- Melinda Steffy
Ruination Day Manifesto
“Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger?” —Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
RUINATION DAY is not a documentary.
I am not trying to teach you history. In fact, although the stories are present in titles and structures, the stories themselves are not really the point. The narrative here isn’t linear. There isn’t a beginning, middle or end. There is no neatly packaged moral, nor singular Truth.
I am also not trying to teach you translation. Music becomes color, yes; rhythm becomes shape ― but that is merely alphabet, not the meaning itself. You don’t need to decode every moment. You don’t need to know the songs in order to see the paintings.
RUINATION DAY is about the architecture of information.
What are the building blocks of history? Of music? Of painting?
Through these abstract geometric paintings and drawings, I have deconstructed the time-based structure of music and rebuilt it as simultaneous pattern. The past and the present and the future all in one abstract space.
RUINATION DAY is muscle memory in your fingers and the echo of a tune you heard once that still rings in your ears. It is music as a vessel we use to carry along what matters.
RUINATION DAY is repetition, nuance, and catastrophe.
“God Moves on the Water” by Blind Willie Johnson
VERSE 1: Repetition (The Titanic)
You hear the same melody, repeated. You hear the same words at different moments. “God moves, God moves, people had to run and pray.” You listen to the same song over and over again, until that melody and those words stick in your mind. You sing that song with friends and soon they remember it too.
On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. We hear this story a lot. It is a cultural touchstone, familiar thanks to films and books and a certain primal fascination with the suffering of the glamorous.
The “unsinkable” ship. The maiden voyage. The urgency to keep the vessel on schedule. The lack of inspection and maritime regulation. The ignored warnings. The inadequate lifeboats. The unheard calls for help. A series of mishaps and misadventures that killed 1500 people, mostly crew and third-class passengers.
We tell this story a lot. And not just when we’re talking about that historic event of that Titanic. Our news cycles are full of stories about pursuing profit over safety, or convenience over quality of life.
Luxury over lifeboats.
Repetition is at the core of our being.
I think a lot about repetition. We are built by repetition. We construct our lives in routines. The sequence of one day becomes the template for the next, and so on until we have built years and lifetimes of habits. Values. Assumptions. Ideologies. The next generation builds on the repetition of what came before, and we continue walking the same slow, steady cycles as our ancestors.
You repeat the song to your children because it is part of you, and you know it will become part of them.
19th-century folk ballad “Booth Killed Lincoln“
VERSE 2: Nuance (Lincoln)
The melody repeats, but the words are different. Complex.
You understand the context: theater, flags, war. There are costumes and props: a dagger, boots, broadcloth. Emotions: celebration, rage, grief. The length of an aisle. The motives of an assassin. The regretful words of a dying president.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator (flawed! complex! human!) was killed by an actor at a play.
We know this story. It is epic. And yet, the song gives it nuance, a shape outside of archetypes and hyperbole. We are invited to enter the space and be present with these characters. We hear multiple perspectives, and yet we know in the end whose side we are on.
I think a lot about nuance. We become human through nuance. When we look for subtlety, when we accept difference and imperfection, that is where we each find our own being. That is where we discover empathy for others’ beings.
The pattern crumbles a little. Repetition gives way to uniqueness. A story we thought we already knew becomes fresh, unexpected. We enter a story that is alive.
I am who I am because of the sum total of my nuances.
“Great Dust Storm” by Woody Guthrie
VERSE 3: Catastrophe (the Dust Bowl)
I’m sure you know by now that catastrophe is the name of the game.
On April 14, 1935, the worst dust storm of the Dust Bowl devastated the Midwest. The destructive agriculture of colonizing landowners, who plowed up native grasses to farm wheat, combined with a decade of drought and extreme weather conditions, led to the “black blizzard.” Across Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, unknown numbers of people and animals died from inhaling dust, and after the storm, nearly one-third of the population fled the Great Plains.
I think about catastrophe. The endless repetition of catastrophe. How so much of the media and entertainment we consume today requires disaster. Death, violence, chaos. We feast on bodies and blood.
And yet, I wonder, perhaps it is not merely gratuitous. On some level, we are all shaped by the sorrow we bear. By cycles of ancestral pain. And death as entertainment might be the manifestation of our collective griefs, mythologized as post-apocalyptic nightmares and cop shows and the 11 o’clock news and a few folk songs along the way.
Catastrophes are our anchors. Even though they drag us down, we cling to them in the face of our own drowning.
When the dust settles, or the boat sinks, or the leader dies, who do we blame? Who bears the brunt of our rage?
Do we give in to repetition, easy habits of hatred and fear? Or do we seek nuance? Do we try to understand our own complicity? Do we try to break the cycles that perpetuate the same pain?
Perhaps, like railroad icon Casey Jones, we can become heroes. Perhaps we can give our own lives to stave off disaster for others.
“Ruination Day, Part II” by Gillian Welch
CODA: A Personal Story
On the evening of April 13, I went into labor. On the evening of April 15, my son was born. His arrival was nothing but joy.
But that day in between, that April 14, remains one of the longest days of my life. 24 hours of anticipation, uncertainty, the accumulating pain required to bring out new life.
“It was not December and it was not May, was the fourteenth of April that is Ruination Day.” —Gillian Welch, Ruination Day, Part II