Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Render unto the Giant Hermaphrodite monolith what is the Giant Hermaphrodite Monolith's!



When the hissing trains slink into Baltimore's UNION station and passengers disembark for the cities various odd neighborhoods, the first thing they see of Baltimore is MAN/WOMAN, the giant, brushed aluminum sculptural celebration of hermaphrodism by artist Jonathan Borofsky, which recalls both the robot of The Day the Earth Stood Still and also certain two-faceted gods of the ancient world. This monster sets the tone for the deeply equivocal, paradoxical nature of what must surely follow in their visit to our fair city.

Uniformly loved by all the citizens of Baltimore, who consider this most visible of public artworks to be a sort of spiritual center for the city, it is an oracle that can be approached in all sorts of grave situations for counsel. Young people to approach it to learn if they should dress as males or females or some combination. Steam-heating technicians approach it for augury relating to the tightening or loosening of valves in the caves beneath the city. Public servants approach it for ideas about new legislation and regulation. In the past, it has even been surrounded by groups of cross-dressing citizens (one a middle-aged man merely wearing a 3x5 card with the word "Lesbian" printed in ball-point on it) who worshiped it with wild song & the tintinnabulation of eastern gongs and flutes. According to the security cameras at the station, things have stopped just short of human sacrificse and Dionysian rites.

Symbolically, of course, it radiates from its core on many levels that most cardinal of Baltimore virtues: ambiguity.

Let us count the ways, if they are even countable...

First, as a landmark, it "transvigorates" the area (now known as "Station North" or "The Northwest Passage" or "The Back Passage") around the train station, its science-fiction aura breaking the decisive "camels back" of meaning as it shifts the place's identity from low-profile urbanism to the intense dystopian-future-like wonderland it actually is. Those that don't see that simply haven't looked.

Its like the secret "inner doctrine" of what we now call Station North being nailed to the front of the chapel, Vatican be dammed. I know about this, because I grew up as a frequent (and severely underage, but also non-drinking) patron of The Charles Theatre and The Club Charles, so the statue simply articulates some of the other worldly wonder I've known to be in that neighborhood all my life. There are so many circumstances related the area that defied belief...

For instance:
  1. Terry, a way ahead-of-her-time towering amazon punk-rock pool hustler breaking redneck heads one minute in the Club Charles one minute, but sweet as pie the next, impressed me greatly, circa 1984. I must say, over the years, The Club Charles and I together saw an incredible amount of deeply weird behavior take place in the reflection of its Bob Hieronymus-conceived mural (sadly painted over now).
  2. It was a hub for the boundary-crossing extrovert John Water's scene (for lack of a better term) in the 70's and early 80's.
  3. An insane Baltimore artist (name forgotten) putting a mattress in the middle of Charles Street in the 70's and stopping traffic by writhing on it for hours while the police tried to figure out how to remove him. Apparently he somehow made himself psychically "very heavy to carry." Finally, a police that he knew was brought and convinced him to give up his obscure quest to lie down in traffic.
  4. Lanvale Street, which for a time was for my money "the best place in Baltimore to get your car window smashed." This has abated considerably, as far as I can tell, but in the early 90's, it was almost like a programmed machine for silently smashing windows. (Actually, this has continued into the present tense with a Thanatologist friend of mine having all four windows smashed this week.)
  5. The various Shirker Nests* that were just over the edge of the hill running into the train tracks below, where homeless and hermetic members of city population have dwelt. I haven't checked these in a while, but I suspect there may be less than in the past, due to some changes in the poverty allowed in center city, law enforcement, clearing of brush, etc.
  6. A strange "luncheonette of limbo" where the grilled cheese had a really funny taste and time had not passed since the last episode of twilight zone aired. This is now an even more limbo establishment at the corner of Lafayette and Charles that has been renovated but never open, its retro-futuristic door soldered shut.
  7. The American Dime Museum, closed a few years back, which had the worlds largest ball of string, mermaid husks, and many other highly useful artifacts.
  8. More recently, Velocipede, the utopian-practical Bike-exchange and training project, which is wildly evocative of how great life could be if we only redrew the lines a bit.
  9. An incredible cast of strange agents, pan-handlers (now mainly shuffled off) with unbelievably inventive and wrongheaded stories, bouncers, and odd hangers on in The Charles Theatre. One of them tried to stab me on the bridge below the Charles in 1986, but was so drunk he dropped his large kitchen knife, and cursed me as I danced around him.
  10. A mere block away on Calvert (of which more below) and 2-3 blocks north, an unusual density of transvestite and transexual prostitutes. This is of course perhaps most magically resonant with the statue's hermaphrodism itself.
These things and more all have contributed to a palpable the sense of exotic, altered reality in the region. I remember in the 80's seeing films like Eraserhead and Cafe Flesh at the Charles and then leaving a midnight show to realize that the surrounding psychogeography was equally alienated to what was portrayed in the film. Those films seemed right at home in Baltimore.

