The Boy Mechanic - Mechanical Personae in the works of Jim Pomeroy

(c) 1993 Paul DeMarinis

Corporate culture is what happens on TV. Popular culture happens in front of the TV. Technoculture happens in the intermediate space between production and reception, the space of klystrons and vacuum tubes where images are made and unmade, where the meaning of television gets tripped up in its own technology.

For the first generation of viewers, TV was as much a device as a medium. While many children were content with the mere entertainment factor, others were insatiably curious about the box in the living room. What was it, really? What was inside? How did it work? Books of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Boy Mechanic, fed this inquisitiveness with parts lists and plans for projects such as constructing your own movie camera and converting a hairdryer into a chicken incubator. The book encouraged redesign according to the dictates of available materials; ingenious appropriation was held in high esteem. The illustrations pictured a youth apparently inspired by the Hardy boys: a young adventurer willing to take risks. The book was designed to nurture the mechanical abilities of boys who would become car mechanics or weekend bricoleurs, but it promoted a myth of the creative individual in a time when individual creativity had, in fact, little place.

Jim Pomeroy was the quintessential Boy Mechanic. He used this moniker to describe a certain breed of American artist who grew up in the military-industrial culture of the sputnik era: artists who had been inculcated with the codes of science and technology, but who had reterritorialized them to identify technology with culture, and electronics with communication.1 The Boy Mechanics were artist-tinkerers who bypassed or defied the intended uses of technology, who disrupted the hierarchy of the messaging apparatus. The Boy Mechanic was the primary mythical character whose mercurial vicissitudes animated many of the characters and voices that Pomeroy assumed in his roles of artist, performer, and teacher.

The Boy Mechanic has his origins in stock characters of American historical folklore: Benjamin Franklin (printer's devil, researcher, tinkerer, lover, patriot, statesman); Thomas Alva Edison (telegrapher's assistant, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, icon of genius); and David Packard (boy mechanic, engineer, inventor, industrialist, secretary of defense). The contemporary exemplar might be Bill Gates, whose progress from nerd to corporate magnate is crowned by a consuming desire to own the electronic rights to every major work of Western art. The evolvement of the mythical Boy Mechanic is clearly laid out here: curious child, boy mechanic, inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, potentate of the ruling taste. In the end, the Boy Mechanic becomes iconic, a trademark himself. Pomeroy used the various stages and images that constitute these personae as points of departure in his performances, subverting them into a set of social and aesthetic criticisms.

In his television show of the 1950s, erstwhile Boy Mechanic Mr. Wizard (played by Don Herbert) was a champion of scientific curiosity and a purveyor of information for boys and girls. His avuncular manner, his notably nongendered approach, and his failure-prone experiments in real-time (video recording was invented later) made his show more like a laboratory than anything else on TV. The show would begin with a child asking a leading question, and then would proceed to a theoretical discussion of scientific principles, and culminate in a series of often inconclusive, sometimes disastrous experiments. One memorable experiment is recast by Pomeroy in his sound performance Whillikers in G, Pomeroy appears in Mr. Wizard drag - white shirt, clip-on bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses. He arranges some large metal cans (ominously suggestive of gasoline cans), each containing a small amount of water, over flaming Bunsen burners. While delivering a series of one-liners, questions, and conundrums, including "Is there sound in a vacuum?," he screws the caps onto the steam filled-cans and turns off the fire. As the steam inside condenses, it creates a vacuum and the surrounding air pressure causes the steel cans to buckle and collapse. The agonies of the wrinkling cans are picked up by microphones, fed to electronic-effects boxes, and amplified. Sound in a vacuum is made not only audible, but raucous.

