Wayne is a California based artist and author more information on his works can be found at his site Terrible Beauty
Speed Levitch is tour guide, voice actor, and essayist whose sum parts create a whole of an urban philosopher. Regardless of the medium he uses, a direct line of descendance can be drawn from other generation's social commentators; Mark Twain, Will Rogers, H.L Mencken, Groucho Marx to Speed. Speed takes time out of his schedule to chat and shows how for him the muse will always be not the city but THE CITY.
Wayne Wolfson: You first came into the non-New Yorker's conscience via the 1998 documentary by Bennett Miller The Cruise. How did the documentary come about?
Speed: I was good friends with his younger brother in high school and you know how it is when you have a friend in high school you sleep over their house sometimes and if they have an older sibling they will show up every once in a while, sticking their head in the door to remind you that you are a loser. That is the way that I met Bennett. He was my friend Teddy's older brother.
WW: To anybody who has not seen the film, in its most pared down explanation, it is your valentine to New York City delivered as you guide Gray Line bus tours through the city. For how long had you been doing the tours before the documentary was made?
Speed: I was with Apple Tours for two and a half years and with Gray Line, eventually for three and a half years. My double decker career in New York was a six year span. The documentary began being shot in 1994 and went through to 1997. The footage is mostly from the fourth and fifth year of my tour guide life.
WW: While doing the tours, did you ever have anyone ignore the poetry of what you were saying and dispute a fact?
Speed: Of course, it really is street theater. Just like with theater you get all sorts of reactions.
WW: During the making of the documentary, aside from your own actions, did you have any say in any aspect of it?
Speed: No, my role was really... was surrender when it came time for post production. In the restaurant business you know how there is front of the house and back of the house? I was front of the house, in front of the camera and then post production was in the kitchen. I didn't really... I just brought out the salads.
WW: Upon looking back on it now, do you still feel in touch with the man caught on film?
Speed: Yeah, in fact the book I am working on lately is mostly material I wrote at that time when I was 25-26 years old. Now I am approaching 40 and it has been really fun, kind of an artistic experiment but also just flat out fun to go back and edit that material. To help reshape it a little bit. It is like being 40 and having a conversation with your 25 year old self.
WW: It's like time travel almost.
Speed: Yeah - it's really fun and it's real. I think that conversation definitely goes throughout the life, kind of the bebop, jazz and rhythm of evolving.
WW: Has the advent of the internet made it easier for you to experiment with what mediums you use to get your work out there?
Speed: Absolutely. It is very liberating. Ten years ago in New York I was working for the burgeoning of website companies that were dreaming of the landscape we have today. I literally feel like I am at play and currently I am creating and experiencing my own radical self expression in the dreamscape of those people ten years ago. This is the dream they dreamt.
WW: You participated in the art project We Live in Public. The project sounds like the evil offspring of William Reich and a peep show. How did your participation in that come about?
Speed: I wasn't aware of the William Reich and the peep show. I am going to write that down. That sounds interesting.
WW: William Reich was a behaviorist and in the 1920's he worked and collaborated with Freud but then he went off in another direction. Kind of looking at group mentality and how you can sculpt the individual's moral landscape, actions or perceptions by sculpting the group mentality.
Speed: I am at a bit of a disadvantage because I still haven't seen the We Live in Public documentary. I was in there for just a little bit; I got to taste the experiment. I was hanging out with Ondi Timoner at the time, a great amazonian lady. Her last name is the name of a Russian village that was totally erased in World War II. She carries that name. She's a force of nature.
Since I can't comment about the documentary film in specifics I would like to comment on documentary filming...
I did get a really cool view into a project there and for the short time that I was hanging out with Ondi, I saw a documentarian with a complicated documentary subject, in Josh Harris. I suppose I was given that opportunity, like a delicious opportunity on a platter because I had just been through my own dance as a documentary subject with a complicated documentarian. It is a fascinating conversation how this comes together.
Ondi was in a very different position then. She had not done, she was still working on Dig, and she had all the materials for Dig. It was an ongoing work in progress; in fact she was trying to raise money for it at the time she was shooting We Live in Public. So things change after you get the validation of Dig.
WW: What's interesting is that Josh Harris, who came up with the idea of We Live in Public. He had made his money initially because he had gleamed on to how to collate all these numbers and figures that NASDAQ then picked up on. He made like $80 million which he lost all of, but what's a shame is that with the We Live in Public; there is information there that you definitely could do something with but he didn't think to really collect it. So it's a missed opportunity.
I think, obviously being an outsider just looking in, the problems or break down of this mini - microcosm society happened because no one was given anything to do. Humanity will always devolve if either you have nothing to do or if all there is to do is think about how to survive. If you read certain accounts of World War II, if all you had to think about was how you are going to eat or where you were going to sleep, you lose your humanity just as if you have no goals. It seems as if there was no information about that aspect of devolution collected from We Live in Public.