So, in that light, when the statue was erected, it was like the proverbial "rug that really pulled the room together," like a neighborhood coming out of the closet to reveal its true fevered halloween-in-the-wrong-season self. I for one was overjoyed.

It remains to be seen how much of these flavors can be erased by gentrification and "development."

Second, the statue itself in ambiguous. Lets look beyond the obvious. My friend Chiara Giovando pointed out to me correctly that the feet of the statue strangely look like hooves, because of their perspectival distortion(?). What is this statue making "OK" for people? Minotaurism? Remember, a shadowy group of "philanthropists" donated it to the city. Shades of cultic behavior? Further, it is surrounded by police, yet it moves not... no one can mistake it for a "fine art" piece, despite Borofsky's fame as an artist. It is no more limited to the world of "fine art" than are Sargent's occult paintings in the Boston Public Library (check them out!)



Third, the statues instantiation was itself somewhat shrouded in secret, paid for I think by members of the Monte Perlin society or some such, resulting in many letters to the editor asking "who was it that had this great idea so we can thank them?" I love the fact that it dropped out of the sky on the city so to speak, bypassing consensus-reality tastes to provide so much poetic accuracy so efficiently. Much more effectively than in Pittsburgh, by the way, where flawed engineering apparently caused problems--or so I heard last night. It would seem more likely for that sort of technical breakdown to occur in Baltimore, where we have four snow plows masquerading as 25 on the city books (more ambiguity?).

Fourth, the combination of quasi-classical architecture and 2-d robotism provide the sense of "future past" that was so evident in the past, a la Star Trek. In the context of postmodernism, somehow this earlier style of historic contradiction seems vaguely dated, creating a second enclosure of ambiguity within the first. For as we judge the passage of historical sequence, we always judge it from the vantage of a specific moment. And that moment is always gone.

Well, I could go on, but I think I'll stop there. Lets just say that in Baltimore we unanimously applaud this symbol, our towering tyrant of cybernetic hermophrodism, our keeper of the gate, and the loadstone to our Northwest Passage. Thank you Borofsky and as the ancients said... "Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinis alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes!"

John Berndt 5/22/10




*Shirker Nests are a term coined by the Baltimore sociological expert Al Ackerman to refer to secret signs of habitation that may be found in the urban landscape. Typically, a bush or bathroom stall that looks lived-in and comes complete with a few socks, an empty liquor bottle, and some toilet paper. Some may be more elaborate than others.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

VAGUE EATS! A Guide to Baltimore's Undetermined Foodstuffs. (Part I)

(NB: Aspects of this blog posting may be said to show an obvious class bias--fair enough, that's the obvious part--the other part is what this blog is about.)

