In 1985 New York City and I were young and innocent. I had recently completed a 5-month project: The Lightmobile, a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle covered with 1659 computerized light bulbs. I drove it all over New York, through every neighborhood, on more than 100 nights. I loved watching the delight and astonishment on peoples' faces. I could read on the lips of thousands of people: "Oh my god! What is it?" Another comment I frequently heard was: "Only in New York!" To me this was a very high complement. New York was it. The eye of the cultural storm. The most talented people from all over the world, coming together into this great creativity stew. Anything could happen there... ...Or anything but what happened on September 11, 2001.
Now, at the end of 2001, the Twin Towers site still smolders. I still can't believe it. New York, you glamorous beauty, with your 2 front teeth knocked out. And I, graying, no longer believing in the infinite possibilities of my youth. I'm 54 and I've been making art for the past 30 years. I ask myself: "does the world really need more of my art? More of any art? If so, what would that art want to be? And what if I am randomly struck down any day? What do I want to say if this is the last thing I am able to say?
I didn't choose to be an artist; it chose me. It is a calling, a religious feeling, and a compulsion to peel away layers of a sub-conscious onion. It's a mystery to me where the ideas come from. It is the idea that initially appears the most absurd that I am ultimately compelled to build; the one that makes me laugh and say " where the hell did that come from?!" is the one that becomes an obsession over the coming months. I become pregnant with an idea, a voice within becomes louder and louder saying: "You must build that thing!" I know that the only way to quiet the voice, to exorcise the obsession, is to build it. But in between these moments of 'divine inspiration' is an almost equally insistent voice of doubt and reason reminding me of the aesthetic, the technical and the financial obstacles that will have to be overcome. So these 2 voices battle it out until I can't take it any longer, and I finally make the leap into the next unknown.
My outlook on the world was shaped in the 1960's by the space program and its seemingly limitless promise. Everything was possible. School classes were interrupted for every take-off and landing. There seemed to be the expectation that every American boy could (and must!) invent a better mousetrap. The promise of a Utopian world through technology was all around us. I was especially impressed by the 1965 New York World's Fair with pavilions called Futurama, Progressland, the World of Tomorrow, The MoonDome; fantastic architecture by Saarinen, Aalto, and Buckminster Fuller, dazzling multi-media theatres, and a giant working car engine you could walk through. Ronald Reagan was the spokesman for General Electric, whose slogan was:"Progress is our most important product."
I then went to the University of Michigan to study architecture, expecting to be designing cities of the future. Instead, my professors promised to replace my romantic ideals with the science of building the largest box for the least bucks. The World Trade Center was under construction at the time and the architect came to lecture the students. I remember the mind-numbing statistics of the costs, the volumes of materials, the armies of contractors employed for its construction. I remember all my mid-western classmates and teachers being impressed. But I knew New York and I knew this was not what New York needed: those banal twins of developer greed. Well, it least it wasn't what I needed. My 16 years of school, arid and gray, where I was spoon-fed by disillusioned academics daily doses of accepted wisdom, finally awakened in me a questioning, a need to find my own wisdom.
I was being born an artist; the ideas just started coming to me in 1970, calling out my name, tickling me until I gave in. I intuitively felt that all materials and methods were fair game for my work. First I wanted to paint; but I had no facility and no time for orthodoxies. I jacked up my car and with a paint roller, painted the tires and then drove all over my canvas. It was exhilarating and immediate. While still in architecture school I wanted to make a wall of dollar bills. Just to see it. And for the finishing touch I hired a pair of rent-a-cops to stand guard. After 3 days I took the wall apart and returned the money to the bank.
After studying 2000 years of architecture history, The Big Duck is still my favorite building in the world. A roadside egg store on Long Island built in the 1930's, it's still there and I still love it. I love tourist traps and the loopy obsessions that possess the entrepreneurs who build them: Dinosaur World, Snake-a-Torium, The 5-Story Tall Chicken, The World's Largest Ball of Twine. Las Vegas signs that combined mechanical movement with Neon, like the smoking cowboy or the cowgirl who swings her leg, inspired me. The Camel Cigarette billboard on Times Square that blew giant smoke rings.
(Kowasaki, Used Cars, Beercan House, Eat Sign, Confused Saab)
As a child there were many family and school trips to New York City to visit the museums, the opera and ballet, but none of these impressed me as much as the Horn and Hardart Automat. It was a self-service restaurant with walls that consisted of hundreds of brass and glass doors, as if the whole place was a giant Art Deco vending machine. You would choose your food, put your coins into a slot and the door would magically open and the plate would emerge with a slight twist. It had a slightly robotic feel and vaguely futuristic. Anything futuristic was good; if you're planning for the future you must be optimistic. Our family went to Disneyland when I was 14. A lot of cutting edge technology such as computers and robotics were being used there in 1961. Audio-animatronics was invented there and was the precursor of today's film special effects industry.
The Carousel of Progress was a very effecting virtual environment. The audience revolved around the stage and the lip-synched, eye-blinking, arm-and-leg moving family moved through history. The first scene takes place in 1880, where the family members- mother, father, son, daughter, grandma and grandpa, dog and parrot (they move too) pump their water and have no electricity. With a turn of the theatre, the family is now in 1920 and electricity is ever present. The next scene shows the television age and the final scene takes place in the present, where the whole house is programmed to eliminate household chores and the color TV is interactive.
Looking at art never affected me as strongly as this stuff. Art just sat there, no sound, no movement.
And if you found it cool enough to want to touch it, you would get yelled at. The museum was a solemn place. You could get 'shhhed' there just like in a library. My parents had a family membership at the Museum of Modern Art and I went there a lot. I thought Jackson Pollack was very cool (almost as cool as James Dean). Mostly I just walked through for a quick bath of art and out to the sculpture garden where I tried (unsuccessfully) to meet upper-middle class girls from Connecticut.
Some years later, on my first trip to Paris, I went to the Louvre and hung out in the gift shop. There you could see all of the art at once. Multiples of printed cards and posters, they seemed more vivid than the musty old real paintings that you got lost looking for. The Mona Lisa was particularly disappointing. You heard about it your whole life and finally: it's small and dark!
In the fall of 1971 my girlfriend Ellen (whom I married in 1974) and I moved to New York: a 2000 square foot (200 sq.M) loft in TriBeca. I was 24, and Ellen was 20. The revolutionary excitement of Pop Art, of Warhol and Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns, which had been a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, had pretty much run its course by then and was being replaced by a reaction to it: Minimal Art. I found the rusty walls of Richard Serra, the lead floor tiles of Carl Andre, and the white on white paintings of Robert Ryman extremely pretentious and boring. I remember a friend of mine, walking into a Mel Bochner installation, and tripping over it, so subtle was it on the floor. I knew I had to react to this.
One of the first things I did was a series of wooden palette ashtrays of each of the New York museums, modeled on the souvenirs I found at cheap tourist traps around the country. I sent them to the directors of the MOMA and the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan. Cut out of cedar, the wood commonly used for souvenirs, would be "Greetings from The......Museum" and a photo of the museum under the glass ashtray. Not one of the directors responded.
These ashtrays did catch the attention of Ivan Karp, who commissioned me to make a series of O.K. Harris Gallery ashtrays. Thus began a 10-year association I had with the gallery. Ivan, as he was known to everyone, had been the director of the Leo Castelli Gallery in the 60's and the discoverer of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Johns; that is: the first person to declare that Abstract Expressionism had to move over and make room for this brash new kid on the block: Pop Art. He opened his own gallery in 1969, the first gallery in Soho, a huge space where he put on 3 exhibitions at a time. These shows weren't group shows, they were 3 'one-man' shows in 3 separate spaces each the size of an uptown gallery. So there was a bit of a circus atmosphere; this just wasn't done at the time: to show 3 artists, often with wildly different styles. Galleries were mostly known for having A POINT OF VIEW (like old masters or realist painting or conceptual art). Ivan's tastes were all over the map; every month there was something for everyone. His personal style was part of the showmanship: A short Jewish man, cigar-smoking, wise-cracking, he was the quintessential New York Dealer. But it wasn't simply the Art of the Deal that drove him; he had a genuine passion for discovering young talent. And although many people in the art world dismissed Ivan as a merchant and his gallery as a supermarket, he actually showed a lot of artists whose work was completely un-sellable.
I was one such artist. By the time I had my first exhibition at O.K. Harris in 1974, I was creating installations of slide-projectors and 8-mm filmloop projectors. The viewer would enter a darkened gallery to see various screens hanging from the ceiling or on the floor, and illuminated by projected images that resembled moving paintings. I began to use the movie camera as a drawing tool. To create Runsgood I hung out the back of a station wagon with a super-8 camera, while my brother drove for hours on the Long Island Expressway, first slow, than fast, while I zoomed in and out with the camera, changing perspectives, rotating the camera about the eyepiece. Then, using 4 continuous loop projectors (developed for sales presentations and the fore-runner of the video beamer) bracketed to the gallery wall, projected the films onto 4 adjacent screens on the floor. The total screen size was 4'X20' (125cmX 600cm) so the viewer stood over it looking down, as if over the highway itself. It had a hypnotic effect and some people complained of vertigo, which I quite liked.
I also exhibited my first time-exposures for a timer-activated slide projection piece. Three 35mm slide projectors added and subtracted to a light painting on a large screen in a syncopated 5-minute performance that built to a crescendo. I was a painter and dancer with light. This was the beginning of my 4-year light-drawing series. I was also becoming a night person. The disco Studio 54 was a fantasyland of fashion, music, light, and theatre. It seemed as though every creative person (or at least every exhibitionist) in New York was there competing for attention: models in fabulous dress and un-dress, designers, rock stars, Hollywood people, transvestites dressed as exotic Birds of Paradise. The combined effect of the glitter, the sound, the lighting effects and live acts in this huge multi-leveled space was transporting; unreal and surreal, the ugly could become beautiful and the beautiful ugly. You felt like you were in a Fellini movie. On the packed danced floor we moved like a hedonistic tribe, sweaty and ecstatic; on drinks and drugs, we celebrated our youth and success. Afterwards, as the sun was coming up, we went to an all-night diner for breakfast.
Or I would go to work. The city at night was an enchanting place for me. The plazas, bridges, parks and monuments, empty and eerily quiet at night, were dramatic stage sets waiting to be transformed. Transformed by my magic wand: the 4th of July sparkler. Very late at night I drove around in a beat-up station wagon, looking for places and ideas to jump out at me. When the moment was right I set up my Nikon on a tripod and planned a choreography with light. One of the first 'light drawings' was Walker Street, outside of my loft building. Each sparkler lasted about a minute, so that was the amount of time I had to make the drawing. I had to run down the street, holding the sparkler at curb level, to complete the composition before the sparkler went out. I felt a strong sense of exhilaration, like running the 100-meter dash with a flaming torch! Getting the film back from the lab was even more exhilarating: it was magic, my presence was invisible; there was just this trail of liquid fire.
Suddenly I was drunk with the possibilities. I proceeded to outline everything for my photos: cars, trucks, streets, monuments. The energy was packed into one-minute performances. I worked through the night and although I was alone and even lonely, my romance for the city was sweet indeed. At dawn I would go to Fulton Street to watch the fishermen come in; or to the Lower East Side for the first hot bagels of the day.
My romance with Ellen was less successful; I had taken a lover: my work.
Gradually my marriage was becoming a casualty of my obsession and self-absorption. Ellen, now successful in her own business, was enjoying her adulthood and the inner peace that came with it. I never felt adult and never felt that what I was doing was any more than child's play. My father was adult. The strong silent type, he ran his own highly successful real estate business, supported a big family, putting all 5 of us kids through college. Houses, cars, trips. Stable and steady, you got the sense that: here is a guy who never had to confront the 'who am I?' questions that I was asking myself every other day. We used to drive around Long Island and there would be these signs on land parcels that read: Erwin Staller Realty. And for the longest time I thought they said Erwin Staller Reality. That seemed right. And I could have a sign that read: Eric Staller Unreality. Because that is how I've felt for most of my career: unrealistic. And guilty about it. Make money and you're realistic; don't make money and you're unrealistic. I wasn't making money. I wasn't against making money. I thought all of my shows were going to sell out! That's how much of a dreamer I was!
My dreams in 1977 were taking the forms of fantasy architectures of light. I invented choreographies and volumes of light. I remember being impressed by the architectural uses of the human figure in Fritz Lang's film 'Metropolis' and old Busby Berkeley films, and I began to think of the geometry of my body. By then I found that a 10-minute sparkler was available on special order. I attached one to the end of a broomstick and, using my arm as a compass, scribed arcs overhead as I walked up the middle of the street (Lighttunnel). The challenge now was to take is intellectually further with each photo; to wonder what effect this or that choreographic device would produce; and then, to be continually surprised by the result. For Lightubes I spun the sparkler on the end of a string as I walked toward the camera; then ran back and did it again.
Me in DC, Light-Go-Round I, Light-Go-Round II, Express and Local, Window Dressing, Citroen, Cutting Out Space, Plaza Sweet, Pulitzer Fountain, Poseidon, American
I mounted 5 sparklers on a broomstick and held it vertically, at arm's length for the 5-minute exposure Ribbon of Hannover Street. It occurred to me more than once that these were performances with light: crowds of curious garbage men, night watchmen, cops, workaholic Wall Streeters and the homeless gathered to watch the lunatic with the blazing broomstick! Exhibition and publication of these photos lead to an invitation to participate in the Aspen Design Conference. There I met people in the commercial design world for the first time. Ellen Salzman from Saks Fifth Avenue hired me to create slides shows that I projected on a huge translucent screen behind the fashion show runway. Soon I had department store Bergdorf Goodman as a client. This led to work with fashion designers, from unknowns to Christian Dior. It was FUN! Playing with all this stuff: the clothes, cosmetics, and the models. And it was exciting the day of the show or shoot. But I was soon resisting being known for a product. Being commercial felt routine and demeaning. I would try to make the client feel that he was participating in a wonderful experiment. Basically I put the models into my art, not overly concerned about illustrating the clothes. And when the client treated me as though I was a technician, I quickly proved that I wasn't: by fucking up!
I remember when designer Diane von Furstenberg came down to my studio with her entourage. She looks at the 10-projector show I was working on for her and says: "It's faaabulous; double it's length." This is the day before the Big Show. I stayed up all night and worked until I had to jump in a cab with the 10 projectors and go to the showroom, in a sweat. I get set up moments before show-time. The show starts; no rehearsal, or I missed it. And the timing of my projections is way out of sync with what is happening on the runway. Even my 10 projectors are out of sync with each other (this being years before computerized multi-media). Well, nobody seemed to know or care. Later, the New Yorker Magazine wrote of fashions that were up-staged by a "dazzling stop-and-go-slideshow." I never heard from Diane von Furstenberg again.