Another of Pomeroy's sculpture/performances Back on the Ladder/The Beat Goes On, again evokes the Mr. Wizard school of experimental esthetics. A large assemblage prepared in advance, consisting of Pomeroy's trademark ladder adorned with long PVC tubes and plastic hoses, is prepared by filling one of the tubes with water. Two floor-model vacuum cleaners, gleaned from Goodwill stores, also hang from the ladder. As the performance begins, Pomeroy-as-Mr. Wizard ascends the ladder, making possibly unnecessary last minute adjustments to the apparatus. He then turns on one vacuum cleaner, which has been reversed to blow air across the mouth of the long PVC tube. The tube, acting like a giant organ pipe, begins to sound a deep tone. When he switches on the other vacuum cleaner, the water-filled pipe intones a shrill and discordant note. Pomeroy then descends the ladder and opens a valve, which allows the water to drain slowly from the filled pipe to the empty one, producing a rising pitch in one pipe, a descending pitch in the other. As the long glissandi intersect, they produce difference tones or "beats"--in effect causing the space to resonate with low frequencies not possible with single pipes of these lengths. Again, sound from a vacuum.

The drab performative character of the science teacher and the preposterous constitution and arrangement of the experimental apparatuses in these pieces have the effect of dethroning the authority of the experimenter and the science experiment. This playful unseating of authority appears throughout the spectrum of Pomeroy's various Boy Mechanic-as-trickster personae, and nowhere more than in the figure of Spike Jones. A popular TV musician-comedian of the early fifties, Lindsay Armstrong Jones brought a hitherto unimagined mixture of vaudeville, klezmer music, cross-dressing, and musico-mechanical bricolage to middle America. Jones, originally a percussionist, created his own brand of noise-music played on tin cans, cannons, car horns, rocks, and sticks. His noise machines and homemade musical instruments inspired a generation of children to embrace the noise of music and in many ways blazed the trail for and paralleled the ideas and works of John Cage. Nationwide fame had come to Jones' band, The City Slickers, at the beginning of World War II, when his hit song "In Der Fuhrer's Face" was used by Walt Disney for an antifascist propaganda cartoon starring Donald Duck. Later, at the height of the anticommunist witch-hunts, Spike Jones was the only network TV luminary who could get away with poking fun at Joe McCarthy (as a car crashes through a manure pile in the music video "Feetlebaum"). While Pomeroy did not impersonate Jones directly in his performances, his many references to and quotations from Spike Jones make Jones a mechanical persona par excellence.

The character of B. Linds Nake was Jim Pomeroy's personal member of The City Slickers. A musician, Mr. Nake invariably appeared for concerts either dressed as a beatnik - beret, dark glasses, black turtleneck - or, on occasion, in formal concert wear - long hair and tails. On the latter occasions, the performance would invariably culminate in a striptease act, as the beatnik musician climbed out from under the wreckage of "serious music." Mr. Nake was also an inventor of musical instruments in the tradition of Jones. Among these were the electric sloboe (an amplified double reed instrument constructed from a photographer's monopod), the petro-basso flute (a playable assemblage of PVC plumbing fittings), and a host of amplified mechanical toys, hacked Casio-tones, and home-brew electronic-effects boxes. Playing flute solos parodying the European musical avant-garde, while simultaneously accompanying himself on two synthesizers with his elbows, B. Linds Nake achieved a unique combination of humor and virtuosity worthy of the Jones tradition. In 1981, his performance was reviewed by a serious music critic at New Music America in 1981:

"Flutist B. Linds Nake appeared, proper in bow tie and dark suit, but the pants were cuffed above his ankles. Unscheduled pantomime between Nake and a technician over a faulty electrical connection couldn't have been better choreographed.

All in order finally, Nake made big flourishes and positioned his flute. With his elbows he played a little synthesizer keyboard, accompanying his own flute playing. Against the tonal synthesizer music, Nake deftly elbowed scales, ornaments and what all--hence, a "Flute Trio."

For Pomeroy's "HATDANCE," Nake wore white long underwear and a yellow plastic "electric hat" with a long bill and can-like rattle on top. Slide projectors at either side cast a pattern of vertical stripes on him and formed squiggly lines around him as he did a kind of mime routine.

