The Collector of Experiences
T hey were burying people alive the first time I went to Machine Project. Someone had dug a hole in the ground, into which a coffin was lowered. A group of Austrian artists known as monochrom were putting on an event called “Experience the Experience of Being Buried Alive!” It was an invitation to confront death.
“There is no external ventilation,” someone announced, “there is no easy means of escape. You will be buried alive for real. People interested in doing this, you’ll need to sign the waiver.”
One by one, folks got inside the coffin; others power-drilled the lid shut. A video camera projected the proceedings onto a wall, while another camera inside the coffin let those waiting in line observe the interred. A couple on a first date who had asked to be jointly buried began to kiss, and a crew from NPR documented the entire affair.
“The drilling of the lids is taking longer than I thought it would,” said a guy dressed like an officiating mortician — black suit, formal shirt, black tie. As it was a warm night to be mucking around with soil and coffins, he was sweating. He swiped a napkin across his forehead. “Next time we’re doing mass graves.”
The sweaty guy in the mortician suit was Machine Project creator Mark Allen. Maybe it’s the vividness of the events he hosts, but when you haven’t seen Allen for a while, it’s almost easy to forget what he looks like: average height, average build, with straight, cropped, dark brown hair that sticks up at times as if he’s just walked through an electrical storm. He is 36, with an angular, foxlike and boyishly handsome face — he is in almost every way like a frighteningly intelligent boy — and the wiry, compact body of an ex-skater. He favors beat-up old jeans and T-shirts, and to see him on the street you would think he is just an ordinary guy, and not the brains behind one of the most unusual and unlikely galleries in Los Angeles.
Take, for instance, the hole in the floor of Machine Project. Circular, an inch wide and sealed with glass, the hole is a rift in the space-time continuum — though you would never guess it, located as it is within an ordinary brick-and-mortar “T,” illuminating the extraordinary things that can sometimes be seen within: the skeleton of a unicorn, say, or a fluffy piece of hyperbolic space. If you look closely, you will see that there are actually many holes in the gallery floor, accidentally drilled during the construction of various projects. But, for now at least, this is only the one that violates the fabric of reality as we know it.
The Machine obsession was born three years ago, when Allen was looking for a place to live. He saw the space on Alvarado just north of Sunset and rented it on a whim. That’s Allen: the guy who goes out hunting for an apartment and comes back with an art gallery. Albeit one the size of your average living room. Simply decorated, with plain white walls. Mucky wood floors and translucent-plastic shoji screens that cut the space in two. Outside: a plain glass storefront window, a metal gate to keep out vandals, and an old television monitor mounted above the door. Sometimes, cryptic graffiti scribblings appear on the glass, a reminder that Echo Park was and still technically is Sureños gang territory. The modesty of the setting contrasts crazily with the loftiness of Allen’s ambitions. Machine Project exists at the intersection of art and science — it’s Nikola Tesla by way of P.T. Barnum, with a dash of The Anarchist Cookbook.
It’s a gallery, but there is no art hanging on the walls. It’s a community center, but the “community” has no concrete parameters and is ever shifting. People take classes there — events are often structured around lectures, a setup Allen calls “casual pedagogy” — but it isn’t a school. People attend art openings that feel more like intimate house parties, but anybody, literally anybody, is invited to just walk on in. Allen is a collector of people, not artists necessarily, but rather people who have interesting ideas and ways of looking at the world — engineers, chemists, physicists, astronomers, computer geeks, historians, students, teachers, enthusiasts of all kinds. He is also a collector of experiences. Any machine, after all, is a sum of its parts.
Fantastical Play of the Mind
Spring has come to Machine Project, and the major piece they are working on, titled Mach Infinity, is “a floral planetarium,” essentially a giant metal geodesic dome covered in leaves and petals. It is Machine’s most ambitious project to date: “Mach Infinity,” reads their online program catalog, “proposes an alternative figurative technology for depicting the 16th of Charles Messier’s noncomet ‘fuzzy’ objects, the Eagle Nebula. When we look at an image of the nebula, we are not seeing how the nebula ‘really’ looks, but rather a complex metaphorical representation. We hope to . . . ask viewers to consider the metaphorical nature of the most seemingly realistic rendering of data.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
Allen cannot help but make art. Even though there are those who have said that it isn’t even art that he’s making. Even though he could just as easily give it all up, get some sleep, get some corporate office job and make his life infinitely less complicated. Drink the poison quinine and it either heals you or casts you into the deepest nightmare.
You’ve Got Mail
In my mailbox: “Dear Pals, If you’re curious about the connections between Coleopteria, Malaria and the Dermestid Museorum Linnaeus beetles, you’ll want to attend this. Also, there will be doughnuts.”