I received grants from the New York State Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 for my 'light drawings' and this was all the excuse I needed to stop doing business. I was able to hire an assistant and I took to the streets again. With a battery-powered light bulb on the end of a broomstick I made arcs overhead, while pivoting in place, for Lightdomes. I taught myself how to unplug the fuses at the bases of streetlights to control the ambient light and 'borrow' power for my lights. Synergy I was made with a string of Christmas lights around a hula-hoop. With a switch in my hand I could turn the lights on and off to form the discrete rings. Synergy II is an extrusion of light; it zooms in at the viewer seemingly at the speed of light, dispassionate and otherworldly.
Happy Street, a photo I made in 1979, I think of as forerunner to my LIGHTMOBILE. I mounted a long horizontal staff of blinking light bulbs onto baby carriage wheels and, starting at the top of a hill in Central Park, I walked toward the camera. The old West Side Highway was being torn down. When I shot STOP part of the highway was already taken away and a fence at the end of the road was erected temporarily. The white and red lights are from the head and taillights of cars moving below. The blue lights are mine: Christmas lights that I dragged back and forth until the pavement scraped the blue paint off the bulbs. I shot Dear Mom And Dad on the closed bridge at Canal Street and West Side Highway. I had a 3'(90cm) lighted cube on wheels that I turned on and off many times during a 15-minute exposure. I stood by the cube with a switch in my hand. Many people ask:" but where are you in the photo?" The answer is: there isn't enough light on me for the film and camera to see me.
This cube, which I had built as a photographic prop, became an interesting object in my studio, and I would plug it in at night. As sculpture it had presence, but I knew it wasn't enough. My next great AH-HA! (revelation) came while I was watching Charlie Chaplin's 'Modern Times'. I proceeded to build a machine out of Christmas lights mounted on fiberboard. And what does a machine want to do but move, so it was a natural extension to animate the lights. With my high school knowledge of electricity, a simple electronic sequencer (and several shocks of 110 volts to my system), I created Perpetual Motion Machine. In the works that followed, I explored the sinuous and fluid sensations suggested by the colors and configurations of lights. Falling water was something I emulated for its mesmerism. Fire and Ice was an electronic teepee. Cool blue lights cascaded down on the outside; orange and red heat blazed upward on the inside. In Boobles, a suggestive throbbing of meshing hemispheres. Some of the sculptures resembled UFOs and space vehicles. Kite quivers like a living thing as it hovers overhead. Glimpse of Happiness has an elusive presence, blazing lime green for 20 seconds, then fading to black, it floats crucifix-like in a ceiling corner of the room. (5 Light Sculptures)
These light sculptures formed my 5th and last show at O.K. Harris Gallery. Patterson Sims, then a curator at the Whitney Museum, called it 'disco madness'. When the show went to Stony Brook University, it was reviewed in the New York Times: "...these are the show's most abstract and evocative works, floating high above the viewer like benevolent celestial beings, producing gentle, soothing rays. The artist's blending of technology and emotion is most harmonious here." The review went on, perhaps prophetically, as I look back: "Girlfriend, a triangular form lighted in red and touches of yellow, pulsing ominously toward a dark central void, is at once inviting and somehow sinister; perhaps this is a comment on human relationships."
At Stony Brook I gave a lecture about my work, and some days later received a letter from a student, Chuck Lawson, who wrote eloquently of how my work inspired him and if I ever needed help on a special project, that he would like to be involved. We met in the fall of 1984 and I showed him a working model of a lighted Volkswagen. I explained that if I could put the funding together this would be my next project and that sure, I would love his help. We agreed that he would shop around for an old Beetle, something that was easier to find on suburban Long Island than in New York City.
About a month later, Chuck called me up and said, with $750 he borrowed from his mother, that he had bought a 1967 Beetle. In September, in front of his mother's house in Northport, we mapped out a grid onto the white car, and drilled 1659 (15mm) holes into the metal. Then we took it to the local Earl Scheib, the cheapest auto body paint shop, and had it painted a metallic charcoal gray.
In the meantime, I found a drive-in workshop at 524 West 34th in Manhattan to have the project closer to home. I couldn't afford this kind of place in the middle of New York City. Most of the rent was paid by another young kid who attached himself to me: Mark Chase. I never met a guy who was in such a hurry to 'make it'. I'm not sure that it mattered what he made it in. He was just obsessed with becoming a millionaire before his 30th birthday. When I met him he was a student at the School of Visual Arts where I was addressing a photography class. Mark comes up to me after the presentation and introduces himself; 18, tall and muscular and confident in himself. He says: "Hi, I'm Mark Chase; I really like your work. Can I call you to have a look at your prints?" I said sure and gave him my number, thinking I would never hear from him again. A year or 2 later he calls me up to arrange for a studio visit. He comes over and buys about $10,000 worth of photos from me. He is suddenly my biggest collector. This is a bond you hold on to!
Mark's dream was to own a disco, but in the meantime he did light construction. He built and installed sculptures for me when I had commissions and exhibitions. He was very handy, could organize other helpers, could get tools and materials (at discount!) and good weed. He was always laughing and positive. Everything was "nooo problem". He was fairly honest for a contractor. Finally, I met through an artist friend a German super-tanker mechanic who was looking for work so that he could remain in New York. Fred Niklas came to work for me and I put him in charge of wiring the car. Chuck commuted from Long Island to help with the tedious, bleeding-knuckle job of wiring 1659 light sockets into every square inch of the car's surface.
Lightmobile took the three of us 5 months to build, far exceeding the time and money that I thought it would cost. There is a mile (1.5 km) of copper wire, color-coded to organize the 10 channels of light, that are then connected to a computer that effects 23 different patterns of light moving from the front to back, or back to front of the car. The computer, in turn is connected to a gas-powered Honda generator, built-in behind the back seat of the car. The project had many technical details that had to be thought about. Patient craftsmanship was very important or the thing might blow up the first time we took it out. That meant that I shouldn't be around. Because I wasn't a very patient craftsman. I was like: "let's just get the fucker done." Fred, who in technical school in Hamburg, had to hand-carve a tube from a block of steel, with .01mm tolerance, would say, "It takes as long as it takes. There is only one way and that's the right way".
So basically I'm shamed out of my own shop; I wasn't meticulous enough to build my own artwork! I went home, humbled. And decided maybe I was better suited raising the money to get the project done. I had the good sense to be born into a wealthy family, and that helped. My best friend and chief enabler, Babe Shapiro loaned me money while reminding me that getting a real job was beneath me.
I remember the day we screwed in the last light bulb and fired up the Lightmobile. It was a day, like the day of the birth of my son, that I'll never forget. It was almost midnight on March 5, 1985. We turned on the generator and booted the computer and in a flash the workshop lit up. We stepped back from it for the first time and it was thrilling. I just had to take it out right away, no question. I had to see it in the city. As we drove out into town, the reactions of the people were hilarious to see. We drove all over town, all night, startling a few thousand people. From mid-town up Madison Ave. to 125th Street then over to the Westside and down to the Village and Soho and Chinatown and Little Italy. The reactions were the same everywhere: sheer joy! Everybody smiling and laughing. And as we drove back to the shop, our jaws ached from our own laughing.
News of Lightmobile spread like a virus through the media. First a small piece in the N.Y. Times, followed by the Wall Street Journal and People; then it just went crazy with publications and TV productions calling from all over the world. Here it was: my 15 minutes of fame! It was a very exciting time for me. It was totally cool having the phone ringing all the time: The BBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Italian, French, German and Japanese TV. I think every TV interviewer expected me to be as extroverted and dazzling as the car, but as soon as the camera was rolling I always forgot the brilliant things I meant to say. Especially as the interviewer's questions were invariably stupid, like "what does it mean?" or "how do you respond to people who say you're a little crazy to do this?" As much as I wanted to be a star I realized that Lightmobile is the alter ego of a private and shy man.
In March, 1986 I wrote:
I lived inside my own movie this year with Litemo. I guess it's the most fun I've ever had. I saw the world through a million eyes reflected in Litemo. I am a vigilante of optimism driving it around. The people I've met, their love, my love, the instant block parties in Harlem, melting Hell's angels in Chicago, crashing MOMA, Whitney and Guggenheim opening, making friends at truck stops, causing UFO reports in the South. I round the corner in another neighborhood, mouths fall open, I read 'Oh, my God' on lips and laugh for days at the double takes, the thumbs up, the smiles, the disarming of the undisarmable. I am heavyweight champ and mayor and homecoming hero in Litemo. Profound in its simplicity, it's understood by everyone and stretches everyone's imagination. Politically radical: it's a gift to all. God, I feel good invading people's privacy this way. Maybe I'll stay out all night. Cocaine was never this good. I round another corner and BOOM- another 100 people are stopped dead in their tracks, seduced, forgetting who and where they are for an instant. They look, then laugh, then look in the car at me, nodding and shaking their heads as if to say: 'you did it, you un-jaded me, made me a kid again. I salute you.'
'In 100 nights I have made eye contact with half a million people. They are my friends; they remember where they first saw Litemo. They tell me that I inspire them, or that I've made their day, or they will never forget Litemo standing on their street. I round another corner and a police car pulls me over with his lights flashing- wants to know: 'what is it?' 'It's art', I say. 'It sure is', he says and then radios his buddies to come have look. Five cop cars line up and they all want to talk about it-why'd I do it? how'd I do it? how long? how much? how many? A cop takes out a Polaroid and photographs it, saying that since he saw it on TV he's been waiting to see it. I joke with him, saying: 'that's the worst photo of the car I've seen', and tell him to give me his card so that I can send him a photo. We say goodnight, I drive off, and I've got 5 new converts.
It's early, around midnight, a Saturday in August. I decide to drive a little further into Harlem. Tonight I'm on 167th Street, great white hunter. I stop at a bodega to get a beer and let people have a closer look. They swarm around. Kids with mouths open, eyes wide (they think I'm E.T.), teenagers are saying;' that's fresh' and want to touch the car. Young men lose their highly cultivated cool for a minute and shake my hand, saying: 'you a genius, man'. Some older man says:' you got balls to come up here with that thing.' He pauses; I get nervous for a second. Is he being hostile or am I a little paranoid? He is high on something. Then the man adds: 'but you welcome up here anytime you're driving that.' I turn around and the crowd has grown. People in the projects have apparently called their friends to come look. We're hanging out. It's my party. I work the crowd. They bring radios; the lights on the car seem to move in time to the music. Mine is the only white face, but I am immune to hostility.
When I became famous, driving Lightmobile around New York actually became less fun. People's reactions were less spontaneous, less their own, and a lot more culture-of-fame driven. Typical was the young man who comes running over and shouts through my window: "I saw you on TV. I saw you on TV". I said: "Yeah, but here's the real thing." He shouts: "I know, but I saw you on TV." And I'm thinking: shit, the experience of having seen Lightmobile on TV was more real to him than the real thing. Television was his frame of reference, the validation, for his experience. Television told him what was important; he didn't have to know for himself what moves him to think and feel. Shades of Marshall Mc Luhan.
Two issues were working in my head. One was that I had found my true calling in busting out of the art world and bringing art to the people. The other was that being shouted to and poked at made me cringe. I returned to the solitude of my studio and wrote:
In the meantime, I brainstorm my next pieces. I work hard to dream my wildest dreams while I'm awake. I'm 38. Not much time left. I light up a joint to forget that I, that we, will die. Music on loud- 'Who's that girl' by the Eurythmics- now maybe I can create. I'm the pilot of my sub-conscious. I stare for hours at the blank page, waiting for a truth. I've got to stretch, impress myself, tickle myself. Originality, humanity, intellect, passionate, dispassionate. I jump from my notebook, I dance recklessly but with purpose, waiting, coaxing, straining for something better, a complete summation of the moment. The music moves me to dance and laugh and cry at the same time. I'm so exhilarated by the possibilities for giving and getting joy with my work. I'm also touched by my own ability to suffer; this ritual reenactment of existential homelessness. What will my next work be? How can I top Lightmobile?
The GTE-Sylvania people invited me and Lightmobile to a corporate event in Florida toward the end of '85. We talked about sponsorship. The Statue of Liberty Centennial was coming up and General Electric was re-lighting the statue, which would naturally generate a lot of publicity. The GTE people wanted to have visibility there and proposed that I come up with something big. I had already been thinking about building a boat. It would be a big undertaking, but I now felt that any and all technical challenges could be overcome. I always liked the farm silo domes that I had seen in the mid-west, and I proposed to build a UFO out of one, with 600 red, white and blue Sylvania lights.
By the time our funding was in place, Fred, Chuck and I had only 3 months to build Bubbleboat. A 12' (370cm) galvanized steel dome was shipped from a Marietta, Ohio farm supplier. Fred engineered the aluminum hull that consisted of 4 pontoons with integrated engine compartment, which would house a 5000-watt generator. The deck was from fiberglass. Twin-10 horsepower Yamaha outboard motors would power the boat. With the July 4 deadline fast approaching we worked long and stressful days. Between Fred and myself it was very tense. Fred: "It's so American of you to agree to this impossible deadline." Me: "It's so German of you to be such a perfectionist control freak."
The morning of the July 4th, 1986, after the last 4 sleepless days and night, we were ready. Well, the various systems weren't completely tested, but we had to launch. We lowered the boat into the water with a large tow-truck, and it was one of those very high moments, seeing it bobbing up and down in the Hudson. And what a night it was: thousands of boats were in New York Harbor for the event, including President Reagan on board the aircraft carrier 'Iowa'. We flew the GTE-Sylvania banner from the Bubbleboat's mast and the client was very happy, especially with their sponsorship credited in the media. They didn't know that our maiden voyage was not a complete success. There was overheating in our engine compartment that was potentially very dangerous. We had to flash around for a few minutes, give it a rest, flash around some more. This actually had a very startling effect on the other boaters, as we could sneak up on them in the dark, alien-style and suddenly blast them with our 5000 watts.
I loved this fantastic toy and I used it all summer (and the next 3 summers) in the harbor. We de-bugged the problems and it was a well-built machine. It was like NASA gone berserk, with all the high-tech gear in the service of this floating bonbon. I could control the 3 colors separately, have them revolve around the boat, or move up and down, and I found that I could perform a very dramatic light show. With my girlfriend Deborah beside me at the helm, a picnic dinner and a bottle of wine, we spent many romantic evenings being part of the magic of New York at night. Bubbleboat was very slow moving and I had to learn about the tricky currents and tidal changes. This would effect whether we would go north, up the Hudson, or south, around Battery Park and up the East River. Sometimes we would hover around the River Café Restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge, and put on a light show. You could see people stopping eating in mid-bite. When we docked there on a warm night, the delighted manager brought out a bottle of champagne.
