By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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“There are people in our lives who we have a great bantering relationship with,” Allen is telling me, by way of explaining how he selects the art. People come to him in large part for his aesthetic. “Maybe you’re out eating, and there’s that moment where you think of an idea and go, ‘That would be so cool!’ but it’s just so ridiculous. I like to take that moment, that fantastical play of the mind, and make it happen.” He was out with florist Holly Vesecky one night, and Vesecky said she’d always wanted to make Mount St. Helens out of flowers.
“Great!” said Allen, “let’s do it.” They built a volcano out of wood and chicken wire and covered it with fresh flowers and rigged it to erupt a shower of petals. It was silly and romantic, and to Allen nothing is better than being able to say yes to something like that. “We spent $1,000 of my own money, and even more of Holly’s, and it was a buttload of work,” he says, “but the idea that the aesthetics of creating this for someone for a day is more important than the money. There’s something so pleasurable about that. It’s not that much money if you have a lot of money, but I don’t.”
We are backstage at the gallery, in the room where they keep their crap, the stuff they use to make events happen: computers, a pingpong table, manuals, books, snacks, bottled water, a ladder, a sewing machine, about a gazillion power tools. Allen is simultaneously checking e-mail, fielding phone calls and downloading jpegs of kittens. “Well, have you tried sledgehammering it?” he says into his cell, to persons unknown.
“Huh,” he grunts. “What we really need is an anvil.”
There is usually some kind of wacky story behind the stuff at Machine. Take the shoji screens. Allen didn’t want to punch holes in the walls to attach them. The answer, he decided, was extremely powerful magnets. He procured some but when they did not work, he sold the magnets online. The purchasers were the Buried Alive guys from Austria, who happened to do art involving data erasure and were desperately in need of Allen’s extremely powerful magnets. Being backstage at Machine is not unlike being inside the lair of a very busy kid who wants to be an inventor when he grows up. Every item has some unimaginable yet deadly-serious purpose.
The four main staff members of Machine Project are Allen, Jason Brown, intern Brian Tse and intern Ryan O’Toole. Tse was a student of Allen’s at the University of California, San Diego. After graduating, he followed Allen to Los Angeles. “I just wanted to be around Mark,” he told me, “because he does creative things. I asked if I could hang out and do odd jobs.”
For a while, the Machine Project staffers discussed the possibility of building a series of modular boxes, like a giant Rubik’s Cube. They would keep Allen inside one of the cubes, in the way of a human terrarium, and deploy him as needed.
Before Machine, Allen was part of an art collective called C-level. They put on events like “Cockfight Arena,” in which people dressed up like giant chickens, hooked up to a computer and fought each other as if in a real-life video game. C-level was hidden deep in the heart of Chinatown, behind a seafood restaurant, down a dark alley, beside a trash dumpster, through an unmarked door, and if you didn’t already know somebody who knew how to get there, you were out of luck.
“I wanted a space where you could just walk in,” says Allen. “It’s to the detriment of a lot of art scenes to have the same 45 people over and over, where 35 people are artists and 10 people are collectors.” He pauses. “Most art galleries are not that friendly. It’s a little icy. I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t have it fully articulated yet. If the work is less accessible, it makes you feel inferior when you see it. Like you’re dumb, or you don’t understand what it’s about, or you’re not rich enough to collect. People’s need for status is one of the things that drives them to buy art. It’s like going to Barney’s. It’s all about being a little uncomfortable. The way you deal with that discomfort and show you belong is by buying, to prove you can afford the expensive stuff. What I try to do here is to create the exact opposite experience.”
One might argue that Machine itself has fallen into the very trap it seeks to spring, that its shows and experiences are just as esoteric, alienating and difficult to comprehend as anything else extant in the gallery world. It’s a fine line to walk. Not everybody will get the Machine mystique.
In the months I spend with Allen, events come and go, each painstakingly archived in the Machine Project Web site (machineproject.com) under the basic rubric of Past, Present and Future. First, the mushrooms roll in. Philip Ross — an artist-in-residence at San Francisco’s Exploratorium — grows giant reishi mushrooms, training the fungi like bonsai, letting them spill into various containers, controlling their oxygen and carbon dioxide and light.