The music was an electrified hat rattle, played when he tapped the bill periodically with a rod. He later played synthesized music. Nake finally stepped out of the stripe field and was enveloped in contrasting bright colors as the slides changed. His every move was charmed with with innocent and winning disbelief."2

Another performance work, Mechanical Music, begins when Nake walks on stage wearing his familiar beret, dark glasses, and long-sleeved black turtleneck. He carries a canvas tool-bag and a bottle of beer. After fiddling with the microphone, he opens the tool-bag to reveal a matched set of steel wrenches spanning a gamut from 8 to 14 inches long and arrays them on a small table. He then whips out a switchblade and, teasing at striptease, cuts the left sleeve off his shirt to reveal a bare arm. Raising his left arm to shoulder level and bending his forearm toward his chin to form a level V, he lays the wrenches in ascending order of length from his elbow to his hand, like a xylophone that is part human, part machine. The audience, now prepared for either unexpected virtuosity or a blunt one-liner, waits while Nake struggles to open the beer bottle with his teeth. This accomplished, he begins to play the still full bottle by blowing over the orifice, and indeed accomplishes a remarkable level of virtuosity in rendering Gershwin's "Summertime." The problem with this tune, however, is that it begins high and ends low. With the bottle's range of less than an octave, the performer must drink the beer rapidly in order to preserve the melody's descending course, all the time holding the wrench set aloft. The bottle emptied and the tune played, B. Linds Nake takes up a mallet and begins to strike the wrenches, slowly at first and with increasing vigor until they crash to the floor in a literal cadenza of heavy metal.

Pomeroy often used rejected technologies to underline the awkwardness of the cultural associations of machine imagery and to restructure them. His presentation of an alternate or failed technology serves to deflate or demystify the power of ruling corporate technologies. Terry Gilliam's Brazil posits tangles of pneumatic tubes and ducts as the ties that bind citizen-slaves to the all-powerful corporate state, making us question our own freedom within our own equivalent tangle of electrical wires to power and communications links. Pomeroy's works go beyond merely pointing out uncomfortable parallels or revealing traps. His playful appropriation of orphaned technologies encouraged his audiences and his students to take matters - and mechanisms - into their own hands, and to reterritorialize technology as folklore.

Pomeroy's earliest sound-making devices, based on stripped music-box movements, give us the Boy Mechanic involved with both mechanical and contextual tinkering. The still-sculptural sound installation Fear Elites (1974) was a framed but unwalled room made of sheet-metal studs. The structural members were adorned with dozens of tiny music-box mechanisms, which had been modified and amplified in various ways - cylinders and combs had been inverted or reversed, tines removed from the combs, or objects inserted into the mechanisms--all serving to alter the sound and defy the rote musicality of a single melody, in this case Beethoven's trite bagatelle "Fur Elise." This room-sized automatic mechanism required the participation of the viewer to wind the mechanisms and activate the sound. Once started, the nonexistent walls resounded with amplified tinklings and fragments, outlining a melody that is familiar, but never quite coalesces, dispossessed as it is of both musical and physical site.

The same music-box technology was applied to the performance device Mozart's Moog of the same period. A briefcase crammed with 44 music-box movements mounted on a brushed-aluminum panel presented the user with an array of winding knobs much like the controls on analog electronic music synthesizers of that day. Some of the music-box mechanisms were "prepared," in the style of John Cage's piano modifications, to alter their sound from tonal to percussive qualities. A number of contact microphones attached to the face panel further transformed the sounds electrically and conducted them to audio outputs, and from there to an amplifier. The instrument was played by winding, starting, stopping, and "scratching" (hip-hop fashion) the music-box mechanisms. The enduring problem of live electronic (and now computer) music - what place does human gesture have when all a performer does is press buttons and turn knobs - was brushed aside elegantly by Pomeroy. His placement of the contact microphones ensured that all performative actions were amplified as well, resulting in a sonic conflation of intention, mechanism, and meaning.

