­ton to reduce some of the stig­ma sur­round­ing illit­er­a­cy:

You don’t real­ly real­ize how many peo­ple can’t read and write. Me telling the sto­ry about my dad­dy instilled some pride in peo­ple who felt like they had to keep it hid­den like a secret. I get so many let­ters from peo­ple say­ing, “I would nev­er had admit­ted it’ or “I was always ashamed.”

Learn more about Dol­ly Parton’s Imag­i­na­tion Library, which wel­comes dona­tions and inquiries from those who would like to start an affil­i­ate pro­gram in their area, here.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

“When We All Have Pocket Telephones”: A 1920s Comic Accurately Predicts Our Cellphone-Dominated Lives

Much has been said late­ly about jokes that “haven’t aged well.” Some­times it has do to with shift­ing pub­lic sen­si­bil­i­ties, and some­times with a gag’s exag­ger­a­tion hav­ing been sur­passed by the facts of life. As a Twit­ter user named Max Salt­man post­ed not long ago, “I love find­ing New York­er car­toons so dat­ed that the joke is lost entire­ly and the car­toons become just descrip­tions of peo­ple doing nor­mal things.” The exam­ples includ­ed a par­ty­go­er admit­ting that “I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve down­loaded it from the inter­net,” and a teacher admon­ish­ing her stu­dents to “keep your eyes on your own screen.”

All of those New York­er car­toons appear to date from the nine­teen-nineties. Even more pre­scient yet much old­er is the Dai­ly Mir­ror car­toon at the top of the post, drawn by artist W. K. Haselden at some point between 1919 and 1923. It envi­sions a time “when we all have pock­et tele­phones,” liable to ring at the most incon­ve­nient times: “when run­ning for a train,” “when your hands are full,” “at a con­cert,” even “when you are being mar­ried.” Such a com­ic strip could nev­er, as they say, be pub­lished today — not because of its poten­tial to offend mod­ern sen­si­tiv­i­ties, but because of its sheer mun­dan­i­ty.

For here in the twen­ty-twen­ties, we all, indeed, have pock­et tele­phones. Not only that, we’ve grown so accus­tomed to them that Haselden’s car­toon feels rem­i­nis­cent of the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, when the nov­el­ty and pres­tige of cell­phones (to say noth­ing of their grat­ing­ly sim­ple ring­tones) made them feel more intru­sive in day-to-day-life. Now, increas­ing­ly, cell­phones are day-to-day life. Far from the lit­er­al “pock­et tele­phones” envi­sioned a cen­tu­ry ago, they’ve worked their way into near­ly every aspect of human exis­tence, includ­ing those Haselden could nev­er have con­sid­ered.

Yet this was­n’t the first time any­one had imag­ined such a thing. “Rumors of a ‘pock­et phone’ had been ring­ing around the world since 1906,” writes Laugh­ing Squid’s Lori Dorn. “A man named Charles E. Alden claimed to have cre­at­ed a device that could eas­i­ly fit inside a vest pock­et and used a ‘wire­less bat­tery.’ ” In the event, it would take near­ly eight decades for the first cell­phone to arrive on the mar­ket, and three more on top of that for them to become indis­pens­able in the West. Now the “pock­et tele­phone” has become the defin­ing device of our era all over the world, though the social norms around its use do remain a work in progress.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed con­tent:

The First Cell­phone: Dis­cov­er Motorola’s DynaT­AC 8000X, a 2‑Pound Brick Priced at $3,995 (1984)

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Pho­tog­ra­phy

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

The World’s First Mobile Phone Shown in 1922 Vin­tage Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Texas School Board Bans Illustrated Edition of The Diary of Anne Frank

Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey con­duct­ed by the Texas State Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, 70% of sur­veyed teach­ers said they were seri­ous­ly think­ing about leav­ing the teach­ing pro­fes­sion. “Lin­ger­ing stress from the pan­dem­ic is a fac­tor, but it isn’t the only one. Inad­e­quate pay, polit­i­cal attacks on edu­ca­tors and the fail­ure of state lead­ers to pro­tect the health and safe­ty of stu­dents and school employ­ees also have com­bined to dri­ve down the morale of teach­ers to the low­est lev­el in recent mem­o­ry and endan­ger our pub­lic school sys­tem,” TSTA Pres­i­dent Ovidia Moli­na said.

