Proposal Submitted to the Berwick Research Institute's Bumpkin Island Art Encampment in 2010
I Recently attended an Art, Culture, and Technology affiliated lecture at MIT given by John Bell and featuring a performance by Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theatre. Bell, creator of Honk! fest and puppet theorist, shared interesting thoughts regarding object performance and public space as a venue for cultural spectacle. Schumann communicated, with absurdist visual and verbal language, ideas about "policelessness" and the "unreasonable side of puppetry" which exercises activism and protest, radically confronting societal and political corruption. He also spoke about his involvement with New York's art scene in the 1960's when puppeteers, performance and street artists co-inhabited an urban environment, parallel to, but separate from institutional networks.
A native of Nashville, TN, capitol of the country music industry as it presents both an historical legend and contemporary fabrication, I've always been interested in cultural spectacle in America. Growing up I frequented such bizarre hangouts as Centennial Park's full-scale replica of the Parthenon, originally built for the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897; and Opryland USA, a theme park constructed in connection to the classic Grand Ole Opry radio show, which has since been destroyed and replaced with an Opry Mills mega-mall. Exposed to such juxtapositions of "high" and low-brow art, I became curious about how these elements affected my own cultural perception and artistic identity. I've noticed that as ideas and information are translated into modern-day imagery, historical narrative evolves and contorts through reenactment and replication. As an artist I'm interested in this process of research and construction of my own spectacle.
When I moved to New England from TN for college, I became infatuated with a seemingly exotic set of historical variables, distinct in their dealings with colonialism and the formation of America. Considering this period of patriotism and protest of settlers fighting to gain their independence, it is interesting that Bell points out the general lack of attendance at American public events and causes today, from political parades to recreational festivals. Listing Mardi Gras and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as two of our culture's leading events, I am most interested in the latter for its relevance to a collective capitalist enthusiasm but also particular artistic vision. I have come to admire Tony Sarg, illustrator, puppeteer, designer and grandfather of this annual holiday event, for his inflatable sculpture, but am particularly inspired by an inflatable project that had literally no strings attached. As the event is described by the Nantucket Historical Association:
In the summer of 1937, Tony Sarg and several others promoted a hoax in Nantucket. Sightings of a sea serpent were advertised... footprints were found... stories published... Then, the serpent appeared on South Beach (now Washington Extension - not where it was intended to land!): One of Sarg's inflatables! All of Nantucket must have visited. There are photos of this "sea-serpent" from many scrapbooks of the era. He owned a store there, the Tony Sarg’s Curiosity Shop.
This spectacle relies on a folkloric fascination that may not reference any particular utilitarian idea or cause, but thorough documentation of such a scene became its own marvel and marker of a point in American history. Attempting to work within this realm of cryptozoology, supporting dragons and mermaids, I'd like to re-create Sarg's oversized sea creature under the context and myth of East Hampton's Montauk Monster.
This unidentifiable beast washed upon the shore of a popular vacation spot near Montauk, NY on July 23, 2008, and quickly became national news that had reporters and spectators asking in disgust, "WHAT is it?!" No one ever officially concluded whether the grey/pink fleshy blob was a sea turtle, dog, sheep, raccoon, or eagle, but when the body simply disappeared before scientists could/would do an appropriate autopsy, many hypothesized that is had been an experiment from the nearby government animal testing facility, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Though I was a big fan and follower of this story, myself, upon returning to recent research, I realized there have been 3 more similar beasts found since! The others did not make mainstream news and were instead reported by loyal bloggers who took the case into their own hands.
I believe that these beasts and relevant behavior on the part of citizens and press exemplify the perfect incarnation of a contemporary sea monster. The process and residue of documentation are also the only trace of the event, though they extend to video in terms of media and the internet as a public forum. In recreating this mutated beast as an inflatable ghost of sorts, I hope to reference the aforementioned mutation of historical phenomena, how accelerated forms of storytelling quickly mutate information, and how this event literally and figuratively represents this "what-is-it-ness" of our chaotic, capitalist, American, society, pop culture, and government today. I'm interested in situating this reenactment on Bumpkin Island because the mysterious connotation of island folklore pairs appropriately with the factual environmental abuse imposed on surrounding islands such as Moon and Spectacle, leaving behind old sewage tanks and landfills. The ambiguity of both public and private communication and performance as it relates to Island venues or the Art world is also noted.
There will be a spectacle on Bumpkin Island for the public to come and see.