When I first got the idea for Bubbleheads I laughed and said to myself "where the fuck did that come from?" so goofy did I first find it. I actually wanted to make something more strange and less friendly with Bubbleheads. So I said "OK, get goofy". I really wanted to see the image for myself, but this was also the first time I thought about how I wanted the public to react. I wanted to do a piece that would make them grabs their hearts, shocked a little out of their reality. If you see Bubbleheads coming down your street late at night while you're out walking your dog, you pretty much jump when we appear, silently, pedaling in unison, part human, part humanoid; It takes a moment to react, to take it in. Some people look away, uncomprehending, or look around to see if this is part of a parade. Or, if they are not struck dumb, people will shout at us "who are you? What are you? Where are you from?" "What are you advertising" "does it have a name?" "Can we hire you?" "Can we come with you?"
We just glide by silently. The lights are animated, giving the impression that the heads are revolving, first clockwise than counter-clockwise, as if communicating in an alien language. This was very different for me too; I'm a voyeur in my bubblehead; I could see very easily out between the lights. But a person staring right at my head only sees the lights. This was great because you could look right in their eyes; study their reactions without them seeing you. Some people would come over and touch us to confirm what they were seeing. A few people were a little aggressive; it was either frightening for them or just not understandable. We heard people talking to us but mostly I instructed my crew to be quiet, as it was stranger that way. I didn't want to explain it. Let people figure it out for themselves. Once somebody shouted:"what planet are you from?" and I shouted back, through my helmet, "New Jersey"
I've looked into thousands of faces from New York to Montreal to Amsterdam to Berlin to Osaka; the reactions are always the same, always a riot to see. People who see it remember 15 years later when and where they saw it. And being a bubblehead (almost 100 people have crewed for me since '87) is unforgettable. It's like going to the theatre and being the theatre. Virtual reality and hyper-reality. Crew always say after a tour of the town: "wow, that was a trip!"
Deborah was my muse and hero from 1985-95. And I think she would say the same of me (or she's free to write her own book). She has a great enthusiasm for people and this made her fun to have around. She was game for anything and she loved my work. We were in love and we inspired each other.
Deborah was a successful interior designer. Focused and methodical, she could detail anything, she could organize and delegate; and remember conversations in meetings. She had the interpersonal skills to deal with clients and contractors and suppliers. Basically she was everything I wasn't. Clearly someone to collaborate with. And did I say she loved my work? This exciting other dimension to our partnership was born around the time of Deborah's pregnancy with our son Julian (born 29 October, 1988). Deborah ran a commission I had from the Alaska Performing Arts Center, in Anchorage. Between the time that I won the commission to build a large light sculpture, and the time that fabrication was to begin, I had actually lost interest in the artwork. The plan that I submitted was big and exciting, it covered the whole building. It would work with the building but stand on its own. But the budget and the nerve needed to get it built got rather smaller. By the time all of the realities weighed in, the design was reduced to a colorful marquee. Building decoration: that wasn't where I wanted to be. But it had to be built and built to last. Deborah got it done. And done so well that I could love it again!
The next year we got a call from a client of Deborah's former boss and mentor, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. It seemed that The Matsushita people were looking to build some large art for the Panasonic headquarters in Osaka and could we make a presentation to them in New York. Four Japanese men came to our studio; they looked around and took a few photos. They loved Rolling Rock Beer. And I loved hearing them say Wrolling Wrock. It got funnier with each Rolling Rock. They wanted us to come over to Osaka. That is: me, not Deborah. They spoke good English but they weren't ready to do business with a woman. PLUS, we would be coming with our 1-year old! Nevertheless, I convinced them that we were a team and that I needed Deborah for the first meetings.
We 3 went to Osaka and spent two weeks being squired around the company, the cities of Osaka and Tokyo, and some of the important temples and gardens around Japan. These people couldn't have been more gracious. Before our meetings a dignified woman would arrive at our hotel and baby sit Julian, and off we'd go in a company car. At the end of the 2 weeks, the president of the real estate division invited us to present a general idea of what we might do for them. I knew something big was needed and that they were open to doing something big. The space was huge and they wanted it to make a big splash. President Sekine asks: "So, Staller-san, how much money to you need to make your magic happen here?" As calmly as I could, like I do these deals everyday, I said that $2million should do it for the atrium sculpture. And he says: "Fine, Staller-san. Please return to your hotel and write up an agreement." We couldn't believe it. It was a 'pinch-me-am-I-dreaming moment'. I wanted to scream for joy. This was 20 times the budget of my largest project to date. Deborah, surprised at my sudden business acumen commented: "You really are Max's grandson". What a giddy night that was. We wrote a simple contract on hotel stationary, and we all signed it the next day. No lawyers.
The coming months were a love affair within a love affair for Deborah and myself. With the carte blanche we had been given our art-making partnership was cemented and we were mightily inspired. I had a vision of a high-tech East-meets-West extravaganza for the 6-story high atrium space. Both Deborah and I were very moved by the timeless beauty and Zen symbolism that we found in Japanese gardens and temples. But it was clear that we were hired for our American dazzle, so we couldn't get all low-tech on them. My head was also filled with images of old Japanese sci-fi films with all their cartoony special effects. I wanted to re-immerse myself in all the cutting-edge Disney pyrotechnics, so we went down to Orlando to see what the Imagineers were up to.
Returning to New York with a fresh fix of the sublime to the ridiculous we started to design. We started with the criteria: there was the budget. No problem, for the first time in my career. There was the huge space that we wanted to fill. We were asked to create a piece that would attract young people: let's be surprising, dynamic. The piece should look different to the same people upon returning a second and third time. So it should have a program of changing elements. It would metamorphose like a great living thing.
Metamorphosis became a metaphor for birth, life and death; with stylized plant, water, undersea life and volcanic imagery telling an impressionistic 40-minute story. We storyboarded it much in the way that films are planned. The 'story' opens with the sculpture in repose, with a subtle pulsing of the acrylic ellipses and marble-covered spheres. Slowly the movement builds and the ellipses appear as cascading water, a combination of neon and incandescent lights. This is followed by a cleaving and smoking rock-ball that cracks open, to reveal a lighted stalk that telescopes 30' (10m) upward.
A huge fabric flower blossoms forth. Moments later is a dance of opening and closing umbrellas. Finally a giant sea anemone comes down from the ceiling, seemingly puncturing the flower. The flower/stalk retreat into the rock ball and the rock-ball closes.
Metamorphosis was engineered and built by a film and theatre special effects set builder. This combination of mechanical and electronic technologies was probably without precedent, even at Disneyland. The piece had to cycle all day long, computer-automated, with a minimum of maintenance. We commuted regularly to Connecticut over a 2 year period to supervise construction. It was a very heady feeling to see our dreams made real by a small army of can-do technicians and craftsman.
While Metamorphosis was being built, Matsushita decided to proceed with another one of our designs that we had proposed. In the same business park was a public plaza that had sixteen 6' (2m) openings for plantings that didn't look very healthy. Deborah and I proposed that we replace the plants with an electronic garden. President Sekine was intrigued by the idea and was ready to give us the go-ahead on one condition: that this Magic Garden be completely installed in 4 months. While we were in the meeting, I looked down at my shoes, doubtful about pulling it off in 4 months, while Deborah saw the window of opportunity and said, without hesitation: "yes, we'll do it."
When we left the meeting we looked at each other as if "oh, shit, what have we done?"
"16 domes, 4 months". In the model we had shown to sell the client on the idea, it was pretty abstract what we were going to do with the domes. We had thought a little about it, in terms of materials we wanted to play with. But to get a nice variety meant 16 different ideas. And I don't get ideas just because I want to get ideas, they have to come to me. That could be today, or next month.
We gave ourselves 4 weeks to come up with the 16 themes and a general idea of how to build them.
Four weeks to source all the materials and manpower.
Four weeks to build.
Four weeks to install in Osaka.
It was immediately clear that we couldn't build it all ourselves, although that might be fun if we had the time. We would need a lot of bodies on the job; a lot of materials would have to be pushed into shape quickly. So as we jammed about the 16 forms, we also started a list of artists and craftsmen that we could use. Note the word 'use'. That has to be defined. Deborah and I believe that everybody we meet, we meet for a purpose. So we had an enormous resource of specialists. People we knew were eager to get involved. We could share the wealth with our friends and give them a chance to make something nice. Not just execute our designs, but also have some freedom to be themselves creatively. In some cases they could even stretch themselves creatively, because they knew that we weren't going to cut corners on building it well. We didn't have to, and we wanted them all to do it up BIG.
Suddenly we have a chance to throw a party to create something together. We invited Joan Steiner, who could make the most convincing miniatures of anything. 2 Swiss illustrator friends lived in New York, Paul Degan and Christolf Vorlet. A Dutch architect friend Enno Wiersma was in town; we got to talking and found that we shared dreams of futuristic cities. We hired him to build our City of the Future Dome. A mad scientist neon artist, and nephew of Katherine Hepburn, Mundy Hepburn did the Neon Amoeba Dome. Deborah's brother Phil, an artist and carpenter came down for general construction; Paul Colin and Steve Lemon, New York painters, contributed. We had a model maker cast a young girl for the Fiber-optic Nest Dome; a glass artist make the glass globs for the Glacier Dome. My assistant Fred built a giant pulsating cactus out of specially made leaves of electro-luminescent light.
By day we detailed and engineered and ordered materials; at night we communicated to Osaka, faxing back and forth, about the intricate site preparations that they should make before we got there. Tim Mills does some of the riskier effects for film and theatre. The builders of Metamorphosis had consulted him. We hired him to do the very challenging engineering for Magic Garden. The 6' domes had to be waterproof and air-conditioned. He designed a system that fit into the existing 6' openings in the plaza, which could be serviced from the parking garage below. He had fabricated: sixteen 6' diameter stainless steel tubs and sixteen 16 acrylic domes, lockdown rings, and a climate control system to keep the domes warm in winter and cool in summer.
We all moved into an out-of-business carpet showroom on Canal Street, 4000 sq.ft (400sq.m), high ceiling, view out onto the busy street. On Canal Street you could find all the materials you needed. We built some big plywood tables and went to work. There was a great jazz jam session energy. Even though Deborah and I provided each person with a specific task, everyone felt his or her unique talents were being honored by us. Thus, everyone wanted to do good work. And a team spirit made it all the more fun. Deborah and I could afford to buy the best and most varied of materials. This was very inspiring. I wouldn't say anything was possible, but a lot of things certainly were.
We wanted an inflatable dome inside the plastic dome to be covered with vintage neckties. The dome rises to fill the plastic dome, and then falls flat when someone comes close. A bush made of fiberglass rods that you can touch; it makes a nice sound when you run your hand over it. We used paperweights, and antique bottles, gems and minerals; an old Busby Berkley photo revolves under a disk of glass that you can stand on; gazing into a giant lens you see a TV picture magnified and distorted. We felt that all 16 pieces didn't have to be domes. A few are flat and designed to be walked on. One is a glass bench; with glass strong enough for a fat man to jump on. We painted an old travel agency plane silver and it slowly rotates. Below it are aluminum balls that roll around. We commissioned about 12 artists whose work we liked each to paint a ball in their style.
We had a big Magic Garden wrap party, crated up everything and shipped it to Osaka. Not shipped, but flew it there! Because of our deadline there was no time for ship transport. "$80,000 for air cargo? No problem, Staller-san". It was a very cold February when we checked into a company-owned hotel in Osaka: Deborah and I, Phil and his wife and baby; Julian, who was 18-months and Deborah's father to help with baby-sitting. And Tim Mills. We worked in the cold for 4 weeks and were polishing the domes the day of the opening. That night we all looked down at the We had a big Magic Garden from the roof garden of Twin 21 Plaza, 30 stories up, and it was truly magic.
Between the completion of Magic Garden and Metamorphosis we finished our house in rural Pennsylvania. This 150-year old Lutheran church in the tiny town of Lyons,100 miles (150km) from New York, was at first our weekend retreat. A wonderful solid 2-story brick building that we could get for almost no money if we were willing to do everything to it to make it livable. The local Lutherans had out-grown the building and built a new church nearby. Mennonites had taken it over and had stripped the building of its Christian symbolism; the steeple and stained-glass windows were gone, as was a large mural over the alter of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. This was all just as well; we may have found it harder to enjoy our pleasures of the flesh with the Lord nosing around.
It was a tremendous job to renovate the church, with Deborah the perfectionist designer and I, the reluctant builder, commuting weekends from New York, living in the sawdust and cooking over a hot-plate. With our Japanese commission we could finally afford to hire Deborah's brother Phil to come down and finish the work. We also made friends with people in the area, other exiles from New York: unhurried, uncomplicated, un-neurotic people without hidden agendas. Very refreshing, after 20 years, to find that there could be life after New York. Surrounded by Mennonite farms with their stone barns and charming horse drawn buggies, the local farmers market, the tiny post office where the post-mistress knew your name and all the town gossip. This was like stepping back into another time. The ease of life there was brought into particularly sharp contrast with New York because of our 2-year old Julian. We had a back yard in the country, whereas in New York it was a production to play outdoors. At Washington Square Park you'd have to climb over sleeping homeless people, clean up the broken glass under the swings; kids were getting lice in the pee-smelling sandbox. And then, if you live in the Soho building in front of which 7-year old Etan Patz was snatched up and vanished while waiting for his school bus, you always have vague sense of dread as a parent of a young child.
And that's another thing: our Soho coop with all these supposedly tolerant and liberal artists. You should have seen the petty and selfish squabbling that went on at the monthly board meetings. Finally, our elevator, which was manual (you couldn't just press a button and have it come to your floor; you had to ring for it and the person who's floor it was on would have to come up or down to get you, with various expressions of disdain. Especially the ones who had no children, who would gaze at you and yours, obviously thinking "don't you want to move to the suburbs?") and probably 100 years old, broke for its last time and died. Now that there was some real business to discuss at the coop meeting, you could really see the petty stuff these people were made of.
