Thursday, August 16, 2007

Musée Patamécanique

Here’s my essay on the Musée Patamécanique, a tiny art institution filled with marvelous, curious contraptions in Bristol, Rhode Island. It turns out to be an intellectual hall of mirrors. The Musée is a museum for questioning museums, and art, and science, and officialdom, and facts, and the world.

Below are excerpts (out of order) from one of my interviews with the Musée’s curator, Neil Salley:

Patamechanics is both the study and the manifestation of physical objects and effects which are designed to entice pataphysical modes of inquiry. [Pataphysics] is the science of imaginary solutions. It is the underpinnings of our entire society. All words being equal, you can come up with any definition of it you like.

If you do, Mr. Cook, concur with the notion that we are what we pretend. Then what must naturally follow is so is everything else. … The heart of this endeavor is the notion that the order of things is a magnificent human creation. And its existence is legitimized through an unending series of sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous, but they’re always meaningful, and this is the key word, imaginary solutions. Most of us are ignorant of this submerged imaginary order that joins us all under the surface. If you follow the little red numbers, you do some archaeology, a little digging, you might come up with some more reasons for why and how and the way things work at Musée Patamécanique. There’s stuff there that can be gotten to if the viewer is curious. It’s not just a bunch of fun and silliness, although it is.

It’s a domain inspired by the work of a gentleman by the name of Dr. Faustroll. And it’s fun for the potential visitor if the function and the identity and the dimension of this domain are left playfully undefined. There’s some place for the potential visitor to go. Once the order is established for them and all the reasons are laid out, completely imaginary or not, then it’s not the experience that it was meant to be.

What we’re experiencing right now [a phone conversation] is an illusion. It’s trickery. I’m not really there. But you believe it. Who knows, I could be an artificial intelligence program and you wouldn’t even know it.

[The Musée] is a sensorium. The odor machine that mixes manmade odors into a yet another layer of illusory manmade odor. There are optical devices that make you see things that really aren’t there. There is a machine that actually effects the surface of your skin and makes you feel things, well they’re there, but it affects your sensorium in a playful way. It is a sensorium of illusions. And it’s no different from the sensorium that we exist in now. I drove into Massachusetts this morning and this sign on the road said, “You are now entering Massachusetts.” And in my imagination I saw this big black line. There’s no line, we made the line. We made the distances. We create the distances.

I don’t think confusion is a bad thing.

The symbol of the museum is a whisk. It’s the icon that has been chosen because it’s a blend of audience participation, it’s performance, it’s immersive installation, and it’s brought together in an attempt to render in the imagination of the visitor a world not unlike a child’s creation, a dream world. But it’s manifested as a means to rediscover the real world, which is ultimately revealed as yet another dream world.

It’s a playful manifestation of it. Businesses do it all the time. Organizations, institutions, schools, they invent themselves. And they take this all very seriously. But it’s all created. And this notion that we’re all part of this never-ending imaginary solution, all this unending creativity that is our world but we take it all very, very seriously. A thing like the Musée Patamécanique couldn’t exist inside another museum. It couldn’t exist in a gallery. It couldn’t even exist in a wonderful place like the Photographic Resource Center. Hans Spinnerman put some work in there and a little book on the Musée and it was successful in some ways but in others it was not. It can’t do what it does within the confines and context of an established institution.

You end up in a hall of mirrors. And that’s where I like to be. Where you come to the conclusion that, gosh, this is all just made-up stuff. It’s all a creative universe that we live in. Everything. It’s created. That line that people create between what’s real and what’s imaginary, there really is no line. The line is created just like that line I drove by today when I went from Rhode Island to Massachusetts.

The wonderment’s gone. We know now, science tell us, art theorists tell us “this is what, this is how, this is the reason,” and it’s all been put into neat little boxes for us. All the reasons are there in these encyclopedias, and my kids’ books even, it’s all organized perfectly, this is how it is to be. But no one ever stops and says this is all just really made-up stuff. I think once you point to that beautiful things happen. I see the world as a much more enticing and creatively driven place.

It’s outwardly engaging in that ready-made analytical language of science or technology or historic or museumological paradigms. That’s what I enjoy being engaged with on the outside. But inwardly, what’s interesting for me and potential visitors is to utilize these same contexts as a muse, as a whisk again. We attempt to stir up ideas and blur those distinctions we make between science or art, or reason or unreason, or truth or deception, the real and the illusory. It’s a playful reassessment that for me solicits a heightened awareness of the human mind’s capacity for tolerating epistemological dissonance. That is not a bad place to be.

Photos from top to bottom: Mr. Salley with the "Earolin" in the foreground and "A Time Machine" behind, photo by Richard Dione, and an image related to Musée contributor Hans Spinnermen's "The Dream of Timmy Bumble Bee," which was exhibited at Boston University's Photographic Resource Center in April.

Gorilla art at Franklin Park Zoo

Here’s my essay on an exhibit of paintings by gorillas at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. There is much art these days about the nature of art and being an artist, but how often do you get the chance to examine the artist’s paintings behind glass and then study the artist himself behind glass?

The exhibit, which includes seven works by Okie and one by Little Joe, provides an opportunity to ask: What is it that so intrigues us about the growing body of art made by apes, elephants and dogs?

