Models & Toys

“The Man Who Became an Insect”: Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as Comic Book

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / March 12, 2020

Object Name: Vidas Ilustres: “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto”
Maker and Year: Editorial Novaro, 1973
Object Type: Comic book
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Coming out every month between 1956 and 1974, Vidas Ilustres (“Illustrious Lives”)—was a monthly Mexican comic published by Editorial Novaro, each issue of which looked at the exceptional achievements of a man—it was always a man, with the two exceptions of Madame Curie and Florence Nightingale—in the arts or sciences. Over its 332 editions, Vidas Ilustres covered a vastly eclectic range of subjects, ranging from Anatole France, Orson Welles, HP Lovecraft, Mishima, Jung, Hokusai, Charles Fort, Gandhi, Simón Bolívar, Confucius, and Martin Luther King, even finding space for an astonishing eight comics on Balzac.

Founded by brothers Luis and Octavio Novaro in the early ’50s, Editorial Novaro had started by publishing reprints of foreign comics like Batman and Tintin, but in 1954 the company began putting out its own stirringly-titled Vidas Ejemplares (“Exemplary Lives”), comic book biographies of notable figures in the Catholic Church. The series was a hit, and like-minded titles like Patronos y Santuarios (“Patron Saints and Sanctuaries”) soon followed.

Luckily, the  company’s other publications also included less pious fare, like Mujeres Célebres, a comic devoted to famous women that was published from 1961 to 1974 and included issues on Eleanor Roosevelt, Josephine Baker, Jean Harlow, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and Greek poet Sappho. Its publications from the time used a slightly stiff font for lettering imposed by a regulatory body called the Qualifying Commission for Illustrated Magazines and Publications (made up of members of the Mexican Ministry of Public Education and created mainly to assuage the reactionary Catholic Legion of Decency) with the aim of protecting young readers from eye damage.

Most editions of Vidas Ilustres dealt purely with the biographical details of the person in question, but in the Obras Inmortales (“Immortal Works”) series the comic would dramatize not only their lives but also a famous work of their oeuvre—perhaps following the popular American line Classics Illustrated. This was the case with “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto”—“The Man Who Became an Insect.” Though not enormously faithful to Kafka’s original, “El Hombre Que Se Convirtirio En Un Insecto” does, in its lurid way, somehow retain the mood and intent of The Metamorphosis, its cover evoking perfectly the juvenile horror-story thrill that first drew me—and perhaps many others—to Kafka’s work.

The Bomb That Will Bring Us Together: Rick Veitch’s ‘The One’

We Are the Mutants -

Jonathan Lukens / March 10, 2020

In 1985, the first issue of an unusual new title hit the shelves of North American comic book stores. Part of Marvel Comics’ short-lived creator-owned imprint Epic, Rick Veitch’s The One stood out because its cover was an obvious visual reference to the red, orange, and yellow concentric circles of Tide laundry detergent’s branding. Throughout the pages of the first issue and those that followed, it became clear that those garish circles were meant to evoke the presence of an otherworldly energy emanating from The One—a savior figure and super heroic manifestation of humanity’s collective potential that is unleashed by the massive psychic shock of an imminent nuclear exchange.

The first issue opens with a reproduction of a newspaper clipping from March 14, 1984 that details the opinions of one Dr. Derrick de Kerckhove, then acting director of the Marshal McLuhan program in culture and technology at the University of Toronto. Dr. Kerckhove explains the benefits of nuclear weaponry, referring to the bomb as “something to bring us together.” Thirty-six years later, with a 2018 hardcover reprint of all five issues in front of me, I found myself questioning the veracity of the clipping: was it some conceit Veitch was using to establish the emergent consciousness of his oblique protagonist? A web search confirmed the existence of Dr. Kerckhove, and led me to a 1984 New York Times article that summarized his thesis: nuclear weapons, and the attendant possibility of the annihilation of our species, “binds people together in a way they have not been linked since the Middle Ages, albeit on the brink of collective suicide.”

Like a tripping Herman Kahn, or some Fellowship of Holy Fallout choir via Rand report, the origin of The One (both the character and the title) is drawn from this proto-accelerationist rhetoric. Presented throughout the series as a creation of cooperative and convivial aspects of human nature and manifesting itself (ourselves?) as both a black spandex-suited male figure and an aged man in a purple shirt and green and black windowpane-checked blazer, The One first appears in the moments just prior to the impact of nuclear missiles in a potentially world ending exchange between the Soviet Union and United States. Flying through the sky radiating an aura of weird magnetism, referencing the so-obvious-maybe-no-one-ever-noticed visual similarities between psychedelic art and detergent branding, The One drains the destructive energy of the incoming Soviet missiles. Mutually assured destruction is derailed by the awakening collective consciousness of this super-powered gestalt entity reminiscent of the Eternal Uni-Mind.

Subsequent super heroic action is punctuated by a series of recurring panels in which individual characters face the camera and explain events after the fact. Here, it is revealed that The One isn’t just a first wave example of the postmodern graphic novel that brought us Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986). And it isn’t just a book about superheroes with moral ambiguities set in a universe with greater verisimilitude. Rather, The One is a work of eschatology that combines gonzo satire with superhero tropes to detail a dualistic cosmology, an immemorial struggle between The One and The Other, the latter a manifestation of selfishness and avarice. The Other functions as a stand-in for the allegedly basal desires exploited by consumerism. This critique is also evident in subsequent covers that continue in the vein of the first: a U.S. one dollar bill, a pocket calculator screen, a Coca Cola can, J.M. Flagg’s “I Want You” Army recruitment poster, and a McDonald’s Big Mac. (The subversion of corporate logos, products, and slogans by independent and underground artists became an ongoing “ironic commentary” in the decade that followed.)

The Other speaks through the character of Jay-hole, a shirtless and mulleted junky who explains: “Tribes! Armies! Governments! My master bore them all! […] His name is the other and he’s come back to collect the rent. […] He’s in competition with The One for total mastery over the human race.”

During its first manifestation, The One’s constituent members are rendered unconscious. Evoking the Christian rapture, and referencing the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel, they fall into what the characters refer to as “the big sleep.” At first, they are thought dead by those who remain “awake,” but as the series progresses the distinction between The One and the many is blurred. Jay-hole shares an apartment with his lover, Egypt, a pink and white-haired artist with skull earrings; her young son Larry; Jay-hole’s father, Doc Benway; and Benway’s girlfriend Guda. Much of the story involves Egypt’s potential corruption through Jay-hole and redemption via an association between Larry and The One.

This abortive Third World War as origin story was initiated by a character called Itchy Itch. A chain-smoking, bath-robed Bond villain, Itch is a defense contractor who has sold backdoor enabled computer systems to the United States and Soviet Navies. Itch uses this malicious firmware to manipulate the leaders of both countries: a cigar-chomping analog of Ronald Reagan (president McKenzie) and a Soviet premier (Kubalov) resembling Leonid Brezhnev, who speaks through a non-indwelling voice prosthesis. Drawing them into what he believes will be a survivable military confrontation, Itch plans on benefiting from the ensuing chaos. His investments, Itch explains, “have been strategically placed to capitalize upon the reckless errors others will make under pressure.”

However, while Itch’s Lex Luthor-like plans are successful, the emergence of The One is unanticipated. A new arms race begins, as the United States and Soviet Union call upon top secret super soldier programs. It is important to note that all of these “super heroes” are grotesques: on the Soviet side, the vamp and femme fatale Dr. Vera Pavlova borrows the forgotten Nazi endocrinological methods that produced Übermaus—a kaiju like giant rat—to create the caped superhuman Comrade Bog. Bog deploys his heightened strength, stamina, and gluttonous appetite against the Yankees while pontificating about the benefits of socialized medicine and the inadequacies of state-capitalist economies.

On the United States’ side, the super powered Charlie and Amelia have been brainwashed, somewhat like Marvelman’s Michael Moran, to believe they are earnest Midwestern siblings—an attempt to keep them from reproducing. Clad in the uniform of the 1984 US Olympic gymnastics team, and later revealed to be scientifically enhanced super-clones of Randian heros Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart, they struggle with desires for each other that they believe to be incestuous. Charles attacks Moscow, though he is seduced by Dr. Pavlova in a cringe-worthy scene in which unclear consent seems to be played for laughs. Meanwhile, Bog and Amelia proceed to battle in New York City, while The One and The Other compete for the souls of humanity.

This new superhuman arms race, and the “superior war,” allow Veitch to satire the “fallacy of the last move” explained in H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988) as

the addictive, ever-unfulfilled expectation that each new exotic weapon created for our ‘defense’ would confer upon the United States permanent military superiority and invulnerable ‘security.’ Underlying this is another fallacy, also nourished in some science fiction, that science and technology are products of lone wizards such as Thomas Edison, or brilliant research teams, or national genius. This fallacy binds policymakers to the fact that since the United States and Soviet Union are at roughly equivalent stages of science and technology, and new weapons produced by one can soon be matched by the other, thus bringing about not supremacy for either but increased danger for both.

The series ends with The Other constructing a human pyramid—though an ambulatory one that responds to its commands—out of those who remain chained to their fears and desires, while “the ones” who comprise The One are revealed to occupy a sort of idyllic virtual space encapsulated within the material form of The One. Reminiscent of the soul world pocket dimension folded into the gem in Adam Warlock’s head, the One’s members frolic naked in a pastoral landscape complete with a reunited Beagles (yes, that’s spelled correctly) playing “mellow submarine.” The One, as a single material body, leaves earth to enter the “vastness of interstellar space,” with “a billion hearts and souls fueling his magnetic field.”

Perhaps put more succinctly by Doc Benway in one of the last issue’s final panels: “The nightmare of a nuclear confrontation had started a catharsis, and the superior war had finished it. Thus mankind unconsciously short-circuited evolution itself–and somehow lived to tell the tale… Some of us did anyway. And not only were we flying about in space as The One but we were still alive, somewhere, just like we used to be. Only happier. Much happier!”

This is a misunderstanding of the theory of evolution—as if the process is a historical movement toward some sort of pre-determined state of optimality instead of the ad-hoc accretion of adaptations that were proven advantageous after the fact of their instantiation. However, this misunderstanding underlines the modernist assumptions in what we may consider to be one of the first of the so-called postmodern comics: that time involves “progress” toward something specific, that history has a point. Perhaps it is easier to imagine a Beatles-referencing magnetic-field rapture in the ashes of civilizations destroyed by superheroes than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

The One presents a benevolent mass mind triumphing through a sort of collectivized actualization. I’m reminded of the techno-positivist utopian rhetoric surrounding the early internet, as if all of those humans who had “short-circuited evolution itself” were traversing interstellar space in a giant humanoid craft, all plugged in to a VR Beatles concert to pass the time. The problem is that that collectivized actualization, that end of history, just seems boring and anticlimactic. Would I have enjoyed more catharsis if all of humanity had perished?

Rick Veitch would go on to work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, eventually taking over writing duties as well. After DC refused to publish a finished story of his in which Swamp Thing met Jesus Christ, Veitch turned to independent and self-published work. There, he continued to work with some of the concepts first sketched in The One. Titles like Maximortal and Brat Pack extended his deconstruction of the superhero, while his dream log, Rare Bit Fiends, addressed the anima mundi we see in The One’s gestalt form. In his afterward to the 2018 edition, Veitch writes, “It is not difficult to imagine that as capitalism takes its victory lap, the true ‘end of history’ is imminent. If there is any slim hope I cling to it is the same one that inspired this book back in 1985: that the current existential stresses placed on us by the situation we’ve put ourselves in will fundamentally transform the human race.”

Though the idea of a bucolic nudist countryside of mass-mind at the end of history leaves me even colder now than it did when The One was first published, we can’t fault Veitch for offering us something expected. In fact, my motivation to seek out a copy of something I vaguely remembered buying back in 1985 wasn’t because of the story or characters. It was because The One was jarring enough to my eleven-year-old self that it stuck with me. Though at times it seemed to As You Know and jump-cut, The One stood out because of its ambition and the weirdness it offered: in the era of Top Gun and Rambo, of American Anthem and Rush’n Attack, things like a giant Nazi rat eating Washington, and human faces peeling off to reveal orange and yellow pop-art radiation, offered something that freaked me out in a different way than the mechanical appendages and mutagenic ooze that were my usual fare. Dr. Strangelove met Dr. Strange. The One offered up a satirical end of both history and the superhero, and tried to offer some transcendent hope in a world that seemed to be on the precipice of annihilation.