Well, we lived on the fifth and top floor; the steps are many and steep when you are carrying a 2-year old (he's not going to climb all those stairs) in one arm and the groceries in the other. After a few months of the elevator being out you're cursing the entire coop board because like, the guy on 2 doesn't really need an elevator so he doesn't want to pay; the guy on 4 is waiting for his brother who has a friend in the elevator business to get back to him with a bid. Etcetera. A year goes by without an elevator. And we've got this terrific mortgage around our necks.
Living in Lyons was so cheap that it was like time-traveling back to the 70's. What a treat to lose the dialing-for-dollars pressure-cooker that New York was. Bids for work on the house that you thought were mistakes in your favor; 'little-do-they-know-how-well-we- live' low real estate taxes, capable studio assistants who never whined about being exploited. AND the $6.95 all-you-can-eat turkey dinner at the local Dryville Inn.
It was now possible to return to underwriting our own projects; build them 'on spec' without such concerns as: how are we going to pay for this? Where will we keep it?
I came up with Octos. Again, it sprang from my sub-conscious and got me laughing about how absurd it might look. But I also had a conscious desire to do a daytime piece. By this time I had created 4 mobile public artworks and was resolved to continue a series of what I was now calling 'urban UFOs'. These were Lightmobile, Bubbleboat, Bubbleheads, and Roly-Poly, all involving light and requiring darkness for their magic. Roly-Poly was a 6' (2m) diameter ball covered with 600 electro-luminescent strips that could be computerized into an almost infinite array of patterns. Underneath the ball was a 3-wheel battery-powered golf cart. At night, the lights gave the illusion of a ball rolling down the street with no apparent driver or means of propulsion. The ball gave off a beautiful blue glow. I was jealous of the people who saw it unexpectedly.
Roly-Poly was a fragile ephemeral piece that didn't see much action in New York. One night, on a pre-Guiliani pot-holed street, Roly-Poly rolled over and I was thrown helplessly from my seat. Soon after, Deborah and I sold it to our Osaka client who used it in the park adjacent to the Panasonic headquarters. We had begun to move away from my dependence on light as a medium and darkness as the context. While in Japan with Tim Mills, we learned of his passion for motorcycles and that he had a lot of experience customizing and 'chopping' bikes. In the meantime I had visions of various human-powered vehicles and built a model of a circular bike for 8 riders. Tim did a set of engineering drawings, the first such blueprint that preceded any of the urban UFOs. We agreed to a production budget and schedule, in May of 1991. Tim built the bike in Westchester, New York, using Honda motorcycle suspensions, front forks, wheels and brakes. Deborah designed and made the black and white suits that would augment the futuristic look we were after.
As with every one-off, Octos had its unforeseen costs and delays and there was the familiar strain of working in collaboration. But all was forgiven when, on a perfect fall day in September, we rendezvoused with Tim in Central Park for our debut ride. Our crew of 8 (+ baby-seat for 3-year old Julian) assembled and changed into costume in the Tavern-on-the-Green restrooms (we even had a small suit for Julian). We mounted the bike and started to pedal: slowly, then building up momentum. It Works! we all whooped. Our 16 legs bobbed up and down in unison, as if mixing something in a giant vat.
Around the park we went, all in a giddy mood. It was strangely disorienting, pedaling a bike but not having to pay attention to steering (one person does have to pay attention); it was an especially odd sensation sitting in the saddles that were facing not in the direction of where we were going, but facing where we had been. The reactions of passersby were very funny; interactions with passersby were hilarious. Suddenly all of Central Park was our party, as the 8 of us neo-extroverts joked and bantered with hundreds of laughing and inquiring New Yorkers.
As we pedaled out of the park and down Broadway, a police van pulls up beside us. They point at us. We point at them. There are 8 of us in black and white, and 8 of them in blue. Finally, the question is posed. Can they get on? Really? Yes, really. So right there in Times Square, with a crowd gathering, New York's Finest pile out and climb on board.
A few weeks later Deborah, Julian, Octos and I were biking in Nagoya, Japan for the prestigious art and technology biennial ARTEC '91. We had agreed to participate with Lightmobile and Octos on the condition that the pieces were periodically used in the city. A crew of giggling young volunteers was put together for scheduled tours. Seeing this image: the uniform faces of the Japanese crew, riding in uniform, was the piece de la resistance for me. Octos seemed all the more futuristic now.
If the reader notices that I jump back and forth between 'I' and 'we' and is confused, that was the kind of schizophrenia that Deborah and I had as collaborators. At times our collaboration was a democracy. Mostly though, it was a benign dictatorship. The bee of art was always buzzing in my brain. Every waking moment I was turning an idea over in my head, looking to blow my own mind. Deborah is more a designer than an artist. It's not that she didn't have good ideas. It was just that her ideas were usually iterations of ideas that I had already thought of and rejected as being too easy. She understandably began to resent the unspoken rule that I had veto power over her ideas. AND I was vetoing 9 out of 10 of my own ideas, which was also tiresome for her. Drawings and models of ideas were piling up, waiting to be built, while I brooded over their worthiness. Having Deborah as my partner was double-edged: she could solve any problem which allowed me to dream wilder dreams; but I couldn't be happy unless I upped the ante, bet the ranch, every damned time.
While we had a huge project like Magic Garden to work on there was enough creativity to go around and we cooked on it from our morning coffee until bedtime, with always one more thing to talk about. We would joke that it was more exciting than sex, realizing our projects together; the more balls we had to keep in the air at once, the more exciting it was. Conversely, having no balls in the air was un-sexy. We hadn't learned how not to be busy, a condition that we were thrust into after Metamorphosis. Our restlessness turned inward when we stopped working.
We threw our last grand party together on our Angelvision, commissioned by the Butterworth Women and Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids. It was a competition for a sculpture for the lobby of the new building being paid for by the deVos family of Amway Products. Whatever sculpture we do for a public space should be a balance of pleasing ourselves and satisfying the client's needs. Our list of criteria included:
*The sculpture should be big and impressive; upon entering the space, one should look up and have the 'wow effect'. *The families who come here are going through some heavy stuff: it should be a place of quiet contemplation and uplift. *This is also a children's hospital: the sculpture should be playful, colorful, magical, a giant toy.
I had always loved kaleidoscopes as a kid. We built a working model of the sculpture in the space and videoed our presentation, which we then sent to the arts panel. Some weeks later we learned that we had won the competition and were invited to Grand Rapids for our first process meeting. When we toured the new building and saw its connection to the old building it became apparent to Deborah and I that our beautiful 'invitation' to enter the building would be followed by a 100' (30m) long sterile corridor. We proposed to the Hospital president, a very open Bill Gonzalez to treat the two blank walls with a design that we would later present, with a separate budget.
The building opened and our sculpture was unveiled on August 26, 1993. The Grand Rapids Press wrote the next day: "Step into the lobby of the new Helen DeVos Women and Children's Center at Butterworth Hospital, and you're sharing space with 'Angelvision'. Created by artists Eric and Deborah Staller, the 18' (6m) diameter sculpture fills the 2-story lobby from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Viewed from the balcony, 'Angelvision' appears to hover above the lobby of the 11-story center. Seen from below, the sculpture is more like a giant parasol slowly spinning overhead. The serene stained glass contrasts with the more whimsical aura of an ever-changing kaleidoscope, while the entire structure seems to hang in mid-air. Some say it looks like a gigantic child's top spinning slowly on its axis. Others call it a multicolored wheel of light and shapes. Whatever your impression, it's sure to take your breath away."
The Human Collections, for the hospital corridor, was a respite from the exacting logistical and technical demands of pieces like Angelvision. The Human Collections was a joy to create. One of our favorite things to do was 'antiquing' and the area around us was a great repository of antiques and junk. Almost every Saturday we would go to Renninger's, a vast single-story building with booths manned by various purveyors of everything from Art Deco furniture to tin toys and dolls; from Victorian door-knockers to Nazi and Civil War memorabilia. From the priceless (sometimes) to the worthless (mostly), it was always a stimulating treasure hunt, 100 years of kitsch. The 'Extravaganza' was a bi-annual event, whereby hundreds of itinerant dealers from all over the country would converge in their Winnebagos on the farmers' fields adjacent to Renninger's for a 4-day flea market.
Deborah and I liked to collect things, but we weren't really 'Collectors'. At home we didn't like clutter; we liked open space. But there was no telling what eccentric object might trigger an inspiration, so it was an important ritual to wander around and just space out on all the detritus of civilization. When one of us would spot a desirable object, we would pick it up and say: "honey, what about this?" To which the other would usually edit:"yeah, it's nice, but where would we put it.?" With The Human Collections we could collect like crazy, using someone else's money, and then get rid of it all, all in couple month's time. We would create 12 human-shaped showcases, 6 on either side of the long corridor, as friendly sentries to take people's minds off of the serious business of being at the hospital.
We lived the next 4 weeks as ravenous collectors, putting hundreds of miles on our car as we lovingly selected each object from among thousands of objects that we saw at antiques stores and flea markets. Almost every decision we made was made together and this brought us together. We returned home to add our day's finds to the 12 compositions of objects, arranged according to our 12 themes: 170 hand-blown glass paperweights, lit from within; A collection of small sculptures of heads, hands and hearts made of a variety of materials and coming from diverse cultures; framed photographs from the past 100 years; a collection of black and white objects; a slab of a tree, imbedded with tactile old bronze medallions and tools; cobalt blue glass objects; antique perfume bottles; humorous cookie jars. A collection of Victorian doorknockers emerges from an allegorical painting and is designed to be touched.
The Butterworth people asked us for a statement about the work we produced for the hospital. This is part of that statement:
We are blessed with this creative energy that is involuntary: the ideas come from our sub-conscious. These ideas are informed by and mix with conscious observations of the world around us. Then we try to 'prescribe' a celebration of our time and place and an antidote for the ills: the ills within ourselves and the ills of society. We hope to love each other and others and ourselves. We have strength and we have vulnerability. As artists we continually challenge ourselves to make art that is generous and uplifting. Each artwork must go deeper than the last. For inspiration we look at the house, town, country, world we live in. We travel. We get inspired lunacy from our 4-year old son. A child gives his all, he sparkles and radiates and tries everything. To be an artist, to realize our fantasies, is a great privilege and joy. We have an obligation to embody our art with our sensations and emotions; to share our optimism and our pathos with as many people as possible. First we embrace each other. Then we can embrace the viewer. Perhaps we can inspire others to want to give what they can.
After 3 years of living in Lyons, all of its previous charms were becoming shabby and charmless. I longed for a cultural place and cultured people. There was a pervasive lack of curiosity in our town and county. You could see that education was not important as their children were going to work on farms or in factories or small businesses after school. Julian was in school and we wanted him to be in a milieu of children who were being immersed in dreams and aspirations, and not the kind of resignation to mediocrity that we found in Middle America. Most people's idea of culture was the shopping mall, eating out was McDonald's and going to the movies was Schwartzenegger. Christian fundamentalism reared its persnickety head, and we became the subject of post office gossip. Deborah and I were proudly campaigning for Bill Clinton. A few locals lay in wait for me at the post office to confront me about my candidate. "Your man wants to give my tax dollars to them niggers who don't want to work for a living." I pity the poor Arab Americans living in the area now.
Deborah and I had to drive Julian to a private school for the qualities of education we were looking for, the closest of which was in Allentown. That cost an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon of driving him to or from school. While we loved driving our new Volvo in the hilly- farmy landscape at first, it got old quickly. Especially in winter. Winters were biblical trials in this part of the country. (I don't know how people can live in Minnesota). Winter of '93 there were 16 snowstorms in 16 weeks in our county. There were 8' (2.5m) snowdrifts on our main road until spring. We carved a notch in the drift to park our car. On many days we were snowed-in so we couldn't even go to the mall for a burger. Cabin Fever? Yup. Plus we weren't working. That is: we weren't getting commissions. We lost a few competitions, won a few and then the money disappeared, etc. We had 2 assistants working full time and an illustrator coming in a few days a week. We felt their loyalty and we wanted to keep them on even though there wasn't much for them to do for about a year. I still had a lot of ideas, but everything I wanted to build was a big production and I was afraid to spend our own money. Still Deborah spurred us on to do drawings and models. We designed a human powered train with Tim and tried to get a rail-park interested. We took Octos to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Montreal for shows or just to use it.
Being inseparable was finally the cause of our separation. We just wore it out. The muse no long amused. Our every thought and movement was known to the other. It was great when we had the joys to share but we blamed each other for the disappointments. "Why aren't you here in the trenches with me?" I would ask when Deborah went to out her garden ON A WEEKDAY. Deborah charged me with loving her only when she was at her drawing table. Another issue was my feeling that Deborah was over-weaning with Julian. She thought that I was under-weaning. And Deborah was hurt that I was unsupportive of having another child.
All of this stuff conspired in the winter of our discontent: 1993. Pragmatic people that we are, we agreed that it might help our marriage and career if we moved back to New York. But In the meantime we had had to sell our Soho coop, which we had rented the first 2 years that we were in Lyons. One of our coop's fabulous bi-laws, #19b states: "coop member cannot rent apartment for more than 2 years". In 1993 we could no longer afford to live in New York in the style to which we had become accustomed. And it felt like going backwards to move back to New York: been there, done that. But after New York, we felt there were no great American cities, except maybe San Francisco. Deborah was afraid of earthquakes. So we said: what about Europe?
I had always fantasized about living in Europe. In 1988 I had had a show of my photos at a gallery in Amsterdam. I was invited for the opening and Deborah went with me.
We were both enchanted by the city: a relaxed city with a sweet scale, wonderful architecture, charming canals, and cosmopolitan English speaking people. These impressions stayed with us and in July, 1994 we rented our friend Enno's apartment and began to investigate the possibilities for a move. During that month we enrolled Julian in the international school for the fall, found and leased a great house overlooking one of the canals, and saw that there were indeed career opportunities. Most important: we found that here we could re-kindle our love for one another. We returned to Lyons, packed up and shipped a house-full of belongings.
Deborah, Julian and I began our new life in Amsterdam in September with a feeling of being re-born. Everything was new and exciting and inspiring. The weather was warm and it stayed light until 10 PM. We walked and biked and sat at outdoor cafes. We discovered the charms of our neighborhood; the small shops where we were warmly greeted by the shopkeepers. It was all so exotic and romantic, this Old World. Being here seemed the ideal balance between New York City and rural Pennsylvania. It's a city of less than a million people, but with the energy of a larger city. Like a small-scale New York, its population has a rich ethnic mix of people, a cross-ventilation of cultures. Yet one feels never far from nature either: the tree-lined canals with swans and herons, the 17th Century canal houses buildings framing a big sky; and in warm weather a constant boat parade in the canals. When the weather is cold enough for the canals to freeze Amsterdam is at it most magical: everyone takes off in the afternoon to ice skate. It's in their blood. People of all ages, some wearing the latest high-tech long-bladed skates, others wearing old wooden skates, fastened to shoes with leather straps. Enterprising people set up tables in front of their houses and sell hot chocolate or hot spiced wine. It's a scene out of a Breughel painting.