Speed: Your point about 'doing' is spectacular and that is not to leave out 'being.' I often feel like being is the kernel inside the chocolate of doing. The best kind of doing can result in being but having people doing would have made that experiment so much different. It also makes me think a little about Burning Man which was an arts festival I went to for a few years.
Burning Man is an example of a place where people are very busy. It is a place of tremendous doing. Hell, those artists improvise an entire city. When it is up and running it is the third largest city in the state of Nevada. All that doing and all that laboring is because I guess they are either being simultaneously, or the result of it is a giant permission to be.
WW: Are you familiar with the famous Austrian philosopher named Frankl? It is almost like Frankl's logisim which is man's search for meaning. We Live in Public there was no meaning so you just saw humanity devolving.
Speed: Yeah - that's right. I remember thinking to myself in the time that I was in the We Live in Public experiment, those are the same years when I was attending Burning Man each summer, and I remember the mess that would be left out at night on the big table. Burning Man was the only large event, populated with thousands of humans being, where I have been and there is not one piece of litter at the end of the night. You know how after some rock concerts it looks like a battle came through but what it was is that the major law of Black Rock City, which is what they call it (Burning Man) since it is in Black Rock Desert. That major law is that you must participate, no spectating. In fact they had bleachers set up, barren bleacher seats which they called Spectator Camp. If you wanted to be a spectator they had bleachers for you. The two main laws were: Leave no trace and you have to participate. Participation could take on many forms: giving, bringing a camp that was fun for people. The whole thing is a gift economy so you had to give what you can. It kind of relates to RuPaul's famous maxim "Everybody has to bring something to the birthday party."
WW: Or like the base saying "Ass, gas or grass; no one rides for free."
Speed: With this law that everyone participates came this new kind of urban pride. People felt like artists co-collaborating on a sculpture and that sculpture was Black Rock City, which they were living in. They would pick up aluminum cans. They would pick up every piece of litter as if it were a canvas they were the painters of.
If you give people that kind of new level of responsibility which I guess comes with the empowerment of creativity; suddenly there is no littering.
WW: It is sad that this can't be brought forth just into every day living outside of there. It seems like once you get more than x amount of people that feel like they are only transient to the area, they just kind of don't care. I think that's the same phenomenon of why public restrooms are always so nasty; because people figure "oh well I'm not going to be coming back."
Speed: Yeah. That's the primary ingredient of a way station because the people feel transient there - yes!
WW: Artistically, you could be seen to be in direct descendance from other great social commentators such as Will Rogers, Mark Twain and H.L Mencken. You have written essays, some of which appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Essays and your own book Speedology. Does the verbiage change for you depending upon the medium you are using?
Speed: I have always had my on voice and one way or another I am always working with my own unique voice. It is true that as a writer I am constantly kind of adapting to an assignment, either one sent out by me or by the world. Even in the case of the tour guide book Speedology I thought that was a good example.
I never had any notion of writing a tour guide book. I never thought I would. I'm still not sure if that is exactly a tour guide book because there are a few things going on at once. I still have hope for the future of Speedology. When I was first asked to write a tour guide book I was pretty taken aback. That had never occurred to me. That didn't come naturally. I felt like that was a callisthenic stretch for my spirit to write that one.
WW: What aside from NYC informed your art/philosophy?
Speed: I think my first inspiration from New York was just the pure stimulation. That clarified understanding that rang true to me from early on in my cruise, that stimulation is autobiographical. When feeling that stimulation you're being reminded of who you are. That feeling of aliveness that came from walking the streets and being present in that circuit of simultaneity. It is a profound place to chill within the mass confinement of New York City.
I brought a lot of stress, anxiety and artistic need/urge to express to a kind of Galapagos island that develops, mostly due to just being imbued with so much stimulation, those rocks themselves are some sort of geological sparks that have had tons of interesting things happening on the back sides of them for thousands of years, ever since the Wisconsin Glacier melted.
WW: Could you have artistically have evolved as you had in any (other) major city?
Speed: I do think so. I have lived in a couple of other cities, I feel that any city is a teacher. The teacher itself is the aggregate collection of all the wisdom within the city limits, which is a hell of a lot. And even within the basic intersection of a city, interconnectedness is the purpose and the look of it. The web of life is coursing through it. The daily activities of the city, the 'city teacher' is dropping life lessons on the population. Congestion, traffic, a characteristic which every city shares. I think traffic is always the 'city teacher's' method of inflicting patience on these urban populations that are clearly addicted to impatience.
WW: Yes, it is like the Zen Master lesson of patience through gridlock.
Speed: Truly, truly. I think that from the 'City teacher's' point of view, a traffic jam is actually a tantric orgy complete with exhaust and horns. And when you are listening to it from the city teacher's point of view you're psyched. You are having a pretty good afternoon.
So in a way I think that developing as a person or a city dweller can be weird and you can be tutored by any of these great city masters/teachers.
WW: What is the reception of your work in Europe?
