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The Collector of Experiences 

Mark Allen and his Machine Project

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
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T hey were burying people alive the first time I went to Machine Project. Someone had dug a hole in the ground, into which a coffin was lowered. A group of Austrian artists known as monochrom were putting on an event called “Experience the Experience of Being Buried Alive!” It was an invitation to confront death.

“There is no external ventilation,” someone announced, “there is no easy means of escape. You will be buried alive for real. People interested in doing this, you’ll need to sign the waiver.”

One by one, folks got inside the coffin; others power-drilled the lid shut. A video camera projected the proceedings onto a wall, while another camera inside the coffin let those waiting in line observe the interred. A couple on a first date who had asked to be jointly buried began to kiss, and a crew from NPR documented the entire affair.

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“The drilling of the lids is taking longer than I thought it would,” said a guy dressed like an officiating mortician — black suit, formal shirt, black tie. As it was a warm night to be mucking around with soil and coffins, he was sweating. He swiped a napkin across his forehead. “Next time we’re doing mass graves.”

The sweaty guy in the mortician suit was Machine Project creator Mark Allen. Maybe it’s the vividness of the events he hosts, but when you haven’t seen Allen for a while, it’s almost easy to forget what he looks like: average height, average build, with straight, cropped, dark brown hair that sticks up at times as if he’s just walked through an electrical storm. He is 36, with an angular, foxlike and boyishly handsome face — he is in almost every way like a frighteningly intelligent boy — and the wiry, compact body of an ex-skater. He favors beat-up old jeans and T-shirts, and to see him on the street you would think he is just an ordinary guy, and not the brains behind one of the most unusual and unlikely galleries in Los Angeles.

Take, for instance, the hole in the floor of Machine Project. Circular, an inch wide and sealed with glass, the hole is a rift in the space-time continuum — though you would never guess it, located as it is within an ordinary brick-and-mortar “T,” illuminating the extraordinary things that can sometimes be seen within: the skeleton of a unicorn, say, or a fluffy piece of hyperbolic space. If you look closely, you will see that there are actually many holes in the gallery floor, accidentally drilled during the construction of various projects. But, for now at least, this is only the one that violates the fabric of reality as we know it.

The Machine obsession was born three years ago, when Allen was looking for a place to live. He saw the space on Alvarado just north of Sunset and rented it on a whim. That’s Allen: the guy who goes out hunting for an apartment and comes back with an art gallery. Albeit one the size of your average living room. Simply decorated, with plain white walls. Mucky wood floors and translucent-plastic shoji screens that cut the space in two. Outside: a plain glass storefront window, a metal gate to keep out vandals, and an old television monitor mounted above the door. Sometimes, cryptic graffiti scribblings appear on the glass, a reminder that Echo Park was and still technically is Sureños gang territory. The modesty of the setting contrasts crazily with the loftiness of Allen’s ambitions. Machine Project exists at the intersection of art and science — it’s Nikola Tesla by way of P.T. Barnum, with a dash of The Anarchist Cookbook.

It’s a gallery, but there is no art hanging on the walls. It’s a community center, but the “community” has no concrete parameters and is ever shifting. People take classes there — events are often structured around lectures, a setup Allen calls “casual pedagogy” — but it isn’t a school. People attend art openings that feel more like intimate house parties, but anybody, literally anybody, is invited to just walk on in. Allen is a collector of people, not artists necessarily, but rather people who have interesting ideas and ways of looking at the world — engineers, chemists, physicists, astronomers, computer geeks, historians, students, teachers, enthusiasts of all kinds. He is also a collector of experiences. Any machine, after all, is a sum of its parts.

Fantastical Play of the Mind

Spring has come to Machine Project, and the major piece they are working on, titled Mach Infinity, is “a floral planetarium,” essentially a giant metal geodesic dome covered in leaves and petals. It is Machine’s most ambitious project to date: “Mach Infinity,” reads their online program catalog, “proposes an alternative figurative technology for depicting the 16th of Charles Messier’s noncomet ‘fuzzy’ objects, the Eagle Nebula. When we look at an image of the nebula, we are not seeing how the nebula ‘really’ looks, but rather a complex metaphorical representation. We hope to . . . ask viewers to consider the metaphorical nature of the most seemingly realistic rendering of data.”

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