Pomeroy often extemporized on intertwining themes of technological development and cultural history, creating a zigzag trail of conceptual puns through his work. His frequently exhibited work, Newt Ascending Astaire's Face, is a floor-model zoetrope measuring three feet in diameter. The animation depicts a silhouette of a newt crawling upwards over a smiling face of Fred Astaire. The punning title serves to unify Marcel Duchamp's timeless rendition of Jules Etienne Marey's motion studies with the animal terpsichore of Eadweard Muybridge and Walt Disney. Only Astaire's eyes move, tracking the amphibian's movements. A later work, Turbo Pan (ca. 1985) may be thought of as an acoustic equivalent of the zoetrope: dozens of cardboard mailing tubes, open at the top and stopped to various lengths, are mounted on the rim of a bicycle wheel, which spins freely in the horizontal plane. A vacuum cleaner, reversed to blow air through a hose mounted above the tubes, causes the whole wheel to spin like a turbine. As each tube passes by the airstream, it sounds a tone related to its length. This Duchampian chimera of zoetrope, barrel organ, and Tibetan prayer wheel suggests an association of technological histories, a path not taken for cultural rather than techno-historical reasons.

Another "ancient" technology frequently appearing in Pomeroy's work is three-dimensional projection. Paradigmatic to the 19th-century observer, 3-D has been repeatedly passed over in our era.3 It is almost universally considered either too messy, cumbersome, or downright unsanitary. With most 3-D systems, observers must fit an apparatus around the head or over the eyes, risking eyestrain, neckache, and/or head-lice contagion. Systems that avoid this involvement do so by means of extremely large and cumbersome apparatuses that defy replication and transportation.4 The machine becomes uncomfortably intrusive because it involves the viewer too intimately in the mechanism. The dual mechanophors of immersion and optical illusion provided Pomeroy with a stock of references rich in history, culture, and myth. He applied 3-D technology in many of his photographic works, installations, and performances.

In a 1981 live 3-D-projection performance entitled Composition in Deep/Light at the Opera, the audience was seated, boxing-match style, around a square formed by the main support-pillars of the gallery.5 The space within the posts was covered with white paper, concealing the performer and the mechanism of projection. The audience members were fitted with anaglyphic (red/green) 3-D viewing glasses. A quadrophonic sound track, composed of vocal noises transmuted by delay lines and feedback, evoked a mechanization of the vocal apparatus. From this emerged a litany of invective terms declaimed in alphabetical sequence.6 Moving shadows, in pairs of red and green, appeared on the paper projection screen. The shadows fused in the viewer's brain into images of bicycle wheels, war planes, and sharks, all seeming to burst from within the apparatus and fly out over the audience. Spectators were observed ducking to avoid the attacking sharks. That so robust an illusion can still be effected in a 20th-century art-sophisticated audience, by a single performer juggling props in front of four pairs of red and green light bulbs, is testimony to the unfamiliar power of orphaned technologies, as well as the unfailing foibles of our human visual system.

An installation echoing Composition in Deep was presented as Clear Bulbs Cast Sharp Shadows at Pro Arts in Oakland, California in 1987. Large sharks, constructed from heavy wire and steel strapping were suspended, Calderly, from the high ceiling of the gallery. Several sets of red/green lights cast rotating shadow pairs on the wall. Viewers who entered the space wearing anaglyphic glasses became immersed (submerged?) in a 3-D world, suggestive in its appearance of the computation-bound wire-frame model projections then available for real-time computer graphics. The sound track, composed of computerized snippets from Kurt Weill's "Moritat" from The Threepenny Opera ("Mack the Knife"), invokes Bertolt Brecht and quips at the consanguinity of the artistic, scientific, and corporate mafias.