Jonathan Lukens is a cultural worker from Atlanta. His work has been shown at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played through omnifarious speakers, and published in The AtlanticDesign Issues, and The International Journal of Design in Society.

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DARREN HATLEY'S AMAZING CUSTOM FANTASY TOY SOLDIERS!!!

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Darren Hatley is a fellow cllector and long time friend of this Blog.  He lives in England in a hole in the ground and boils all of his food.  Darren has an amazing collection but takes things one step farther by creating his own unique custom figures.  He is a true master of the art of customizing figures.  You may have seen some of his creations on Stad's Stuff a couple of years ago.  You will get to see far more of his work here.  It is my privilage and joy to let him present his works of art and describe them in his own words in the first ever guest post on this Blog.  So, with no further ado . . .    


Hi my name is Darren.A.Hatley. I'm 51 years old and i live just outside London England. I started collecting Toy Soldiers and other figures when i was 4. I now collect mainly plastic 1/32 Scale ie 50mm to 60mm or 2 inch to 2 and half inch Ancient, Medieval Soldiers/Warriors and Fantasy figures. My collection has grown to around 5000 figures, About 1000 of which ive converted and painted in some way or another. I started converting and painting about 15 years ago, 1st off because i enjoy it, But the main reason was that i was always frustrated that there were not more figures that i wanted in 1/32 scale being made, Especially Fantasy figures. Of course there are some really nice figures but not enough. So i searched the internet and i found that there were many companies from all around the World making Fantasy figures from 35mm up to large scale but not as toy soldiers. Some were 1/32 scale but most were not. However i found that with some imagination patience and skill many of these figures could be made to be 1/32 toy soldier scale. 99% of my figures are between 50mm and 60mm which is my preferred scale size. Almost all of my conversions are unique one offs as i dont like multiples of 1 pose unless its a row of archers. There are basically 2 types of ways to convert, The 1st is say moving a figures own arms into a different position to make a new pose, And the 2nd type is mix and match different figures together, Some of my conversions are made of 4 or 5 separate figures. Simple conversions can take just a few days to complete, Where as harder conversions with a full paint job can take up to 3 weeks. I always try to pin my figures together as well as using Super glue and American made Quick Grip glue for maximum strength. Also the Quick Grip can be manipulated into clothing skin and muscle. My aim is to have an army of 1000 Fantasy Monsters of which i'm up to about 700 now. So here are just some examples of my work.Regards Darren   


Toy Major Custom Skeletons


I love these Toy Major Skeletons but I thought they had Great potential for many more dynamic poses, So I mixed and matched there body parts and came up with these figures.










































Russian No Name Goblins & Werewolf Knight



They are nice figures but i thought they were a bit short, The Knight and Werewolf were 45mm and the Goblins were 40mm and as i may have told you before i like most of my figures to be 50mm to 60mm so that they all fit nicely together in scale size and of course they fit nicely with my 1/32 scale Ancient and Medieval figures. So these were more straight forward conversion, I simply cut the short legs in half pinned them back together again at there new height size and then filled in the gaps with bits of plastic and glue as armour. I liked the Metallic Blue colour of these Goblin figures so i left them as they were and painted the new legs with Metallic Blue paint to go with the rest of the figures. I used string for the Werewolf legs and plastic silver armour from a Knight for the No Name Knight. So now the Goblins are 50mm and the Werewolf and Knight are about 52mm






























































Helm Toy & Others


This next figure is a Black Demon i made from a Native American body with a DFC Demon head, The Shield i made from bits of plastic. Then the figure has a full paint job.These next 6 figures are Helm Toy Ogres/Orcs and another Creature. I extended the bodys and legs to make the Ogres taller, And moved the Creatures arms and gave him a different weapon, And gave them all a full paint job.The next 3 are Mummy figures in which i carefully wrapped up 3 Cherilea Nubians and Egyptian figure with masking tape and gave them a shield.



































Reaper Bones

These next 11 figures are from a company called Reaper Bones Miniatures, 6 Orcs/Goblins, 1 Lizardman, 1 Tiki or Merman, 1 Gnoll and 2 Ogres. They are made in China but are American designed i think? Most of these figures come in at 35mm to 40mm but the top half of the figures are just about 1/32 scale but they have tiny legs which ive replaced with bigger longer legs, Then ive covered the waist and top of the legs with a loincloth made of plastic and Quick Grip glue which is quite hard and takes time to do but very rewarding when finished. Then a full paint job on every figure.




















































AD&D
These Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures and Pathfinders Battles figures have been going for about 15 years now. They make all kinds of Brilliant well detailed and prepainted Fantasy figures. There are many sets and Thousands of figures been made, But 95% or more are way to small or large to fit into 1/32 scale. However 5% or a couple of figures from each set is either 1/32 scale or can be converted to it. I have done nearly 50 figures from this range and here is 7 figures to show how they can look. Perhaps the hardest part of the conversion with these figures is matching the paint colour of my converted pieces to the prepainted figure.



































M.U.S.C.L.E.S.



Mattel M.U.S.C.L.E. made these Great weird and wacky Men and Monster wrestle figures back in the 1980s in the United States, And there have been quite a few more made in recent years mostly He-Man Muscle figures so overall there must be around 300 of them. Although they measure from 40mm to 45mm they are basically 1/32 figures with small legs. So i have cut the legs off around 50 of these and replaced them with longer legs and they make great 1/32 or 54mm to 60mm figures, Here are 5 examples of these figures i have converted.
































SCS Direct


I really like these SCS Direct Monster figures which are a good toy soldier size, But i like my figures to be as dynamic as possible. So i made new poses for these figures and gave them weapons and shields and as i usually do with most of my figures a full paint job.











































Gormiti & Such


Gormiti figures from Italy are mostly to big and chunky to really fit with 1/32 toy soldiers, But i came across a series in a pound store which came in at 40mm to 45mm but with a bit of converting fit really well as 1/32 figures, Here are 4 examples of these figures.The next 2 figures i have no idea who made them and in what country but i got them on ebay a while back. They are a Sharkman and Alien type figures, So i gave them weapons and different taller legs and a full paint job and i think they make really good Fantasy figures.
























































Monster in my Pocket & Converted Demons



These are 2 Monster In My Pocket figures. I made them taller as usual as they come in at 40mm to 45mm, And i stuck some extra bits to them that i thought might improve there look including the vines on the Tree Monster using bits of plastic and of course a full paint job, And the weapon on the staff of the Charon figure.  These are 3 Red Demons i put together using bits and bobs of different figures and the paint job as standard.








































Nolzurs

These next 3 figures the Minotaur and 2 Dragonborn Warriors figures are from a company called Nolzurs which are very similar to the Bones Reaper figures in material colour and size, They only came in at 35mm to 40mm so they needed a lot of work to bring them up to 1/32 scale. On the Minotaur i stretched out hes Torso and legs, And on the 2 Dragonborn figures i had to stretch the Torso legs and arms and of course a full paint job for all 3. They took up to 3 weeks to finish but were i think worth it when i had finished.






























Arco, Yu Gi Oh & Orc


These next 2 figures are Arco: Dragons and Monsters Cyclops and Lizardman, I replaced there original legs with longer legs to bring up there height and paint job.The next figure is a Yu-Gi-Oh Black Cat/Panther Warrior, I moved the arms for more dynamic pose and put him on taller legs and full paint job.The next figure is a mixture of 3 different figures i put together to make this Orc Warrior and of course paint job.






































Navia Dratp & Massive Darkness




This is a Navia Drapt figure from Japan, I moved hes arms and gave him another weapon, But the hardest thing about this figure was that i couldn't match up the colour paint to the original colour so i gave him a complete paint job which wasn't my original intention.These next 3 figures i brought from a website here in England from a company called Massive Darkness, They needed quite alot of work. I made them taller by either stretching the legs of the Troll and making a loincloth out of plastic bits, Stretching the Demons body or putting new legs on the Orc and a loincloth made of glue, I moved the arms for more dynamic poses and added weapons and shields, And a full paint job on all 3 figures.













































WWE MIghty Minis

As well as doing all kinds of Monsters i also do Human figures and as soon as i came across these 6 WWE Mighty Minis figures which are of famous American wrestler figures i thought they would make excellent Fantasy Barbarian Warriors. So i stuck the bodies onto Tehnolog Gladiator legs, And i use the Brilliant Russian made Tehnolog for many of my conversions, Then i gave them weapons and shields. For the hair of the Warriors i carefully and patiently manipulated the Quick Grip glue for the affect. The rock that one of the figures is holding i made from a small toy elephants body, Obviously cutting it to a shape of a rock and then using 2 small screws fixed it to the wrestlers hands.



















































 Lizardman!

This Lizardman figure took me about 3 weeks to make and is made from 4 different figures. He is one of the hardest figures ive ever done especially the skin which is made from thin pieces of plastic and the good old quick grip glue carefully put over the top of a human torso figure.



















































Merman Before & After



Over the last 6 months or so China and Hong Kong have been bringing out some brilliant but unbranded Fantasy figures like this Merman i recently did. As you can see the original red Merman is nice but only 40mm tall with the typical small legs. So i cut the original legs off and put him on a Tehnolog figures legs and then i moved the arms into a more dynamic pose, I then replaced the weapon on the left arm with a Warhammer Lizardman shield, I then put a horn on hes head and more barnicles onto hes body and then finished with a full paint job, This figure also took about 3 weeks to do.





















Warrior Before & After





The original figure is a drinking buddy figure i got from a supermarket. I then cut hes arms and legs off and added better ones, Gave him a long main using the quick grip glue and a full paint job and turned him into a Warrior.






“It’s Right for Our Times”: Vanagon Brochure, 1980

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / March 5, 2020

Object Name: Vanagon sales brochure
Maker and Year: Volkswagen of America, Inc., 1979-1980
Object Type: Sales brochure
Image Source: TheSamba.com
Description
: (K.E. Roberts)

When the hippies grew up and had kids of their own, they needed something modern and self-contained to bring everyone back (occasionally this time around) to nature. Hence, the Vanagon. The second generation (T2) of the Volkswagen Bus, produced between ’67 and ’79, had gone over big with the festival- and protest-hopping counterculture because “It was cheap to maintain, easy to work on, and big enough to live in.” So, from a marketing perspective (because that’s what growing up means: your youth is sold back to you), a stab at a more contemporary third generation made sense. The Vanagon sold poorly compared to the T2, but its “Crisp, taut, fresh lines” and off-the-grid genealogy earned it a devoted following that continues today.

The sales pitch does a lot of work: “The best of a van. The best of a wagon. And better than both.” The Vanagon was not as cool as a custom van, a fad that peaked a few years earlier thanks to creepy dudes, and it wasn’t as square as the station wagon, which the hippies’ parents had forced them to endure in the ’50s. It was also not as unwieldy as an RV—or as vulnerable to “high gasoline prices.” The Vanagon was “a totally new kind of vehicle” that sported a number of quirky features: a pop-up bed on the roof, removable benchseat (which sounds really unsafe, in retrospect), swiveling driver and passenger bucket seats, a tiny “icebox” in the base camper model, and “flawless interior design” that alleged “a breakthrough in ‘ergonomics'”—then a very new age-y concept defined here as “the practice of making a car fit you better.”

At times, the devotion I mentioned above verges on the cult. In 1980 or 1981, I took a trip to Yosemite with my friend and his family in a brand new Medium Blue Vanagon. My friend’s dad had talked about the thing for weeks before buying it, showed us the brochures, talked of the adventures they would have. When he brought it home, he was giddy, luminous. He showed us all the features one by one, including the battery stowed under the back seat. I don’t know if it was as “quiet” or “sure-footed” as advertised, but it was distinctively “sleek,” and we had a lot of room for comic books and Star Wars toys in the back; I still get a kick out of spotting them on the road, although appearances are rare these days.

The Vanagon was replaced in the early ’90s with the T4 EuroVan, essentially a minivan that followed the model launched by the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1984. The ’70s had become the ’80s. Adventures in camping had become adventures in shopping. The hippies had become yuppies.

