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
“I expect it to be a veritable moneymaking machine!” said Allen of the Turkish water heater. “Hey, we should build some kind of machine to serve as our moneymaking machine.”
So a few months later, Allen e-mails me an invitation to a Christmas “Fry-be-que” party. At the party, as joked/promised, they have actually built the moneymaking machine. Clear-plastic tubes (connected to a 200-horsepower industrial dust vacuum) snake around the ceiling like a giant hamster Habitrail. When you flick a switch, the vacuum sucks money out of the donor’s hand. Dollar bills go whirling around the ceiling into a collection hopper. They christen it the Pneumatic Cash Machine. Its tubes used to be more loopy, but bills kept getting stuck in corners. “Too much vector physics,” Brown murmurs.
Though the $30 in donations from the Turkish water heater will not nearly offset the cost of building it, the Pneumatic Cash Machine is paying itself back in laughs: Every few minutes, the vacuum motor roars and people cheer.
You can trace the beginnings of Machine’s evolution back to a different party, Independence Day, circa 1997. Allen was in college then — doing the CORE residency at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, with magna cum laude at Skidmore College in New York and a summer at Yale before that — and he was obsessed with throwing parties. Big ones. On the Fourth of July, as he tells it, he and 600 of his closest friends decided they were going to send a guy in a lawn chair up into space. They spent the day playing music, drinking, hammering, drilling and inflating balloons with 12 full-size helium tanks. They cut down nearby trees to get a clear line of sight. When Allen’s landlord came home, he was aghast.
In the end, the guy in the lawn chair didn’t get very far. “He just kind of hovered above the house,” Allen says. “It was really kind of magical.” He refers to that crucible time as Revolution Summer. It would become the rough model of what he wanted to do in art and in life. The communal effort and camaraderie. The irreverence. The strange, unlikely, magic moment. Because parties, he decided, are only so interesting until they become boring. The human brain eventually craves more.
There is nothing else quite like Machine Project in Los Angeles. The Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Institute for Figuring come close, in terms of aesthetics, as does the Center for Land Use Interpretation — the latter largely in the sense that both it and Machine defy categorization in a similar, hypercerebral, mind-bending way. Allen and Brown love McSweeney’s Publishing’s pirate-supply store in San Francisco, because it sells designer glass pirate eyes, and pirate eye-patches and pirate perfume and pirate message bottles, and why the hell not have a store for pirate paraphernalia even though technically your business is books? Nevertheless, Machine Project doesn’t have any big private or corporate grants. It doesn’t sell the art it shows. It doesn’t even sell T-shirts. If Allen were interested in fund-raising, they would have a lot of funds, he reasons. Because whatever you are interested in works. Allen is interested in ridiculous shows. So they have a lot of ridiculous shows.
Thus far, he has had to fund the gallery with his own credit card, but still he claims to not much think about where the money is going to come from. “As a result,” he says, with a sheepish smile, “I’ve created a financial disaster.”
Allen says that Machine, the entirety of the Machine experience — the shows, the people who attend the shows and what they think and say about the shows, the artists, the e-mails, even the work that interns Tse and O’Toole do — is his sprawling meta art piece. It is a bold, almost megalomaniac thing to express, more along the lines of social engineering than anything else, and is slippery in the manner of philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. The rhizome in botany is the stem of a plant, from which roots shoot out, one root branching out into the next ad infinitum; it is what makes the plant grow. You can enter the system at any point, and no point is better or worse than another. Multiplicity is key. Everything is connected.
For a while, Allen was a painter. He made more than 600 paintings and drawings while he was in Houston. “They were very personal,” he says, offhandedly. “A lot of S&M themes.” On his Web site (www.markallen.com), he has categorized the drawings into themes: Animals and Insects; Bondage, Nudity and Sex; Drugs and the Brain; Masks; Worms and Snakes; Cute and Happy; Medical Problems, Amputations and Decapitations; Multiple Personalities and Suicides; Assorted Orifice; and Pickles. The drawings are delicate, vaguely disturbing yet funny, as if rendered by a naughty child. Filed into Pickles, for example, is a nervous boy with a bunny head sitting on top of a giant, grotesque pickle. Elsewhere, a fuzzy bear is busy sawing off his own paw.
“Each character is a specimen,” explains one character, called The Artist, whose face is blacked out, “a part of my personality that I want to examine. I’ve been making the same drawing for years; a single character stands in for me, expressing anxiety by doing nothing.”