Looking Up At The MJT

7 February, 2011

Last month, I participated in two sessions at the 2011 Modern Languages Association conference in Los Angeles. I was recruited by acquaintances associated with the MLA because of my relationship with David Wilson at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Given the conference's presence in LA, the MLA wanted to have David give a talk, but were having trouble getting ahold of him.

After some back and forth, we agreed that Craig Svonkin from the Metropolitan State College of Denver (the organizer of PAMLA at which I presented in 2009 on Project Cybersyn) and I would interview David on stage and that I would participate in a panel discussion afterwards with four other scholars.

David is a terrific speaker, but he's usually quite cagey on the topic of the Museum itself and the motivations behind it, at least in public, preferring to discuss the content of individual exhibits — early 20th century Russian spaceship designers or micro-miniature sculptors. The idea of the interview format was to draw him out on that subject while making the experience less painfully confessional for him.

After much correspondence and an extensive trip to the Museum to talk with David in the days before the conference, Craig and I came up with a set of eight questions. We also left time for David to give a brief slide-based tour of the Museum, to add follow-ups on the fly, and to let the audience get in a few of their own. Unfortunately, the session wasn't recorded, but I'm hoping to gather some notes taken by a few audience members and I'll post those here when I get them. In the meantime, here were the questions Craig and I composed in advance:

1. CRAIG: Can you tell us a bit about your childhood experience of museums? Were there museums that you visited frequently or of which you have particularly strong memories? Why those?

2. GREG: For many lovers of the MJT, the qualities of light and sound within the museum are important to its aesthetic and emotional impact. You studied film at Cal Arts and worked in special effects and animation and much of your focus now is on making films. How does making the museum exhibits relate to filmmaking?

3. CRAIG. Can you describe how a single exhibit, such as Tell It To The Bees or Kircher, came about, from its inception to its completion?

4. GREG: It seems to me that the MJT has really transformed in the last ten years or so, perhaps focusing more of its exhibits around extraordinary people. Do you agree that the MJT has changed, and if so, how do you see this change?

5. CRAIG: Entering the MJT often feels like departing from the quotidian world outside, but much of the museum's aesthetic seems to reflect the wider cultural values of Los Angeles. How has the museum's immediate surroundings and neighborhood shaped it over time?

6. GREG: Having worked briefly at the museum, I know that there's very much a family or community of people behind the scenes helping shape and execute your ideas. The museum is, in many ways, your home. Will you talk about how this domestic and social environment has shaped what the public sees at the museum?

7. CRAIG: Are there any ideas for exhibits that just didn't pan out?

8. GREG: Mortality and decay seem to be repeating themes at the MJT. To broach an uncomfortable subject, have you thought about how the MJT might continue after you're gone?

The session went really well. I think David felt comfortable talking directly to Craig and me and was able to, somewhat, forget the presence of the larger audience. Lots of people came up afterwards to say that it was a much more detailed and intimate look at the Museum than what they'd seen elsewhere.

After the conversation session was over, the panel began. Organized by Andrew Howe, the panel also included Kristen Koster, Jem Axelrod, Jeanne Scheper, and M. Catherine Coleman. Unlike the other scholars who gave theoretical, historical, and political interpretations of the MJT, I tried to present some close-observations of how the Museum uses light to create specific emotional and spatial effects. As an artist and visual person, I find that too much of the academic discussion of the Museum treats it as a "text" to be read rather than the profoundly visual, theatrical, and bodily experience that it is. Also, as someone close with the Museum staff I didn't feel that I had the detachment or impartiality for straight interpretation. But, simultaneously, as someone who's spent quite a lot of time in the Museum over the last ten years (as opposed to a few of the the panelists who had briefly visited for the first time during their trips to LA for the conference) I thought that my detailed observations might be able to inform the other interpretations, possibly even restraining some of their more theoretical flights of fancy.

I've included the slides from my presentation at the bottom of this post, they're mostly pictures of the parts of the Museum above, around, and behind the exhibits: the clusters of lights and mirrors that illuminate the objects in the displays. Below, I'm also including a brief essay I wrote on returning to New York that tries to translate some of the visual experience of navigating the MJT into language.

White text glows with reflected golden light. Deep shadows rake angles across the text's plexiglass panel, leaving its corners illegible. But its edges catch internal reflections and their incandescence seems to float the panel off the wall.

As you lean to look closer at the jawbone fragment the text explains, the darkness around you thickens. You're blind besides this text, this bone. And the space of the museum behind you stretches out, other exhibits rushing away, footsteps and whispered chats muffled.

The warm light pinkens the bone of the jaw, but somehow leaves the teeth a pearlescent white. The cracks on the bone's underside cast deep shadows and you only notice the black rod that floats it above its platform when you're leaning over it, casting your own shadow.

This movement, this break in the light, feels so violent that you reel, turning to look over your shoulder for its source. You see instead the source of the light: two ordinary bulbs racked on a totally unromantic clutter of hardware and clamps in the room's corner. They're cobweb-covered and dusty. Beneath them you notice a gap between wall panels -- a wound in the space -- metallic tubing and sloppily splayed cable stuffed just behind.

You've never looked up before, when you've been here.

Until this moment your image of the place ended not far above your head, fading into unconsidered fuzziness. But now you're really seeing it. The tops of false walls that don't meet the ceiling end abruptly without molding. Apparatus bristles: lights in jury-rigged fixtures, cheap commercial speakers, even extension cords. A whole hidden Home Depot shelf's worth of guts labors to produce the soft pools of light, the gentle encompassing blindness.

Slowly you turn back towards the jawbone to look again at the lights' effects. This time you notice your eyes adjust, you see the bright light force your irises to clamp down against it, hiding the dimmer surroundings like the low glass case of pinned-butterflies off to the left.

As you settle in to look you realize that even though you've now seen how the trick is done, its effect remains undiminished. The box of warm light reflected up onto the text by the brass rectangle beneath it, the lushness of the red cloth covering the plinth, the rich shadow on the riser behind the bone, these things still stir an unnameable feeling triangulated between reverence, delight, and a deep melancholy.

After letting this feeling hold you a moment more you pull back and turn away, moving past the butterflies and on into the rapidly receding dark.

Looking Up at the MJT