“Class is the American Dream”: Peterbilt Truck Ads, 1974 – 1981

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / March 4, 2020

Above, adverts from 1974 9e463797987da1b4f1e1381f913b950d

Advert from 1976

Above, adverts from 1977 Above, adverts from 1979 Above, adverts from 1980 Above, adverts from 1981

Object Name: Peterbilt advertisements
Maker and Year: Peterbilt, 1974-1981
Object Type: Print advertisements
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Heir to the role of freewheeling individualism once inhabited by the cowboy, over the course of the 1970s the truck driver grew to be an increasingly dominant figure in the American imagination. The US economy was facing recession and the haulage industry’s struggles with the oil crisis and the nationwide 55 mph speed limit (imposed in 1974 by the federal government) consolidated the truckers’ position as the nation’s proxy underdog. Despite this, one of the country’s best-known truck manufacturers opted for an approach to its advertising that runs oddly counter to the atmosphere of sweat-and-aftershave-soaked denim-clad machismo one might expect.

Founded in 1939, Peterbilt Motors was a commercial heavy- and medium-duty truck producer. Adopting “class”—perhaps as a play on the various Gross Vehicle Weight Rating classes—as its leitmotiv, the company had been using adverts that featured only women in what looked less like cheesecake than something from the fashion glossies since the late ’60s. The women featured in the earliest adverts shown here—from 1974—inspire curiosity about their role: are they simply intended to catch the eye of potential clients? Are they the trucker’s wives? The truckers themselves? Or are they perhaps the female spirits of the trucks?

This ambiguity comes further to the fore in the 1976 adverts, which are framed more like fashion plates than anything resembling an attempt to sell heavy industrial machinery. By this time, the CB craze was in full swing, the success the previous year of novelty hit “Convoy” having propelled the trucking lifestyle into the pop-culture stratosphere. Though the decade had begun with the trucker-as-evil-incarnate behind the wheel of the 1955 Peterbilt 281 that menaces Dennis Weaver in Steven Spielberg’s 1972 Duel, the films and TV of the ’70s were saturated with positive images of male truckers, from NBC’s Movin’ On, which debuted in 1974, to 1975’s White Line Fever and 1977’s The Great Smokey Roadblock, to 1978’s Every Which Way but Loose and Convoy (inspired by the song) and TV’s B. J. and the Bear (1979-1981).

But despite all the testosterone in the cultural well, the company’s ads seemed to be attempting to speak specifically to women rather than to men. A parallel series of adverts, also from 1976, evoked adventure and romance, promising, “It can only happen in a Peterbilt.” Could anything be more incongruous than the juxtaposition of a big rig, lights gleaming and air horns ready to blast, with an intimate picnic where wine is served and candles blaze? The picnic blanket is laid for two, but, again, there is no sign of a man. Is he taking the photograph? Simply having a pee out of frame? The picture remains enigmatic.

Peterbilt Trucks Class We Are the Mutants XThe 1977 ads continue to feature only women, though now in a slightly different guise. Are these faces looking kindly down upon the vehicles meant to represent domestic angels of the hearth, their thoughts turned protectively to their hard-working husbands, or are they supernatural deities of labor, watching over their human charges? I prefer to think it’s the latter.

Most of the women in the 1970s adverts, in fact, seem somehow goddess-like—human incarnations of the beautiful, powerful machines they stand beside. As the new decade dawns, though, and Ronald Reagan becomes president, the mood changes. Women remain the focal point, but the adverts start to look to the past for their atmospheres, the settings becoming antebellum riverboats and 1920s mansions, and the women in them objects to be gazed at by the men who now start to populate the scene. And by the time we reach the 1981 adverts, women are once more simply part of the landscape: a girlfriend, or a film star to be gawped at.

Peterbilt’s publicity of the 1970s seems to speak to an unvoiced desire for elegance, beauty, and romance—the “class” the 1974 ads claimed as the reality of the American dream. Hardly the psychological language we might expect from a truck advert, nor the kind of dream the bullishness of the following decades might imply. Was it perhaps a question of prudery, religious or otherwise, in the upper echelons of the company’s management? Maybe a subterfuge to reach the target audience through its wives? Or was it actually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to broach women’s changing position in society? We will have to wait for someone more au fait with the ins and outs of the 1970s trucking world to tell us, because I’ll be fucked if I know.

“Become a Good CBer”: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules, 1978

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 Exhibit / March 3, 2020

Object Name: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules (95.401)
Maker and Year: Federal Communications Commission, 1978
Object Type: Informational booklet
Image Source: Archive.org
Description (Michael Grasso):

By 1978 the pop culture craze around Citizens Band (CB) radio had perhaps already hit its peak. When television broadcasts and other new radio transmission methods began to crowd the EM spectrum in 1945 America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved a thin sliver of ultra-high frequency (UHF) frequencies for the personal use of ordinary citizens. A little over a decade later, in 1958, a new set of frequencies lower down on the spectrum became Class D Citizens Band radio, which spread in popularity throughout the 1960s among truckers and other blue-collar professionals who spent a lot of time on the road and needed to remain in contact with home base and other travelers.

The CB fad of the 1970s entered the public consciousness through a series of economic, political, and technological circumstances. The 1973 oil crisis, which put long-haul truckers in a tough spot due to gas shortages, along with the new federal 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, made CB radio a key method of information dissemination for truckers in a newly hostile economic environment (and allowed them to directly organize in the face of these adverse conditions). The cat was out of the bag by 1974 about the power of CB radio to unite workers and citizens over great distances to take collective action. CB radios thus found their way into more and more civilians’ vehicles for much the same reasons as the truckers’: they were an effective way to communicate and coordinate with other drivers while on the road during the hostile economic conditions of the oil crisis and its aftermath. With this came the deluge of mid-1970s pop culture CB-iana: Number 1 country-western novelty hit “Convoy” by C.W. McCall (and its spin-off film three years later), the 1977 Burt Reynolds/Sally Field road comedy Smokey and the Bandit, spinoff media such as magazines and board games, and countless other products, all while CB jargon, nicknames, and codes became permanent parts of American popular slang. The CB radio, a facet of the public commons established and regulated by the federal government, became a symbol of rebellion, the domain of working-class outlaws fed up with both the onerous presence of police on the American highway and the machinations of oil barons and international petroleum companies.

The CB radio was also many Americans’ first experience with being a radio broadcaster rather than a listener. Lacking the expense of amateur “ham” radio (along with its difficult technical licensing requirements), CBs offered a way for citizens to reach out to distant anonymous strangers that presaged the revolutionary arrival two decades later of the internet. The CB also provided drivers with the ability to call for help when stranded on the road—the FCC had assigned Class D CB Channel 9 as a permanent emergency channel in 1969—that would not be seen until the arrival of the cellular phone. By 1975, the FCC had lowered CB licensing costs (which many CB users ignored anyway) from $20 to $4, and miniaturization made the dashboard CB affordable for ordinary non-truckers. But in a short three years, the CB fad was largely over, leaving behind, as with many 1970s pop culture crazes, an industry ravaged by insatiable demand followed by a quick and steep disinterest.

This 1978 CB rules publication from the FCC discusses the rules and regulations around the use of Citizens Band radio as well as frequently asked questions around licensing and use of a CB. The booklet includes an insert that the reader could use to apply for a license to use CB radio. (The FCC was receiving so many CB license applications during the mid-1970s that they had established an entire zip code in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—17326—to speed up handling of the requests.) From the rules and prohibitions detailed within this booklet one can observe and note the ways that people were using (and abusing, in the eyes of the FCC) the CB frequencies during the fad’s peak. Transmissions of music, rebroadcasts of commercial radio or television, and advertising of all sorts, including political, are strictly prohibited, as are “obscene, indecent or profane words, language or meaning.” Conversations are limited to five minutes, but oddly CB radios are allowed to be patched into telephone calls (and telephone answering services); a commercial small-business need for reaching sales and delivery personnel on the road is obviously being given room to operate here.

Sadly, the government employee who created the strikingly whimsical and very “Seventies”-style sketches in this FCC booklet is uncredited. The artwork is clearly of a very specific and familiar vintage descending from hippie-adjacent 1960s artists and illustrators such as Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann, themselves influenced by the twin 1960s trends of Pop Art and the Art Nouveau revival. While this illustration style might have been considered a little out-of-touch and long in the tooth by 1978, it conveys a desire among the creators of this booklet, widespread at the time in the halls of the U.S. government, to remain populist, “hip,” and relevant in an otherwise sober book of rules published for the use of ordinary citizens.

“A Totally Different Experience”: Atari Theatre Kiosk Brochure, 1976

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 Exhibit / February 27, 2020

Object Name: Atari Theatre brochure
Maker and Year: Atari, Inc., 1975-1976
Object Type: Sales brochure
Image Source: FlyerFever
Description
: (K.E. Roberts)

The Atari Theatre Kiosk experiment was short-lived and ill-advised, but the very attempt, documented in this glorious brochure, captures the era’s unrestrained pursuit of what Atari called “innovative leisure.” Produced between the 1975 home release of Pong and 1977’s Atari Video Computer System, the Theatre was billed as an option for “elegant high traffic” locations serving “high quality clientele,” as opposed to the shabby riff-raff then infesting smoke-filled pool halls, penny arcades, and pinball parlors—video arcades didn’t pop up in the States until 1978, when Space Invaders came to town. The very idea of arcade cabinets is presented here as low-class (despite Atari inventing them), mere “vending machines” that had to be “rolled in and pushed against the wall.”

The concept illustrations depicting the Kiosk in the wild—er, excuse me, in “rich sophisticated locations… where children can entertain themselves in a wholesome environment”—are lovely and hint at the house style that Cliff Spohn would develop in the late ’70s. The centerpiece of the page is actually a photo of the Kiosk in the Velizy shopping mall in Paris (the Theatre concept originated with Atari Europe); there was also one that cheered commuters at the BART station on Powell Street in San Francisco. It’s obvious now how utterly impractical the scheme was: no matter how “elegant” the installation, no hotel or department store is going to want to be stuck with it forever, and shipping, moving, and maintaining the massive units could not have been cost effective. What’s more, your quarter bought you only 90 seconds of play—which, to be fair, is probably longer than I lasted on most Zaxxon cabinets.

The “interchangeability” of the individual games in the hexagonal “control panel” brings to mind the DIY geodesic domes then popular among the counterculture, out of which personal computing and video games emerged in the first place, while the design sensibility of the brochure swells with the vibrant late-’70s aesthetic that Atari in part created. In short, bless them for trying.

Action Transfers: White Squadron Space Adventures, 1980

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 Exhibit / February 26, 2020

Object Name: White Squadron Space Adventures
Maker and Year: Uncredited artist for Letraset/Thomas Salter Ltd., 1980
Object Type: Transfers
Image Source: Action Transfers
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A favorite gift of British nanas, uncles and aunts of the 1970s, transfers—like coloring books—inhabit the deadening overlap between creativity and restriction. As liberating as they always looked while still in their packets, once out on the kitchen table, doing transfers frequently turned out to be a depressingly uninspiring activity. Not so Thomas Salter and Letraset’s Space Adventures, which were rare in that their genuinely engaging vistas, full of odd detail and exciting perspective, were the main attraction, and the transfers themselves merely the pretext.

No matter how lofty its pretensions to didactic meritoriousness, it was a rare toy manufacturer of the second half of the 1970s who was righteous enough to resist the lure of millions of Star Wars-crazed children desperate to throw their pocket money at anything vaguely resembling a Jawa. Proof of this is that even Thomas Salter, the Lutheran-presenting Scotland-based toy producer famous for its worthy educational products, did a deal with the zeitgeist and went into business with dry-transfer giant Letraset to crank out its own space trash artifacts. And what lovely space trash artifacts they were: ten panoramas of a world poised between old-fashioned Alex Raymond-ey pulp (complete with giant clipper-equipped robots) and the post-2001 aesthetic of technologically imposing starships with ripped-off Y-Wing cockpits. The “plot”—I use the quotations advisedly, given its unintelligibility—concerns a space war of some kind in the year 2150, with on one side Princess Haiti, Captain Meteor, Professor Purbeck, and obligatory cute robot GRUD (Ground Receiver Understanding Device, whatever the fuck that means), and on the other a baddie called Swart, assisted by the Bat People. Only the transfers are credited as being printed in Italy, but to judge by the odd grammar and phrasing of the short synopses featured on each packet, they too were hastily cooked up over a heavy lunch in a trattoria somewhere in the vicinity of the Sodecor factory, a subsidiary Letraset had founded in the far north of the country.