Also striking to an American is the number of bikes and bicyclists. Every city street and country road has a good bicycle path and there are all manner of bikes: bikes with kids seats front and back, mountain bikes, racing bikes, cargo bikes, pedi-cabs. Sometimes we walk or take the tram, occasionally we take a taxi; but rain or shine, old or young, most people go by bike. This is a natural way to get/stay in shape; you see almost no obesity here, in spite of all the cheese the Dutch eat and Heineken they drink.
New York is the city of 'world-beaters', where one's ethos is 'being busy'. You would bump into someone you know and he or she would be 'soooo busy. But we'll get together. I'll call you'. If this person says he's not busy at all, he exposes himself to speculation that he is not on top of his game, maybe it's over for him; maybe he's a loser. If a New Yorker isn't busy world-beating, he may have to confront the fact that his success is the only thing that defines him, and that being driven is the excuse not to develop relationships, with others or with himself. If youth is wasted on the young, than money is wasted on the rich. You wouldn't think that you could be rich AND frustrated; you would think that maybe with all that money you could buy some time to get a life outside of making more money.
I find in Holland, less fear of repose. The Dutch strive to succeed but there is less of the manic energy. You can bump into someone you know, someone you know to be successful and busy, and he is likely to say "let's get a coffee". NOW. That coffee can turn into 2 coffees, and maybe a few cigarettes. Cigarettes, a nasty habit, not one of mine, but I understand it. It's a ritual break that is also a brake: slow down, what's the rush? Indulge a small pleasure, regroup, be deliberate about one's next move. All around you are humbling reminders of the last 500 years of history; In those reminders is a moral that Rome wasn't built in a day; that civilization moves slowly, and one man's accomplishments are hardly a blip on its screen.
When I arrived with my Lightmobile and my other highly visible artworks I had the feeling: I'm gonna take this town. Here I am Amsterdam: 'Mr. New York'. You Dutch artists can just pack it up and go home, because I'm going to show you how Modern Art is done. Stedelijk Museum? Fugetaboutit. The art is right out here baby!
My UFO's are even more incongruous here against the stately old buildings and elegant bridges. Lightmobile seems a lot larger here than it did on 6th Avenue, where you could get some distance from it. As I drive it around Amsterdam and The Netherlands I read the expressions on thousands of faces: it whacks people right out of their complacent realities. People either love it or hate it. More people love it than not, but the ones who don't like it just happen to have some power to do something about it. This has taken the form of the Lightmobile being outlawed in Amsterdam. One day I was pulled over by the police. The agents deemed the car an 'attractive nuisance'; that it will cause an accident if another motorist takes his eyes off the road. I argued that yes, it could happen if this other motorist is a complete moron, but it's really a calculable risk AND IT HASN'T HAPPENED IN THE 15 YEARS THAT I HAVE BEEN DRIVING IT ALL OVER THE WORLD. I pointed to a large H&M billboard of a big-boobed blonde in a bra that might also result in the same moron having an accident.
My run-in with the police made the front page of the most read newspaper in the country.
The newspaper it seems, that every cop in the country reads. Now, when I take it out (a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do), police, even if they like Litemo, feel compelled to pull me over and scold me: "personally, it's very cool, but you know it's not allowed." Some cops, bully types, can be intimidating, especially if it's their second warning: "if I catch you one more time I'm going to take it away and dismantle the whole system." It makes me feel like an outlaw when I use it now, looking in my rearview mirror, avoiding certain neighborhoods where I've already been nailed. I prefer taking it outside of Amsterdam where maybe the cops haven't heard that it's actually illegal; then I can flash the whole town and leave before they figure out that it wasn't allowed in Amsterdam. A lot of the country has seen and loved it.
Police in Holland actually have more sense of humor than police in Switzerland, where in Basel Litemo was impounded immediately. I couldn't get it back until the day I was leaving the country and then I got a 2-cruiser escort to the border. In Berlin I was warned that it wasn't allowed, but by a cop wearing a smile on his face; or it may have been my 2 pretty German passengers who charmed him into letting me go. Antwerp police gave me a stern warning. Other cities I 'hit and run' without problems with the authorities.
One more thing about the police. I was busted in New York a few times too. Once it actually went to court. I defended myself and when I showed the judge a photo of Litemo he had a good laugh, and found me not guilty. Around the rest of America I encountered more resistance. I was busted in Pennsylvania and there it stuck. People's tolerance (and police are people, mostly) is a function of their exposure to a range of different points of view. The larger the city population, the wider the range. From exposure comes openness. That's why people say that New York is not America. New York is the most tolerant of all American cities. Because New York has seen it all.
Amsterdam is not Holland either and it is not Europe. It is more tolerant. Amsterdam has always been a melting pot for many different nationalities and religions. Recently it has become known for its tolerance toward homosexuals, prostitution and soft drugs, but this is only the latest manifestation of a 300-year old Calvinist principle of 'freedom of conscience'. While this makes for a civil society that I enjoy living in, it can also be frustrating as an artist. Consensus-building is politically correct in a socialism but it's deadly for art. Real art is going to step on some people's toes. Committees that select art for public places have to please everyone and that means safe, innocuous art. As Deborah and I sought commissions to create new work, we invariably were chosen by someONE on a committee who liked our work, a champion of our cause. We were short-listed several times to make specific proposals for public spaces. Each time we would put our all into it: studying the site, its context and history; then creating models and drawings and impassioned scenarios. When it was time to make our presentation to the panel, we could see the excitement reflected in their faces. But if there was just one panelist who was worried about our proposal being controversial or over-reaching, it was over for us.
We received several 'Dear John letters' in '94 and '95. Our resilience to disappointment had already gone flat in Lyons. There at least we had friends and family to fall back on.
In Amsterdam we were alone. At first we were alone together and then we were alone alone. And lonely. I wrote in my notebook: " Deborah is very fragile. Her love for me is low. Don't judge. Give her plenty of space." Finally, to shake off our funk, we were going to do a new 'urban UFO', fund it ourselves; it was going to be a boat. I had an idea and Deborah had an idea. Deborah rendered both of them. She wanted to build hers and I wanted to build mine. It was only an aesthetic impasse, surely we could overcome it. But by then we couldn't agree on anything, in or out of the studio. The 2 boats became a metaphor: we wanted to sail off in our own directions.
The air at home was toxic; When Julian came home from school, we would take turns playing with him, tag-team style. He was 6 and curious about everything. Play with him gave me some respite from the hurting. And play is the incubator of new ideas. One day we had some small Styrofoam hemispheres, probably leftover from a project. We started gluing stuff onto them, collage-style. I naturally needed to give order to the proceeding (Virgo that I am), so I suggested that we glue coins from our travels onto one hemisphere, shells on another; chestnuts that we had collected from the park onto another, and postage stamps onto a 4th. Then we joined the half spheres together in contrasting textures: chestnuts with coins and shells with stamps. This felt really good: working with my hands, spontaneously, not having to confer with Deborah; Not having large sums of money to raise or engineers to consult. It was like old times. That night, while Julian and Deborah slept, I started gluing our stamp collection onto a wooden kitchen chair. I worked through the night, until every last stamp was affixed to the chair. The next morning I went to a stamp shop and bought enough to finish the chair.
Thus, after 6 years of duet performances, I returned to being a solo artist. I loved the look and feel of the stamps. I bought several thousand from the local stamp market and organized them into boxes for each color. In that way I could 'paint' surfaces but invest the surfaces with more information than pigment. Every stamp was a small painting commemorating generals, presidents, kings and queens, writers and philosophers; everyone who was important to every country. All that history, right in my hands. I also had a nostalgic connection to one of my sweetest memories of my father, with whom I collected and catalogued stamps when I was young. Plus I felt that I had stumbled onto a way of working: low-tech, quiet, no moving parts, that was either a part of my mellowing with age, or a result of my living in Europe.
The old expression: "you are what you eat." An artist is what he culturally eats, or is immersed in. In New York I had to make Big and Loud; in Amsterdam, Small and Quiet.
I suddenly felt like one of those Old World Craftsmen: doing labor-intensive hand work with pre-electronic age materials and methods. It took thousands of stamps to cover the fiberboard constructions. I wanted the surfaces to be rich and old, patinated and tactile. I wanted them to elicit the hurt and pathos that I was feeling. I wanted to do something ugly, violent, disturbing. Bloody. In the winter of '95 I did a piece to go on a wall, entitled Efacing. At the same time I wrote this about my experience of Julian's birth.
As Julian was emerging from Deborah's body I felt a primal, timeless bolt of lightning. This was a glimpse into all creation. An animal, willful and strong, ripping its ways out. The top of his bloody head effacing; then the burst of violent energy as his shoulders and body emerged. Deborah screamed in pain. It was fascinating/frightening. This combination of she and me and the thousands who came before us. I began to cry and laugh and cry again at my joy and relief and horror. The sensation of being sucked into a whirlpool, the moment he was being sucked out of Deborah. It was like 'whoosh!' The doctor handed me a scissors and directed me to cut the umbilical; it was like a thick rubber tube.
March, 1995 was probably the lowest point in my life. Deborah didn't have the love to stay and I didn't have the love to fight for her to stay; I'll never forget the pain of Deborah and I sitting Julian down and explaining that we were not going to live together anymore. We all cried. For the next 5 months she and I pretty much never occupied the same room in the house at the same time. The last vestige of family were our dinners together. The rest of the time I disappeared into my obsessive world of postage stamps. The close repetitive work, hour after hour, was at once boring and therapeutic. I allowed myself to think of it as a hobby and this was liberating; I could forget about changing the world and just change me.
My metamorphosis back into a solo artist was completed with the sculpture Remote-Controlled Lovers. We had given ourselves one Christmas 2 ceramic heads: a man and a woman. We displayed them on our mantle in our living room overlooking the Singel canal. One day as I gazed out at the canal, I turned around and saw the 2 heads, staring at each other. In that moment the idea was born; my first Amsterdam-inspired 'urban UFO.' I worked with a film props maker who built the submarine and armature that support the 2 heads, which are about 24" (60cm) apart. The piece has a melancholy beauty as it glides through the canals, in a gentle water ballet of S-curves. I control it from the waters edge with a radio. I can walk 100 ft (30m) away from it and people don't see me. I take long walks with it through the city, watching from behind a car or tree as people gasp in astonishment. "Are they real people?" everyone wants to know. A few people have a momentary impulse to jump in and save the lovers. They look so cold and vulnerable as they slowly pass; are they swimming or drowning?
September 1st Deborah and Julian moved to an apartment across town. I moved on October 1st to a smaller, loft-like apartment overlooking the Herengracht canal. It was a relief to begin again after living the last half year in a crime scene. I installed a basketball hoop in the high ceilinged living room. I had Julian on weekends and Wednesdays. Both Deborah and I were involved with Julian's school, The International School of Amsterdam, where he was receiving an excellent education, in English, and making friends from all over the world. A very ambitious building program was underway to build a new building on a new campus. One of The Netherlands' finest architects Alberts and van Hout was selected for the design. The school's director, a forward-thinking American woman asked Deborah and I to do a study for an amphitheatre. As Deborah and I were barely on speaking terms, I undertook to do the design by myself. In the end it was decided that the space allocated for the amphitheatre would be used for an additional sports field. Soccer trumps art every time.
Ever since I've been an artist I've kept a notebook and a black Pentel marker always by my side. The left side pages are for text things: notes, remarks, observations, people I have to call. The right side pages are for drawings and art ideas. Re-reading my notebook from winter of 1996, I recall the rage I had within me. In fact, I wasn't very inspired to sketch new ideas, so both the left and right sides of the notebook were filled with notes like these:
Marriage: it's better to make several mistakes than only one.
Deborah: I don't want her; I just don't want her to go to another
Two types of people in this world: the celebrants and the anti-celebrants
America has Attention Deficit Disorder
Maybe I'll give myself cancer from all the worrying I do.
The artist must go into the flame
Society will have to kill the messiah.
Conceptual artwork: live on my own sperm for a week.
Leave your fucking footprint.
Things I want to learn to say in my Dutch lesson:
"I love it when you squeeze my balls." "I don't hate your mother."
In the last 10 years 2,000,000 children have been killed in wars.
Change my name to Warren Peace.
Stop making sense; I must be irrational because the world is so rational.
Conceptual artwork: take Julian out of school; program him to be a 10-year old lawyer.
I appreciated my parents' advice; I always did the opposite.
Go wild! Go crazy!
Kafka: "I believe that we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?"
My God! Why am I still thinking that life's a struggle?
Drive until we get arrested.
Affect people in a visceral involuntary way.
My doctor told me I was in perfect physical health. I told him I needed a second opinion.
Humanity is inversely proportional to the amount of money people have.
Make something repellant and rude; it barks like a mad dog when you get close.
Why do they keep asking why I do these things? I do these things to make them ask why.
Big Bang Theory 1996. This old Fiat 500 appears to be getting fucked by bowling pins. Some ridiculous/mysterious force has thrust the 10 pins into one side of the car. The pins breathe in and out of the car with a slight twisting motion. As you come close to the car, the pins bang in and out violently and shake the whole car. I can also pull the pins into the car and have them thrust out suddenly when someone is near; people jump and a startled sound jumps out of their mouths. Some small kids start to cry. I really wanted it to be a "fuck you piece". But in the end it's too funny to be really menacing.
I got a call early in 1996 from the organizer of the Fiets Feest (bicycle festival)'96.
This Madusa-haired young man Maarten Leuw was a fanatic cyclist and a fanatic automobile hater. He told me he had heard that I had created an 8-seat bike and that he wanted it for the festival. He had already organized a wide range of bikes and offered to pay for transport of the bike, from Pennsylvania to Amsterdam.
The bike arrived at the port of Rotterdam and Maarten was there to meet it with a crew of 7 hardy Dutch bikers. They rode the bike 10 miles (15km) in 2 hours and had it towed the remaining 50 miles (75km) When I met them in Amsterdam they were exhausted but happy. We got to talking about the bike, the neo-hippie crew slightly contemptuous of the American bike builder who built it more for show than go. This 8-person bike couldn't even go as fast as a bike for one.
