art cars, dragon boats, and the incredible 1975 artists’ soapbox derby

25Feb10

I ran into this amazing film about the 1975 San Francisco Artists’ Soapbox Derby on Boing Boing and I think it’s an incredible document about the potential transformation of public space that’s allowed when art becomes a communal undertaking and the axis of aesthetic attention is moved outside of the confining walls of the museum.  As Lynn Hershmann says toward the end of the film,

Now perhaps it’s significant that this derby was outside, because I think that museums are in the future going to be moving more and more outside of their own past limitations.

What’s so fantastic about the 1975 Artists’ Derby is the number of wonderful negations that are brought into play during the course of this festival of kinetic delight.  The first negation is endemic to the form of the soapbox derby in general.  Soapbox derbies take the automobile as their object of fetishistic worship, but in an ironic twist the act of recreating the automobile in the form of a gravity-driven car ends up removing the motor — the very source of devotion — from the equation.  As the automobile becomes velocipede, the scale of enjoyment is allowed to assume a human familiarity that’s hard to discover when confronted with the overwhelming sublimity of massive amounts of horsepower.

A second negation comes in the way that the derby realigns the standard set of public/private spatial relations that come into being with the rise of the automobile.  With the rise of the automobile the street is transformed from a space of public contact to a space where private containers move rapidly past each other with little interaction (barring the unfortunate accident, of course).  The motorway becomes a kind of anti-communal space through which isolated individuals move from one private engagement to another.  The Derby, on the other hand, transforms the street back into a place of public pleasure by closing the roads to motorized traffic for the day.  Parades, protests, and festivals (and sometimes even the force of natural disaster) often coincide with a sense of the carnivalesque as a result of the transformation of the alienated space of the roadway into a place of community activity.

The Incredible San Francisco Artists’ Soapbox Derby, directed by Amanda Pope and handily uploaded to Vimeo by Mike Haeg, is a joy to watch and includes cars designed by 104 Bay Area artists including Robert Arneson, Dana Draper, the Ant Farm collective, Bruce Beasley, David Best, Viola Frey, Larry Fuente, Ann Shapiro, James Suzuki, and many, many more.  Watch out for the penny dome, Richard Shaw’s pencil car, Terry Axelson’s banana car (“the banana is the fastest fruit I could think of”), Glen Carter’s fantastic pop tennis-shoe car, Dorcas Moultan’s bread-mobile, the Animal Crackers car, Paul Marioni’s bathtub full of blood, Meadow’s bio-erotic he/she, and lots, lots more.

There’s another way, as well, in which the soapbox cars of the Artists’ Derby upend the standard mythos of the automobile.  The automobile has managed to become the consumer product par excellence when it comes to parading individual identity before the public eye.  Are you an eco-loving and economical Prius driver?  A rugged outdoorsy type in your Toyota Tacoma?  A deeply ironic Pacer driver?  A Euro-sophisticate in your A4?  A neo-hippie surf bum in your nicely renovated ’65 split-window bus?  The trick with all of these ‘identities’ is, of course, that they’re not actually expressions of individuality at all, but rather relatively broad types which you are encouraged by car companies to identify with.  In other words, expressing individual personality by way of the car you buy is a kind of paradox — as soon as you get behind the wheel of an automobile your individuality immediately disappears into a larger system of typology, a system that ultimately contains a very limited set of options for ‘describing’ the particularity of drivers.

The cars featured in the Artists’ Derby, however, escape this problem because they aren’t expressions of individuality at all.  Rather than somehow pretended to express the hidden ‘essence’ of the personality of the artists who have constructed these vehicles, the derby cars instead manifest a series of ideas conceived of and executed with artistic intent in mind.  Art here manages to escape the small-mindedness of ego expression and instead produce something far more interesting — velocipedes as images of the possibilities inherent in conscious aesthetic play.  This is the reason the derby cars are so enjoyable for the spectators; they’re not simply watching the residue of other peoples’ self images cascading before their eyes, instead they’re watching objects that act as a focal lens for aesthetic intelligence and delightful surprise, with pure kinetic enjoyment thrown in for sport.

Art cars are, of course, the closest motorized analogue to the soapbox derby designs created for the 1975 Artists’ Derby.  Like the soapbox cars, art cars act to overturn the limited typology of identity that’s foisted onto the public by the automobile industry.  Unlike the soapbox designs, which can take almost any form imaginable, the forms that art cars can take are limited at a base level by the structural integrity of the vehicle itself.  Within this set of limitations, however, there’s enough room for a very broad range of design.

One of the interesting things about art cars — and this is the secret behind the intense passion that goes into a lot of hot-rod design too — is that the process of creation works against the grain of the initial process of alienated mass production that brought the car into existence in the first place.  The hand craft and imaginative vision of an individual or a small group of individuals is directly counterpoised to the assembly line style of manufacturing that has defined the automobile ever since the first Model T drove out of the factory all done up in a shiny layer of Japan black.

