On big art and being in on the joke
When I first moved to San Francisco, some of the first people I met were ones who had hands in making big art. I was lucky. My first acclimation to the art and maker scene in this city was watching my (mostly new) friends build something insane and beautiful called Syzygryd. I was too new and too on the fringes to be involved in a meaningful way, but I definitely remember watching a steady stream of photos and updates come from people like Slim and thinking, “Wow. So this is how they make art in San Francisco!”
If I have one complaint about large scale performance or installation art in this city, it is that the novelty seems to wear off fast for those involved in building it. I’m thankful that I’m still new enough to this to be enchanted by the supreme weirdness that characterizes a lot of the things I help out with. But even I’m not immune. When I ran the Bad Reggretts Tattoo truck at the last Lost Horizon Night Market (along with the unstoppable Colin Fahrion), it was magical and exciting and fun, but even I was a little blasé. I have a phrase I use in situations like this. It’s called “knowing how the sausage gets made.” Once you’ve seen the process, once you know how these things get assembled… well, the final product can lose some of its charm. “Knowing how the sausage gets made” is another way of saying that you’re solidly “in on the joke.”
In San Francisco, there are a huge number of artists are who in on the joke. They get it. Doing something spectacular and complicated on a large scale isn’t intimidating. It is just what they do, and they are good at it.
So when I offered to help my friend Paige with her crazy idea to outfit twelve girls in stylized ant costumes to serve as passport agents for the All World’s Fair, I thought I knew what I was getting into.
You guys- I was terribly, terribly wrong.
Over the course of a few weeks, I went from helping buy fabric to sewing some pieces of our costumes to running errands to painting set pieces to stage managing a group of completely stellar performance artists who put on a highly coordinated and whimsical act. The whole time, I thought I was in on the joke. The whole time, I was thinking that I knew how it worked, and knew what I was getting into. Costumes. Performance. Set fabrication. Audience interaction. I have done these things before, and I thought I had a pretty good idea what the result would be. I’m willing to bet a fair number of the audience thought they were in on the joke too.
You guys- we were all so terribly, gloriously wrong.
What we ended up creating was something so thoroughly, profoundly magical that no one (audience member or performer) could have known what they were getting into. We created something so massive and multifaceted that I don’t think anyone could have seen the whole picture from one vantage point. We made something so unique and on such an unprecedented scale that no one, not even the ones in charge, could have possibly been in on the joke.
There were a few really special moments for me that I feel the need to record for posterity, even if they reveal a tiny bit about how this sausage got made.
- One of the few things that actually went wrong before the event was a can of paint that got spilled in the green room, effectively blocking the path that the passport laides had planned to walk out. People were freaking out, when someone (Sly?) came up with the idea of leading the ant ladies out the back loading dock door and entering from behind the line of audience members waiting to get in. The effect was so great that it turned into a part of our performance for the rest of the fair.
- Twice, we managed to get dangerously low on the nonsensical immigration forms that we were handing out. The first night we were saved by Simon, who showed up to the green room toting a stack. The second night we were saved by friend and roommate Reed, who showed up with an office box of forms he printed out minutes before. Both times, the group of passport ants descended upon them in joyous celebration, screaming “FORMS! YAY FORMS! GOOD FORMS” in a completely unplanned and spontaneous in-character display.
- After the passport ants sent the last group of ticket-holders inside, we were done and got the chance to explore the rest of the fair. Getting to interact with the other artists while still in character was a lot of fun, but what made it really special was when the invitation to “fall asleep” with the rest of the basement actors during the “ascension” phase was extended to us. I remember laying down in the hallway and one of the audience members coming up to me to “see if I was OK.” She poked me and I got to sleepily mutter something along the lines “Good forms… dreaming of good forms…”
So, thank you. To everyone. To Paige: thank you for being such an amazing creative force, and thank you for letting me collaborate on this with you. To all the organizers, docents, and crew who kept us on track and cared for. To Tatiana: thank you for being a true professional stage manager. To Rubin and Sly: thank you being our timekeepers and sanity-preservers. To the dudes on the Arbollax crew: thank you for helping us assemble our passport desks and signs. Thanks to every single traveller who loved or hated our heroic dose of bureaucracy, with special thanks to those who made a special effort to fill out their forms in creative and entertaining ways (though most of them got ripped up, your collective wit did not go unnoticed). Here’s a whole list of credits- every single person on that list deserves props and a personal cake delivered via unicorn.
Thank you. Thank you all for making something that made me question how in on the joke I was.