The celebration of the next era in space flight took place in a gravel parking lot a couple hundred feet from the main runway at Kern Airport, in the desert town of Mojave, California. A half-dozen RVs and SUVs, including a 40-foot-long school bus with tie-dye drapes and the words “Mama Sutra” airbrushed along the side, formed a half-circle demarking the party bounds. George Whitesides, the executive director of the National Space Society, has shown up in a camper van packed to the gills with food for 600. Dezss Molnar, who used to be chief engineer for Craig Breedlove back when Breedlove was trying to drive a car through the sound barrier, and has since been playing in and producing the band Casino Mansion, has brought a DJ, a light show and various other party favors. The dance floor is crushed gravel, scrub brush, and barbaric little thorns that slice through anything. The music is pumping. The thorns are piercing. Fifty guys, mostly ex-NASA types with sport shirts and cell phones clipped to their belts, are getting soggy drunk with the handful of locals who have shown up for the only thing going for roughly a hundred square miles. A teenager in a “Go Burt Go”
T-shirt bounds past screaming, “Oh, my God, I just talked to Peter Diamandis.”
“Go Burt Go” refers to aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, owner of Scaled Composites, a company that since 1982 has rolled out an unmatched 38 experimental aircraft including the Voyager, which made the first nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world, and the Proteus, which holds the world record for altitude, distance and payload lift. The next morning, Rutan will attempt to launch SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed rocket plane, on a mission to become the world’s first commercially manned space vehicle.
Peter Diamandis, on the other hand, is the founder of the X Prize Competition — $10,000,000 awarded to the first privately funded person or team to travel to and from the edge of space twice in two weeks. The edge of space is deemed to be 62 miles straight up. The two weeks part ensures that both the rocket and its crew remain reusable — which is a polite way of saying still alive. Rutan built SpaceShipOne to compete for the X Prize, though the next day’s flight isn’t technically an X Prize event.
Instead, this affair is known as Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne, since the billionaire Microsoft co-founder has funded the whole momentous ride. Either way, folks have come out to celebrate because everyone knows that if Rutan’s ship makes it, then this little fiesta in the desert will be remembered as the moment when outer space finally opened to private enterprise.
Now, though, people are heading in the opposite direction. The first one to go is a Bermuda-short-clad Grizzly Adams type who falls face-flat in the dirt. He’s too drunk to stand. By the time the party winds down, somewhere around 4 a.m., the campground is littered with beer bottles and fallen genius. “It looks like the final episode of the nerd Survivor,” says one partygoer, before he too topples.
Considering the scale of the debacle, you would expect the next morning to dawn ugly. But by 6 a.m., everyone’s stumbled out to the tarmac to join some 3,000 others who have also gotten up early for their chance at seeing history. Loudspeakers blare the theme song to Bonanza, and in between bars some senator mumbles about “the first major transportation revolution of the 21st century.” Then SpaceShipOne, piloted by Rutan’s ace guinea pig, Mike Melvill, roars past. The launch has begun.
A couple of space pioneers have set up a coffee stand near the runway, so most of the wait is spent drinking hot, black tar and trying to forget the previous night. Finally, a voice over the loudspeaker tells everyone to stare into the sun. People count down with the countdown — five, four, three, two — and then a trail of white smoke appears, silhouetted against the bright yellow orb. Burt Rutan and his garage full of backyard mechanics have just done what NASA and the governments of a handful of nations have long failed to do: make space affordable.
Down on Earth, a thunder of cheers erupts and pretty much stays erupted until the barrier has broken and Melvill has landed. Someone on the PA says “Welcome to Mojave Airport, the world’s first landlocked space port.” In the distance, last night’s first casualty, the Grizzly Adams–like rocket scientist, high-fives a gal waving the red, green and blue flag of Mars. From his spot in the VIP area, Peter Diamandis is smiling the smile of victory, while Burt Rutan humbly thanks folks for coming. And then everyone piles into a jam of cars and trucks and motor homes, and heads home the old-fashioned way.
The Lizard King
Beneath big-screen projections — “Politics may not be the oldest profession, but the results are the same” — and endless caricatures of George W. Bush as a puppet of his father and Dick Cheney, David Icke (pronounced Ike) stalks the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with the mannerisms of his fellow Brit, the brilliantly eccentric comic Eddie Izzard: asking and answering his own questions, mimicking politicians in a high-pitched, befuddled timbre and prancing the stage lip with arms at his sides. “The power’s going into fewer and fewer hands, faster and faster,” Icke gabbles frantically. “They want to centralize decision-making on a global level, and the United Nations is a steppingstone to that.”
Icke, billed as “the planet’s most controversial and challenging thinker,” was making a rare West Coast appearance last Saturday — and giving his audience plenty to think about, one way or another. “I’m not saying that I trust everything the man says,” cautions a former military man in the lobby during a break in the all-day exposition. “He keeps bringing up things about reptilians [lizards in human guise who run the world], for example. But he’s made some astounding predictions, and they have come true.”