We recent­ly saw how Texas’ edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem has become a vast polit­i­cal mine­field, with con­ser­v­a­tive leg­is­la­tors attempt­ing to ban 800+ books from school libraries–pri­mar­i­ly because the books make stu­dents feel “uncom­fort­able.” This week, the Keller Inde­pen­dent School Dis­trict in Fort Worth, Texas decid­ed to can­cel an acclaimed illus­trat­ed adap­ta­tion of The Diary of Anne Frank, echo­ing the recent deci­sion by a Ten­nessee School board to ban Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize win­ning graph­ic nov­el on the Holo­caust. The ban of The Diary of Anne Frank was trig­gered by a par­ent com­plaint, which the right-lean­ing school board decid­ed to hon­or. Why would think­ing peo­ple want to opt out of teach­ing in the Texas edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem? It’s not hard to imag­ine.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Ten­nessee School Board Bans Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Graph­ic Nov­el on the Holo­caust; the Book Becomes #1 Best­seller on Ama­zon

The 850 Books a Texas Law­mak­er Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Stu­dents Feel Uncom­fort­able

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

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The Brilliantly Nightmarish Art & Troubled Life of Painter Francis Bacon

The paint­ings of Fran­cis Bacon con­tin­ue to trou­ble their view­ers, not least those view­ers who try to slot his work into a par­tic­u­lar genre or move­ment. Bacon rose to promi­nence paint­ing the human body, hard­ly an uncom­mon sub­ject, but he did so in the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, just when abstrac­tion had achieved near-com­plete dom­i­na­tion of West­ern art. Though his work may not have been delib­er­ate­ly fash­ion­able, it was­n’t straight­for­ward­ly real­is­tic either. Even as they incor­po­rat­ed human­i­ty, his artis­tic visions twist­ed it out of shape, often in com­pli­cat­ed­ly grotesque or bloody ways. What could have inspired such endur­ing­ly night­mar­ish work?

That ques­tion under­lies Fran­cis Bacon: A Brush with Vio­lence, the 2017 BBC Two doc­u­men­tary above. Some answers are to be found in the painter’s life, whose frag­ile and asth­mat­ic ear­ly years were shad­owed by the for­mi­da­ble pres­ence of the elder Bacon, a Boer War vet­er­an and race­horse train­er. As Bacon’s friend and deal­er Lord Gowrie says, “His father got his sta­ble boys to whip him, and I think that start­ed one or two things off.” Like many stud­ies, the film draws con­nec­tions between Bacon’s har­row­ing art­works and his even more har­row­ing sex life, con­duct­ed in shad­owy under­worlds at great — and to him, seem­ing­ly thrilling — risk of phys­i­cal harm.

Bacon pro­ceed­ed down his long life’s every avenue in the same delib­er­ate­ly reck­less man­ner. As with men, mon­ey, and drink, so with art: he would gam­ble every­thing, as anoth­er inter­vie­wee puts it, on the next brush­stroke. His impul­sive cre­ation often pre­ced­ed equal­ly impul­sive destruc­tion, as evi­denced by one assis­tan­t’s mem­o­ries of fol­low­ing the artist’s orders to destroy a great many paint­ings that would now com­mand seri­ous prices at auc­tion. When Bacon real­ized what he need­ed to paint — a process that began with a youth­ful trip to Paris, where he first encoun­tered the work of Pablo Picas­so — he knew he could accept noth­ing else.

