By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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By Dennis Romero
“Your innate charm?” says intern Ryan O’Toole.
“Your suave good looks?” says intern Brian Tse.
“You’re the weird professor,” says Brown.
“Yes,” says Allen, forking a bit of salad, “that’s my angle.”
Allen has finagled Jason Brown a job at Pomona College, too, in the information-technology department. Brown’s first task was to “cute-ify” Allen’s sleek new industrial-concrete bunker of a lab — formerly the ceramics lab — with Christmas lights. The two have cheekily christened the bunker DARPA, for “Digital Art Related Program Activities,” in place of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the branch of the U.S. government that invented the Internet.
Pomona College has spared no expense with DARPA. A corona of brand-new Mac computers with flat-screen monitors surrounds the room. The college has invited Machine Project to stage a “greatest hits” show in its museum. Students will help set up each show, and visitors can watch as artists install their pieces. The process is open, visible. There is flow within the power dynamic between artist and viewer, producer and consumer. To nurture that flow is a big part of Allen’s personal agenda. To demystify the way art gets made and to show that it can be for everybody. Because unless people try to actively create those kinds of spaces, he has said, those spaces disappear.
The sound of pounding drifts into the lab. The interns have taken over the sculpture workshop next door. They are building Mach Infinity’s large, metal geodesic dome. As I leave the DARPA lab, I run into Brian Tse sitting on the curb. Both interns are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Tse’s “typical Asian parents,” he confides, are grudgingly waiting for him to find something he loves to do.
“We have rigid molds,” Allen says. “The artist produces the work. The gallery markets the work. The visitor consumes the work. And the buyer validates the whole process. I want to confuse those roles.” His is a vision of community where power is shared rather than hoarded. His agenda — perhaps the only truly revolutionary agenda in this relentless Age of Acquisition — is noble (though he would likely disagree), wonderfully muckracking and almost certainly doomed.
Or is it?
Twenty students on beanbags in Allen’s Pomona College digital-art class squint skeptically at the surrealist work of Joseph Cornell, Romare Bearden, Max Ernst. “It was a radical idea,” Allen says. “By joining together disparate objects and concepts, you could map the unconscious.” He slides on a rolling chair, oblivious to the fact that one of his shoelaces is untied. “One thing that was so great about Ernst,” he continues, “was that he believed he had a bird alter ego — ”
“ — named Loplop,” a girl interrupts.
Allen’s students are serious, focused. They are overachievers who are very good at fulfilling expectations. In this year’s incoming-freshman class at Pomona, 47 were their high school’s valedictorians. Eight had perfect scores on the SATs. According to Allen, these kids have a hard time in a field — like art — where success is undefined. “There’s something sweet and earnest about them,” Allen says. “I almost never worry they’ll show up three hours late or that I’ll find them having sex in the classroom.”
The assignment is to create a digital collage, which should express some kind of concept or narrative. To inspire the kids, Allen shows an animation of singing baby monkeys and giant bananas. “What do you guys think?” Allen faces the class. “Questions from the humans?” Silence.
“How big should it be?”
“Ah! Good question. How about, as big as it needs to be, and no bigger than it doesn’t need to be?” The students groan.
“Are there any Web sites that are good for finding images?” they ask.
“No. You’re gonna hit Google pretty hard — boom! Boom! Boom! Baby pandas! So cute,” Allen karate-chops the air. “Sorry,” he grins, “I’m obsessed with baby pandas right now.”
“Pssssh,” says the rebel girl in the corner. “You and everybody else.”
“Professor Allen?” says another girl, uncertainly. “What exactly do you mean by ‘concept’?”
Machine’s show at Pomona opens on the same day as the College’s Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon exhibit. A tiny gavel tap-tap-taps noisily at a dozen eggs — ostrich, rhea, araucana, Japanese bantam and quail eggs — and a tiny microphone amplifies the sound. The artists, Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain, are present, looking shy and proud. Their piece Almost Certified is about centralization in the commercial egg market. Why are all of our eggs white chicken eggs, when there are so many different kinds, they ask? The piece is about individuality of eggs and, by extension, people.
Amid the cacophony of eggs, I glance at the guest book: “I did not get it. Awfully noisy!!” (from Anonymous). But another unsigned guest had a different reaction, the kind that Allen would hope for: “I closed my eyes and stood in the middle of it all. It made me dance.”
Deus Ex Machina
It is a rainy night when I see Allen again, his arms weighed down with metal bars from the partially assembled dome. People show up to help cover the dome in flowers. When the show opens, several hundred more swarm through the gallery — a giant swirl of warm bodies and voices that mix with the heady scent of crushed leaves, peonies and lilies. “Did you see that the Secret Gallery reproduced?” Allen tells me as I squeeze in. There is now a second, smaller Secret Gallery. A glowing fragment of uranium glass rotates slowly within its dark interior. Allen’s not hoping for permanence necessarily with Machine, but rather that the project should continue for as long as it remains vital. A stylish couple, curious to see what the fuss is all about, saunter into the gallery. They eye the dome, sneer and walk out.