Like most folks here, this gent (who requested anonymity — the problem with interviewing people about their paranoia is that most of them are too paranoid to talk about it) discovered Icke through his books — I Am Me, I Am Free predicted a manipulated oil war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How Icke got to this position is as interesting as his views. A one-time soccer pro (goalkeeper for Coventry City and Hereford United in the English league), he was a sports pundit for the BBC in the early ’80s while becoming increasingly involved in environmental activism, eventually serving as national spokesman for Britain’s Green Party. With the publication of his autobiography, Truth Vibrations: From TV Celebrity to World Visionary, Icke became a laughingstock, the staple of standup comics across the U.K., where going from soccer player to awakened neo-hippie is like a hockey enforcer leaving the NHL to become a transsexual hairstylist.
An ongoing theme in his books since the early ’90s has been the desire of the Illuminati (“the ones with the real power, who operate in the shadows”) to control us through a cashless, microchipped society. “The absolute jewel in the crown is the microchipped population,” Icke booms. “The chips are now so small they can be inserted [secretly] in hypodermic needles during vaccination programs . . . and the real thing is not the message going from the chip to the computer, but the message coming the other way: Once we’re microchipped, we can be manipulated.”
At 52, Icke’s still a pleasant-looking chap, beer belly, silver-gray near-mullet and all. His TV experience shows: He’s a consummate speaker. Yet he retains a bloke-down-the-pub chattiness, littering his speech with “bloody” this and “mate” that, while oiling the weighty wheels of the subject matter with well-received humor. He uses no notes, stumbles over words, but rarely loses momentum. At times he’s utterly convincing, as with his literally breathless rage at our being force-fed lies by the government and media, and his sorrow at the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan moves even the cynical.
The broad strokes of Icke’s beliefs are common sense to anyone with an inquisitive bone in their body: that the Western military-industrial complex promotes foreign wars so it can make billions destroying, then rebuilding, other countries, and that the so-called “war on terror” is the callously conceived pinnacle of this (“The reason they chose the ‘war on terrorism’ is ’cause they can never say it’s over,” Icke points out); and that the mainstream media, particularly TV news, is but a “movie” portraying events in keeping with hidden agendas. He builds an impressive case, then undermines it with wobbly timeline “evidence” suggesting that Bush and company knew about 9/11 in advance, and crudely Photoshopped images of what he claims are Iraqi babies with deformations caused by contamination from U.S.-fired depleted uranium shells: bones of ultra-logic hung with flimsy factual flesh.
Icke’s audience is a fascinating cross-section: equal parts male and female, with all age groups and a broad ethnic mix represented. Professional-looking couples sit captivated; there are teens, senior citizens and, perhaps most surprisingly, notable numbers of glamorous nip-’n’-tuck MILFs and low-rise hip chicks. There is not one cartoon “wacko” to be seen: no camo, no mirror shades, no dodgy t-shirt slogans.
Just the same, as the audience files out at 7:30 p.m., a very ordinary-looking 40-something couple (who decline to be recorded) open up at length about how giant lizards came to Earth to covertly control us and siphon off gold to feed atmosphere-controlling volcanoes back on their own planet. Outside in the eye-level setting sun, for a while everything’s blotchy and indistinct, then my eyes adjust and all seems clear again.
At half past midnight last Thursday, a crowd is lined up around the block waiting to get into the craziest spot in town — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — for the second annual “Tiki ’Til Dawn” party. In the open-air courtyard, I wade through a sea of people. There are girls with chunky plastic eyeglasses. There are punks and skaters and industry types in collared shirts. There are moms and pops, college students and high school students, fashionistas, frat boys, surfer boys, skinheads, cholos, hipsters, nerds, insomniacs and loners and couples on dates. There are beautiful and ugly, fat and thin, dark and pale, young and old, loud and quiet. They swirl around a central bar with a large “Tiki” sign lit up in cheerful yellow bulbs.
On one side of the courtyard, people are painting on a giant canvas, big as a wall. The party has been going since
7 p.m., and the canvas is covered with layer upon layer of words and doodles. “Stop painting me!” it reads in the upper right corner. “Polenta!” it says in the middle, followed by “Just win” and “The city is adjourned” and “Boo.” A heart in black. A penis. A severed head.
“There’s a lot of bullshit on this wall,” says a young man in a leather coat. He and his friend have British accents. “I mean, ‘Just win’? What is that?”
“What did you guys paint?” I ask. They glance at each other mischievously.
“‘England 3, Switzerland 0!’ Now that’s art.”
By 2 a.m., the Shag and Robbie Conal and Gary Baseman book signings are long over, but the “Beyond Geometry” exhibit is still open. People roam the galleries and halls with the playful energy of open-house night at school. Motorized metal hexagonals and trapezoids “self-distort” on my left, casting shadows on the wall. I stare for a long time at a canvas painted with painstakingly aligned waves. Next to me a young couple — a boy and girl, cute as a Benetton ad — stare as well. “It almost hurts to look at it,” says the girl, squinting her eyes.
“Is this art?” says the boy, pointing at a huge glass disc propped up against the wall.