Unreflective nostalgia is bad for us—on that, I hope, we can all agree. When scratching the itches of our youthful loves stops being an occasional frisson and becomes an obsessive way of engaging with reality, reactionary infantility is around the corner. But we have to be careful not to throw out the beautiful baby along with the rancid nostalgia bathwater: because on their own terms—compromised, venal and, yes, often childish—some of the ephemera of childhood does actually possess a bit of genuine beauty. White Squadron Space Adventures is just that: a kind of strange, modern-day stations of the cross that, in its puerile, cash-grubbing way, evokes more profound cosmic awe than the CGI phantoms thrown endlessly at us today—and, more important, inspires far more desire to actually pick up a pencil and create something.

Remembrance of Ramps Past: Hot Wheels Service Center Playset, 1979

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Recollections / February 25, 2020

hot wheels service center sto and goA couple of years ago I posted an image on Twitter of the Hot Wheels Service Center Sto & Go playset seen above and got to feeling unexpectedly emotional (and more than a bit political) about it. The toy evoked feelings of a lost world, a celebration of blue-collar work, of craftsmanship, of a 1970s era of big cars and grubby parking garages with lots of ramps. I admittedly get emotional pretty frequently about artifacts of the late ’70s/early ’80s “Hinge Years,” as I call them (just check my archive of articles here at We Are the Mutants if you don’t believe me), but something about the Hot Wheels Service Center really hit me hard and stuck with me.

Hot Wheels cars loom large in the memories of Generation Xers because they came of age right along with us. In the late ’60s, American toy maker Mattel saw the broad and long-lasting global success of Matchbox cars, a postwar British manufacturing success story that debuted in 1953 with a line of diecast metal 1:64 scale models of real-world cars. Hot Wheels sought to take the Matchbox car to a new level, giving American kids a taste of the then-contemporary custom car culture, developing all kinds of wild vehicles in the same scale as Matchbox. In 1968 Mattel released its “Sweet 16,” the first vehicles in the Hot Wheels line, and their massive initial success meant that dozens of new designs followed. Hot Wheels vehicles were spacey, wild evocations of a resolutely American automobile imagination. (Hot Wheels also had better quality spinning wheels that allowed them to be used for racing more reliably than Matchbox vehicles.) Matchbox changed up its own marketing and design to keep up with Hot Wheels, while, as the ’70s went on, Hot Wheels produced more and different kinds of real-world cars to balance out the hot rods and custom cars. Hot Wheels also produced plentiful accessories for the racers from the very outset of the line, including race tracks that featured pit stops, which undoubtedly influenced the eventual design of the Sto & Go Service Station.

I’m not sure if Matchbox and/or Hot Wheels cars were ever my favorite toys as a little kid, but they were always around, omnipresent and inevitably underfoot for any grown-ups in our living room. I probably had a dozen or more. I’m guessing they were popular because they were both cheap and readily available; I clearly remember them prominently on sale at places other than toy stores, such as grocery store and pharmacy gift aisles. They were economical, collectible toys that kept smaller kids occupied for hours on end. But there was something special and unique about the Sto & Go Service Station—I got it for Christmas in 1980 or ’81—that kept me playing with it for a good long while. Its portability (the two levels of the garage folded up to make a handy carrying case—the “Sto and Go”—for your Hot Wheels) made it my favorite toy for taking on the road to relatives’ houses. Play-wise, it’s a typical pre-G.I. Joe and Transformers early 1980s playset: it has multiple levels, lots of moving parts, plenty of opportunities for both kinesthetic and gravity-propelled play, a really well-designed toy for the 8-and-under crowd. I also think that, in some small way, the Sto & Go appealed to me because it was ultimately incredibly cozy. Here was a “neighborhood,” if you will, with everything that a driver might need for their car: transmissions, tires, a dynamometer test, gas, tires, and a wash and wax at the end of it all. Moreover, none of these service station pit stops are owned by a huge chain or corporation; they each proudly display the (yes, admittedly all male) names of their owner-operators: Ted, Larry, Mike, Al, George. It’s basically the happy main street of an admittedly car-crazy town, perhaps before the Jiffy Lube, the Pep Boys, and the Wal-mart Auto Care Center came to roost.

I remember loving books in my early childhood that extolled the benefits of living in a tidy neighborhood where everyone had a vital job or a role. Whether it was Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown books like What Do People Do All Day? (1968) or the British Mr. Men series from 1971 (here the characters’ roles in town are more psychological than labor-based, but my point stands) or all of Mister Rogers’ various Neighborhoods (from Fred Rogers’s “real” neighborhood with working-class visitors like “Speedy Delivery” Mr. McFeely, to the factory footage that Mr. Rogers would show on Picture Picture, even occasionally to labor relations in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe), one of the signal lessons of my childhood cultural education was that an ideal society hums along with the buzz of people doing meaningful, valuable labor. Pretty typical Cold War-era pro-labor messages, all told; I’m guessing a lot of kids born in the ’70s remember similar themes in their media. The Hot Wheels Service Station absolutely embodies that set of lessons; each of these garages has its own purpose, implying that they’re all able to both stay in business and offer specialist expertise that the others can’t. When I joked on Twitter about the playset offering a glimpse of a syndicalist future, I was recalling the rise of the Wobblies and other laborers’ reactions to the Second Industrial Revolution, a period of labor upheaval where industrial workers found their small-scale, specialized skills superseded by a wave of technology-driven standardization and automation. One thing that the last forty years of neoliberalism and its own technological revolutions have proven is that specialized skills and individual small-scale industriousness fall like dominoes before the consolidated power of international capital. In the Hot Wheels Service Station, an era of smaller, local, more interconnected, more personal, and more personable industry is frozen in amber.

And yes, those ramps are also evocative; not just because they were a hell of a lot of fun to play with (if you managed to get your car all the way down to the gas station without crashing, a bell would usually ring), but because they summoned up what cities looked like in the 1970s, at least to me in the back of our family station wagon: overpasses, bridges, highways, expressways plowing through the centers of cities, all sprouting enormous and steep on- and off-ramps. Every trip into Boston in the family car involved navigating at least a few of these. Mutants contributor Rob MacDougall dubbed it “ramppunk,” and that term is now indelibly tied together—for me—with the built landscape of a particular urban milieu of the period. The Hot Wheels Service Center is topographically and practically improbable in the real world, of course. Maybe it’s not spatially uncanny or impossibly Escherian, but a two-level garage filled with five mechanics’ businesses linked by a long S-shaped ramp like this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. (Equally unreal was 1980’s follow-up to the Service Center, an actual City scene with the same layout as the Service Center.) But that unreality doesn’t matter when I look at it as an object, probably because I associate that same mix of beiges, browns, and oranges on the Service Center decals with an era where it seemed every road ended in a ramp and every built environment was designed to accommodate cars, not people. The Hot Wheels Service Center does double nostalgic duty: it reminds me of the intersection between the imaginary worlds and the real world of my youth, and the intersection between the ideal worlds our toys once created and a harsher reality I wasn’t yet conscious of.

Meet you at that big window overlooking the car wash.

hot wheels car wash family detail

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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“What’s Inside the Little Box?”: Betamax Sales Demo, 1977

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 Exhibit / February 20, 2020 

Object Name: Betamax sales training video
Maker and Year: National Training Systems, Inc., 1977
Object Type: Training video
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Sony’s first Betamax VCR was the SL-6200, and it was housed in a teak wood cabinet with a 19″ Trinitron TV. The LV-1901 console, as the package deal was called, was released in Japan in May 1975 and debuted in the US that November. Price: between $2,295 and $2,495. Weight? Really fucking heavy. The VCR was sold separately (for about $1,295) starting in 1976, but department stores and consumer electronics outlets were left with the onerous task of unloading the first generation beasts loitering in their stock rooms and warehouses (the last 20 seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark come to mind). Sony provided a “demonstration checklist” designed to help sales teams explain the entirely new concept of “recording one program while watching another” and “[recording] a program without even being there,” and they paid a company called National Training Systems, Inc. to help sales teams convince customers to shell out what amounted to the cost of a new Toyota Corolla.

Let’s start with the decor. The LV-1901 squats on a circular island of worn beige shag, which matches the implacable earth tones of everything else in the faux showroom, including the uneasy Muzak and the garb of our stereotypically unctuous salesmen—except for the plentiful ferns, which served as a kind of middle-class status signifier in ’70s and early ’80s America, similar to the aspidistra in prewar and postwar Britain. Although the sleek white pedestals and open cubes propping up Sony’s various TVs and stereos add something of a contemporary touch, the vibe is mostly that of the local, reliably down-home Sears. It’s certainly not the futuristic flavor served up in Sony’s 1975 promotional video introducing the LV-1901, where we see the monolith floating in star-twinkling space, kaleidoscopic video synthesizer effects, and lots of dry ice smoke. “The Sony Betamax,” intones a reverb-treated voice. “Its only purpose is to serve you.” And: “You’ll be free of the restrictions of time. Its uses are defined only by the limits of your imagination.”

Back on earth, our two salesman teasingly quibble and wink about who’s going to “role play” as the customer, and I half expected a porn film to break out. The sales pitch promises that the Betamax is “easy to use,” extolls “the great beauty of videotape” (blank Betamax tapes recorded a max of 60 minutes and cost almost $20), and endlessly reminds us that the LV-1901 (not to be confused with LV-426) comes with “dual tuners.” Although Betamax lost the format war precisely because Sony banked on consumers paying more for the perceived higher quality of the brand name, it holds a formative place in my media-chomping career. When the video store I worked at closed in 1987 or 1988, the magnanimous owner gifted me a used Betamax VCR, probably the SL-8200, along with a Beta movie of my choice. So I heaved the old bastard home and watched Enter the Ninja on it five or six times before it became my very own piece of antique furniture: comforting in its immovability, beautifully useless.

“How to Say Good Morning”: Mr. Coffee, 1972

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 Exhibit / February 19, 2020 

Object Name: Mr. Coffee
Maker and Year: North American Systems and others,1972-present
Object Type: TV commercials for home coffee maker
Video Source: YouTube (Bionic Disco/Beta MAX)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The state of play in home coffee brewing in America during the early postwar period offered very little opportunity for a good cup of joe. The electric percolator, long the choice for home brewing, would often overheat and burn the coffee, or send foul, bitter-tasting grounds back into the brew. Individual-size European coffee makers like the French press and the Moka pot gained in popularity after World War II but were still mostly niche products purchased by European immigrants (or Americans with European pretentions). Instant coffee predated the war but became one of the many broader consumer products that gained market share thanks to the same developments in wartime food preservation that brought frozen concentrated orange juice to American breakfast tables. So if an American coffee-drinker wanted a quality cup of drip coffee before 1970, he or she would visit a restaurant or diner for a cup from the new, reliable filtered drip-brew coffee maker, Bunn-O-Matic. But most Bunn coffeemakers in the 1960s were built to churn out dozens of pots of coffee a day, with large carafes and multiple hobs, putting them well out of the price and practicality reach of most consumers.

Making the drip filter coffee maker easy, compact, and affordable enough for home use was the task that a pair of coffee supply executives set for themselves at the outset of the 1970s. Samuel Glazer and Vincent Marotta of the Cleveland, Ohio company North American Systems saw the popularity of the big filter-drip industrial coffeemakers and wondered why they couldn’t have a cup like that at home. They lured two former Westinghouse engineers, Edmund Abel and Erwin Schulze, from their aeronautics and electrical engineering jobs to work on a coffeemaker that could deliver just that. The key was the heating element—too hot and it would simply duplicate the bitter efforts of the percolator; too cool and it wouldn’t actually brew the coffee. The new coffeemaker beat the percolator on taste and on speed; using gravity to drip 200-degree Fahrenheit water through grounds in a disposable filter could produce a modestly-sized pot of coffee in under a couple of minutes. Abel’s patent went on sale as “Mr. Coffee” in 1972, and the American public went for it in droves, with a million Mr. Coffee machines being sold in its first couple of years on the market.