The two cars seen in the promotional clip above are both interesting in their own ways.  The California Fantasy Van takes brass objects (including some great belt buckles) that would be entirely inconsequential on their own and through a process of accumulation manages to create an altar to brass that would make any Baroque-period designer of cathedrals proud.  The Camera Van also achieves it’s initial aesthetic effect by way of accumulation, but there are several further layers of meaning incorporated into the banks of flashing cameras as well.  As Harrod Blank points out in the promotional clip, the cameras that he’s collected are primarily film cameras that are rapidly in the process of becoming obsolete.  By displaying the cameras en masse Blank simultaneously highlights both the amount of consumer waste that’s generated as one trend supersedes another and, at the same time, the possibilities of enjoyment offered by the resuscitation of these dinosaur objects.  Because the cameras on the van are fully functional, and because he takes photographs of the spectators who surround the van, the van becomes a kind of optical locus for raising questions about the complex relationships between photography, surveillance, and the right to privacy in public spaces.  On the one hand, of course, the van is a joyous art object that collects images that delight through the spontaneity of the captured moment.  On the other hand, the van (which vaguely resembles the Death Star) is a reminder of the surveillance state and almost seems to be an analogue prototype of the Google Street View vehicles that currently roam the planet collecting images (not to everyone’s liking).

It makes sense that artists committed to thinking ‘outside the museum’ would be attracted to art cars and projects like the Artists’ Derby, so it’s not too surprising to find an artist like David Best featuring prominently in the Derby and holding a keystone position within the art car community.  Best, who is sometimes described as a “junk artist” or an “assemblage artist,” is well known for taking the detritus of American culture and giving it new life through an almost alchemical process of metamorphic intervention.  The lapis philosophorum that informs Best’s work isn’t the traditional idea of a lone artistic genius at work in a private laboratory of creation; instead Best tends to get his inspiration through collaboration with others, letting the hive mind take over to express the golden genius of the collective.

Watching this clip made me feel a bit nostalgic.  I spent most of my youth living in Petaluma, a town which is loaded with artists, builders, fabricators, and creatives of all kinds.  I think the first time I ever met David was during a preparatory run for the Petaluma Butter and Eggs Day Parade, a parade that celebrates Petaluma’s chicken and dairy history and is chock full of precisely the kind of small-town flavor that you would expect — marching bands, people dressed like chickens and cows, floats, a Miss Petaluma, etc.  The piece that Best was involved with, however, was a mobile gamelan constructed from metal tubes and rods that included both marimbas and gongs, built in honor of one of Petaluma’s criminally underappreciated artist-musicians — Harry Partch.  A couple of other people who appear in the video are old acquaintances of mine too — Patrick, who was one of the last noble followers of the Grateful Dead and sold tie-dyed clothing from the back of his 1960’s Chevy Suburban in order to make ends meet, and Jeff, a master welder and fantastic drummer who I worked with for a few years at Salsa Cycles back when it was a 14-person company making handmade artisanal bicycles.  (In fact, the Cadillac that gets converted may have been donated by Jeff — the last time I ran into him at a party he was riding around in a similar type of sled.)

One of the most fantastic reversals inherent in making an art car is the fact that, as Best says, “You’re changing something that wasn’t ever meant to be changed.”  There’s a funny way in which this kind of alteration poses a social challenge, even though it would seem to be so absolutely innocent at base.  And yet, there’s some quality that these cars have that’s disturbing to the fabric of normalcy.  They draw the attention of the police, even though they’re well within the law; actually, it may be the very fact that they’re within the law that’s the source of the challenge they pose.  Those things that fall outside of the confines of normal practice, but which don’t find interdiction under the law, are often the things that focus public attention and those social tendencies that tend to favor the control of culture.  But, as Best points out at the end of the clip, cars cannot be towed away simply for being deemed to be weird.

Fantasy and science fiction have always been extremely productive spaces for the imaginative production and modeling of vehicles from alternate realities.  I’ve always loved the sleek design of the spacecraft that appear in 2001, and the vehicles in Miyazaki’s films — especially some of the aquaplanes from Porco Rosso —  always seem to have a distinctive character that draws me to them.  One of the more interesting designs that I’ve come across is the Bajoran lightship from Deep Space 9 that uses a solar sail for propulsion; I love the design aesthetic of this vessel — a certain combination of classic wooden sailing ship, Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, and an ultra-light exterior-frame camping tent. (In point of nerdy fact, I’m actually lucky enough to have my own Star Trek universe ship named after me — the USS Devore, an Akira-class starship.)

The ship you see above you is one of Yanobe Kenji’s incredible creations.  Yanobe is fascinated with both science-fiction visions of the future, and with the radioactive legacy of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  For his Atom Suit Project he traveled to post-meltdown Chernobyl in a specially made radiation suit in which he was photographed at various locations.  Since then he’s created his memorable character Torayan, a ventriloquist’s dummy that travels in a bright yellow radiation suit.  The ship above was created for the 2009 Aqua Metropolis Osaka festival.  It’s driven by Torayan (encased in a Plexiglas dome at the front of the ship) and is named Lucky Dragon.  While the ship is futuristic in many ways, it also refers back to the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in which a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon 5 (第五福龍丸), was exposed to nuclear fallout.  From Wikipedia:

Daigo Fukuryū Maru encountered the fallout from the U.S. Castle Bravo nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll, near the Marshall Islands, on March 1, 1954. The boat, along with its 23 fishermen aboard, as well as their catch of fish, was contaminated. They returned to Yaizu, Japan on March 14. The crew members, suffering from nausea, headache, burns, pains in the eyes, bleeding from the gums, etc., were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and admitted to two Tokyo hospitals. On September 23, chief radio operator Mr. Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, died — the first Japanese victim of a hydrogen bomb. He left these words: “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb.”