“It looks like a giant contact lens,” I say, and we laugh.
“This is not nature exactly per se,” says a young man across the room, “but a mirror of nature, which amplifies philosophically, in contrast, while managing yet to convey a certain . . . sterile sensibility.”
“Precisely,” his friends nod.
“Look, honey,” says an older woman to her portly husband, pointing to a cluster of fluorescent bulbs arranged into a cross, “that looks like something you made in your garage.”
A museum guard stands watch over a cordoned-off room. The room itself is the art. A square of frosty blue neon light glows in the center. Is it mist? Is it fog? People crowd in. “I felt like praying in that room. It is so beautiful. Thank you,” says a man, placing his fist over his heart. “It’s amazing to be surrounded by so much creative vibration.”
“You’re welcome,” says the guard. And then, after a beat: “I’ll be here all night.”
A rowdy group of boys tell me that they are backpacking through Los Angeles. They’ve just come from a bar and are a little drunk. “We leave for London tomorrow,” one says, “and we’re not going to sleep. Take a picture with us?” We mug for the camera in front of an Agnes Martin painting: acrylic primer, graphite and colored pencil on canvas, Untitled, 1962. It is 3 a.m.
In the “18th-Century Mexican Casta Painting” exhibit next door, a rumpled, bespectacled man is busy taking notes. “I need to figure out the system,” he says, showing me a branching diagram he’s drawn on a museum catalog. “But there are just so many combinations.” He scurries away purposefully. “People look at the strangest things,” says the guard. She flexes her feet. “They stare at the humidity monitor. Or they go nuts over the wallpaper.”
I myself had been zoning off, staring at a painting of an infant suckling the breast of a mestizaje wet nurse. In the museum café, they are serving pancakes and sausages. And in the courtyard, they are giving away jars of peanut butter. It is time to go. But there are many still who, for the love of art — or at least the idea of it — will soldier on until dawn.
Love Was in the Air
For lovers who (the story goes) fell in love while tossing and catching each other in midair, the climactic moment was fitting.
Like most weddings, vows were exchanged and rings placed on fingers. However, when this happy couple — Diavolo Dance Theater high-fliers Nehara Kalev and C. Derrick Jones — finally took the plunge as husband and wife, they did it from 20 feet in the air before a paying audience. It was just one of many moments that made it clear this was not your father’s wedding.
In planning their nuptials, the daredevil duo decided to use their wedding budget to underwrite their first joint venture as creative collaborators. There was some logic to this. After all, a wedding follows the same game plan as a dance performance: One group of people sits and looks on while young, beautiful people full of shine and promise perform a series of orchestrated moves in a specially designated space. Not to mention, if you’re going to debut new choreography, you’d have a hard time finding a more sympathetic audience than several hundred wedding guests. And who could complain about the location? The plush faux-velvet seats were comfortable (forget those bun-numbing pews and flimsy folding chairs), and the Wilshire Ebell’s low-slung rake offered great sight lines (no need to worry about Aunt Ida blocking the view with her big hat!).
Still, I was skeptical, even a tad cynical, when I first heard about The Wedding Journey: Vows in Midair. Who sells tickets to their nuptials? Were Kalev and Jones really getting hitched, or was the wedding–cum–dance concert an attention-grabbing stunt? With performance art doyenne Rachel Rosenthal officiating, it sounded like a spectacle in the making. But then, aren’t all weddings?
If it was just a gimmick to attract an audience, Kalev and Jones succeeded. Saturday night the grand old hall filled with family, friends, colleagues, and those who had simply read about the event in the newspaper. One guest overheard the people sitting behind her debating how many nights The Wedding Journey was going to run.
As it turned out, the whole love, devotion and unto-death-do-us-part appeared sincere. So, too, were the dances that expressed Kalev and Jones’ relationship. Suspended high above the stage for one piece, the two created a single design with their intertwined bodies. In addition to romantic embraces, it was clear that strength, synchronicity, trust and support were required to accomplish the acrobatic moves.
I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain my skepticism, or any critical distance for that matter. I wasn’t the only one, er, moved, by the tender mingling of Kalev’s and Jones’ limbs and lives. Rosenthal, festively dressed in a multicolor caftan, had kicked off the evening with a curtain speech that detailed her distaste for both weddings and marriages, but softened considerably as the program proceeded, exclaiming after one dance, “Damn! Just when you think you’ve developed a healthy cynicism.”
Kalev and Jones leavened the proceedings with plenty of humor, in one section chasing each other around, under and over a table as they poked fun at each other’s peccadilloes. When it came time to exchange vows, the bride and groom drove out onstage in hydraulic lifts, their nervous but game families in tow. Rosenthal then climbed up into one of the lifts to exhort the couple to “Let your love be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” Rosenthal led Kalev and Jones through the vows, each exchange punctuated by whirring cranes as the couple and the acrophobic Rosenthal performed a comedic duel of elevating lifts. Higher and higher they rose until all that was left was to kiss and leap onto the foam pillows far below as giant balloons cascaded down and the crowd erupted in a roar.