"Bee Dance," March 13th, 2015, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn. running time: 00:38:44.
Matt Freedman: I guess I should just explain that these chairs are Tim's design. There's a separate jig for every part of this stool. It's an exquisite work of craftsmanship. Everything that seems random is actually very intentional. I could never have done it myself. If it had been me, I think it would've just been the bucket upside down. I don't know why it isn’t, actually.
Now that I think of it, one of the beginnings of animated film occurred with exactly this setup. Does somebody have an actual beer? I can demonstrate. A man named Stuart Blackton--we'll talk about him in a much later performance--created a character who saw a drawing of a beer and then the performer, the lightening sketch artist, took the beer, drank it, and then he became sort of upset and then he pours the beer into the face of the man he has drawn on this pad who then becomes inebriated. And this was actually the beginning of animated film. Blackton started Vitagraph Studios, which at one point was the biggest grossing film, a company in the world. And they were based in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Hey Whiskey! (Ballou’s dog must have walked in front of us)
As you can tell, I’m having a little trouble with figuring out where to begin this talk. We've been planning this for a long time and every time we thought we had a true point of origin, things kind of spread into a dozen different possibilities and this kept backing things up further and further. Trying to figure out how to assemble this into a coherent narrative turned out to be impossible. But you see the model is cell division. I think of the most fundamental things I can every day, but every day that I thought about the show the stories went further and further back until I ran out of time.
The last notion I had about how to begin these stories that interweave and overlap was with the old cabinet of curiosities collections that flourished at the dawn of the Age of Discovery.
At least that's what the Europeans called it when they went off to collect everything in the world. You would have things like narwhals tusks and fake mermaids, hanging side by side in display rooms. This is the Fiji mermaid that’s on display at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. It was originally owned by P.T. Barnum of course. It supposedly came from polynesia. It's not the kind of mermaid that we think of now. It was basically a monkey welded to a fish. But the difference between a fake mermaid and a real narwhal was not significant. The basic idea was that both were designed to boggle your mind. And being boggled was basically the point of the displays. It was only later that museums began to distinguish between what was real and what wasn't real.
So what we're left with now is a kind of a hodgepodge. If you read the New York Times or listen to your friends exchanging spiritual ideas you get a sense of how we try to touch the infinite by contemplating things that are beyond our conscious or rational understanding. I get my half-baked ideas in the newspaper. There was a Stone thought piece about the counter intuitive nature of subatomic particle behavior. An experiment that has been done for almost a hundred years now shoots subatomic particles at a screen that has two slits in it. You would expect that if the particles are behaving like proper particles, they will cluster into parallel lines that mimic the slots that they're going through , but instead of acting like particles they act like waves and they create a kind of an even distribution. Except, if you tag each of the particles as they go into the screen then they suddenly behave like particles. It’s as though they hear you saying they are waves so they behave like particles. But then if you take the take the little tag off as soon as they go through the slots they go back to acting like waves. They are, like, trying to anticipate what we're doing. So we're not sure if the joke's on us or if the joke's on them.
This is Bishop Berkeley. He said 300 years ago that to be is to be perceived. What we think we see is perhaps controlling what we're seeing, even what is actually there. And I think that the same thing goes with stories. Just to throw this in for Joe and Chris's edification, the same is true, I guess, of that stupid cat. Schrodinger's Cat, which you know is either alive or dead or alive depending on the unpredictable nature of the decaying particles in the box with it. This idea has given rise to many bad T-shirt slogans over the years.
Let me check here. Oh yeah. I think this problem of trying to tell a story that may or may not have consequences is not just a human desire. No. We’ve always looked to the animal kingdom for verification of our idiosyncrasies. I am particularly taken by the story of the bees; how the bees communicate with each other the location of a flower. There's this; the Famous Bee Dance. So here we are in the hive. Here's the sun. Let's say there's a flower over here. The bee does this waggle dance and wiggles around and around. It was originally thought that this was some complicated piece of geometric visualization, that you take a right angle from the sun and then the level of declension from the sun creates an angle that tells the other bees how they can fly to the flower, no matter where they are. The idea is that any bee anywhere and if it saw the bee dance it would know where the flowers would be. But actually it's much simpler. It seems to make sense that it's just dead reckoning. The bee dances towards the fucking flower and the other bees fly out in the direction indicated by the dance and run into the flower eventually. We try to make things more complicated than they have to be.