In spite of their skepticism they were all converts to the cause, and Maarten a confirmed disciple. The Fiets Feest was a big success and Maarten and I became friends. We jammed about designing and building a new 8-seater. I remember being conflicted. I never go back into an old idea; I would rather use my money and resources to build something new. Sure, Octos could have been a better bike, but it really wasn't about biking fast and far. It was about a visual image, with the costumes and all; and as such, it was already successful. But fate had put this enthusiast in my path, and he wasn't going to go away easy. Like Chuck in '84 buying a VW Beetle with his mother's money, Maarten had a calling to be a part of my calling. And I could feed off of his fresh energy. It turns out that he had been doing a lot of thinking about different types of transmissions to put into the next bike; a drive system that would make for a more efficient bike.
I was struggling to get inspired to make my next move anyway so, I said to Maarten: see if you can find a couple of bike builders who could build such a thing. In Holland everybody bikes. Sure enough, Maarten found Theo de Rouw in Ammerzoden, about an hour away and in the middle of classic Dutch farm and countryside. He built small batches of racing bikes and 'skelters' (go-carts) and was game to build a bike for us.
Purist that Maarten was, he wasn't going to the have the finished bike trucked to Amsterdam. He wanted to ride it; so at dawn on a Saturday morning, the alternative-looking crew (and I this time) saddled up in Ammerzoden for the ride. Maarten supplied plenty of chemicals: Cokes and chips and chocolate bars and enough weed to keep a pipe going the entire 70 miles (110km). When the new Octos arrived in Amsterdam, biking capitol of the western world, people turned out as if we were arriving at the Vatican with the Shroud of Turin. Crowds of people gathered around gaping and groping at it. Thousands of people beseeched us to take them for a ride. Which we did.
NO ONE could not giggle at the experience. I saw that I had something more powerful than art. It was now beyond the look of the thing and its effect on the viewer. Now it was something to use: it was very functional and there was never anything like it: you could take a bike ride with 7 other people. This is a tool. A social tool for communing and for community. In the coming months we used the bike all over Holland in a wide range of festivals, corporate events, weddings and family reunions. It tickles everyone. You don't need to know or care about modern art to appreciate it. The idea is really bigger than one bike and I can replicate them without feeling that I'm repeating myself as an artist. These bikes should be available for everyone.
Maarten got us invited to participate in the huge annual bike show at the Amsterdam convention center in January, 1998. The bike was a tremendous hit with the people. Not to the point of anyone wanting to buy one at $9500, but hundreds of people wanted to rent them and our business cards sold out. We were so besieged by people wanting demonstration rides that Maarten asked Hans Josso if he would help man our booth. By the end of the year Hammacher Schlemmer ordered and sold three bikes (now 7-seaters) with a $16,000 price tag. I decided that I was going to invest the next year in production and marketing of the bike, now re-named the ConferenceBike.
Maarten moved on to another project but was always available for meetings in Ammerzoden. He arranged for most of the early rentals of the bike and was crew captain. The crew captain is the one who steers the bike. The other 6 people are free to pedal or not, as fast or slow as one wants. I wanted to distance myself from using the bike as one of my urban UFOs; the bike should be operable by any responsible person. Hans Josso made himself available to captain rentals. It was apparent that he was the next convert to the cause. He happily began to organize logistics for sales and rentals that were coming in. Coincidentally we changed bike builders to one in Utrecht, where Hans' girlfriend lived, and this added to the synchronicity. I wanted Hans to liaise with Apo of Sem Cycle. Apo was rather fluent in English, but he and I were worlds apart as people. Hans spoke the same language (Dutch) and the same cultural language as Apo.
Hans was 30, with one foot in the business world and the other in the alternative world; He was involved with Greenpeace and a vast barter organization where you almost never needed to pay for anything with cash. Like Maarten, Hans should have lived in the 60's.
When we were invited to participate in February 1999 in a peace caravan from Tel Aviv, Israel to Petra, Jordan, my 60's idealism came full circle. I may be a hippie at heart, but in practice I'm a 4-star traveler. I gave the mission to Hans: from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, 150 miles (250km), captaining The ConferenceBike as a symbol for peoples coming together. Power to the People, Right On!
The ConferenceBike is now doing this every day: bringing people together.
IN WAYS THAT I NEVER IMAGINED. This I love. Owners now include:
- The Dublin Society for the Blind
- The Earth Centre, a 'green' theme park in York, England
- The Brick Church, St. Louis
- Boggy Creek Camp, a Hole-in-the-Wall camp for chronically ill children, Florida
- Kultuur Bahnhof, eco-tourism parks, Germany
- The Jerusalem Science Museum
My obsession now is to sell 1000 bikes; not to get rich off of it; I just want to be able to go anywhere and see one of my bikes. Kind of like a Christo, I want to cover the world with ConferenceBikes. I believe that every great city should have at least one. What is emerging in my thinking at the beginning of 2002, is that I am going to have to go on the road to evangelize the benefits of owning one of these bikes. The timing couldn't be better. While our technology has made the world into a Global Village, real community is being lost. Our cars, our lap-tops and modems, our mobile phones, all designed to facilitate travel and communication, are actually raising barriers between people by passively isolating them in media cocoons. With all of the time and labor-saving devices of the information age, people seem only more pressed and stressed than ever. On a CoBi you decompress, reconnect; you get in shape and you get a little silly. This controlled silliness will improve creativity/productivity. Guaranteed! Or your money back!
I love/hate the technical challenge that the CoBi presents. The laws of physics that have to be obeyed. I love that these laws are beautifully inexorable, mathematical truths. I hate it that so many prototypes failed in the pursuit of the fool-proof machine. Seven people weighing a total of one half ton (500 kilos) are in motion at certain speeds and certain conditions. That bike HAS TO WORK. If it flips over and hurts someone we can't say: "oh, sorry it's not well made; it's art." I like the objectivity that goes into this object. Art is subjective, arbitrary. Gesture is so passé! Here's the facts: this bike transports 7 people who are facing one another and sharing in the 'getting there'. The art or the beauty of the bike is this sharing. The bike gives people permission to step out of their box. They may be shy about it at first; They will be gawked at and no one wants to look foolish. But 7 people looking foolish together is only 1/7th as hard. In fact, with the ensuing smiles that the bike produces, any embarrassment just disappears within the first 5 minutes of riding on a fully loaded CoBi: all 7 saddles filled it's like an amusement park ride popped off its mooring. Inhibitions are gone like you were just given time off from work. You just loosen your necktie and GO!
We also offer an elegantly appointed cocktail bar for those festive events. And there's the heart-shaped LoveBike for weddings; we'll also provide an on-board band 'The LoveBikeBoys', who sing a capela, songs from the 50's and 60's.
I really want this to be like the Yoyo or Hula-hoop. Every fucking town's got to have one. There will be races. Universities and civic groups can use them for training team leadership; in 10 years it could be an Olympic race. The bike can be used symbolically for peoples coming together. The Peacetank was such a mission. On October 9, 2001, I wrote:
I don't know about you, but since September 11, I have felt a strong need to DO SOMETHING to reinforce the illusion that I have some control over events. So I decided to re-interpret my ConferenceBike in the form of a device that inspires international understanding. A metaphor: World leaders, traveling around the world together, putting out the fires of unrest and suffering.
It was to be called Peacetank. Since I was the creator and the only American, I had to be President Bush. The other leaders were chosen somewhat on the availability of good masks. I know that Sharon or another Jewish figure should be on-board, but I found no commercially available masks. Arafat becomes my mid-East representative. Apologies to my Jewish friends.
Sunday (October 7) was a perfect fall day to surprise the people of Amsterdam. We suited up at my place and headed out into town at about 1300 (1PM). I had my girlfriend Sietske on board (she likes Castro); the rest of the crew were male friends (Blair, Putin, Mandela, Mao/Jiang, Arafat) who quickly got into the spirit of seeming to be working on a great mobile treaty, and having a great time doing so. None of us are actors, but behind our masks we were soon acting out the kind of photo-op overblown hugs and handshakes that we've seen world leaders exchanging so many times.
The Peacetank was a tremendous hit. Public squares were packed with tourists and Dutch people. The reactions were powerful and heart-warming: smiles, waves, laughter, comments shouted, hundreds of photos flashing.
The press was there. The photo was loved by every editor who saw it that afternoon; it was going to be picked up worldwide. At 6 PM (1800) Amsterdam time UPI was to send it out and there would be no stopping its publication. But at 5PM (1700) the bombing started and suddenly my story was a piece of obsolete news. I learned that no one was going to publish the photo. It seemed that the humor of the story was suddenly a sick joke; or, at least this was no time for humor. If it wasn't for that one hour's time you all would have been reading this story in your morning paper. That's fate for you!
But I didn't do Peacetank just for the publicity. I really wanted to see the image myself. As an artist that is always my strongest motivation. My fantasy of getting these august leaders on a 7-man tricycle is unashamedly naive, isn't it? (Especially since President Bush is proving since Sunday night to be not exactly the visionary captain of a peace-making machine.) Like Martin Luther King: "I have a dream". With so much realism all around us, I feel it is my duty to try to spread as much naive optimism as I can. What I wanted to say with this piece is that dialogue is the only way. I thought I would do this in other cities, but since Sunday I'm not so sure. Random acts of optimism may be needed now more than ever, but I don't know if I can bring myself to play the part of a uniter of diverse peoples.
Bush: the president America deserves. America: land of the greed, home of the bloated. With Bush as the head mullah of the globalization fundamentalists. Just check McDonald's.com for this heartwarming statistic: "In the year 2000, 45 million people were served every day in our 29,000 restaurants in 121 countries." I grabbed my calculator to do a little figuring. 12,800 of the McDonald's are in the US. That's 256 per state. What a shame we only have 50 states. Because in 1995 there were 11,400 McDonald's. That means that in 5 years there was only an 11% increase in the number of stores in the US.
Whereas in the other 120 countries that McDonald's serves, there was a 42% increase in the number of stores.
Let's go over to the world map to see just how exciting all of this must be for the McDonald's people. There you can see that America is really rather small. Brazil is almost as big. So is Australia. China is bigger, and Canada still bigger. Africa is twice the size of the US and Russia is 4 or 5 times the area. It must be heartening for McDonald's and its stockholders that there's still a whole lot of real estate out there for them to conquer. When I travel to another country I am personally dis-heartened when I see a McDonald's. I saw one last week when I was in Morocco. Morocco is a very poor country. People still get around on donkeys and camels. But the Moroccan food is very rich: wonderful spices and breads, inventive recipes, fresh meats and fruits and vegetables from a very fertile agriculture. And here comes this polluter of the landscape, this purveyor of food-like plastic. Morocco, by the way, had 2 McDonald's in '95; it has 14 now. A 700% increase!
I've traveled a lot: not nearly as much as McDonald's, but I get around. The only country I've been to where I haven't seen a McDonald's is Cuba. I thought: what a relief. Go Fidel! Viva la revolution! Don't sell out to the in-Fidels. "Infidels", you ask? "An American writing of Americans as infidels?" You ask: "didn't I last hear that word from a man wearing a beard and a Kalishnikov?" Or, if you are an American reading this you ask: "what kind of an American is this anyway, living in Amsterdam for 7 years?" An expatriate or an ex-patriot? I will say this: I vote by absentee ballot. By now you may have guessed that I am not part of the president's 90% approval rating. This was my position even before the pretzel. My fellow Americans: on election day just under 50% of you approved of Bush. Remember: you didn't want to elect the running mate, chaste though he may be, of the man who put it to his intern in the Oval Office.
You would rather have a president who puts it to the poor, who puts it to the environment, who puts it to the woman who wants/needs an abortion, who puts it to various arms treaties. You want a Commander-in-Chief who will be strong enough to assure us that "America is strong and will BE strong, and WILL be strong. And will be STRONG." And stuff.
America is the #1 provider of military materiel and technology in the world. From 1993-97 the US government sold $190 Billion in weapons to more than 40 nations. The US obviously sells to NATO countries and relatively democratic allies like Japan and South Korea; it also has the nasty habit of arming both sides of a conflict as well as countries with blighted democracy or human-rights records, like Indonesia, Columbia. (www.motherjones.com/arms)
Saudi Arabia is the #1 buyer.
#3 United Kingdom (that's why Tony Blair's getting into the fun.)
#4 the sentimental favorite for over 50 years, Israel.
Even France, while whining about the spread of US culture, dropped over 2bil. on US weapons systems from 94-97.
We're not sponsors of state terrorism?
We got a 3 month info-mercial going on right now in Afghanistan. We are told that it costs $1billion per month to prosecute the war. Seems like a lot? Not really: we make almost $4billion/month in arms sales. A cool profit of 3 big ones. About 12 mega-contractors split the big contracts. These contractors are paying millions to fund campaigns of federally elected officials; and many millions more in lobbying Washington decision-makers.
Where am I going with this? Why don't I stay on the subject of something I know about (don't all you art critics laugh). Just bare with me on this; or skip ahead, I don't care.
Someone I know asked me a few days after September 11 what I would do. Want to know what this ex-patriot said: "Bush should roll up his sleeves and check into the West Bank and Gaza Hilton, and say 'here I am boys; let's resolve this thing.' We'll suspend world-wide military sales. And we'll pay for a US handgun roundup. Really be strong by being pacifist. We'll go after Bin Laden with a UN police action and world court trial."
Between September 11 and October 7, people all over the world were surprised by President Bush's measured response to the attacks on America. It seemed that he might embody more statesmanship than anyone gave him credit for. He refrained from lashing out militarily for the coming 4 weeks. He arranged for payment of the $1billion UN dues that Republicans had blocked for years. He suggested that Palestinian statehood was a legitimate claim.
As I write this (21 January, 2002) al-Qaida is supposedly vanquished; bin Laden is nowhere to be found; presumed by some to be dead of kidney disease. Bush is pronounced victorious in the American media. Only a handful of American soldiers were killed. We don't know how many Talaban and Afghanis were killed, but most Americans seem unconcerned about that. The Bush people are talking about going into other terror-centric countries. Surely Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Jihad and the 25 other terrorist groups named by the State Department are dreaming of doing bin Laden one better. There are going to be 'terrorist artists', killing in ever more original and perverse ways. It won't even be about ideologies; it will be the disenfranchised rising up to take from the enfranchised. We will see individuals and groups of people so angry and hopeless that they are willing to become human bombs just so that they can have some affect for once in their lives.
There are 2 million prisoners in the US; many of them there unjustly (in 2000 their were 734,500 arrests for marijuana possession). Prisons are schools of criminality. I have this vision of the nation's inmate population organizing over the Internet a giant simultaneous mutiny.