A big key to Mr. Coffee’s appeal in these early years was thanks to Marotta’s dogged pursuit of one of his favorite sports icons as brand spokesman: the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. So reclusive in the years since his retirement from baseball and the death of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe that he’d been enshrined in song, DiMaggio relented to Marotta’s eager call to become the Mr. Coffee pitchman (DiMaggio himself wasn’t even a caffeinated coffee drinker because of an ulcer; he preferred instant Sanka). The combination of an approachable brand name, an easy to understand set of operating instructions, and an avuncular, trustworthy celebrity face made Mr. Coffee a household name. Mr. Coffee came along at a time when, thanks to women entering the workplace, more and more men were being asked to make contributions in the home and especially the kitchen; with coffee historically being associated in America with hard-working men, Mr. Coffee and its soft-spoken yet macho pitchman were culturally in the right place at the right time. Like many other home goods manufacturers, later owners of the Mr. Coffee brand would use its initial success to branch out into other products with not as famed or successful a brand career as the original. Nevertheless, Mr. Coffee’s ubiquity in the 1970s and ’80s led inevitably became fodder for pop culture parodies.

Heavy Pagan Pottery: Denby Tableware

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 Exhibit / February 18, 2020 

Object Name: Denby tableware
Maker and Year: Denby, 1960s-1970s
Object Type: Tableware
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A strange talisman of British middle- and lower-middle-class aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s, Denbyware—the costly, absurdly heavy, hard-wearing (read, impossible to rid yourself of or destroy) brand of British tableware famed for its dun-colored hues, threatening shapes, and cranial-trauma patterns—was for a time the ne plus ultra of performative provincial socializing.

The British Midlands had long been a center for ceramics and pottery, and Denby had been producing stoneware—pottery fired at extremely high temperatures to make it impermeable to liquids—in the Derbyshire village from which it took its name since the early 19th century, over the decades cannily adapting its output to the changing needs and social aesthetics of the day. When the back-to-nature ideas of the counterculture began permeating the mainstream in the late ’60s, Denby’s products—their dolmenic mass hinting at ancestral connection, olde-worlde authenticity, and worthy refutation of shallow consumerism—were perfectly suited to the mood. The company’s memorable description of its “Ode” line (aptly pictured in the advert above with an anvil) as “immensely strong” and “devastating in design” provides a fairly accurate précis of Denbyware’s vocation: the implication was that these artifacts would not only outlive their owners, they might even outlive their owners’ civilizations, the only things left standing in the ashes of the increasingly likely nuclear radlands. Resembling ominous votive objects, Denbyware’s inscrutably esoteric forms seemed to emerge from ancient memory, as though the shade of Max Ernst might be using them to try to communicate something about the 20th century’s fucked-up relationship with its ancient past.

By the early ’70s, Denby’s main rivals for the White Collar Earth Children demographic were probably fellow Midlands pottery Midwinter, whose Stonehenge range flirted with Pagan themes, and Yorkshire company Hornsea Pottery. Denby’s principal perceived advantage over these competitors seemed to be that its products were heavier. A shitload heavier. In fact, Denby’s “stoneware” contrived somehow to be far, far heavier than actual stone. So heavy that it was actually an issue when moving house, as the stuff tended to hurtle through the bottoms of cardboard packing boxes like incoming meteorites breaking through cloud cover on their way to causing an extinction event. Unlike other tableware, if you dropped a Denby, the risk was not to the plate, it was to you and to your home and loved ones. The cups were so heavy that they would gradually droop over the aching fingers hooked through their handles and deposit liquid onto carpets and groins—though luckily their congenital crypt-like chill meant that within moments even the hottest of drinks was only tepid. It was almost as though the cups and plates and sugar bowls were not actually discrete objects but protrusions of some ur-tableware poking out from beneath the surface of the present day and moored to the eternal ley lines beneath.

Midwinter We Are the Mutants 1

Midwinter, one of Denby’s competitors

Together with other totems beloved of those migrating to the lower-middle classes—a pay-in-installments copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica it was erroneously presumed would make me clever and some uncomfortable Ercol chairs—my family owned a set of Denby Sherwood when I was growing up that my parents had received as a wedding present back in the late ’60s. Given the Robin Hood-referencing name, it’s possible that evoking the sensation of slurping silt from concave rocks while sheltering under sodden foliage actually was Denby’s vision for the range. In any case, it was the result. Sherwood’s weird, death-colored finish conferred strange flavors upon any edible substance that came into contact with it: tea drunk from the millstone-heavy cups acquired a peculiar clayish taste, while Friday night fish’n’chips would go waxy and limp, as though being gradually irradiated. The Sisyphean force needed to lift the burial-urn mugs would often send their granite rims smashing into the teeth of the unwary like some ancient punishment, and each time the serrations of a knife or the tines of a fork accidentally caught on the surface of a Sherwood plate, a terrifying Stone Tape-esque screech was emitted that would freeze the whole family mid-fish finger.

Strangely, instead of encouraging the McKennas to rid ourselves of the cumbersome tableware, these weird properties only conferred upon The Denby an even more eerie grandeur. It was the same in every household I knew that had a set: The Denby were treated like fetishes—miniature henges, to be brought out only on occasions of highest ritual or to impress delegates from neighboring tribes. I called them totems earlier, and the received impression was very much that by laying hands on their chill surfaces, mind-melding with pre-lapsarian Iron Age ancestors could be achieved and balance restored to the earth.

It was also taken absolutely for granted that, as eldest son, I would in time be proud to have the Denby passed down to me and would fill all my available storage space with its imposing mass, as though it had been in the family for dozens of generations instead of bought on the HP in a department store in Chorley in 1967. Threats to sell the lot were greeted with uncomprehending horror, and in fact any nominal gain would in reality be offset by the difficulties involved in getting rid of the bastards: postage would incur moonshot-level costs while personal delivery would likely shatter the suspension of any car I’d ever be able to afford. How large numbers of Denby were ever moved about the country at all is a mystery up there with how the components of Stonehenge were rolled all the way from Wales to Salisbury—or at the very least testament to the sturdiness of the British freight rail system pre-Thatcher. 

I’m exaggerating in my critique of Denbyware, of course, and especially of Sherwood. I grew up venerating it, and even today bits of our set continue to crop up unbidden in my life like ancestral relics. Designer Gill Pemberton produced some lovely work for the company, and Sherwood was one of her most memorable: strange grave goods that show the denizens of capitalist industrial society grasping through their growing pay packets for something meaningful, something to connect them to who they are and to who they have been, even as they tuck into their Asda beefburgers. Something heavy.·

Eat the Rich: The Evolution of a Slogan

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 Exhibit / February 13, 2020 

Patti Smith, New York, 1978. Photo by David Godlis

Notting Hill, London, 1977. Photo by Roger Perry

Object Name: “Eat the rich”
Maker and Year: Unknown
Object Type: Political slogan
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

As Talia Levin noted last year in an Esquire article, “eat the rich” has become a popular expression among a new generation of leftists who have inherited, among many other obscenities, the most extreme income inequality of the last 50 years. The phrase is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Adolphe Thiers’ 10-volume History of the French Revolution (1823-1827, English ed. 1838): “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” It is very likely a misattribution, as no version of the line appears anywhere in Rousseau’s written works. Thiers, who Marx called a “monstrous gnome” for sucking up to the bourgeoisie, claims it comes from a speech Rousseau made to the post-1789 revolutionary government—at which point Rousseau (Jean-Jacques, anyway) had been dead for more than 10 years. The truth is that it is probably a creative inversion of something else Rousseau said in his posthumously published and heavily embellished Confessions (1782): “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat pastry!'” This became, of course, “Let them eat cake,” and was itself (purposely) misattributed to Marie Antoinette by French revolutionaries. Whatever the case, the “eat the rich” quote appears extensively in subsequent 19th century political and historical texts.

How it came to the American counterculture in the late ’60s or early ’70s is something of a mystery, but the answer may be a new edition of Thiers’ book that was published in 1971 by Books for Libraries Press, a popular (and populist) New York publisher reprinting significant historical and fictional works. I can’t find any evidence of the slogan being used in the Paris uprising of 1968, but in the summer of 1975 a group of young anarchists, inspired by Jean Baudrillard and the Situationists, staged a coup at the Detroit-based underground newspaper Fifth Estate, “[abolishing] all paid positions and [refusing] to take any paid advertisements.” They called themselves the Eat the Rich Gang. Forming the year before, they had already produced and distributed a cookbook/pamphlet—following the lead of 1971’s infamous The Anarchist Cookbook—called To Serve the Rich, which included recipes for Hearst Patty, Rocky Mountain Oysters Rockefeller, Justice Burger, Split Priest Soup, Bourgeois Bouillabaisse, Lenin Harangue Pie, and Pope-pourri. 1975’s The Eat the Rich Cookbook, published by The Workers Revenge Party, reprinted large sections of To Serve the Rich and sported a cover illustration of a skull and crossbones, the latter fashioned out of a knife and fork.

It was this cover (which may have been taken from To Serve the Rich) that directly led to the slogan’s entry into wider consciousness by means of, no surprise, the emergent East Coast punk scene. In 1978, a series of photos taken by David Godlis show Patti Smith at a New York record signing (for Easter) wearing a shirt that says EAT THE RICH (in one shot, she is very defiantly set against a background of Abba posters and standees). The illustration is different from the Eat the Rich Cookbook cover but exactly replicates the skull and knife/fork crossbones. The letters U.S.L.F. (United States Liberation Front?) appear below the image. A slightly different illustration, using the Fraktur font to great effect and minus the U.S.L.F., was produced around the same time: Dee Dee Ramone wore one, as did outlaw country singer-songwriter Terry Allen. Smith and her cohorts were anarchists of a different stripe: they didn’t give a shit about French theory, or any theory; instead, they agitated with amplified distortion and impudence, all the while struggling to survive in a decidedly more desperate and destitute urban reality.

Things were arguably grimmer in the UK. Photographer Roger Perry’s 1976 The Writing on the Wall documented London’s suddenly rampant dissident graffiti, just as Jon Naar and Norman Mailer had explored New York’s subway street art in 1974’s The Faith of Graffiti (Mailer argued that graffiti was not vandalism, but art and activism). The respective elections of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979) and President Ronald Reagan (1980) made life for the masses even more deplorable, and by the mid-1980s “eat the rich” was forever codified in pop culture and the popular lexicon, emblazoned on pinbacks, walls and bridges, album covers, and several more t-shirts, some of them making cameos in the films of the day. It was the name of a 1987 British comedy and a 1987 Motörhead single. P.J. O’Rourke, in his book Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, claims that he “first saw the phrase on T-shirts worn by the Shi’ite Amal militia in Lebanon in 1984 or 1985.”

The expression became flaccid and flatulent in the ’90s, was resurrected by student debtors and summarily re-executed by Wall Streeters and their federal accomplices during Occupy Wall Street, and today simply represents the fury and terror of millions of souls who are tied to the tracks, the increasingly persistent bleat of a runaway train in the near distance.

Wed night fun

Bri's Battle Blog -

So I'm still working on the benton hussars...got primer on, sanded and puttied the last problem spots. This project has taken a lot longer than I had planned, but I'm almost done. The painting is the fun part.

   




 
Soon it will be off my table, and I can get back to working on
The fabulouth Armee.  Got lots of new models for that project...



The Hauntological President: Citizen Media, Analog Memory, and Bernie Sanders

We Are the Mutants -

Michael Grasso / February 12, 2020

bernie sanders burlington square mall goth punks 1988Over the past year of the seemingly interminable 2020 presidential campaign in the United States, the public political history of Senator Bernie Sanders has been fêted and castigated from both sides of the political aisle. An avowed democratic socialist throughout his life and political career, Sanders has taken the side of some very unpopular movements and causes during his time as an activist and Mayor of Burlington, Vermont before coming to Washington as an independent Congressman in 1991. But throughout his career in local and state-level politics, Sanders consistently possessed an ambivalent-yet-canny sense of the utility and power of mass media to shape the political conversation in America and to educate and raise the consciousness of the American working class. In Sanders’s love-hate relationship with broadcast television, we see a microcosm of a generation of activists’ ambivalence with the power of both corporate authority and American hegemony as embodied and reinforced by television. Our image of Sanders’s decidedly more radical political past is shaped by his appearances on, uses of, and critiques of mass media, film, and television. And Sanders’s clever détournement of these media during a deeply transitional period in the American media landscape—the 1970s and 1980s—makes him potentially America’s first hauntological President.