But also; suppose the bee does not need to go back and only performs its careful figure eight for the pleasure of it. Maybe the bee is actually a more complex thinker than we are. I just read about their dances after all and the theories about why and how they do them. But the bees actually dance and find the flowers.
More interesting than these kinds of encounters are the chance encounters where other kinds of stories emerge. Wednesday I think was the first day that it warmed up and I was walking our dogs Fleurry and Jeffrey. The snow was just beginning to melt and there was a man shoveling a pile of snow in front of his car even though there was no real purpose for doing it he had plenty of room to get out already. And so I stopped and said the kind of inane thing you say at times like this, “the snow is never going away, is it?”, and he said, “No.” And then he bends down and he points. There's a small dent on his right front fender and he said, “The snow did that to the car.” I said, “The cars are all plastic.” And he said, “Yeah.” And we sort of bonded over that. And then we went away right after that.
I know exactly what he was doing. He was trying to mitigate the damage to his car, which clearly bothered him, by telling the story of the damage of the car to somebody else, somehow thereby defraying the cost. I've done the same kind of thing. Two days or one days ago-Thursday-I was walking the dogs again and I passed a man on our street who was loading junk into his van from the empty lot by our house. And I said, “Hello.” And he said, “Life is hard.” And I said, ”Yeah,” I don't know. It was seven in the morning. I have two dogs and this garbage collecting guy says, “Life is hard.” And I agree. I felt like he was trying to share something perhaps more metaphysical than the dent man, but in the end, the point was similar; to offload this idea and share some sense of the concrete and ineffable human experience, which I appreciated.
I'm going to make a lot of drawings. I hope we have enough paper.All right. It used to be a little bit easier to have some faith that we could comprehend the kinds of cosmic problems that both the car men were dealing with. In the last 24 hours, incidentally, nothing interesting happened on the dog walks. So two out three isn't too bad.
There was a man named Anselm who was the Archbishop of Canterbury and later a saint and now steakhouse on Havemeyer. He's mostly famous now, thanks to Hegel I think, for his ontological proof of God, which is this: Can we not all agree that we can conceive of a power of which there is no greater thing as a proposition/ He said, yes, anybody can agree to that as an idea. And he says, Aha!. Since you have thought of that idea, then that power--which is of course God--must exist otherwise the thought would be invalid. But, if the thought is invalid, how could we have agreed to it?. But we've just agreed that it's a thought. And if it’s a wrong thought, and his particular ultimate power exists only in my mind, then another, greater power by definition exists both in mind and reality. So he was very pleased, and earned the sainthood and the steak house.
But immediately there were some refutations of this proof. The most interesting one came from another priest who probably had more of a sense of humor than St Anselm. He said, “All right, I can conceive of an island of which there is no greater island, so let's go find that island.” And of course you can't. So therefore there is no God. I don't know what happened to that priest. The point is I suppose that the very fact that Anselm thought that a proof of God could rest on whether he could conceive of God or death or anything of that order by relying on an unsophisticated faith in the significance of reasoning itself and was a sort of beginners’ mistake in his logical reasoning, but as I say, it was sufficient for the time when everybody agreed there was a God.
Now things are more complicated. I was--this was when I was a college undergraduate studying anthropology--I was much more comfortable, as most of us are, with this notion of this God, whoever they may be, being a kind of remote figure. But it was very interesting to read about a tribe that now I'm sure is extinct, who based their cosmology on a tree that was the origin of the world. Not an abstraction of a tree or the mythical Judeo-Christian tree in the Garden of Eden. This tree that gave birth to everything was right there in their world. There was nothing that was different about this tree than more ordinary trees except its history, and that it was actually was in the middle of the courtyard of the villagers whose religion was based on its existence. So they actually lived with the thing responsible for the Origin of the Universe. Sort of a variation on Mormonism.
I think the thing that bothered me about that, I mean, the thing that amazed me is that you could have a serious, coherent theological system that involved a living mortal thing. And I don't know quite what would happen to these people after the tree went away. Would they have to rethink everything they believed in? Perhaps they were conveniently wiped out by everybody who followed the anthropologists into the village in the first place, so they never had to find out the consequences of their cosmology. But I do admire the way that these tree people, like Anselm and others and also contemporary fundamentalists can make sense of the world in a way that I cannot, and Tim cannot. Maybe Tim can, Tim's a clever guy. This in particular is interesting to me and it goes to show the basic conflict between the man with a dent and the man who observed that life was hard; which is that it's a lot harder for most of us to think abstractly than concretely.
