By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Then Allen’s friend Jessica Hutchins builds a humongous leather hydraulic bodybuilder torso. People mount it and ride it like a mechanical bull. Square-dance fiddle music plays as people growl and fling themselves onto the gyrating torso. A Glade plug-in releases doe-musk pheromone.
Then, as the Iraq war rages, a guy named Brody Condon brings in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of Medieval enthusiasts, to stage a battle in the gallery. Allen locks the warriors into the building and tunes the TV to CNN. “It was about the war in this silly but subtle way,” he says. “At first, people were amazed at the spectacle, but soon it became just this normal thing. They were talking and drinking outside on the curb while off in the distance this crazy battle was going on.”
Then Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver cart in a giant hollow Styrofoam log. Its bark is modeled after the bark of the quinine tree. When you look into the log you see a tiny diorama of a theater stage, the backdrop of which is a vast (but small) landscape, with mountains and trees. Dermestid museorum, a.k.a. Linnaeus beetles, used by museums and taxidermists to eat the flesh off animal bones, bore slowly through the log, eating the sculpture, staging, in the artist’s words, “the Waking of Brunhilda scene from Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle.’ ” Historically, the beetles are famous for escaping into museums and eating entire collections of botanical specimens. Thus, the log is about Western ideas of controlling and systematizing nature, about the way nature in turn rebels and destroys that system from the inside out. But it is also about madness and how closely those involved in the pursuit of science can skirt its razor’s edge: Quinine causes intense nightmares, but when consumed in small quantities it cures malaria.
There have been many more events. Some beautifully ridiculous, like the musical series based on the origins of the rainbow, in which all listeners are asked to wear the same color. Some usefully ridiculous, like the USB-power-hacking workshop on how to make an electric fan that plugs into your computer. Some misleadingly ridiculous, but which actually have deep implications for the way we interact with and move around in the world, such as University of California, Irvine, doctoral student Garnet Hertz’s three-wheeled mobile-vehicle robot — driven by a big cockroach. And some that are just plain, old-fashioned ridiculous, such as poetry readings in which the poet bursts through a hoop like a cheerleader.
Allen lives on the cusp of two worlds: He has the scientist’s commitment to reason and responsibility, and the artist’s sense of play. The curiosity of the one to figure out life and how it works, and the desire of the other to do the exact same thing — then fuck it all up again. Why? Because he can.
One day, there happens to be a crochet demonstration at the gallery and a lecture on hyperbolic space put on by science journalist Margaret Wertheim and mathematician Daina Taimina. Taimina discovered that crochet could represent a mind-bending type of space called hyperbolic space, and Allen had arranged for her to teach people how. A dozen women and a few men sit in a circle on folding chairs, crocheting. Allen fiddles with a piece of yarn. “I’d like to try this with a bigger rope,” he says, “like the kind they tie ships with.”
Wertheim, who writes the Weekly’s Quark Soup column and heads the Institute for Figuring, speaks about how the discovery of hyperbolic space was equivalent in magnitude to the discovery of negative numbers, about how the human brain is rather hyperbolic-looking and, because of this, is an ideal shape for storing mass quantities of information. In fact, hyperbolic might actually be the shape of our universe — no one is certain just yet. The folks in attendance look alternately confused and rapt, and they begin asking questions that poke at the edges of what Wertheim is saying.
Allen stands outside.
“How amazing is that?” he says, looking inside. “You walk by and there’s a woman talking — like in those evangelical churches you see at night in mini-malls up and down Sunset Boulevard. Except for the past hour she’s been pointing to a screen where there’s nothing but a circle, a dot and a line.”
“And you’re not listening to it,” I note.
He takes a sip of his beer. “Oh, I never listen.”
Allen is a funny guy, but he is almost never joking. He invites me to attend an evening of experimental electronic music. It looks as if a marching band has collided with a gang of computer programmers — laptops and drums everywhere. Jason Brown, Machine Project’s associate director and Allen’s right-hand man, had brought in a large, round brass pot they identified as a Turkish water heater. Brown is a big, floppy teddy bear of a guy. He has a soft-spoken, gentle demeanor. Brown and Allen had decided that it was high time to start asking people for donations. The free beer was getting expensive.