Speed: Well I am still just ankle deep in those waters. I have been on the look out for opportunities to get some of this stuff over there. There was a documentary film festival in Paris that showed The Cruise last year. I have been working on a pilot with Richard Linkletter called Magical History Tour. Currently it's just a 22 minute idea for TV kind of thing. I was always looking for people in London to show it to because I always thought shows like that would be great for the British. I have done several radio interviews over the years for Swedish National Radio.
WW: I actually live in Paris for a time every year. There's a pretty good, it's almost like a do-it-yourself ethos but they are a little more professional; not really staple-xerox zines. I have always imagined that you would go over really well in Paris. Especially because New York to them is like this magical, kind of a Shangri-lah kind of place.
Speed: I remember that from when they were visiting in New York, like on the double decker bus. That was definitely the energy they were sending out, like this magical - crazy - instant.
WW: If you read any biographies on the great modern artists from 1920 on, Like Picasso, Modigliani and all those guys. New York was the Mecca and the embodiment of the 'New'; the new atomic age of concrete, neon and jazz.
WW: You left NYC for Kansas City, what was behind this move?
Speed: I actually spent a few years in San Francisco in between. I think that the diasporas just moves through my blood. I was always kind of a traveler, at least in my mind. It became very natural to me to enjoy all of these different cities. They are all different stage sets for human dramas, of the unfolding reality. I thought it would be fun to live in a few different places.
The idea of the New Yorker and New York Pride, I am glad it is there for the people who are into it but for me, I never felt it. I am much more interested in boundlessness than boundaries, the unknowable than the knowable. The idea that a person is supposed to be a New Yorker and be there all your life; well I like always having a foot in New York but I don't even agree with the term New Yorker.
What is a term? A term is when language and laziness hang out and have a beer. A term is series of syllables put together to help move the afternoon along so we don't have to think or feel too much about things. Even the idea of the term New Yorker is kind of funny, its ironic because according to the last census I saw (which was even a couple of censuses ago) there are 115 different foreign languages spoken on the streets of New York city daily so what is New Yorker. As a term it is broad and vague yet at the same time I know it has resonance and it makes you think a certain way.
WW: The cadence of your voice is distinctive and well suited for voice work. You were one of the main characters for the animated Stroker & Hoop (2004-2005) voicing Hoop. What are your memories of the show?
Speed: Some wonderful memories, a wonderful show. I am still rooting for us to get a second season.
WW: Was there an actual last episode?
Speed: The final episode we did ends with a question mark. It is the one full of flashbacks when the boys are hanging upside down in CARR over the grand canyon like pit.
Those guys are really talented writers. They were really fun directors.
WW: How did you come by being in the show?
Speed: They invited me to audition. I had been working on a performance art experiment in New York called the Shakespeare Delivery Troupe and I had a very quick 3 minute segment on NPR. Jeff happened to hear it while in rush hour traffic in Atlanta. He heard my voice, laughed and thought that would be cool for Hoop. So even though I didn't have a formal agent at the time, I was asked to audition. There were four or five call backs, it was pretty competitive. I am really glad they invited me to audition it was a great experience.
WW: You also have fronted your own band 'The Ongoing Wow' reciting poetry over free-form music. Is having your voice/words heard and being so in the forefront as opposed to buildings streets being seen while you talk during a tour a different mind set for you?
Speed: Over the years it has been a few different things. I love to rock out. I love to jump up and down. When I was first in training as a tour guide I was just amazed by some of my tour guide teachers. Some of these people that I was taking notes from, going to their classes and on their tours, some of these New York historians would just blow your mind with the encyclopedic knowledge.
They would do a 2 hour lecture about something, starting on that topic and one digression after another. They would leave that topic so far behind. You could just see their minds reeling and moving from one digression to the next: one symphonic movement of the city's history onward. It often felt like you could put those people on any block in the city and they could tell you what was there a hundred years ago.
As a young person, I was mostly going to Fishbone shows and skanking. I loved Ska, The Clash and punk music. This encyclopedic knowledge which I greatly respected and I took careful notes, their tours were just so dry. No rock and roll! Where was the bass, you know? How are you going to get the children to mosh with that?
So, that was my goal to bring some rock and roll to what they were doing. Embrace the beauty of that story of New York, which is a rich and incredible story, and their knowledge of it but bring the Clash into it.
WW: What do you aspire to and how has that changed from your youth?
Speed: Not much has changed. My aspirations are a lot like when I was 15, in high school. Psychologically I still feel very 15. Having a good time, radically self expressing, going for greatness, girl watching; these are all still my priorities.
WW: What would you name as your top three must read books?
Speed: This is fun. And of course, I am sure you identify. I'm a little fickle. The answer would change. Right now: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, The Trouble With Being Born by Emil Cioran and The Multi-Orgasmic Man by Mantak Chia. Not to exclude everybody, Mantak has a book called The Multi-Orgasmic Couple; I don't want to segregate.
WW: Thanks for your time
Image above: Whisky Samba (watercolor on paper) by Wayne Wolfson
Wayne is a California based author more information on his works can be found at his site Terrible Beauty