Which is why it's so comforting to realize that the world is 6,014 years old and that you can actually prove this if you work backwards using a very helpful website that shows you how you can reconstruct the age of the world by backdating. Okay. You begin with Adam and it very clearly says that Adam Begat Seth. Forget Cain and Abel. Seth was important because he was the one who began having children when he was like 106. Then Seth begat Enos when he was like 108 . These guys all live to be a thousand years old and they all had their children when they were about a hundred and so there was like 10 generations of these guys, one after another after another.
You get to Methuselah, and then you get to Noah, Noah, who was 600 years old at the time of the flood and then 601 years old 40 days later when he was on the mountain. And then you get after this era the Patriarch. Then you have the Age of the Kings and then the Age of Exile, the Days of Slavery and pretty soon you are in recorded history. You can see that there are basically 6,000 years laid end to end in the bible and there you have the history of the world. And that's why one of those medieval guys, one of Anslem's buddies, could actually date the origin of the world as like Thursday afternoon, March 23rd, 4,014 BC.
We can do that too--make the universe shrink to the space just around us--in a much more prosaic way, if you think of this country as a universe. We like to think of our history as a coherent entity, but actually, while we've been around for about 240 years or so, and it seems that most of that history is lost in the mists of time and myth. So this is one of those little facts that always caused me to rethink my relationship to the country-as-universe and maybe it will do the same to you. There was a man named Tyler who was born in 1790, which is early in the administration of George Washington, the first President of United States. John Tyler was a member of the South Carolina gentry and he eventually became the first “accidental” president of the United States. He was the vice-presidential candidate with William Henry Harrison, one in the long line of unqualified generals who became President of United States because they had won sometimes small wars against foreign countries and were famous Americans. Harrison was famous for winning the Battle of Tippecanoe, which is a river in Indiana I think. The campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” is one of the first memorable political slogans.
Unfortunately for Harrison, he was 68 at the time of his inauguration and to prove his virility he stood out in the rain for an hour giving a speech and died of the flu a month later, elevating Tyler to the presidency that he was entirely unfit to occupy. He spent four years trying to protect the interests of the south, his South Carolinian heritage coming into play, before running unsuccessfully for reelection and retiring to his home in South Carolina that he named Sherwood Forest because he'd been exiled from the Whig party and he considered himself an outlaw. Besides his undistinguished political career, which then we'll get to a little bit later with a final few unflattering details, he had a rare ability to procreate. He had eight children by his first wife, who dropped dead of exhaustion in about 1842, and then he had another wife and seven more kids stretching on into last years of his life.
One of his, not his youngest, but one of his younger children, was born in about 1860 and went on to have his own sort of distinguished career as a academic. He was a president of William and Mary College, which he rescued from financial bankruptcy or something like that. The son had children after he was 60, a couple of sons. There actually exist two men alive today, one of whom is living in Sherwood Forest and giving tours, who are the grandsons of a man who was born in 1790 and was president of the United States 25 years before Lincoln was killed.
The history of our country laid end to end to be, it can be measured by a span of the three generations of a reactionary political family from the south. I say, how fine. Quite moving.
I clearly am alone in that feeling. This is the danger of sweating.
Uh, what the hell was I going to say? I have backup.
It turns out what I forgot wasn't important, which is why I forgot it, but I'm going to say it anyway because now I’ve looked at my notes and I hate to waste my research. Um, well, I was actually going to say that John Tyler at the end of his life became a senator for the Confederate States of America from South Carolina. So he's the only ex-president as far as we know, who ever held a seat in a foreign government, although he--luckily for him--dropped dead before the actual beginning of the war, which spared him some indignity.
But keeping to the theme of how some lives can jump far from the distant past into the future and reshape our feeling about an event in ways that we would have had a hard time imagining before, there were people who fought in the Civil War who were alive during the lifetimes of many of the ancient people in this room. That is to say, there were a number of veterans of the Civil War who lived into the 1950s, even into late 1950s. Though maybe they just claimed that they were veterans, but who cares? They could have been veterans technically speaking.
I think the last one, the last Civil War vet who died in the 1950s, had actually shaken hands with Lincoln in the White House, which is kind of an interesting idea.
Or at least he claimed he did, which is almost as interesting as if he did. Or did not.