The Sandwich Which is Not Itself

Lets start with the basics, "Lake Trout." Baltimore's "classic" sandwich is a nonsequitur, since "Lake Trout" is not the actual fish of that name (Salvelinus namaycush) which is rarely eaten in Baltimore, but rather some other fish, usually Whiting or Atlantic Whiting, that has been fried and placed between two slices of white bread. In local corner food marts and the ubiquitous no-name carry-outs that dot the cities poor quadrants, Lake Trout is more available than hamburgers or "hot dogs."


It's a case of a completely mistaken labeling of a food becoming standard, and a strange one because its a distinctly salt-water fish being attributed to inland water. The sandwich is itself an impersonation, though one could argue that since all words are conventions, it is just a ripple in the web of conventions and a small one at that. One imagines that there may be generations of people eating Lake Trout sandwiches who fleetingly imagine nonexistent lakes and nonexistent fishes one time and one time only before the words become fixed in the noosphere.

Perhaps, along with "sweetbreads," and "prairie oysters," Lake Trout forms the basis of a class of foods that deceives. This is the opposite of animal mimicry, in the sense that the food misnames itself in order to be more likely to be eaten, not less. Call them deceptopablum.

...

The Lure of a Texas Cheesesteak
Next there is the business of New York Fried Chicken, a dominating fast-food chain which I think represents the paradoxical elan of Baltimore rather precisely. For a long time I was under the mistaken impression that chain existed only in Baltimore (and not New York)...I wish that poetic feat had actually born scrutiny.


Certainly its sudden appearance in Baltimore was disconcerting, since New York is hardly known for its fried chicken--though one wonders if, in certain highly insular Baltimore communities, that wrong reputation might become a certainty. I had a fantasy that New York Fried chicken could be improved by striking chicken from the menu, and only selling Lake Trout--like the restaurant's name, without explanation. I also had a fantasy of opening a restaurant on Pratt Street and calling it "Lombard Street Fried Chicken"--the name of the next street over, which struck me as a potential for true Baltimore style.

Baltimore's confusion, being a Southern city that mistakenly considers itself Northern, comes full circle in the dominance of New York Friend Chicken, like a fried snake eating its own tail. However, a second dissociation is in the mix--despite its New York parentage, New York Fried Chicken is largely run and owned by Afghani's. A federal investigation attempting to link New York Fried Chicken with terrorist networks unearthed significant drug dealing within the business and the possibility of money laundering, although, like many things, this was never satisfactorily resolved.

...

Low Tautologous Redundancy
Its a fine day in Hampden, one of Baltimore's deepest wells of ambiguity. Sun shining, I walk into Bella Roma and order some "slice pizza," but realizing I'm thirsty, I also decide also on some "can soda." What you might ask, is the difference between "can soda" and regular soda? Well, for one thing, the flavor.



Suddenly, everything is, for lack of a better word, "overspecified." When I have a headache, I eat some "pill aspirin." When I sweeten my drink, I use "grain sugar." When I eat breakfast, I ask for "link sausage," and at lunch I drink some "glass water." For a snack, I have a little "bag candy."

On the table are some "bunch flowers." I'm wearing "hand gloves."

So: Everything is as it should be on heaven and earth.

The trick is to qualify categories of things with less descriptive versions of themselves, or with adjectives or pseudo-adjectives which are already implicit in their structure (e.g., that pizza can be divided into slices).

Each thing then becomes less like itself by becoming more like itself.

(Thanks to Kevin Takacs for photos).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Baltimore: Astra inclinant, non necessitant! Ambiguity 1972 and possibly otherwise...

This is a blog about Baltimore, and its obvious, special, transcendent natural resource: AMBIGUITY.

Or perhaps not.

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I grew up in Baltimore and had a fairly broad and uncensored experience of different aspects of the city as a kid, certainly with some very unusual experiences--but even so I assumed it was a fairly typical Eastern Seaboard city (perhaps more impoverished and provincial than many).

