Some Kind of Wonderful

Andrew Hultkrans on a Wunderkammer symposium in New York

New York

Left: Filmmaker Arthur Metcalf and Wholphin editor Brent Hoff. Right: Artist Lauren Redniss; Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities; and artist Tara Donovan. (All photos: Stephanie Steiker)

THE WUNDERKAMMER (OR “WONDER CABINET”) is an antiquated exhibition concept that, while as old as the sixteenth century, has surprising traction in the twenty-first. The earliest European iterations were ornate rooms hung to the rafters with oddities of the natural world—narwhal tusks, exotic coral, stuffed crocodiles—and relics of dead religions and remote cultures. By the seventeenth century, they included man-made curiosities associated with the sciences and engineering—dioramas, automatons—as well as artworks and ceramics. Born in an era when the lines between art, science, myth, and folklore were blurry to nonexistent, this tradition helped inspire phenomena as disparate as museums, the Scientific Revolution, and P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Some claim today that blogs (and the Internet itself) are direct descendents of these eccentric collections. Their similar fact-to-bullshit ratio alone is enough to grant the argument merit.

The Wunderkammer is also an elastic and durable metaphor, one that Lawrence “Ren” Weschler—whose fine nonfiction book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder celebrates the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA—dusted off for this daylong symposium of artists, scientists, writers, and filmmakers the Saturday before last. The director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, Weschler spoke in an interview for The Onion of looking for those “pillow-of-air moments” when one is left agape and agog in the presence of something truly amazing. And indeed, throughout the day, no one was more openly thrilled than Ren himself, his wry grin and twinkling eyes visible even in the dark as he sat at the side of the stage during the various presentations.

While I am a glutton for ecstasy, nine straight hours of unmitigated wonder seemed a bit much, so I skipped the first offering—Robert Krulwich and Roger Hanlon on octopus camouflage—and arrived in the middle of a charming animated short, drawn by Chris Ware and featuring an Ira Glass interview with Krulwich, about the author’s wife mistakenly believing that Jackie O. was waving at her from across a New York street. Then we were introduced to Bill Morrison, maker of the celebrated experimental film Decasia—which marries decaying vintage celluloid to avant-garde music—who showed two shorter distressed films, Who by Water? and How to Pray.

The former uses footage discovered while he was assembling Decasia, and both films were nautically themed: the first of steamship passengers from the 1920s awaiting departure in New York Harbor; the second of contemporaneous icebergs and floes off the coast of Newfoundland. Both were scored by bombastic, portentous music, giving the decomposing footage an almost horror-film undercurrent of dread. Questioned by Ren, Morrison noted that nitrate film stock is highly unstable, much like gunpowder, and the visual noise obscuring the footage was composed of volatile chemicals and mold, which he enhanced by slowing the projection speed. He sees “fireworks, not science” in the effects, likening the distortion to a visual representation of the passage of time.

Ren then introduced New Yorker illustrator Richard McGuire—who fans of No Wave and early rap will also recall as a member of the band Liquid Liquid—and his episode of a multidirector animated feature called Peur(s) du Noir (Fear of the Dark). A suitably dim, black-and-white cartoon of a thuggish oaf breaking into an empty haunted house and being menaced by a decapitated head and a ghostly murderess, the entertaining film evoked a Pink Panther cartoon as reimagined by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

The next wonderboy was novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read a story-in-progress called “The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear,” about a crabbed, lonely crank and his underattended blog, which is under assault from a snarky, anonymous commenter known as “The Whom.” The story is chronologically backward and epigrammatic in form, and Lethem punctuated the pauses between its short segments by striking notes on his son’s toy xylophone. Calling it a “satire of the deflatable optimism of blogs,” which start out with such enthusiasm only to peter out from neglect or the relentless flames of abusive trolls, Lethem said it was partially inspired by Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Artist.” “A blog offers up something vulnerable,” he mused, “and someone comes along and puts a cigarette out in its eye.”

Left: Filmmaker Bill Morrison and writer Jonathan Lethem. Right: An image from cultural historian Norman Brosterman's presentation on kindergarten.

Two artists followed, Tara Donovan and Lauren Redniss. Donovan’s site-specific installations of grandly massed ordinary objects—hay bales of toothpicks, ice walls of drinking straws, nimbus clouds of Styrofoam cups—are genuinely wondrous, producing optical effects that mimic nature on micro and macro scales. The pieces are all installed-to-order and can’t be perfectly rebuilt or replicated. By way of example, Donovan recalled that her drinking-straw piece was once undone by the vibrations of a pile driver working on a Richard Meier building next door to the gallery. Redniss, who frequently writes and draws op-art pieces for the New York Times, read from her illustrated book-in-progress Radioactive, about the life, work, and love affairs of Marie Curie, interspersed with passages about more recent developments in nuclear science. Her presentation was illuminating, if a bit scattered.

Cultural historian Norman Brosterman then gave a presentation based on his book Inventing Kindergarten, which traces the patterned geometries of modernist art and architecture—Wright, Fuller, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, etc.—to the kindergarten movement started in 1840s Germany by former crystallographer Friedrich Fröbel. Needing a break from all this admittedly fascinating novelty, I skipped paper-folding wizard Matt Shlian and materials scientist Max Shtein and returned for John Underkoffler, a computer scientist whose company, Oblong Industries, is transforming the graphical user interface into a gestural one. Pronouncing a death sentence on the lowly computer mouse, Underkoffler and his team have developed interfaces that allow users to control their computers like conductors guide orchestras. If you’ve seen the Spielberg film of Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report,” you have a good idea of what it looks like. No coincidence, as Underkoffler was a consultant on the film.

Finally, we were treated to several short films sponsored by Wholphin, the McSweeney’s-related DVD magazine edited by Brent Hoff, who was there to introduce the work. The first, Fantaisie in Bubblewrap, was a deliciously twisted little piece directed by Arthur Metcalf that gives voice (and faces) to Bubble Wrap cells as they are cruelly popped out of existence by a casually sadistic human. The second, directed by Hoff, splices gorgeous NASA footage of gaseous explosions and sunspot activity on our sun’s surface into a symphonic fugue—until intertitles proclaim the chilling fact that sunspots have virtually disappeared in the past couple years. It is then intimated that this may have something to do with 2012 and Mayan prophecy without getting all Daniel Pinchbeck about it. A model short film.

Third and last, rotoscope guru Bob Sabiston—best known for his work on the Richard Linklater films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly—presented two of his shorts: the first of his trip with an autistic friend and several others to a Six Flags amusement park near San Antonio, the second of an interview with an old Buddhist sage in Washington Square Park, musing eloquently on the true meaning of life. Both are at once warmly touching and disturbingly trippy, with faces distorting wildly and random psychedelic flourishes troubling their backgrounds.

At 9 PM, with the nearly full house totally awed out, Ren concluded the program by saying that the common denominator of the day’s presenters was that they all loved what they did. This seemed about right. To a person, they had all managed to transform play into a high level of adult achievement, and what could be more wonderful than that?