One of the great public relations scams was telling the Negroes that they were free. They're free all right: to do the shit work that no white man wants to do. Oh, we pay them now: up to 80 cents on the dollar that white people of the same qualifications make.
Blacks represent 12% of America's population and 41% of the prison population.
No human rights abuse here.
That brings me to the Vietnam War and the confession that I have to make: I was anything but a war hero. I used my smarts and my family affluence to get out of serving in the army. September 14, my birthday, was the first bingo ball The Draft picked out of the 1971 lottery drum. I was supposed to be drafted in Detroit, the nearest induction center to Ann Arbor, where I was going to University. A lot of kids, especially black kids were going directly from their pre-induction physical onto the next bus to boot camp. Their suitcases were packed.
When I was called for my pre-induction physical I was a middle-class hippie kid. Surely I could convince the army that it didn't want me, I thought. Just by being recalcitrant.
At the induction center it was another story. It was completely staffed by black men.
Here comes this Long Island boy, long curly hair, still an under-graduate after 5 years.
They wanted my white ass. As the inductees lined up in formation, the sergeant said: "right face! Bend over and spread your cheeks; we've got to check your assholes." I just said: "fuck this". Get me out of here. I became insolent and scared in the face of authority. I spontaneously threw a chair across the room and it bounced off a hearing-test device. Two large black MP's grabbed me by either arm and dragged me up to the colonel's office. The colonel was also black; he read me the riot act. I said: "fuck you colonel. I want to see the general." I was given an appointment to come back and have a psychological evaluation. Several weeks later I returned for the interview with the army psychiatrist, also a black man. I thought I appeared fairly mad but apparently I didn't qualify, as the shrink said that as far as he was concerned I was still '1A', the most eligible to be drafted. I couldn't believe I hadn't convinced him that I was insane. I leapt at him and he jumped up from behind his desk; he was quite large. He said: "are you going to get out of my office or do I have to throw you out?" In that moment I proved my sanity, because I left the office.
For several months I fought the army bureaucracy; I felt that I was fighting for my life. Vietnam wasn't a war to save my country and I had no intention of dying in it. When I finally won my 4F deferment, I was free from being drafted and it was like my badge of courage. I told about it proudly as if it were my war story.
After the war it was learned that some 58,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, 300,000 were injured and more than 800,000 continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorders. I felt sorry that I had been cynical. It could have been me. Perhaps it should have been me. Caught up in the anti-war movement, I was one of the kids who saw all soldiers and police as fascists. I don't know if I believed that either; it was the fashion. In retrospect all the deaths were pretty much thought to have been wasted. That the war was a mistake. Imagine how that makes a generation feel. Oops.
Most people of my generation know how many American lives were lost in Vietnam. I know, from personal experience: that very few Americans know that an estimated 3 million Vietnamese people were also killed. Why are Vietnamese lives cheaper than Americans'? Have there been 3200 innocent lives lost in Afghanistan in the pursuit of bin Laden? That's how many were lost in the attack on America. Why are Afghani lives cheaper than American lives? Relief agencies warn of hundreds of thousands, or millions of Afghanis starving and freezing to death this winter, bi-products of the war. How many of them should die to atone for the World Trade Center?
I got a great idea for a monument to the WTC. They should re-build it exactly as it was. In Kabul.
Returning to the world map, you think: America really isn't that big; maybe you could build a giant dome over it, like a stadium dome or a Star Wars system to intercept incoming missiles. But what kind of paranoid mindset is it to invest in accepting that there are all these people out there who want to destroy us? Couldn't you take the same money and resources to address and redress our conflicts? The whole world, now a village globalized by television, knows that America is 4% of the world population, but owns 1/3 of the world's wealth. Makes 25% of the pollution. And makes a bundle arming everybody else.
Idea for corporate merger: McDonald's-Douglas
But what country is better than America? Look at the list of countries that want our state-of- the-art weaponry. What country isn't on that list? And they're using the stuff too. There are something like 26 countries at war now; a total of 40 factions and countries, if you count civil conflicts. Is it human nature to enslave? Is it nature? Natural selection? Ritual blood-letting? Or is man just so darn obsessive-compulsive when it comes to ethnic cleansing? Or does killing just plain feeeel gooood?
Speaking of feeling good: 350,000 Americans were shot dead by 350,000 other Americans during the 90's. That was 96/day. In 33 days, the same number of victims as September 11. But wait, half of these were self-inflicted, suicides. What does that say? But, let's go over to the Internet: search: 'cancer deaths'. The fine people at www.cancer.org say that 170,000 Americans will die from smoking cigarettes this year. So: the same number of people as September 11: 3250, croak themselves on cigs EVERY WEEK OF THE YEAR.
You Americans, the ones with the big flags in front of your homes, if you're still reading this, must be getting pissed off at my trivializing of the 3000-odd people killed on September 11. I don't mean to. I too was shattered by the unspeakable horror of it. No, I don't know personally one soul who was killed that day. I am sure that I would feel more anger and sadness if I did. But neither did most of you Americans who are caught up in the patriotic fervor that I saw when I was there in October. I had to think, as I drove around, that the larger the flag displayed, the more narrow and ignorant was the person living behind it. It's fucking patriotism that got us into this mess. Why shouldn't terrorism happen in the US? It happens everywhere else. The arrogance that we can dispense justice from afar, while driving to the drive-thru in our SUVs, growing fatter. Americans don't even want to see the rest of the world; less than 20% of them own passports. Bush says: "If you want to be patriotic, go shopping."
I say: if you want to be patriotic, see the world. See what really is great about America by leaving it. Then come home and be proud. And: travel and see what could be made better in America. Every high school student worldwide should be required to spend a year going to school in a foreign country. To learn another language and another set of values; to put one's own national values into perspective. If you're a world patriot you could go shopping anywhere in the world, and be helpful. For war to stop the whole world has to become middle class. I believe it's as simple as that. Give everyone a roof over his head, clean water, enough food to feed his family, hope for his children's betterment. World peace will break out. That means more distribution to the poor by the rich. www.Forbes.com lists 500 billionaires. Billionaires! (That's 1000 million dollars.) We could start by down-sizing them to multi-millionaires. How much fucking money can these guys spend in a lifetime? Every rich person I've ever met was unhappy. Give us 499 more Ted Turners; he gave a billion to the UN. Bravo, Ted! My hero! George Soros is another visionary philanthropist. But you shouldn't have to be rich to give. Jimmy Carter should get a Nobel Prize for his work. Everyone can give something; if not money, then time. Surprise yourself. Make politics local. If every family cared for one other family that needed care, the whole world might be cared for. Start your own church. Get a hero to inspire you. Be a hero by being inspiring.
But what does all of this have to do with sex? While I have been ranting about art and bikes and politics, I haven't said anything about my personal life for a while. Maybe that's because there wasn't much to tell after Deborah and I split up. Feeling sorry for my self was the high point of my days. I even enlisted a therapist to help me feel bad. Deborah wasted no time falling in love with a handsome Dutchman named Egon, twice my size and half my age. I sought succor in the red light district. Succor was not there.
I learned to cook. I romanced myself with candlelight dinners for one. I saw a lot of movies. I put on a weekend brave face for 7-year old Julian. I learned to read.
I felt less alone reading about the troubled lives of other misfit artists: Van Gogh, Beethoven, Mozart, Orwell, Wilde. Then I ventured into biographies of artists who enjoyed success and love in their lifetimes: Picasso, Chaplin, Man Ray, Dali. "My god! I can really read!" I thought. What a gift; what a revelation! No evening need ever be wasted again. I went on to the writers I had slept through in high school: J.D. Salinger, D.H. Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Hermann Hesse (read 'Siddhartha' twice, a parable to live by).
On February 28, 1997, Deborah and Julian moved to Westchester, New York. I wrote in my book: "Julian leaves Amsterdam for New York. Every emotion strong. Listen to John Lennon. I'm becoming dated; we all become dated. The screw turns."
Deborah and I had become interwoven over the years. It clearly was going to take time, and pain, to unweave us. Until then it was OK to be alone. At least I had Julian. Having Julian jerked out of my daily life was almost physiologically painful. I imagined having my arm torn off at the shoulder. They say that everything in life happens for a reason. But they still haven't said what the reason is for this one. I certainly learned how to cry, and it was glorious.
I read for fun the personals in the International Tribune. As an exercise I put into words who I am and what I was looking for in a woman. Finally I advertised the following:
"New York artist, living in Amsterdam. 178cm, very young and fit 50,
Romantic, generous and funny. Looking for a dance partner; a woman
Who is confident of her own inner and outer beauty, 35-40 years old,
Living life as art with style, magic and depth. Send me a note and a
Photo of the real you."
Responses to the personal were less than underwhelming.
I met Sietske (pronounced Seet-ska) at Schiphol Airport on 7 January, 1999. We had been on the same Delta flight from JFK. As we waited by the baggage carousel, I couldn't help notice how comical she looked, wearing 2 cowboy hats and carrying a bubble-wrapped bull's skull. I just had to ask: "Just get back from Texas?" She said: "no: Phoenix." We started talking. It turned out that we both knew bike-Maarten and that we were both involved with UFOs in our work. She makes short and very funny films. We made a date to show our work to each other at my studio. She showed me her aliens and I showed her my UFOs. That was the beginning. Oh, sweet chemistry.
Like a great novel, she's got everything: romance, intrigue, magic, joy, sorrow, pathos.
She's also like the Dutch weather: occasional showers but plenty of sunshine.
Here's where I should mention that I am 25 years older than Siets.(she was -2 when I graduated college). One night we went to a night club; the doorman looks at me, looks at Siets, looks back at me and says, with a knowing smile: "your daughter?" She's very affectionate in public, and nice to look at. She knows it too. People stare at us, and I swear a few must be thinking what the doorman was thinking. I wonder myself sometimes: what's wrong with this picture? Mid-life crises/ father figure? Maybe.
I was interested in reading about other couples like us. I went back and read about my hero Charlie Chaplin, 53 and Oona O'Neill, 18, falling in love and living happily ever after. I read 'Shop Girl' by Steve Martin (the comedian; in the story the older man loses the young woman) 'The Dying Animal' by Phillip Roth (quite affecting book). Of course: 'Lolita' by Nabokov. Then I drifted to some naughtier books: 'Perfume' by Patrick Suskind (Gothic erotic;) and 'My Uncle Oswald' by Roald Dahl (yes, the children's book writer): about a powerful aphrodisiac from the 'Sudanese Blister Beetle'. Very funny and ribald.
Sietske, my delicious Sietske. You are art. Fiery and feminine. What joy you give me.
I have just deleted the above passages. For a love story I would rather refer you to one of the above books.
One night in my reverie I was dancing around the loft and felt compelled to write in black marker on the white wall: give ourselves permission. It's still there. I wrote in my notebook sometime in 2001:
At 54 I'm an unrepentant Bacchanalian unrealist. One advantage of being 54 is the freedom to not give a shit what people think. And yet when I go out dancing I really do care what everybody thinks. And what I want them to think is 'who is that guy? What a dancer!' Puff the Magic Dragon gets me into an almost reckless looseness; and if the music and atmosphere move me I become an actor in my own movie. Is it an act? I don't know. I dance the same way that I do when I dance at home alone or with Siets. But here I have the sensation that everyone's watching and if they are, that somehow my dancing must be art: exuberant, inventive and on the edge.
If there is a lot of space in which to move, invariably I am almost dangerous to myself in the way that I move; first dancing stylized like a robot, then all rubbery like out of an old Tex Avery cartoon. For a moment I might have an anxious fantasy of injuring myself or getting a heart attack. I repress this negative thought by thinking next that "this is the way to go, in an inspired frenzy, with 200 people watching" Or sometimes dancing with Sietske is so transporting that the scene around us becomes a blur. She's Ginger to my Fred and it's pure play.
I have to laugh: at 3:00 in the morning my fellow-revelers' parents, who are my age, have been asleep for 3 hours already. A 20-something girl pushes a chair over to me as if to say: "cool it Pops."
The crush of people, sweaty, bumping into you, rising and facing as one to the music, becomes primal or tribal or primitive And I think: "yeah, this is what the world needs more of: ritual celebrations."
I never thought of myself as a writer. But as I got ready to write this book, I discovered a file in which I had been throwing copies of texts that I had written since 1984: presentations to student groups, speeches to potential clients and corporate luncheons. Most of them I hadn't seen since the days when I wrote them. This was like discovering a cache of old Bordeaux wines (if I ever could have saved them.) They seemed to have aged well and I have quoted from them here. I realize that I'm aging well too; that I'm enjoying this journey more than I ever thought. Because, as I was living it, I thought it was nothing. I wasn't famous enough; I wasn't prolific enough. Always whining that I was running out of ideas or that no one wanted my work. No one loved me and if they did, what was wrong with them? Even when I was happy, I was worried that I would lose my creativity if I stayed happy.
I remember meeting a woman at a party some time after I had become known for the Lightmobile. She studied me curiously and said: "I always wondered what kind of ego was behind a car like that?" And I thought to myself: "well, a big one, of course".
But later it occurred to me that I might be creating these elaborate denials for my egolessness. As I look back at the art that I've made and the texts that I have written I am amazed at how idealistic I've been. Maybe my whole career has been one colossal denial. A big dam to hold back the despair and futility.
I live a couple of blocks from the Anne Frank house. Where I walk every day, she was grabbed by the Nazis and taken away to her death. 13 years old; the age of my son. I conjure up the image of Julian being snuffed out. The Gestapo is gone, but the holocaust continues. It is a continuum, with man's inhumanity to man going on every day. I am afraid that life can become so cheap, a madness of greed, with the have-nots rising up to take what they are unable to earn. A 21st Century Hitler emerging from a spiritual cancer, who will make the deeds of the 20th Century Hitler seem quaint...................
You know what: I'm going to stay in denial. I am going to imagine that the world is held up by an invisible Atlas; an Atlas of positive energies, and that laughter will restore the ozone layer. We have to make our days into art. Life is terrifying and terrifyingly short.
We've got to realize our dreams and give something back. Pass some human token.
Grandpa Max was my first role model for 'living large'. When we visited him in Old Westbury, Long Island, he clearly seemed to be celebrating his success in grand style.
I remember his 1959 Cadillac Eldorado parked out front of what was described as a 'Tudor mansion', surrounded by beautiful and fragrant grounds that we explored as kids.
Grandpa was very affectionate in his gruff way. From many years of hard work he developed his 'bum back'. To get comfortable he would lie on his back on the floor, with his head propped up on his special 1950's lying-on-the-floor pillow. He would grab me and pull me down on top of him, and give me big wet Jewish kisses.