A performance persona frequently adopted by Pomeroy in association with onstage 3-D activities is a somewhat sinister version of Benjamin Franklin, legendary Boy Mechanic, inventor of the glass harmonica, electrical experimenter, and patriotic hierophant. Wearing a Halloween bald wig with straggly white hair and a set of four-eyed trick glasses, Pomeroy presented his sleight-of-eye seances as part of several performance medleys. The Ben Franklin persona is the emcee of Listen to the Rhythm of the Reign/Some Excellent Music for Marble Pedestals (a video version of that performance piece was compiled during a residency at Visual Studies Workshop in 1985).7 Here, the iconic Boy Mechanic-as-ironic old fart serves as playful mediator between Pomeroy's performance pranks and the hilariously transparent technocratic mumbo jumbo that surrounds big art, big science, and big politicking. Intercut with the performance and the projected imagery are double-edged texts reminiscent of Poor Richard (e.g., "If we don't hang together we shall certainly hang separately"). The ruling taste stripped bare by its machinists, even.

"Great art is timeless, pure, and exhibits universal appeal in the expression of noble truth.

Content resides within the form which embodies universal truths of personal expression.

Thus, abstract art, by definition, is humanistic.

The first word in paint is pain!

Contemporary formal art, especially large geometric work is primarily intended for public or corporate acquisition.

Thus, public/corporate patronage of modern art is not only wise investment, good public relations, but gracious humanism as well.

Art which is ephemeral, topical, critical or risky cannot hope to gain the pedestal status of "excellence"...

The secrets of Nature are to be found in the Infinite Remote and the Infinitesimal Minute.

Pure Science is the Noble Pursuit of the Deepest secrets of Nature.

Nature is Mysterious, Pervasive, and Profound.

There will always be funds for Pure Art and Pure Science.

The Inherent Humanism of these Noble Pursuits is their eternal Humanlessness"8

Machines themselves are imbued with personae, and their images serve a synechdochic purpose by referring to larger social phenomena in which machines are instrumental. Pomeroy's deployment of the mechanical often brings the machine-as-tool face-to-face with the machine-as-cultural-artifact. The Monopoly tokens (machine icons of power and speed), windups (animated icons), and projection images and shadows of warships, tanks, and sharks (killing-machines) that frequently appeared in his performances comprise a cast of characters who share the performative space that Pomeroy created and inhabited. Within this space the class distinctions between pun, metaphor, instrument, and prop are systematically confounded. Multiple layerings of association and intention serve to encourage the viewer to reunite and bundle the perceptions into an experience that is at once humorous and critical. In Quartet for Licorice Pizzas, little Volkswagen vans fitted with phonograph mechanisms play LP records by driving around the grooves in an accelerating hard-left turn. The blacktop vinyl roads are marching-band rhythm grooves and military bugle calls. Windup tanks and toy trains in Mantra of the Corporate Tautologies trigger sounds as they run in their circular tracks, but also set off associations of industry and war as child's play. Windup tanks appear again, combined with Amiga-processed patriotic imagery and Laibach's hauntingly martial rendition of "Let It Be" in the Digital Sketches video of 1990, and a full-scale tank seems to dance with a Chinese protestor in the digital resequencing that occurs in Tienanmen Tango.

Token Dreams, like many of Pomeroy's works, had multiple realizations. The earlier live versions used slide dissolves and a voice track. The slides, digitized and computer-processed images of Monopoly tokens were later replaced by 3-D polygon renderings of the familiar tokens enhanced with texture-mapped imagery. The sound track begins with a electronic flanger sound and a violently dislocated voice, lowered electronically to imply authority, echoed enormously to suggest an absurdly large space or a shrinking of our own frame of reference. When we at last adjust our ears to understand this voice, we realize it is reciting the rules of Monopoly. "The object of the game is to acquire properties...." Another voice, simple and undistorted, now appears as our guide through a hell of monumentally engorged Monopoly tokens projected on the screen (in later versions, the video). The unity and stability of corporate symbols is disrupted as each token tells its story.

