Critique: Event of a (Steampunk) Thread & The Death of a Mad Elephant

I was not going to write about The Event of a Thread here, even though I loved it so much that I returned with my family just a few days later, back in December last year:

As you might sense from the video, this conceptual art piece transformed the spacious Park Avenue Armory into a giant playground, featuring giant wooden swings. The trick, however, the magic, was that all of the swings were connected, overhead, to a giant sheet dividing the room in half, undulating up and down, back and forth, based on the actions of the visitors on the swings. It was gorgeous and touching.

But like my recent critique of Discovering Columbus (Designing in Negative Space – Digital Media at Discovering Columbus), while digital media was not used in the exhibit it is intimately connected to the piece through the explicitly participatory nature of the experience – one person swings while the other takes their photo. In fact, the following greeted me after I bought my admission ticket, reminding me that Twitter can be a leaderboard where I can compete with witty text and impressive photos:

The large TV screen promoting the event’s Twitter hashtag

But I already wrote about that in my post on Discovering Columbus. Yet, unexpectedly, there are two additional things I discovered that I think worth exploring here, one in fact about the digital affordances throughout the piece and one that was, well, almost as strange to me as the exhibit itself, yet oddly personal.


A Steampunk Perspective

While Event had no digital media apparent within the exhibit, it was actually FULL of technology. Much of it, in facts, works so hard to NOT be digital than the mechanical aspects comes to the foreground. The two actors seated in the picture above (reading to the pigeons) have their voices piped throughout the room. Their voices emerge from brown lunch bags scattered around (where ever it was left from the last person listening). Like a paper boombox, they have to held close to the ear to be understood. At the other end of the hall, an old fashion machine records an album to an LP (sung by a singer at close of day, then played on a record player at the start of the next).

The text read by the performancers is not a standard text but a concordance, which I imagine could only have been generated on a computer (more in the next section). And overhead, like the roof of a circus, the lines from the swings rise and fall and cross and connect. A staircase to the second floor balcony suggests a vantage point to the floor below but, in all actuality, brings you eye-level to the wild inner-workings of the giant Rube Goldberg machine filling the room.

This is not about the absence of technology, as with the Columbus exhibit – this is a reverence for technology, and specifically old technology. This is Steampunk.

Steampunk is a recent subgenre of science fiction that imagines the technological affordances of the modern age emanating from pre-digital technology (thus, “steam”). It has since spread in many directions, one of many being art and design, well described here on Wikipedia.

From this perspective, Thread is not a work of art devoid of the trappings of the digital age but, rather, explores them using the tools of old through the genre of steampunk (intentional or otherwise) – connecting people across both space (the string and their gears, the voice of the performers through radio) and time (the voice of the singer from day to day, on vinyl).



Okay, so now this is where things, for me, get a little weird, and personal.

So here I am, joining the throngs laying underneath the sheet, staring up at its undulations above, listening to the odd phrases from the concordance described above, when I hear… well, before I explain what I hear, please watch the short video below about the concordance, to help provide the context:

So what just happened to be read the day of my visit, and what short snips did I hear? In short, it was all about an insane elephant, Carl Akeley (the father of modern taxidermy), and the museum whose work he so influenced: the American Museum of Natural History.

The concordance, when read, sounds like a random collection of sentence fragments. But there it was, repeated in different ways: a mad elephant (Gunda?), Akeley, and the AMNH. From what I could make out, Akeley had put down the elephant, whose bones now lay at the museum. And all I could do was approach the performer and watch her read. I was dying to ask her what she could possibly be reading. I could not interrupt her – she was quite publicly engaged. At the door I learned the day’s text and, once back at work, I did some Googling. I learned the text is from a book, Animal Madness, published in 2013.

In other words, the book had yet to be published. I found the author, Laurel Braitman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was kind enough to send me the following explanation:

Hi Barry, Thank you so much for your message. Ann Hamilton (and the other readers) were indeed reading a chapter of mine. The reason that you couldn’t find the book is because it hasn’t come out yet. And yes, it does indeed feature a number of creatures who wound up at AMNH. Archive staff helped me discover a number of your creatures whose stories were so compelling, I have spent the last few years writing about them! And yes, Gunda was shot by Carl Akeley at the Bronx Zoo and his skin is now on a shelf beneath the Planetarium. Other creatures I write about are on display to the public though. Animal Madness will come out in late 2013 or early 2014 and I hope to do something at the museum to celebrate.

Warmest wishes and thanks so much for your interest!

Laurel Braitman
History, Anthropology, and STS
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I then asked her how an unpublished piece come to Ann’s attention? And how did the AMNH wind up in this fantastic contemporary art experience?

She replied with the following, and I will end this post with her words.

The artist Ann Hamilton is a dear friend, and on occasion, a collaborator. She asked me if I might have a piece of writing for her to use for the Armory show. I chose the chapter of my book that is about the history of abnormally behaving elephants, gorillas and other animals, and how their odd behavior often mirrored human categories for mental ill health–from madness and melancholy to mortal homesickness or heartbreak–because a few of these creatures lived only a few blocks from the Armory (and AMNH for that matter). The rarity of exotic animals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant that when one of these ailing animals died, they often ended up at AMNH where people hoped to learn from them…and where more than a few of them remain inside the collection.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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