Some definitions are probably in order. Marxist philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, based on a series of lectures in which Derrida was asked to address the question “Whither Marxism” in the aftermath of the end of the USSR and Soviet bloc. Derrida returns to Marx and Engels’ vivid use of gothic imagery from the very first lines of The Communist Manifesto (“a specter is haunting Europe”) to explicate upon the “death” of international communism. Hauntings are warnings, Derrida implies, as he examines Marx’s well-attested love of Shakespeare and specifically how Hamlet’s father’s ghost embodies an historical warning from a vanished, better past. Derrida views Hamlet’s blind faith in following his father’s ghost, the ghost’s warning that “something [is] rotten in the state of Denmark,” and the so-called “victory” of liberal democracy and death of communism as elements of this schema of “hauntology.” If communism is dead, it can return from its grave; moreover, a specter cannot be killed, it can only return to its haunt again and again. “Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.” This evocation of the paradox of simultaneous existence and non-existence, beginning and ending, is sealed with a pun: “hauntology” is a near-homonym for “ontology.”

Derrida’s admittedly cryptic and quasi-mystical evocation of ghosts, eternal return, and teleology/eschatology as they relate to the end of the Cold War, paired with the seeming eternal stability and final victory of liberal capitalism, deeply fascinated (and, in his words, “frustrated”) British cultural critic Mark Fisher, whose work I have previously reviewed in great detail. In his own formulation of “hauntology” from his 2014 Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, Fisher offers a more solid definition of the term in a very specific cultural and artistic (as opposed to Derrida’s specifically political and ontological) context:

When it was applied to music culture—in my own writing, and in that of other critics such as Simon Reynolds and Joseph Stannard—hauntology first of all named a confluence of artists… What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, an existential orientation… suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised music memory—hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audiotape, and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down.

For those of us in the increasingly accurately named, all-but-forgotten Generation X, watching the analog media of our childhood crackle and fade away on a new planethe forever-archive of cyberspace—offers a combination of poignancy and lost opportunity. Fisher acknowledges in the opening essay from Ghosts of My Life, “Lost Futures,” that both Derrida and Jean Baudrillard saw before their deaths how the new media landscape was beginning to destroy history—how it had “radically contracted space and time,” in Fisher’s words—and was leaving us in an eternal neoliberal present where nostalgia and remember-whenning are strip-mined, commodified, and drained of their political possibility. Fisher identifies the synthesis within hauntological music—that it paradoxically contains both the past and the future—as crucial in hauntology’s startling political effect for those who grew up in an era of “popular modernism.” In reifying an extinct medium’s aesthetics (the crackle of vinyl, the faded colors of Polaroid film, the warp of an audiocassette) in a contemporary context, hauntology summons the ghost of the (at the time largely occulted) political struggle of the 1970s, of a hidden fight between a decaying Western social democracy and the oncoming libidinal freight train of globalist neoliberalism. Fisher notes the writing of Jeremy Gilbert, who said, “Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen… has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.” In Fisher’s mourning of a world where popular modernism diverted us from this inevitability of the end of history and an end to class struggle, he very clearly sees the dream that was taken from us: “But we shouldn’t have to choose between, say, the internet and social security. One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster.” This, I would argue, is the appeal of Bernie Sanders, trapped in the amber of public television and public access videotape from the 1980s, to the American hauntologist.

One clearly sees the dialectical synthesis between Derrida’s political-ontological formulation of hauntology and Fisher’s cultural one in what’s become one of the most famous pieces of Bernie video from the 1980s: the grainy videotape account of Mayor Bernie and his fellow Burlingtonians in the Soviet Union in June of 1988. As Gorbachev’s perestroika began to break down the physical and cultural barriers between East and West, a concomitant collapse of the Soviet Union, thanks to generations of American sabotage, mass murder, and assassination, was occurring. Mayor Sanders’s trip was occurring as the Baltic republics, victims of Stalinist/Soviet oppression and annexation since World War II, were beginning to rebel against Moscow, kicking off the end of the Cold War and the USSR itself. Bernie and his traveling companions traveled to Russia to establish a sister city in Yaroslavl (it was also a de facto “honeymoon” for Mayor Sanders and his new wife Jane). The American contingent, in their final days in Yaroslavl, participated in a traditional series of Russian activities at a workers’ recreational facility attached to an oil refinery—hot and cold saunas, then dinner, toasts, and shared songs late into the night. Sanders noted that two of the women on his trip saw that both Americans and Soviets were dissatisfied with elements of their societies, and the conclusion the Americans came to was, “Let’s take the strengths of both systems. Let’s learn from each other.” In their “congenial” reception in Moscow and Yaroslavl, in Bernie and the Burlingtonians’ singing of American socialist folk songs at a traditional Russian toast, we see the possibility of yet another lost future, one of brotherhood between a possible post-Reagan America and a resurgent, revitalized, and most importantly no-longer-Stalinist Soviet Union, a lost future captured forever on videotape and viewable endlessly in our own nether-realm after the end of history itself. 1980s Mayor Bernie—and Woody Guthrie, and Vladimir Lenin—are the ghosts haunting the parapets of our Castle Elsinore.

In postulating Bernie Sanders as the possible first hauntological President, we need to examine his entire life story around media, television, and their political uses. From the very beginning of his political activism, as part of the civil rights movement in the early ’60s, there was an awareness of the visuals around protest and civil disobedience, a leveraging of the new global mass media to effect sea changes in public opinion. As Bernie’s participation in direct action around improving the rights of African-Americans demonstrates, the movement organized by fellow democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that, while the new mass medium of television was used primarily to rehabilitate the existing hegemonic order, it could also be used to appeal to the better angels of white Americans’ nature. In spectacular events like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Freedom Riders program, King and his hundreds of thousands of individual voices put forth a vision of an America unriven by racial strife—while simultaneously and dialectically forcing white America to vividly confront its own complicity in the centuries-old historical evil of white terrorism. Bernie’s 2020 campaign often uses an image of a young Sanders being dragged by cops at a protest in 1963 on the South Side of Chicago as a concrete portrayal of his more than half-century of activism and civil disobedience; it’s tremendously effective as a piece of media from a forgotten past many white Americans would prefer to forget. More ghosts, more haunting.

Bernie continued with organizing after graduating from the University of Chicago, but drifted from job to job, from Chicago to New York City and, eventually, like many members of the counterculture, out to the country of Vermont, unable to find a place or a job he felt comfortable with inside the dominant culture. His early 1970s political career with the Liberty Union Party prepared him for his eventual foray into politics in the ’80s, but his quixotic runs for governor and Senate left him jobless by 1977. It was at this time that sometime activist, carpenter, and third-party candidate Bernard Sanders decided it was time for him to be an educator.

In 1977, Sanders left his role as the Liberty Union Party’s perennial candidate and founded the Vermont-based American People’s Historical Society, a producer of filmstrips and educational media that focused on local Vermont and New England history. Its first releases are of a more traditional pedagogical and ideological bent for use in public schools: tales of the American Revolution and Vermont’s Presidents. But it was clear that Sanders sought to expand the horizons of students beyond these usual narrow educational avenues; filmstrips would soon include productions on New England women and the Amistad slave rebellion. The filmstrip itself is a powerful nostalgic symbol for those who attended American public schools between the 1960s and the 1980s. Offered to schools because of cheaper cost as compared to educational films on actual threaded film, they were an economical and practical medium that lacked the dynamism and excitement of actual film; one could easily consider them a socialist technological compromise. The tropes of the medium (warbly soundtrack, the trademark “beep” meant to remind the teacher or AV club member to advance the filmstrip) still live on, strongly, in the memories of late Boomers and Generation X-ers. But it was the APHS’s dramatic shift in 1979 to covering an explicitly socialist topic, the career of American labor organizer, socialist politician, political prisoner, and Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, that marked Sanders’s commitment to producing media that was an alternative to the predominant political and historical pedagogical discourse in American schools. In his announcement of the new line of video cassettes (which would of course soon supplant the filmstrip in schools) dedicated to “The Other Side of American History,” Sanders notes that the APHS wanted to present an educational account of “people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons.”

Sanders was long aware that conventional education (and media) had a hegemonic role to play in American society. Nowhere is this distaste for “profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material” clearer than in a Sanders opinion column from alternative publication The Vermont Vanguard Press in February 1979, titled “Social Control and the Tube.” Sanders wrote columns for left-wing publications throughout the 1970s, using the alternative media available at the time to spread unorthodox political ideas. In “Social Control and the Tube,” Sanders takes aim at broadcast television with fiery invective, calling the television’s role in American lives no better than “heroin” or “alcohol,” a numbing “escapist mechanism which allows people to ‘space out’ and avoid the pain and conflict of their lives—and the causes of those problems.” The monstrous chimera of television, which not only seeks to numb but also to assure corporate profits (through television advertising) and social control (through the limited range of acceptable political views seen on news and opinion programming) fulfills a centrally hegemonic role in America at the end of the 1970s, arguably the peak of broadcast television’s power before the coming of cable television. Television programs under capitalism can never be of good quality, Sanders asserts, because if they do increase in quality, the commercials will look ridiculous by comparison. What is Sanders’s solution for this monolith which hovers over the American body politic, turning viewers into consumerist morons and zombies? A release of the airwaves back into public hands from the grasping greed of the television networks and their corporate sponsors:

The potential of television, democratically owned and controlled by the people, is literally beyond comprehension because it is such a relatively new medium and we have no experience with it under democratic control. At the least, with the present state of technology, we could have a choice of dozens of channels of commercial-free TV.

At the moment serious writers are, by and large, not allowed to write for commercial television for fear they might produce something that is true and hence, upsetting to the owners of the media. Under democratic control people with all kinds of views could make their presentations, and serious artists would be encouraged to produce work for the tube.

Is this dream of a socially-conscious, democratically-controlled television in America merely the naive wish of a late-’70s socialist crank? Perhaps. Views like these about television have been pilloried and parodied again and again in pop culture (notably, on television) in the person of the character who is “too much of an intellectual to own a TV.” Still, Sanders respects the potential of the medium in the hands of the people. And one of the only existing venues in America at the end of the ’70s where a citizen could possibly participate in the medium as a citizen (apart from local TV stations) was through the Great Society experiment which, by the end of the 1970s, was beamed into millions of American homes and thousands of American nurseries and classrooms with a mission to educate, inform, and entertain the public in much the way Sanders details: the Public Broadcasting System.

(Above: audio version of Bernie Sanders’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs; courtesy Jacobin)

Other nations, like the United Kingdom, had long had governmental control of radio and television broadcasting. In America, a patchwork of disorganized local, nominally-public educational television stations had formed the PBS in 1970, changing the television landscape. Sanders sought the imprimatur of his local Vermont PBS affiliate, Vermont Educational Television (still known locally as ETV) in 1979 to broadcast his APHS video on Eugene Debs. ETV refused. Sanders subsequently gathered a citizen group to act as a watchdog for ETV’s programming, Concerned Citizens on ETV, to protest this refusal. Sanders was certain that ETV’s refusal was for the same political reasons he outlined in his APHS brochure and Vermont Vanguard Press piece; despite PBS affiliates’ nominal public funding, they were also by 1979 more and more dependent on private endowments and even corporate funding (Exxon, for example, was a longtime underwriter for a number of PBS series). The establishment of Concerned Citizens on ETV led to an eventual citizen council on programming at ETV; Sanders even appeared on ETV in 1980, before his election to the office of Mayor of Burlington, to introduce documentary segments on poor Vermonters living in the inner city, on Vermont’s Indian tribes, on working women, and the functionally illiterate. In his introduction, Sanders, sitting on an empty soundstage featuring an ETV video camera and a television monitor showing color bars, explicitly states—on ETV airwaves!—that the programming of ETV and PBS has not been serving the working class and poor population of Vermont up to this point: “We’re going to briefly discuss Vermont Educational Television—this station—and strongly suggest that Vermont ETV undergo a major transformation so that it begins to become relevant to the low-income and working people of this state who constitute the vast majority of our population but who presently watch ETV very rarely.” For a network in PBS whose high-toned programming included opera and stage plays, trying to make ETV into a true proletarian television station, democratically-controlled, was a fulfillment of Sanders’s beliefs as expressed in “Social Control and the Tube.”