As I got older Grandpa said to me: "Eric, you want to accumulate, you gotta speculate." In this way he encouraged my own risk-taking. He was vintage American Dream made manifest. He emigrated from Russia in the early 1900's, with 17 cents in his pocket, family lore tells. He worked day and night, beginning as a peddler of fruits and vegetables. The day he caught this record-breaking striped bass was the first time he ever went fishing; it was also said to be the first time he took a day off from work.
Grandpa Max shrewdly bought and timely sold real estate on Long Island. He lived to be 97 and he never retired; I don't think it was work for him. He speculated. He accumulated. His whole family now benefits from his vision, hard work and luck.
Not all of the fatalism I talked about on the first page of this book comes from September 11, 1991. A lot of it comes from the loss of this sunflower on November 16, 2000. My sister Tina, 2 years younger than me, died after a year-long battle with breast cancer. She was 51. She is survived by 2 very sweet children, Caitlin and Benny; her husband Terry, who is like a brother; my 2 brothers Jan and Cary, my other sister Kim and myself; and dear Mom and Dad.
The principal criterion for a sculpture to be built in the Dutch town of Soest is the enlivening for commuters of a dull stretch of highway. What the committee suggested was a series of components that the motorist takes in along the way. But I said: "no, it's been done; it will look like 'Art', confirming what people already know, and they won't feel anything but 'OK, another public artwork; something that just clutters up the landscape.' Why not just let the landscape be green?
To go to the effort of building an artwork, spending the money and energy: why not build a place instead of a thing, a gift to the town that will get everyone talking. A 7-year old should say: 'hey, that's really neat' and so should an old person. An art critic should say the same thing. The Cafe UFO is a sculpture and more. It has a multi-layered meaning. The giant cup and saucer seem to have crash-landed into the landscape. People of the Soest area will soon come to know that when the coffee (colored water) is flowing, the cappuccino bar is open for business. This will become a landmark, a place of humor and community.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE KIND
An interactive environment for the International School of Amsterdam 1996
In the film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' the central characters are supernaturally drawn to an enchanted place where they have an encounter with the futuristic city/ship inhabited by humanoid beings. Rather than being threatened by these aliens, the humans are magically touched by their spirituality. While the aliens aren't human, they possess an astonishing kindness and vulnerability, a reminder of a tolerance that characterizes true humanity.
I wish to create an ancient/futuristic place for people to celebrate being together and being alive. Visitors to the star approach from the base of a hill; there are sensations of surprise and arrival to a place of ritual. One walks up the hill and discovers the star; it is huge and wonderful. There is something archeological about the way that it is sited, like an Indian Mandela, a place for ceremony. It is a theater but more; it is something out of Alice a Wonderland; it's a giant hammock, a dream catcher, a tree house.
People come to the star for performances: a central platform or stage is 5M (17') in diameter and entered from below by spiral stair. As part of the ritual people may be asked to remove their shoes before walking on the hammock; this is a place for informality and relaxation. As people gather for a performance or picnic, some of the younger, perhaps less attentive children play underneath the hammock: it's a magic place down there, evoking a giant spider web, tree-houses and circus tents. The hammock is woven out of colored rope; some strands of the rope can hang down for play. The hammock is anchored to the site by giant buttons. These buttons can light up at night to signify to the community that something is going on.
"The world's largest hammock" will come to be, I believe, a beacon, a grand gesture to the community of wonder and joy, an example set by the ISA, of gift-giving and generosity of spirit.
Being an ocean away from Julian most of the year makes for this dull heartache that I carry around with me all the time. When Deborah and Julian returned to New York I thought I would, I must, follow; he needs me and I need him. I spent a lot of energy trying to project myself back into the States. First I looked at apartments in NYC. It surprised me how an old New Yorker like myself had grown allergic to New York's frenetic energy. I reminded myself of out-of-town friends who used to visit me in New York: "It's a great place to visit, but how can you live here?"
Deborah and Julian settled in a beautiful part of Westchester, with a horsey-woodsy feel that is quite remarkable, given that it is only one hour away from the Big Apple. I thought about moving there; I even looked at houses. Wouldn't it be great to be so close to Julian, I thought. Play golf together, go riding together. Get an SUV.
Finally the fever subsided and I returned to my senses.
Next I thought: how about returning to Long Island? The prodigal son. Since I was a child I've always loved the sea. Every summer I return to it. Body-surfing in Montauk has been one of my favorite things my whole life. It thrills me to ride the waves. Now it thrills me to see Julian loving it too. And wouldn't it be nice to be closer to my family. I'll get a house overlooking the Atlantic. Commute weekends for Julian. I could even get a teaching job at Stony Brook University.
Thomas Wolfe was right. I couldn't pull the trigger. You've read here how much I love Holland. Even before I met Sietske I realized that I am happy here. I finally had to admit to myself and to Julian that being a happy long-distance dad was going to be healthier for both of us than an unhappy local dad. So here I sit for now. On the telephone every day with my best buddy. I do look forward to the invention of the hug-o-phone.
I did want to say something about parenting. Julian is my continuum. I hope some of my art stays around after I'm gone. But Julian is my (and Deborah's) real legacy, what remains behind to keep something going. He is our most important artwork. I know it sounds egotistical to think of a child as an artwork. I'll explain. I think of all of my artworks as my children: molding each one of them with patience, love, integrity and passion. The creation of many of my artworks required terrific patience; had frustrating set-backs. When I was young I took a hammer to more than one uncooperative piece (it's a good thing I wasn't a father then!). After losing my temper and destroying the artwork, I felt a loss of dignity: "that was stupid; I'm only going to have to start all over".
After 30 years of building things, I've learned that all things come in their time. They even have a mind of their own, it sometimes seems. Every material must be understood, not pushed, in order to make it want to cooperate. Julian came into the world with a temperament: 1 part me, 1 part Deborah + the mystery parts. The collaboration between Deborah and I continues, as we reveal the riddle of his nature and help him to find his essence. As with our art collaboration, in raising Julian we have mostly deferred to each other's strengths (and I love Deborah for that.) What a joy it is to see him take shape. At 13 he pretty much knows who he is and now he collaborates with us on his development and ours. I hope we're instilling in him a belief in his infinite possibility. If that's American, than God bless America.
On December 1, 1998 I participated in a Cap Gemini luncheon entitled 'The Digital Metamorphosis'. I was one of 3 presenters who discussed his work in relation to the age of Information Technology. This is part of what I said:
We live in the information age. Moments like this I'm not so sure I am happy about that. This is the first time in history (the late 20th C.) that I, as a visual artist, am not only required to invent marvelous things to look at, but I must also be the explainer, to provide information about them. This is because in this information age we rely more on information than our feelings when is comes to processing our experience. Our brains, not our hearts, become the receptors of experience. The heart is not to be trusted; the heart is subjective; the brain processes our experience through a list of criteria; we are socialized out of having child-like responses to the world around us. Sophistication is valued over innocence we are told from an early age to grow up and put away our toys.
And yet as we mature into adults we develop a dependence on a new set of toys: our cars, out laptops and modems, our mobile phones; and with them a belief that each technological development will add to our fulfillment. This is an illusion created by our conditioning in a consumer world. Since our brain is doing the seeing for us, it wants to embrace the next thing for thinking faster or more efficiently; our religion is being busy. We confuse being busy with being fulfilled. We confuse wealth with worth, with value. We project self-importance and control but most of life, and death, is beyond our control. Even making and having a lot of money will sooner or later feel hollow. People are under the mistaken belief that if they then make even more money and buy more stuff that happiness will come.
We have to learn that money and the high-tech toys that money buys are only tools: tools with their uses and abuses. This is what Marshall McLuhen warned about: the medium has become the message; the technical language we speak has become a substitute for communication. McLuhen reminds us that our tools are only tools; they are the means to an end, not the end. What is the end? The end, I believe is communication, communing, coming together for a sharing harmonious society. The irony is that the info revolution is actually raising barriers between people by passively isolating them in media cocoons. And that with all the time and laborsaving products of the info age, people seem only more pressed and stressed than ever.
As you can see in this video I am not one to long for the good old days. These are the good old days. We live in exciting times. We live in an electronic age, an age of mobility. This is what I have to work with; this is my landscape, just as the fields of Arles were the landscape of Vincent van Gogh. I don't make a distinction between what nature has made and what man has made. Man is nature. All of what man has made comes from nature, from this earth. Man's quest to know, to see what's over the next mountain, is part of nature. I find it challenging to give soul to that which we don't think possible to have soul. To make warm something that is cold. To revolutionize the way people look at the ordinary. I want my work to be an invitation to all: COME- CELEBRATE LIFE!
I find it amusing that with all of man's ingenuity and mastery over nature, he will periodically have to have a lesson from nature. The astounding visionary developments of information technology have brought us to the brink of a terrific shortsightedness: the dreaded Y2K Problem. The millennium bug! And that even Bill Gates didn't think of our computer-clocks rolling over to zero-zero-zero-zero. I imagine a science fiction scenario: that on Jan. 1, 2000 all computers think that is it Jan. 1, 1900. Not only that but the whole world is transported back 100 years. So that technology is vintage 1900, pre-telephone, pre-computer, television, flight, and pre-plastics. How would we behave, having knowledge and memory of these things, but having them suddenly disappear from our lives? How would we be different from the people who actually lived in 1900? Has technology made us more civilized or less?
I was asked by Dutch architect Ellen Sanders to create an artwork for an auditorium to be built for an Information Technology convention center in Utrecht. 'Media Plaza', as it was known, was already a successful e-business facility with futuristic interiors and high-tech furnishing. When I first walked into the center I was confronted by a kind of Star Wars futuristic set with a lot of glass, light and sound. The multi-media was so ubiquitous as to be inescapable. Laptop stations in the meeting rooms, TV monitors in the bar. There were computer screens under thick glass built into the floor of each toilet stall in the restrooms! This was 'connectivity' taken to Orwellian dimension.
That is what I wanted my artwork to 'talk about'. In the auditorium I didn't want people to look at media; I wanted the media to look at them. Nine giant eyes would wander, survey and stare at the people sitting underneath, as if to say: 'you want connectivity? I'll give you connectivity.' The piece is called Media Molens. Molen is the Dutch word for windmill. I love the old windmills that dot the Dutch countryside and knew it was only a matter of time before I would appropriate the image. Three 15' (5m) diameter windmills, made of fiberglass and copper, turn slowly overhead, adding to the surveillance of the staring eyes. The Molens have the patina of something old, with pulsating lights from copper and heavy glass lenses; I was looking for the feeling of the ship Nautilus in the old Disney film "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea".
If I'm going to have my first exhibition in Austria, I probably should get right to the point: what the fuck were you people thinking in the 1930's??
The Steirisches Glasmuseum, in Barnbach is adjacent to and part of a glass factory. The assembly line is a great piece of automated machinery, giving off a symphony of steam and sounds, as it spits out thousands of colored bottles and lenses, in every shape and size.
I saw that they produced beer steins in the shape of a boot. I asked if they could make me 100 boots, a little larger than a beer stein, and in my favorite 'cobalt blue'.
I chose to show the formation of boots on the floor, as if marching in sand, in a dark unused space under the main stairway. We also hung a black curtain to make it more dramatic to come upon the 100 boots, each with a candle burning inside. The piece is called Ghost Squadron (1995) and its genesis is this drawing from 1993, entitled The Remote-Controlled Gestapo.
At the time I wrote:
The Gestapo came and went. But is it really gone or is it still among us? If you follow the news you see that the holocaust is ongoing, a continuum".
I am haunted by horrific fantasies: exotic tortures, mass graves, and old Auschwitz newsreels. I feel like I've lived it, so powerful are these images in my mind's eye. I am aware that it is just this lucky accident of birth that I live in a time and place of peace and prosperity. But how long can this luck hold? What if I live long enough to witness the horror, to hear the screams? When the Nazis come storming into the disco, I believe a freak like me is the first one they will have to get.
Finally, the only hedge against this abyss, this inexorable mortality and decay, is to make art. But what should the next thing look like? What is the summation of all the moments up until now? I shit out the ideas, trying to censor as little as possible these turds of the unconscious. Before I know it all these drawings have materialized. As I step back from them I see this startling sine wave of exaltation alternating with apocalypse.
There are these fantasies I have for community, like the Conference-Lily that opens up to accommodate a group of people.
Then a vision of horror and disgust insinuates itself: the Igloo made of human skulls.
Than I push it back to funny with the boat with goofy hand paddles. Or the Duckmobile.
Then the darkness creeps back in with the spooky Hand-Shaped Abyss. I even look into engineering the thing. It should appear and disappear in the water, supernatural, like a miracle.
Or maybe the hat that floats in the canals with a submarine under it. I can radio control the hat being tipped with a skull appearing. That should scare the shit out of the observer.
Then the side that wants to make people laugh and love me fights its way back with the Goldfishbowl Helmet that I would wear over my head. YES! Get like totally goofy to keep the abyss at bay. Think lovely thoughts; pretend that I'm never going to die; Pretend that this penis will always rise to one more occasion.
Then there's the school in the shape of a giant horse. YES: school should only be such fun.
AND how about cooling off those summer tensions in the 'hood' with the Sprinklermoblie. Just attach this car by means of a hose to a nearby fire hydrant, and watch the kids come running for a refreshing sun-shower.
And what about the Utopian Sceance Mobile. Some kind of mobile multi-use dwelling. (I don't really know; I just like the image) A translucent pod transports an astronomers therapy group on a weekend retreat. Pod can hydraulically shift into a vertical position and open into seating segments for dry weather viewing and chatting.
The giant Granite Cross rises up from a plaza and sheds blood-colored water, a metaphor for the blood spilled in the name of religion.
I'm so tired sometimes. All of these images swirl and buzz around in my brain all the time. There's no rest from the thinking. If only I could retire. I go to the gym to escape the brainstorm and my trainer tells me to stop thinking, so obviously obsessed I appear.
Why not something more social? Another tool for communing. A human-powered Eggtrain; a human-powered boat. I jam with industrial designer Mike Harvey, who draws the vehicles with a view to how they might be built. FINALLY: this is it. This is what's coming next. Bootank will be my first new Urban UFO since '96. I want to take this dune buggy onto the wide flat beaches of Holland. I want it to leave great footsteps behind as it rolls along.
Well, boys and girls. It's time to end this thing. I've already written far too much already for a visual artist. I hope you've enjoyed the show.
One more thing. This childhood song I've never forgotten:
Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,
merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
This book is dedicated to every one I miss; to every one I will be missing.