“Dear Pals, I’m now looking for a basketball hoop, just the metal-hoop part. Anyone have one in their garage they aren’t using? I have this crazy fantasy that one of you has one in your garage you want to be rid of.”
“Dear Pals, Have you been feeling down lately about your lack of knowledge of quantum computing? . . . Us too!”
Some 1,100 people have signed up to receive Machine Project’s e-mails. At the Fry-be-que party, yes, there were sculptors, painters, designers, musicians, writers, gallerists and people otherwise invested in the production of creative things for a living, but there were also soccer moms and dads, lawyers, scientists, students, teachers, homemakers and accountants. Not scenesters or hipsters, just plain folk.
I meet a former student of Allen’s that night. Wes and his date used to go to Allen’s Houston parties. Allen’s collective then was called Good Art/Bad Art. Wes describes an art project of theirs back then, which involved locking a bunch of frat boys into a room with a keg of beer and some permanent markers. They kept the frat boys locked up for eight hours. When they sobered up, the boys got angry and scrawled on the walls.
“That’s not art, that’s a prank,” I say, noting the little round MOCA admission sticker on Wes’ shirt.
“That’s exactly the idea,” he continues, excitedly. “Is it good art or bad?”
“The question of what is and isn’t art is a perennial one among nonartists,” says Allen. “But it’s one that artists never discuss.” We’re having lunch in the village near the Pomona College campus with Brown and interns Tse and O’Toole. Another e-mail had ticked into my message box some time earlier: “Dear Pals . . . I got that Pomona job!”
The job is a newly created tenure-track associate-professor position in Pomona College’s art department. There’s sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and Mark Allen — i.e., digital art. The more cryptic his assignments, the better his students’ work. He makes the students compete. Who can make the most annoying sound loop? The worst Web page? He sprints across the classroom and flings himself into a closed door to demonstrate the way semiconductor diodes conduct electricity in one direction only.
The village encircling the campus is a haven of crafty stores selling kites and tchotchkes and Birkenstock sandals, exactly the kind of stuff that certain art crowds love to mock. “It’s all become context,” Allen continues. “That’s the Modernist heritage. If you put something in an art gallery, then it’s art. Or if you write about it in an art magazine, it’s art.” There is a myth of artistic genius, Allen believes, that revolves around some romanticized Ted Kaczynski type out in the woods. Only the geniuses at the museum are able to see what no one else can see: the independent, mad artist waiting to be discovered. That setup, Allen says, is false. If the ability to make great art is a gift, then beautiful paintings or music are the result of luck rather than hard work or struggle. Instead of being something that anybody can do or make or identify, art becomes something unattainable, elite, elusive.
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.
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.
Allen spends a lot of time thinking about Machine, situating it within the larger sociopolitical-economic context, picking out its shows, tracing its path, analyzing how it functions. But who is he, really? Allen is so much about the project that I wonder what he would be without it. Shortly after the dome show, I visit him away from the gallery, at his home. To truly understand the art, is it necessary to understand the artist? That boundary, it seems, is forever in flux. Allen’s father, who is an old-school chemistry professor, told me once that he used to worry about what his son’s chosen vocation would be, but that eventually he realized that what Mark was trying to do was to take Art (capital “A”) — the type of precious, exalted work archived and preserved in museums — and turn it into art (lowercase “a”), art for everybody and made by everybody.
Loquacious as he is about the project, Allen is unexpectedly reticent about the rest of his life. Since the inception of Machine, he has crashed at three different friends’ apartments all over Silver Lake, and finally landed in the extra room at artist Kelly Sears’ place.
Sears’ quaint brick building rests on an oddly shaped plot of land, a Frankensteinian cobbling together of gourmet-coffee shops and houses subdivided into rental units, five minutes from the gallery. By now, the flower dome has been disassembled, its orchids and asters dried up and carted away, its cardboard outer shell given to a homeless woman to be repurposed as weatherproofing for her own dome. Soon, a different artist will be coming in to do a piece involving credit cards. Each time someone’s card is swiped through a device, the magnetic-stripe data gets translated into melody.
That month, for the first time ever, Machine paid for its own rent (due in large part to the unexpected popularity of a Web-design class and the Pneumatic Cash Machine). The gallery, Allen says, as we sit down on Kelly’s sofa, is really like the inside of his brain. The project organizes his world. We try to imagine what it would be like without Machine. And then suddenly there it is, a momentary vulnerability. It is like telling someone that their child is ugly or stupid.
A photo of a kitten is taped to the door of his room in front of us. Whether by accident or by design, he has left the door slightly ajar. “It’s not interesting,” he demurs, when I peer in through the rift into the darkness. “It’s just where I sleep. It’s not part of who I am.” A mattress on the floor. A rumple of blankets. A lamp. A chair. Evidence of a life more ordinary. As he speaks, ideas expand and contract. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.