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There are no ready answers in this time when it is indeed self-evident that nothing about art is self-evident anymore. A cockroach driving a robot car is at once a beautifully elusive concept and something anyone can learn how to assemble. There is a slipperiness to Machine. “It’s a little bit of jazz fingers,” Allen admits, “what we do.”
“Sometimes what we’re doing is play,” Jason Brown adds, “but we call it art to get that discourse. Other times, what we’re doing is clearly art, but we don’t call it that because it wouldn’t be as playful.” It’s almost not useful to talk about whether something is or isn’t art, because so what if it isn’t?
From there, lunch-time conversation jumps, naturally, to particle accelerators. Specifically, to the guy in Alaska who built one in his backyard. By the time the government caught on (“You’re doing what?”), he had already procured all the parts and filled out the requisite forms. “What does a particle accelerator do, anyway?” Allen asks. “And don’t say accelerates particles.”
“I feel like my teaching strengths are more . . .” He pauses, when I ask him about his approach to art education. “I don’t know. I must have some teaching strengths.”
“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.