After years of failure with the Liberty Union Party trying to achieve state-wide office, Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington in 1981, shocking the staid Vermont political (and national media) establishment and surprising many political commentators to the point of public embarrassment. While in office, Sanders didn’t leave behind the idea of using broadcasting to both communicate his ideas and empower the working class. With the 1980s, a new form of public broadcasting was becoming popular throughout many cities and towns in the United States: cable public access. In the embryonic days of cable television, FCC regulations stated that all cable television systems with 3,500 or more subscribers would be required to host programs of local interest: in broadcasting terminology, for “public, educational, or governmental use” (PEG). Throughout the 1970s, as local cable systems grew their infrastructure with cameras and sets to host programs and broadcasts of interest to locals in individual towns, governmental requirements waxed and waned as the nascent cable industry fought back against the FCC provisions. In 1984, a compromise legislation was achieved (with the help of Barry Goldwater of all people), not requiring PEG programming at local cable systems but assuring that local authorities could mandate it for their local cable franchises outside of the interference of the federal government. Mayor Sanders used his local Burlington cable TV station, Channel 15, as a platform for his overall political program: to give the people of Burlington a voice in front of their fellow citizens.

burlington channel 15 community television ident

“Bernie Speaks to the Community” began on December 3, 1986 with a half-hour introduction to and interview with Bernie Sanders, now mayor for over five years, and the issues facing Burlington at the time. For the next two years, Sanders would shift into the role of host and programmer, introducing Burlington cable viewers to a dizzying array of issues and individuals, from taxes to police funding, from local arts and cultural events to nuclear power, from women’s and Native American issues to education and children’s issues. The show often takes the form of a bog-standard public affairs show, but it really shines when Bernie introduces ordinary citizens, engages in a conversation with them, and lets them do the talking. Most observers were likely introduced to “Bernie Speaks” by this piece in Politico, which presents the program as a series of possible contemporary political liabilities for Bernie, focusing on issues of international socialist import which Sanders continued to pursue as Mayor, such as improving relations with the Soviet Union and protesting against the U.S.-backed Contra atrocities in Nicaragua. Over the brief history of “Bernie Speaks” we can see an evolution occur in Bernie’s political demeanor: from an activist whose blunt affect and approach to politics was frequently direct and uncompromising to a politician with a deft human touch and an ordinary everyday schlub-ness (Bernie is almost always seen in a sweater vest that can’t help but recall Fred Rogers’s studied casualness) that makes him an effective human face for the alien idea (to many Vermonters and Americans) of democratic socialism. In many ways, “Bernie Speaks” had accomplished the dream he outlined in his “Social Control” essay: it turned local television, in some small way, into a democratic and interactive medium from the instrument of control it was on the national level.

Probably the most well-known and well-trafficked memes from Bernie’s local cable access show involve his interaction with the social and built landscape of the 1980s that those of us who were alive then remember so well. The episode where Bernie decides to talk to ordinary citizens at the Burlington Square Mall is, to the eyes of the typical Generation X-er, positively haunting. The architecture of the mall can’t help but evoke memories of similar shopping centers all across America in viewers of a certain age. It’s also clear by looking at the quality of the video throughout the run of “Bernie Speaks” that the Channel 15 crew is using camcorders that are barely better than consumer-grade models available in the mid-1980s, adding yet another layer of nostalgic hauntology to the series. And in Bernie’s conversations with high school students, security guards, Vermonters disappointed in Jesse Jackson’s poor showing on Super Tuesday in 1988, and probably most famously, a pair of young goth-punks who treat Bernie with a combination of bemused respect and surprisingly astute political engagement (they tell Bernie “to heck with society… I don’t like the way society is run, it’s a cop-out, everybody’s plastic…”), we see a politician whose sincerity (and whose own life experience in choosing to opt out of what society had expected of him) echoes across multiple generations, to those on the political fringe or those traditionally excluded from the political process. In the 2020 campaign, Bernie’s strategy has centered the slogan “Not me, us” and has used interviews nearly identical to those in “Bernie Speaks,” with Sanders handing the microphone to town hall attendees to tell their stories of six-figure hospital bills, of economic and social injustice, of a society whose ability and desire to take care of its most vulnerable members has corroded to its very bones.

The mainstream media aligned with both major parties has viewed the media history of Bernie Sanders as a goldmine for hit pieces, a 50-plus year documentation of the biography of a worthless Communist layabout, someone clearly who was on the wrong side of America’s great late-20th century conflict, the Cold War. A closer look and understanding of Bernie Sanders’s history in print and on the airwaves, however, says something different. It offers a parallel history of the dominant American political and media narrative of the 20th century. Through citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders built a life in activism, a political career, and a broad-based left-wing political movement. Through those same citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders leaves behind an afterimage full of ghosts of a better and different world, one where control was wrested from the incomprehensible behemoths of mainstream media and politics that have steered our nation’s history since the end of World War II. The ghost of ’80s Bernie appears before us in analog, on the warmth and familiarity of cable access videotape, from a strange alternative past that paradoxically offers us a bolder, better future. Bernie’s words and image, from Burlington to Yaroslavl, may haunt us, but the movement he remained faithful to—during the most broadly reactionary period in American history—is alive again: “repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time.” As Mark Fisher said, hauntology offers us the spectre of a different world. Bernie at the mall, Bernie in the Soviet Union, Bernie on video on an empty set in a PBS affiliate: these are not merely flickering images of a dead timeline, forever inaccessible to us. We don’t have to settle for a hollow, repackaged and reconstituted kitsch nostalgia for socialism, for a “left melancholy,” for the end of history and a haunted political landscape bereft of alternatives. While Bernie’s ghost still wanders the food courts of the mall, he yet emerges, large and real as life, no longer on warbling videotape or going school-to-school in Vermont pitching crackly filmstrips to our childhood selves. He is an historical force, part of a movement dedicated to workers’ solidarity. He is on the ballot in a state near you in the coming weeks and months. He is the past inside the present.

This piece is dedicated to Mary Sweeney.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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No Such Thing as a Good Billionaire: Hunting the Rich on Screen

We Are the Mutants -

Audrey Fox / February 11, 2020

Ready or Not, 2019

The ever-widening division between social classes has always been popular fodder in film and television. It seems as though few films that address class disparity can escape at least some oblique commentary that casts the wealthy elite in a negative light. From the early days of cinema with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to Wall Street (1987) to the brutal satire American Psycho (2000), film has rarely let the rich off easy. But 2019 turned hating the rich into a blood sport, with Parasite and Hustlers both finding new ways to strike back at the one percent. The year saw a remarkable amount of media that didn’t just criticize the structures of inequality that allow the rich to remain in power, but specifically targeted beneficiaries of inherited wealth.

The ultra-rich are frequently depicted at best as self-absorbed, entitled children who can’t do a thing for themselves, and at worst as immoral sociopaths. This presentation is unique in that it seemingly transcends political background. We’ve seen plenty of films that denigrate the policies of one party or another as being detrimental to the well-being of the general populace, but, according to many 2019 films, politics are a secondary factor in this criticism of the wealthy. They instead posit that there is a certain amount of wealth that one can acquire, particularly if it is inherited, that precludes moral behavior. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a good billionaire. That this is a message we see repeated again and again over the course of 2019 suggests an evolution of political commentary in popular culture.

The depiction of dynastic wealth over the past few decades has allowed the ultra-wealthy to take on a certain aspirational quality. Dynasty, Dallas, The O.C., and Gossip Girl are all examples of shows that portrayed this sort of vast wealth as a much envied lifestyle, where existence was not only easier and more glamorous but vastly more interesting. Not so since the Great Recession, and especially not so since the election of Donald Trump, himself the product of his father’s wealth. Many of the films and television series we’ve seen this year are openly contemptuous of the sense of entitlement characters who inherit wealth have, painting them as oblivious farces of the upper class, worthy of little more than derision. In Ready or Not, the family members of a board game dynasty are so convinced that they alone deserve prosperity that they’re willing to brutally hunt down and murder anyone who threatens their supposed birthright. The reveal of this violent action as a mechanism for their very survival reflects how they view the possession of wealth: if they can’t maintain their high social status, they may as well be dead.

Succession, 2019

In the first two seasons of HBO’s Succession, the overarching question is who is going to take control of the massive media conglomerate Waystar Royco in the wake of its founder Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) declining health. Regardless of whoever may have the most experience or be the most temperamentally fit to run such an organization, the Roy children are the only ones who are seriously considered for the position. It’s a race for one of the most powerful jobs in the world run by only three potential contenders. And the behavior exhibited by each of the Roy kids (excluding Connor, played by Alan Ruck) shows how much they think they’ve genuinely earned the largely ceremonial positions they’ve been given within the organization. The same idea stands in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, the sillier version of Succession, where characters frequently declare “I’m a Gemstone” as the only justification as to why they should be allowed to do things or be given special privileges. We see an extension of this in Knives Out, where an entire family of freeloaders, all financially problematic in their own unique ways, cannot fathom their father’s fortune being given to anyone outside of the family. In their minds, they have earned this money, though by what means it’s hard to say.

These narratives fundamentally subvert the myth of the self-made man, which is especially prevalent in Knives Out. Each member of the Thrombey family could not have achieved success without significant financial help from their father, Harlan Thrombey (the actual self-made man, played by Christopher Plummer). Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a real estate mogul, but she never would have been able to start her company without her father’s initial funding. Walt (Michael Shannon) serves as CEO of his father’s publishing company, a position he was handed not through merit but because he was the oldest living son and first in line to the throne. And even then, despite his title, he’s not trusted with the power to license adaptations of his father’s work, which is where the real money is. Joni (Toni Collette) is a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle guru, entirely dependent on an allowance from her father-in-law, and Ransom (Chris Evans) has nothing to bank on in life except for an anticipated future inheritance.

Based on the comments they make about one another to detectives during the investigation of Harlan’s unusual death, they seem to know that every member of the family (except themselves, of course) owes all their success to dad. But they consider themselves to be inherently deserving of wealth not because of the things they have done, but because of their surname. If this is their logic, it only stands to reason that if there are certain people who are entitled to good fortune by their very blood, so too there must also be people who are inherently undeserving. After all, if they were able to make something of themselves (which they truly believe they have done), there must be something wrong with those who can’t. It’s galling to see people extol the virtues of a meritocracy when they owe all their success in life to an accident of birth, and it highlights both the hypocrisy of this type of upper-class thinking as well as the mental gymnastics required to perpetuate a certain social order as they perceive it.

Knives Out, 2019

We find the meritocracy myth in Succession as well. Where Kendall and Roman are certainly aware of the fact that they would not have their lofty positions within Waystar Royco if they weren’t part of the family, daughter Siobhan chose instead to work in politics, which allows her the luxury of believing she got her job on her own merits. She’s shrewd and calculating, so she may have done well on her own, but one would have to be naive to ignore the role of her father’s influence in her career progression, as well as the appeal it would have for a politician to have an “in” at one of the world’s largest news outlets.

All of this is interesting, but not necessarily unusual for films and television shows that are critical of the ultra-rich. What is novel about the media released in 2019 is that it doesn’t seem to care whether the wealthy people in question self-identify as liberal or conservative. In the eyes of these filmmakers, the upper class is apolitical, because it has no primary political conviction other than maintaining wealth. Knives Out takes aim at the more conservative Thrombeys with a particular relish (they all insist that Marta is like family, yet none of them can remember which country she comes from, and the way that Walt forces her into a dialogue about immigration is unreservedly cruel), but it also suggests that the liberal members of the family are just as bad. No matter how much they signal a sort of performative “wokeness,” when push comes to shove and money is on the line, their loyalty is to their class, not their political beliefs. Joni is the stereotypical upper-class white liberal who knows how to say all the things that sound progressive, and her daughter Meg attends a left-leaning liberal arts college. But the pull of their inherited wealth and attachment to their class is so strong that they willingly attempt to manipulate a lower-middle-class immigrant into giving up an inheritance that is by rights legally hers just because—they somehow deserve it more? Even without their inheritance, they will still be able to lead a lifestyle well beyond the reach of most Americans, but they believe that they deserve their father’s house, his money, and the right to profit from all of his literary works. We see a similar situation play out in Succession with Siobhan, who chooses to work on a Democratic senator’s presidential campaign and by all accounts supports left-leaning politicians. But despite her personal political inclinations, she reliably acts to protect Waystar Royco, and by extension her own financial interests.