As I discuss in my essay, we seem to be looking for what differentiates us from the rest of life on Earth. We crave some common language that will allow us to bridge the evolutionary gap that separates us from our critter cousins. Maybe animal art holds clues of where people art originated. And, of course, it amuses us as a circus stunt.

“Okie and Little Joe: A Retrospective,” Franklin Park Zoo, 1 Franklin Park Road, Boston, June 24 to Sept. 14, 2007.

At top, Okie paints with Zookeeper Brandi Moores. Other images are Okie’s paintings.

Country music as political art

Recently a friend criticized me for my swipe at contemporary country music in my review of Henry Horenstein’s photos of the 1970s country music scene:
Country music changed [after the ‘70s] too. It remains identified with American bedrock, but it got slicked-up and went big business and mainstream. It sings of the loves and broken hearts, drinking and manual labor, Jesus and patriotism of our white (especially rural and Southern) working class. These days that means conservative red state America and a steadfast hawkishness on our current wars. Toby Keith’s 2001 song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Lee Greenwood’s 1984 tune “God Bless the U.S.A.” became war rallying cries. (The troops’ soundtrack for contemporary combat, however, seems to be metal, based on footage that Iraq vets have given me and that I’ve seen on YouTube.) Considering the way our wars are going, perhaps contemporary country music deserves a warning label: This music may be hazardous to you and your nation’s health.
My friend said it was unfair to pan a whole genre of music – which wasn’t my intent. I certainly could have written the above more tightly, but what I meant to take on the politics of recent country music – country music at its most popular and heavily promoted.

In recent years, there’s been much talk about how political art tends to be lefty, but there’s been a steady stream of right wing art in movies, novels and country music. Toby Keith (pictured above performing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2005), as a best-selling country music star, is representative of what the genre stands for these days. Besides the usual songs about drinking and loving, he’s been a prominent war booster. The message of his song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which he has said he wrote a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, is straightforward: “You'll be sorry that you messed with/The U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way.” This was what a lot of Americans were feeling then. It’s basically a revenge fantasy and its words are not particularly right or left.

But, of course, it’s not just what you say but how and where you say it. Everyone has been speaking in political code, and his audience got the right-wing message – which apparently included (erroneously) linking Iraq with the Sept. 11 attacks. So “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” as CBS News reported at the end of 2003, was “used as a battle cry by U.S. armed services in Iraq. Bombs were branded with it. One of the first tanks into Baghdad was, as well. And none of that is lost on President Bush, who asked Keith to be his opening act several times this year.”

My issue here isn’t country music as a genre, but the substance and influence of country music that acts as political art – and, to cite a specific example, Keith’s right-wing music, which he performs at outright political events. Keith, who says he's a longtime Democrat, wrote on his website about his November 2003 album “Shock’N Y’All” (a pun on “shock and awe”): “I get accused of banging the war drum by the media – I’m all for peace, but from time to time we have no choice but to fight for our freedom.” What Keith apparently meant then – eight months in the Iraq war with no weapons of mass destruction found – was that he supported the Iraq war (and you should too) because it was a fight for our freedom. (Pictured above, Keith performs for troops at the Camp Fallujah chapel in Iraq in May 2006.)

Keith’s message has reach. His new album “Big Dog Daddy” debuted in the number one spot of the Billboard Album Charts when it was released June 12. This week it fell from 36th place to 38th. Billboard reported June 20 that 204,000 copies had already been sold in the United States. On the album, Keith performs the Craig Wiseman-Chris Wallin song “Love Me If You Can.” Keith says on his website, “This song wasn’t written for me, but it sounds like I wrote it myself. Every word Craig wrote tells it like it is for me.”

Here Keith reiterates the same themes he addressed eight months into the Iraq war: “Sometimes I think that war is necessary/Every night I pray for peace on earth” and then the chorus: “I’m a man of my convictions/Call me wrong/Call me right/But I bring my better angels to every fight./You might not like where I’m going/But you sure know where I stand/Hate me if you want to/Love me if you can.”

I take this talk of standing by his convictions to mean that he still supports Bush’s inept war policies. And note how the lyrics flip the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's line “the better angels of our nature” from the president’s March 1861 first inaugural address. That speech was Lincoln’s lawyerly argument to head off the start of the Civil War, appealing to "the better angels of our nature" for a peaceful resolution to the North and South’s strained relations. Keith’s "better angels" bring him to war.

In a later verse Keith adds: “And I believe that Jesus/Looks down here and sees us/If you ask him he would say…” and then he returns to the chorus: “I’m a man of my convictions/Call me wrong/Call me right/But I bring my better angels to every fight…” Keith is equating himself with Jesus and saying that his politics are Jesus’ politics. Wow.

Keith’s music – and hit songs of a similar bent by Clint Black ("Iraq and Roll"), Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”), etc. – was part of the apparatus that helped get us into our mess in Iraq, and as it becomes ever more clear how crappily the Iraq war has been promoted, planned and run, this sort of political art requires continued criticism.

The Dixie Chicks.
If it ain't pro war, it ain't on country radio.
Ditto – with comment by Kenny Rogers.
Pentagon stages political march with Clint Black.
An album you never heard of by Democratic country musicians frustrated with the style’s conservative image.
How country went conservative.
How country music soured on pimping for the Iraq war and started writing songs about how tough it is to be an American soldier. (For subscribers only)
Toby Keith responds to critics.