However, as I traveled the U.S. and Europe quite a bit over the years, it slowly came upon me (rather like a clammy severed hand in the night) that my home town was somehow... deeply unusual. This itself was quietly disturbing (like finding out that your family are the only people who practice some strange rite)--both a source of pride and growing love, but also a complicating source of existential confusion.

Explaining my experience Baltimore to other people, even other Baltimorians, has often bogged me down in descriptions of the unrelated strange, ambiguous, intermediate, and contradictory; and further, in the existence of shadowy things or behaviors that seemed to have no clear publicly recognized equivalent elsewhere. It is as if it is a very unusual place dressed up as a banal place--like a transvestite who turns out to be a zombie. (Since my own life has frequently intersected with the outre and odd aspects of city life over the years, I was far from a detached voyeur in these matters, and if anything it was often my natural urge to add to the strangeness of the city, but that is a bit like spitting in the ocean...).

In the early part of this decade, a good friend showed me a reel of 16mm film that had been found under a sink in a darkroom in the local art college where it had sat for a long time. It was local television footage of the 1972 "Ambiguity Day Parade," a sprawling, spirited and disruptive event where one side of Baltimore's distinctive "otherness" was well displayed. Led by an older couple, she with an webless umbrella, he dressed as the king from a giant playing card, and surrounded by dozens of people of all ages attended, in "mixed" or otherwise hard-to-place costumes, the event was a big breach in the easily identifiable use of public space. It was also a... symbolic moment.

This event, of which I've been utterly unable to find any other trace, was so in line with what Baltimore has meant to me, and so harmonious (or dissonant) with the waves of similar public actions that came later (notably confusionist street action groups in the 70's and 80's like the Baltimore Oblivion Marching Band (B.O.M.B.) and Balti-Media Edition) that it made me giddy to discover. It also greatly amplified my sense of "perhaps there is something in the drinking water." I'd drunk a lot of it, and seemed compelled to get others to drink it too...

There was a huge history of the city oscillating with an ineffable, often immoderate (but often also strangely transitory) weirdness; the berserk early John Waters movies are just one tiny tip of the iceberg of this that managed to somehow slip into a broader geographic consciousness. Its worthy to mention to anyone reading this from outside of Baltimore that what Water's essentially did (with a healthy sense of hyperbolic humor) was to capture what were and are real unsocialized and deviant ambiances easily found on a stroll through the city; a particularly resistant set of strains of low-ball exoticism that we have I see nowhere else.

So it was that in 2003 I wrote Martin O'Malley, then Mayor of Baltimore, a letter asking if he would change the masthead from "Baltimore, The Greatest City in America" to "Baltimore, The Ambiguity City." I was dead serious, but O'Malley failed to take the bait--I had hoped he would be able to see it as "capitalizing on our strengths." For one thing, the later slogan is ironically less ambiguous, more true to what is vivid. Baltimore has so many indeterminate and ambiguous qualities, to name a few...

...it is an deeply Southern city which mistakenly believes itself to be Northern...
...it is both extremely highbrow and lowbrow culturally, and fails to make the distinction...
...its character and vibe can radically, sometimes startlingly change, block by block...
...it has a highly unique population with a specific language who often don't see themselves as such...
...it is full of the worst crime but also relatively safe for many of its citizens...
...it is full of the worst poverty and the most powerful science...
...it full-on abuts a very conservative and parochial outlook with extreme radicality...
...it has a rather large population of transgendered people, and was a center for the medical advent of sex changes in North America...
...has a number of "wrong-scale" recreations of city blocks within the city...
...it is built on a complex of tunnels and catacombs, including a huge dysfunctional steam heating system...
...it seems to have a disproportionate effect on world culture, given its relative "second status" in American cities...
...it has Gertrude Stein and Poe's houses, but was a waystation for them both...
...it's home to the Visionary Art Museum but most people who live here don't know it...


and I could go on and on. In fact, that is what I plan to do within this blog, in considerable detail. Or do I?


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