This incident helped to spark the anti-nuclear movement in Japan and it was also an inspiration for Ishiro Honda’s masterpiece, Godzilla.  Yanobe’s ship is an object of wonder and delight in terms of its futuristic playfulness, but there are several dark historical connections at work in the piece as well.

Many of the vehicles that show up at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert also have a kind of post-apocalyptic aura about them, as if they’d appeared straight from a lost reel of The Road Warrior.  This video features a ‘drag race’ between the J2F-Spider, of which I know almost nothing, and The Big Wheel, a three-wheeled contraption that looks like a design taken straight from the steam-powered 1700s.  Builders of all kinds are attracted to Burning Man, and it’s no surprise that the vehicles that roam the playa are a primary focus for creative transformation.  My friend and former roommate, Michael Hefflin, created an incredible vehicle for Burning Man; he turned a motorcycle/sidecar combination into horizontal skeleton studded with sword blades to be ridden across the playa and out into the desert’s night vastness.  Michael himself died tragically in a motorcycle accident in the first year of the new millennium, riding into the night’s desert vastness, and he wasn’t able to take his creation to Burning Man, though others made sure that it made it out to Black Rock.

Michael had been working with David Best and his death was partially the impetus for the construction of the Temple of the Mind, a temple that Best, in conjunction with Jack Haye, made from the leftover wood of model dinosaur kits.  It featured Michael’s portrait hanging in the center and  was burned on the final day of Burning Man. All that ash has gone up to the sky.  David’s temples have since gone on to become a central feature of Burning Man, a subject he discusses at length in a fantastic Pacific Sun interview from 2005.

Ultimately this brings us back to the notion of festival.  How is festival different than spectacle?  A spectacle always keeps the viewer at a distance, essentially isolated from the object on display, while a festival brings us inside and wraps us up in the event.  When you’re watching a spectacle, you can remain whoever you always are and enjoy the scenes passively, but when you’re at a festival you can never remain the same person that you always thought you were.  You’re in the car, a human velocipede, and you’re going downhill fast.  And it’s exhilarating.  And you no longer entirely control the vertical, and you no longer entirely control the horizontal — and that somehow doesn’t matter at all anymore.

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3 Responses to “art cars, dragon boats, and the incredible 1975 artists’ soapbox derby”

  1. Thanks for giving me an afternoon of delightful distraction, when I should have been writing a report….

    I’m a bit sceptical about that camera van…. he said that most of them are SLR’s, when they look like point and shooters, TLR’s, cine cameras and rangefinders to me. God, I’d love to get a hold of that thing though….

    I build a velocipede (a go-cart) once, a summer project when I was in primary school. We painted it black with gold flames up the side, nailed a cushion to the seat, scoured junk yards for wheels. I only remember riding it once – all the fun was in the construction.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I can’t drive and I know nothing about cars. Something my wife (brought up in the mechanics pit by her rally driving father) can never fathom. I guess it just goes to show – love is not just about ‘liking the same shit’.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      I noticed that he got the SLR bit wrong too, but isn’t that picking nits when you’re talking about a cool-looking black van that’s covered with cameras that actually take pictures? How cool would it be to drive that thing slowly through some of the heavily populated youth-culture spots of Japan? I can only imagine the kind of material you’d get from a slow drive through the Dotonbori area or Ame-mura in Osaka, or through Harajuku or even Shibuya in Tokyo. That would be a pretty wild and fun project.

      I also spent some time riding around on gravity-powered go-carts when I was a kid! They were all owned by kids who lived up the hill, but still they were pretty cool. The first one was this enormous thing that could fit five or six of us on it. It may have even been based loosely on an old car-frame or something, because I think it had car tires on it. We would roll down the steep driveway, skid into a dirt turnout at the bottom, and then drag the cart to the top of the hill to do it again. One day we met up with oncoming traffic and, turning to avoid it, ended up ‘driving’ up the trunk of a very large cypress tree. That was exciting. The second cart actually was a genuine racing cart, but without a motor. We rode around on that for about a year like that, and then it got a motor and we rode around on it some more. No gold flames though.

      As far as not driving goes, good for you! It’s the wave of the future. Cars are way too expensive and more trouble than they’re worth; I once had a professor who had no license and claimed that with the money she saved by not owning a car she was able to live in France for three months out of the year. I haven’t missed driving at all since I’ve moved to Japan. But I am curious about this “rally driving father” connection. More detailed information, please? Rally driving is one of the few types of auto racing I still get really excited about. In fact, I just watched the Swedish round of this year’s WRC championship a week ago or so.


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