This very specific argument against the wealthy—so repeatedly on screen in 2019, not to mention Parasite‘s unprecedented run at the 2020 Oscars—is a reflection of a growing awareness that casts the ultra-rich as the true cause of our massive class divide, suggesting that those wrapped in power and privilege have pitted the rest of us against each other so that we’re too busy fighting for our lives to realize we’re being manipulated. Of course, it’s ironic when you think about the fact that these hyper-critical narratives are being bankrolled by and make a massive profit for the studios, which are themselves owned and operated by the wealthy class of people these films denigrate. The same applies to the mostly wealthy actors who play the wealthy characters. The Righteous Gemstones and Succession have the added effect of highlighting the misdeeds of large media empires, which one could assume would be a particularly unpalatable commentary for HBO, itself part of a massive media empire. Does this high-powered, ubiquitous corporate infiltration dilute the potency of such narratives? Regardless, that they exist at all showcases a shift in thinking that redirects anger towards those who actually hold real power and, worst of all, those who have done nothing to earn it.

Audrey Fox is an ex-film student, which means that she prefers to spend her days in the dark, watching movies and pondering the director’s use of diegetic sound. She currently works as an entertainment writer, joyfully rambling about all things film and television related. Patreon Button

“The Power of Music”: General Electric Stereo Commercial, 1985

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / January 30, 2020 

Only in a decade as contradictory as the 1980s would one of America’s most respectable and historic companies spend nearly a million dollars on a commercial depicting new wave “adventurers” in a post-apocalyptic “third millennium” wasteland as part of a last ditch campaign to save its fatally outmatched consumer electronics line. The company was General Electric, and the commercial was aimed squarely, even obnoxiously, at the nascent MTV generation.

There were several different versions of the commercial, the longest a short film clocking in at two minutes. In all of them, our four Mad Max-garbed, shoulder-padded heroes come upon a city “imprisoned in silence,” whose princess is encased in a giant crystal (hilariously reminiscent of the alien cocoons in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap). Liking what he sees, the permed leader of the crew, his headphones curled suavely around his neck, signals for the boombox. A cassette is inserted, bad music rocks the cavern, and the people are freed from their “total audio block” helmets as the camera quick-cuts to various GE products (including a CD player in one version) no one ever bought. The crystal prison shatters, and hero and princess come together as the narrator intones: “The power of music. No one lets you experience it… like General Electric.”

The spot won a Clio award for best commercial in 1985 and was directed by Englishman Howard Guard, by this time well-known in the industry for his cinematic style. Guard had directed Roxy Music’s 1982 “Avalon” video (with then business partner Ridley Scott, who would soon set the benchmark in dystopian advertising), the 1983 “She’s In Parties” video starring goth legends Bauhaus, and a slew of commercials on both sides of the Atlantic, including a couple of impressive Maxell spots—one for blank cassettes, one for VHS tapes—featuring a smoldering Peter Murphy (Bauhaus’s frontman) and a host of ’80s aesthetic tropes: robots, ferns, lasers, prisms, neon, chrome, and… frogs?

The GE mini-epic sports obvious Cold War overtones, with the terse and swaggering warriors liberating the oppressed and repressed city with an arsenal of superior hair, superior tunes, and superior tech. The post-apocalyptic theme, which popped up in surprising corners of popular media throughout the decade, was even used in a print-advertised sweepstakes: grand prize was a 1986 Pontiac Fiero, and first prize was a trip for two to the ’86 MTV Music Video Awards. Alas, the good guys lost. GE’s consumer electronics division shuttered in 1986, soundly thrashed by another American Cold War nemesis: Japan and its bubble economy.

“A Closer Look”: HBO Feature Presentation Sequence, 1982

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 Exhibit / January 29, 2020 

Object Name: “A Closer Look: Inside HBO’s City”
Maker and Year: Film produced and directed by Scott Morris; HBO intro bumper by Liberty Studios
Object Type: Short promotional film
Video Source: YouTube (archivefilms)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The pay-cable network Home Box Office grew out of the milieu of closed-circuit television in New York City. Charles Dolan, a pioneer in direct cable television in the New York metropolitan area, had already built closed-circuit TV infrastructure underground for use in Teleguide, a network that brought tourist information into New York City hotel televisions in the 1960s. Dolan sought to expand his offerings into actual programming brought by cable into individual consumers’ homes. With the skyscrapers of New York often obscuring over-the-air television reception, there was a desire there (and in other metropolitan areas) for direct cable TV, but there was a problem: exactly what programming could be sent to those homes, considering the major networks’ stranglehold on content production? Dolan got Time, Life, Inc., a company that was itself expanding into television production and distribution at the time, to take a flyer on his cable idea, and pilot systems were set up in two Pennsylvania cities—Allentown and Wilkes-Barre—to broadcast an array of movies and sporting events (Wilkes-Barre being chosen because it was outside of the Philadelphia 76ers “blackout” zone). The new channel’s name, Home Box Office, was meant as a temporary internal placeholder but remained in place after the network’s launch in 1972.

In the next ten years, as cable TV providers multiplied across the country in a rebuke of the long-perceived reluctance of American consumers to pay for a utility and medium that they’d long taken for granted as “free,” HBO’s new network backbone, powered by satellite relay, became a premier offering to entice new cable customers into the fold. Crystal clear reception was one thing, but a channel that could offer a variety of unedited films, live sporting events from outside the local area (including boxing matches, formerly a closed-circuit television staple and still one of America’s top sports attractions in the 1970s), turned HBO into a household name. By the beginning of the 1980s, HBO was running its programming 24 hours a day (at a time when most if not all over-the-air television channels still played the national anthem and a test pattern at the conclusion of their broadcast day) and starting to branch out more and more into original programming.

A large part of HBO’s dominance in the 1980s was an increased awareness of and attention to its branding. As a cable TV innovator with nearly a decade in the business, HBO understood the need to differentiate itself from a panoply of new nationwide cable competitors such as The Movie Channel, Showtime, and Ted Turner’s new pair of superstations out of Atlanta (WTBS and CNN), as well as local pay-TV innovators like ONTV in Los Angeles, PRISM in Philadelphia, Preview in Boston, and Spectrum in Chicago and the Twin Cities. HBO’s longer history, increased name recognition, and larger capitalization allowed the company to spare no expense in self-promotion, as can be seen in this mindblowing short film from 1982 documenting the making of the classic “HBO Feature Presentation” intro bumper used between 1983-1987, which should be familiar to anyone who had access to an HBO subscriber box at the time.

Earlier HBO idents had been relatively simple affairs, the kind of simply animated and crudely soundtracked bumpers you might see on your local UHF station’s movie revue. But this bumper—known here as “HBO Theater,” although it would eventually be titled “HBO Feature Presentation” when broadcast in 1983—combined live actors, models, motion control cameras, animation, and a full orchestra soundtrack. The spot begins in a family’s living room in a big city, and after the camera banks and turns out of the matted-in living room scene, it swoops down an intricate model of a busy city street resembling the channel’s New York City birthplace, full of model cars, buses, and pedestrians (as well as a marquee for the titular “HBO Theater,” a miniature of an old-school Golden Age of Hollywood movie house). But soon we are out into the leafy suburbs and the countryside, reproducing HBO’s own spread into all 50 states over the first ten years of its existence. We then head into outer space, where a giant shiny chrome set of HBO letters—a “space station,” the documentary narrator says—–leads us into a “Star Gate” sequence created using a combination of practical visual effects and computer animation, representing HBO’s presence across the satellite web now covering the United States. The final portion of the bumper, the colorful streaks of light inside the “O” of HBO, is created using a rig of multi-colored fiber optic cables, a relatively new technology in 1982.

One can’t help but be charmed by the extreme effort taken to produce this bumper—not to mention the ego it took to produce a ten-minute short film about the production of a ninety-second bumper. “Six craftsmen worked for over three months to create nearly 100 unique buildings for HBO’s City,” the narrator brags as we see tiny pedestrians, miniature potted plants on fire escapes, and actual working traffic lights and headlights. The craftsmen and effects specialists at Liberty Studios betray their New York roots as they discuss the supposedly idyllic city main street in this ostensibly family-friendly special. (One interesting note: the live-action actors sitting down in front of HBO in the original version of the bumper consisted of a young urban professional couple; in later versions of the “HBO Feature Presentation” bumper, the family had two kids.) In a hilarious, thick, only-in-New-York accent, director of special effects James Kowalski informs the viewer, “We threw a few extras in, seeing if people would spot ’em… we put a few bums on the street, a few hookers on the corner.” The mini-documentary portrays the animated portions of the bumper, on the other hand, in a much less earthy way, accentuating the high-tech computer guidance of both the animation and the motion control cameras.

This deluxe bumper expresses perfectly a liminal period between the physical and practical special effects era and the coming era of visual effects developed and produced on a video synthesizer or computer. It also presages the coming of HBO’s original programming, which would begin in the same year as this bumper’s debut (1983) with the TV movie The Terry Fox Story and the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock.

Radiant Future: The Neon Tunnel at 127 John Street, New York

We Are the Mutants -

 Exhibit / January 28, 2020 

Object Name:  127 John Street neon tunnel
Maker and Year: Rudolph de Harak, Howard Brandston, 1971
Object Type: Corrugated iron tunnel
Image Source: Flaming Pablum, et al
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A rendering of the future in the form of a short stretch of corrugated steel, this neon tunnel that once greeted visitors to the foyer of 127 John Street in New York City feels innately familiar, even archetypal. Despite its appearance, the tunnel did not actually lead directly to a disconcertingly utopian future, but only to the elevators that ferried the building’s blue-collar workers up to their workplaces. Completed in 1971, 127 John Street was originally designed as a classic slab of second-wave International Style corporate office space by architecture practice Emery Roth & Sons. The building’s developers—brothers Melvyn and Robert Kaufman—were well-known for quirky decoration and the practice of turning ground level space into “plazas” that was not born simply out of generosity: forward-looking local construction ordinances offered floor space bonuses for their inclusion, encouraging developers to channel their greed into an engagement with public space. The Kaufmans employed graphic designer Rudolph de Harak to provide whimsical visual touches, which included a huge three-story digital clock and canvas covered scaffolds on the street outside to enliven the building’s otherwise bland frontage and foyer. 

Most of De Harak’s other contributions to the building’s appearance, however, feel as affected and dated as old greeting cards in comparison with the tunnel’s sleek glow. Accessible from the building’s entrance on Fulton Street, the corridor was illuminated by blue argon-gas-filled tubes, the work of architectural lighting expert Howard Brandston, with whom Harak had previously collaborated on the futurist Canadian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the American Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. As well as providing a generation of New Yorkers with formative experiences, the tunnel’s ready-made shorthand for futurism provided an eye-catching backdrop for photography, and was especially popular with musicians for promo shots, NY band The System actually filming part of their monster “You Are in My System” inside it and the building’s lobby.

Why should a 250-foot stretch of corrugated steel sewer culvert decorated with neon piping constitute such a commanding and beguiling image of “the future”? Perhaps partly because of the optimism implicit in the the nature of tunnels themselves: like jet bridges and subway tunnels, they evoke passage, acceleration, the traversing of barriers, and perhaps even escape and transformation. Its cool visual temperature and paring down of space and perspective provided a sensation of propulsion that recalled TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), hinting that the gateway would catapult those traversing it to some other place—perhaps one less venal and prosaic. The tunnel’s streamlined forms and its lack of sharp right angles also gave it a strange sense of weightlessness—of being unmoored from the everyday—and the neon punctuation seems almost to draw the onlooker inside, similar to the contemporary installations of artists like Doug Wheeler and James Turrell of the Light and Space arts movement. Vector graphics—the computer-generated geometric lines used to create “wireframe” images—had been around since the mid ’60s, and the glowing geometric lines seen on the Orion III shuttle’s control panel in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may be one source of the tunnel’s inspiration, as perhaps was that same film’s “Star Gate” sequence—which itself took up motifs developed by artists and animators like John Whitney and Jordan Belson. The tunnel also reflected the hunger for experimental environments pioneered by architectural practices like Archigram and Archizoom that produced the same year’s Instant City.

The tunnel was eventually dismantled in 1997, when the office building was in the process of being converted to apartments as part of the wave of gentrification then investing the city. Several of the artists—including Howard Brandston—-involved in creating 127 John Street’s installations successfully sued the new developers under the Visual Artists’ Rights Act; unfortunately, the elements of the decor preserved by the settlement did not include the tunnel. The images that remain of it, though, show a powerfully ethereal, dreamlike space that is one more small reminder of how much more stimulating our built environment could be if only we were in a position to demand it.

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