If we go back about 20 or 30 years before these last men who had to be a hundred or more to be alive at the end, things open up. In the 1930s there were a number of veterans of the Civil War living in nursing homes. And at least in the state of Arkansas they were considered extremely desirable marriage material because they all had what was considered generous support from the state of Arkansas for their wonderful defense of the Confederacy. And so lots of young women were marrying these guys with the assumption that the old men would die before them and that they would have this annuity to live on for some time. This became such a problem that the state of Arkansas actually passed a law sometime around 1930, saying that no woman born after 1870 could receive a pension, as a widow of a dead confederate soldier.
So I mean it's kind of icky to think of what they were thinking about. If you were a woman of 60 or above, it was okay to marry an old man, but the more nubile you were, the more the law didn't want you two to comingle your flesh. Or maybe they were just doing their due diligence and they realized they were on the hook for a long time for some of these people. In fact, the last confederate widow died about ten years ago. She got married when she was 19 to some guy in his eighties and he died on, you know, on schedule. And she hung around. They lived off his $25 every two month pension for a long time after that, until he died. So I don't know what's more amazing to think about a man living in 1959 who had heard the cannons at Gettysburg and shook Lincoln's hand, or a woman who lay in amorous embrace brace with a man who fired those cannons dying in 2004.
And this is what I forgot. Now, you know, this idea of forgetting is actually at the core of what we're talking about tonight. And there was a theory that is completely insane that some of you may find interesting and even familiar, which is that we don't remember anything; that everything is about forgetting. And I think Chris remembers that memory is actually a human construction based on sterile nuggets of events that we can't reconstruct, a fiction we create in order to shield ourselves from the unbearable knowledge of the inexorable passage of time and the loss of all of all that we hold dear. This is how the system works.
There was a man named Geoffrey Sonnabend, who may or may not have existed, who came up with this idea in an overnight binge of creativity. His notion was that there were these two geometric forces which he saw as organic, as individual and eccentric to the individual as a lung or a pancreas would be. Sonnabend thought that we all have this Cone of Forgetfulness or Ablation as he called it, that has a central axis called the Spelean Axis, which is not named after him, but I don't know what it's named after. It's sort of basically our point of view. What we find here is the Atmonic Disc and then every point where this plane, which I'll explain in a second, intersects with this Cone of Forgetfulness, is called the Spelean Disc. And then the interior of the cone is called the ‘Hollows”. Okay, so this is the Plane of Experience. This is the obverse side of the plane. This is the perverse side of the plane. As we live through events, at the moment of the experience we're down here. You're in the moment. But as time passes and this shifts from the obverse to the perverse side, you can see the circle of experience gets smaller and smaller until it disappears. And this is the decay of experience that we think of as memory, but it's actually the act of forgetting. And then once the experience is over it is immediately forgotten, but we engage in an effort to make it live again. We reconstruct the memory by adding details the way you would colorize a black and white picture, because memory is not really anything real, but a complete construction in our minds. If this seems like crazy bullshit too, it's because it is, but it's such a beautiful drawing.
I thought you would like to know that---to return to the Civil War---actually, the embodiment of the Civil War stretches our present back to the 1930s. Just about the time that those aging confederate soldiers were marrying the young women of Arkansas, Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, which was basically a not so veiled defense of the old south, but also an immensely popular potboiler. And then it was time to make it into a movie--we will get into some of these details, not to be a tease about this---but we have eight more, seven more shows to do and I don't want to do all the work tonight.
An actor named Ann Rutherford played the role of one of the O’Hara sisters in the movie. As part of her promotion of the movie she ran around the south visiting old soldiers’ homes and posing with the ancient veterans and receiving all these beautiful corsages with the battle flag of the Confederacy pinned on. And this was considered sort of a very quaint and attractive form of movie promotion. I mentioned Ann Rutherford for a couple of reasons. She had the part of a sister, I think it was Carreen O'Hara. The part of Carreen O’Hara was supposed to go to another young actress who had actually been up for the role of Scarlett herself. If this woman had gotten a role, I would like to think that none of us would be in this room because if that woman had been cast as Scarlett O'Hara and become, in effect, Vivien Leigh, her whole family would've been swept into the vortex of her consequentially melodramatic life. And the reason we wouldn't be here is that that woman's name was Margaret Tallichet, who was my wife Jude Tallichet’s father’s first cousin.
Let me try that again.