Those paint­ings attract ever more intense crit­i­cal scruti­ny, an enter­prise that has recent­ly pro­duced Fran­cis Bacon: A Taint­ed Tal­ent, the four-part doc­u­men­tary series just above from Youtube chan­nel Blind Dweller (recent­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for a video essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat). Almost whol­ly untrained in the clas­si­cal sense, Bacon devel­oped not just a dis­tinc­tive set of tech­niques for mak­ing vis­i­ble his tan­ta­liz­ing­ly appalling inner world, but also kept refin­ing those tech­niques to make his work ever less out­ward­ly shock­ing yet ever more affect­ing on sub­tler lev­els. In his life­time, this made him the high­est-paid artist in the world; more than thir­ty years after his death, he remains a move­ment of one.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Fran­cis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Sin­gu­lar Pro­file of the Sin­gu­lar Painter

William Bur­roughs Meets Fran­cis Bacon: See Nev­er-Broad­cast Footage (1982)

Art His­to­ry School: Learn About the Art & Lives of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gus­tav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch & Many More

The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paint­ings of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Video Essay

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Orson Welles Reads the Abolitionist John Brown’s Final Speech After Being Sentenced to Death

Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he direct­ed and starred in Cit­i­zen Kane, a film still wide­ly con­sid­ered the best ever made. Even then, he’d already been a house­hold name for at least three years, since his con­tro­ver­sial­ly real­is­tic radio adap­ta­tion of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. But Welles’ high pro­file at a young age came as a result of seri­ous work at an even younger one. His ear­li­er efforts include March­ing Song, a nev­er-pro­duced stage play about the abo­li­tion­ist John Brown, which he co-wrote with his for­mer school­mas­ter Roger Hill when he was just sev­en­teen years old.

Pub­lished only in 2019, March­ing Song proves that Welles had been work­ing in the frag­ment­ed-biog­ra­phy nar­ra­tive form well before Cit­i­zen Kane. It also shows the depth of his fas­ci­na­tion with the fig­ure of John Brown. As research, Welles and Hill vis­it­ed his­tor­i­cal sites includ­ing Harper’s Fer­ry, the Vir­ginia town in which Brown, in Octo­ber of 1859, led the raid on a fed­er­al armory meant as the first blow in a large-scale slave-lib­er­a­tion move­ment. As every Amer­i­can learns in school, Brown’s rebel­lion did not go as planned — not only did he lose more men than he’d expect­ed to, he also gained the coop­er­a­tion of few­er slaves than he’d expect­ed to — and brought the coun­try clos­er to civ­il war.

About two months lat­er, Brown became the first per­son exe­cut­ed for trea­son in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. That the ver­dict did­n’t take him by sur­prise is evi­denced by the elo­quence of his last speech, deliv­ered extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly after his con­vic­tion. Devout­ly reli­gious, he used it to make a final appeal to a high­er author­i­ty. “This court acknowl­edges, as I sup­pose, the valid­i­ty of the law of God,” he said. “I see a book kissed here which I sup­pose to be the Bible, or at least the New Tes­ta­ment. That teach­es me that ‘all things what­so­ev­er I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them.’ It teach­es me, fur­ther, to ‘remem­ber them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeav­ored to act up to that instruc­tion.”

He then added, “I am yet too young to under­stand that God is any respecter of per­sons” — with the clear irony that he was at that point 59 years old, not to men­tion inti­mate­ly famil­iar with the Bible. The grav­i­ty of the occa­sion, and of Brown’s demeanor, might have been too much for the teenage Welles to embody. But when he got old­er he did well indeed by the text of Brown’s last speech, a per­for­mance cap­tured in the video above. He’d also man­aged, writes Mass Live’s Ray Kel­ly, to “stage Mac­beth with an all-black cast in Harlem in 1936,” pro­duce “the con­tro­ver­sial Native Son on Broad­way,” and use radio “to seek jus­tice for blind­ed African-Amer­i­can vet­er­an Isaac Woodard Jr.” Welles nev­er had to face the gal­lows for his con­vic­tions, but could cer­tain­ly chan­nel the spir­it of a man who was pre­pared to.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty to Think Clear­ly About Racism

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

How Karl Marx Influ­enced Abra­ham Lin­coln and His Posi­tion on Slav­ery & Labor

When Orson Welles Became a Speech & Joke Writer for Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt

Orson Welles Nar­rates an Ani­mat­ed Para­ble About How Xeno­pho­bia & Greed Will Put Amer­i­ca Into Decline (1971)

When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Per­son­al­i­ty…. I Think There Was Noth­ing There.”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Behold a Secret Gallery of Art Created Using Discarded Gum on London’s Millennium Bridge

Through­out his­to­ry, deter­mined artists have worked on avail­able sur­faces — scrap wood, card­board, walls…

Ben Wil­son has cre­at­ed thou­sands of works using chew­ing gum as his can­vas.