The token of a shoe appears:

"I dreamed I was trapped inside a Monopoly game, except I didn't pass "Go" and I couldn't collect $200. I hustled enough cash to score a coupla pints of Mad Dog and woke up in the tank, trying to roll doubles."

Accompanying the image of the thimble:

"Without a green card the only job I could get was sewing counterfeit Levis fourteen hours a day in Chinatown."

Voice-over for the cavalry rider:

"You know, it's weird the way some advertisers persistently mask products of dependency with symbols of freedom. Marlboro just can't seem to kick the horse habit."

The cannon:

"From the halls of Montezuma, and once again to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country's battles as often as necessary, given any token excuse. It's not just a job, it's blitzkrieg, business, and the American Way."

As the Boy Mechanic tinkers with corporate symbology, he disrobes the machinery of identity and communication. That he uses machines to lay bare contradictions in the culture forces no greater paradox itself; nor does this circumscribe the field of discourse into a self-referential dead end. In a culture already dominated by an inflated currency of symbols, appropriation has long been the technique of choice for artists. The techno-utopian conucopias the corporate powers promise, in the form of devices for greater productivity (e.g., digital-imaging work-stations, music synthesis hardware and software) are embraced by the Boy Mechanic selectively and critically. Also, he rejects the notion that the techno-media are neutral "tools" with which artists will make masterpieces of the future. He knows that for the corporate tastemakers, the bottom line is only a way to stay in the game. And for the artist, survival sometimes means waiting all night in the belly of a horse.

Pomeroy's wit, his performance personae, and his unique brand of stand-up theory all continue to turn in his grave, no doubt powered by a rotisserie motor scavenged from Goodwill. Disconnected from their animating force, the remaining artifacts of his estate serve out a common sentence of neglect. Pomeroy's passionate embrace of alternative technologies and his disdain for state secrets led him to champion open systems whose defined use and available software and peripherals were not closely controlled by their manufacturers. As a consequence, many of his works are fast becoming machine-unreadable as the tower continues to grow in height. Luddite dreams of smashing machines are long gone. Our thoughts turn, not toward what to destroy, but what to retain when the bricks come tumbling down. I think that Pomeroy would suggest that our sense of humor be the indispensable tool in making these choices. As he wrote in his parody of Shelley in Making the World Safe for Geometry:

"I met a tourist, an urban man,

Who said: "Two vast and funkless shafts of tone

Stand in the city. Near them in the sand,

Half sunk, a flatter sausage glides, whose brown

And purple stripes, and spheres of gold-green bands

Tell that its sculptor well his commission bid,

And well thrives, cranking out these lifeless things

From a plan that mocks-up this art from a grid.

In the contract, these words appear:

"My aim is good maintenance,...keep it cleaned.

Look out for my work, nightly, and repair!"

Nothing remains long around the base

Of that colossal object, except for the glare

As the long and beveled spans stretch out for a ways."9

1 "Re The Production of Work in the Age of Mechanical Art" J. Pomeroy, The LAICA Journal, Oct/Nov 1978

2 "Turning on Laughs, Electronically" Robert Commanday The San Francisco Chronicle June 12, 1981

3see "Techniques of the Observer" Jonathan Crary, MIT Press 1990

4 for a thorough review of 3-D projection technologies see "Stereoscopic Video and the Quest for Virtual Reality" Michael Starks in SPIE Vol 1669, Stereoscopic Displays and Applications III, Feb. 1992

5 Performed at 80 Langton St. San Francisco, Sept 23, 1981. JP's inter-punning titles serve to reveal conceptual connections among works in diverse media.

6 "Alphabetical Invective" published privately on audiocassette "Zoom Bi-Speel"1985

7 "Listen to the Rhythm of the Reign" published privately on VHS videocassette 1985, 25 minutes.

8 "Some Excellent Music for Marble Pedestals," ibid.

9 in "Blind Snake Blues" published privately, 1979