Jude Tallichet, who is my wife, is a first cousin once removed to Margaret Tallichet. So the fact is that her cousin was a minor movie star. And we'll go into the details of her minor movie star movies latert, something that attracts me and interest me far more than it interests Jude. When I think of the possibility that you would be like some Kardashian-in-law if your cousin had only gotten this stupid role and that I would not be here because you would not be here, probably you wouldn't be here. At least this part of the story wouldn't be here. I find this incredibly significant for no reason whatsoever. But don't get us into the problem of the movies in general and how they work to redefine the unstable relationship between the present and the past and whether the movies could possibly be anything more than simply a passing record of a time.
To me, that image of Margaret Tallichet in black and white in these various movies is like a living ghost of some kind of the person that I know—of Jude herself. And I find that very moving. Maybe that's not right, but there is a book written in 1940 by Adolfo Bloy Casares, called The Invention of Morel where this idea takes root in a kind of much more concrete form. Casares was an Argentinian, a friend of Jorge Borges. In fact, Borges’ sister Nora drew the book’s cover for this book, who’s story has some parallels to The Island of Doctor Moreau. It's about a man, an unnamed fugitive who sets sail after being given the directions to this island somewhere in Polynesia, which is actually where the fake mermaid, the Fiji Mermaid came from, if you're trying to put this all together.
He arrives on this island with rocks on one side and a series of buildings on the other. He explores this island because he seems to want to stay. He's trying to get away from the world for some unknown reason and he's been told that nobody goes to this island because it's radioactivity and everybody's scared of it. But the second day he suddenly sees a bunch of tourists have shown up and they're having a wild party and he watches them. He watches them for several days and he begins to fall in love with a woman named Faustine who, according to all the literature on this book, was modeled after Louise Brooks, the movie star who had recently retired and broken the heart of the writer. Casares felt that she should go on making movies forever, but Louise was sick of the movie business.
In any case, the fugitive follows Faustine around the island. He sees that there's a man named Morel who seems to have some expectations, some affection for Faustine. He becomes very jealous because he has fallen in love with Faustine himself and eventually actually he approaches her, but she ignores him. In fact, everyone on the island ignores him. Then he notices that the people on the island are doing the same thing over and over again and that they're acting inappropriately. If it's warm there for example, the people seem to act as if it is cold. He begins to think he's losing his mind until he discovers the secret. The people go away for awhile. And then they come back. Sometimes there are two suns in the sky and two moons in the sky. Then he sees that dead fish and then living fish are alternating in the aquarium. It turns out that Morel is a mad genius and has created a machine that recreates reality. We're never quite sure if the machine, Morel’s invention, is analogous to a film making machine or just one of those early science fiction inventions where the writer don't go into any details, and just gets straight to the chase.
This machine is capable of recording every sensation, every vibration that the human beings it records give off. And in essence, since the soul is in the details, Morel has created a machine that creates a way for these people to live this one perfect week over and over and over again. Morel doesn't tell them this when he invites them there. And when he does, when they find out what's going on, they're not very happy because they realize they're all about to die of this strange radioactivity that comes from being exposed to the machine, but it's too late. Morel is kind of upset that they're not grateful that they've been given immortality because he's built his machine to operate on turbines driven by the tides coming in and out. So it's very green. And they can keep living this week over and over again for eternity. The fugitive eventually begins to accept his fate and he inserts himself into the movie in such a way that he can appear to fall in love with Faustine and she can appear to fall in love with him. But of course she can't see him. And he leaves a letter to unknown future readers saying, ‘if you could ever invent a machine that would allow Faustine to see me and love me, then I would be eternally grateful’ So there's that possibility.
On an open source site for neurological studies I came across a paper that was inspired specifically by the Invention of Morel. The idea is, according to the writer, that modern advances in virtual reality and brain mapping technology should make it possible for us to replicate the experience of the island, using the science of the invention of Morel. It is not incommensurate with the the ideas that inspire this writer that we could actually create a way to reembody experience endlessly if we just had enough data.
His idea is that we need the sort of third party observer and a first party experiencer to recreate any event, which is what Bishop Berkeley was saying 300 years ago. To be real is to be perceived, which is what the stupid wave/particles are doing and Schrodinger’s stupid cat is/was doing.
I guess the writer doesn't know quite how to do this, but he says the best model is dreams. In dreams we are experiencing reality as though it's real, even though it's not real. If somehow we can connect ourselves to the activity in our brains when we dream, then perhaps we could live forever.
So that's it for tonight.