Specif­i­cal­ly, chew­ing gum spat out by care­less strangers.

His work has become a defin­ing fea­tur­ing of London’s Mil­len­ni­um Bridge, a mod­ern struc­ture span­ning the Thames, and con­nect­ing such South Bank attrac­tions as Tate Mod­ern and the Shake­speare’s Globe with St. Paul’s Cathe­dral to the north.

A 2021 pro­file in The Guardian doc­u­ments the cre­ation process:

The tech­nique is very pre­cise. He first soft­ens the oval of flat­tened gum a lit­tle with a blow­torch, sprays it with lac­quer and then applies three coats of acrylic enam­el, usu­al­ly to a design from his lat­est book of requests that come from peo­ple who stop and crouch and talk. He uses tiny mod­el­ers’ brush­es, quick-dry­ing his work with a lighter flame as he goes along, and then seals it with more lac­quer. Each paint­ing takes a few hours and can last for many years.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Wil­son works very, very small.

For every Mil­len­ni­um Bridge pedes­tri­an who’s hip to the ever-evolv­ing solo exhi­bi­tion under­foot, there are sev­er­al hun­dred who remain com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous.

Stoop to admire a minia­ture por­trait, abstract, or com­mem­o­ra­tive work, and the bulk of your fel­low pedes­tri­ans will give you a wide berth, though every now and then a con­cerned or curi­ous par­ty will stop to see what the deal is.

Wil­son, who works sprawled on the bridge’s met­al treads, his nose close to touch­ing his tiny, untra­di­tion­al can­vas, receives a sim­i­lar response, as described in Zachary Den­man’s short doc­u­men­tary, Chew­ing Gum Man:

They make think I’ve fall­en over and they may think I’ve had a car­diac arrest or some­thing, so I’ve had lots of ambu­lances turn­ing up…I’ve had loads of police.

His sub­jects are sug­gest­ed by the shape of the spat out gum, by friends, by strangers who stop to watch him work:

I’ve had to deal with peo­ple memo­ri­al­iz­ing peo­ple who have been mur­dered. Peo­ple who have been so lone­ly, or remem­ber­ing favorite pets; peo­ple who are des­ti­tute in all sorts of ways. It goes from pro­pos­al pic­tures, ‘Will you mar­ry me?’, to peo­ple who I drew when they were kids and they now have their own kids.

Like any street artist, Wilson’s had his share of run ins with the law, includ­ing a wrong­ful 2010 arrest for crim­i­nal dam­age, when a crowd of school­child­ren who’d been enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly watch­ing an itty bit­ty St. Pauls tak­ing shape on a blob of gum wit­nessed him being dragged off by his feet. (He asked if he could fin­ish the pic­ture first…)

He may not get per­mis­sion to cre­ate the pub­lic works he goes out dai­ly to cre­ate, but he con­tributes by clear­ing the area of lit­ter, and as he points out, paint­ing on dis­card­ed gum doesn’t con­sti­tute defac­ing anyone’s actu­al prop­er­ty:

Tech­ni­cal­ly in one sense, I’m work­ing with­in the law …if I paint on chew­ing gum, it’s like find­ing No Man’s Land or com­mon ground. It’s a space which is not under the juris­dic­tion of a local or nation­al gov­ern­ment.

See more of Ben Wilson’s work in his online Gum Gallery.

Pho­tos in this arti­cle tak­en by Ayun Hal­l­i­day, 2022. All rights reserved.

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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