Monday, August 8, 2011

The Mike Davis interview: talking of Tesla, the Unarians, and Navy dolphins

What I enjoy about BOMB magazine is its focus on ideas rather than style, content more than technique, art over celebrity. The current issue introduces me to at least four artists I'm not familiar with. The hook here is that the interviews are more like late-night boozy chats between friends (artists talking to artists, mostly) or on long drives into the California desert. There's at least one artist in each issue whose ideas intrigue me enough to learn more about their work.

It can be heavy going at times. Yes, the big ideas get tossed about, sometimes laid on with a trowel, but most of BOMB's pages are filled with artists having a chance to air their opinions about where it is their art comes from. Increasingly relegated to the fringes of American life and mostly ignored by pop culture, the grandchildren of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock are scrambling for grant money and gallery wall space. BOMB gives its readers a chance to meet them on their own terms -- artists and writers, architects and sculptors, photographers.

Sometimes the ideas of art and politics combine to add another dimension to the interview. In the summer issue, Lucy Raven takes a road trip to El Cajon, California to interview writer Mike Davis, whose books include City of Quartz (2006) and his upcoming Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. Davis and Raven spin through the desert around El Cajon, where Davis grew up.

Live here for a while (I grew up in the San Diego backcountry in the 50s and 60s) and you will inevitably have eerie, unexpected encounters with the brave new world that a trillion dollars of recent military expenditures is bringing into being ... frequently, in the mornings, there are dolphins doing Sea World-like stunts in the water; after an encore, they hop aboard the back of a Navy fast-boat which roars back to the marine-mammal weapons facility -- or whatever it's actually called -- at Ballast Point. ... they are now part of the naval arsenal and were used to penetrate Saddam's harbor defenses during both Iraq wars.

One interviewer has described Davis as " a walking encyclopedia of whatever is strange and riveting about Southern California." His theories are sometimes startlingly unique: a book originally intended to focus on the Rodney King riots morphed into 1998's Ecology of Fear. Davis describes that book's larger theme as "a study of the fetishism of disaster in Southern California, where the natural gets seen in social terms (coyotes and mountain lions compared to street gangs), while social problems are seen as natural events (street gangs are 'feral and wilding youth.')."

Then, of course, there are the sights of El Cajon for which Davis has a wonderful affinity. Here is the conversation between Raven, Davis, and members of the Unarian religious community at the location of the self-described "celestial world of Unarius":

Mike Davis: The Unarians came just after I graduated from high school in the mid-60s, and they're really quite wonderful. Their message is the loving convergence of the 32 inhabited worlds, celebrity-quality reincarnated genealogies for everyone, and the building of Nikola Tesla's City of Light.
Lucy Raven: Tesla? Fantastic. The man who battled Edison over AC/DC, and in his twilight years battled over the invention of a "death ray" particle-beam weapon (it's also been called a "peace ray," as a weapon to end all wars) must be smiling all around us.
MD: Seriously, these folks are latter-day Fourierians with their homegrown version of communal socialism, galactic peace, and life in crystal phalansteries. The group was founded by an aging couple in the '50s who decided they wanted to become god and goddess. This is the model of one of their future cities, albeit already existing on more advanced planets. The radial design is uncannily like the plan of Llano del Rio, the briefly lived socialist utopia in the Mohave Desert during World War I. But this one, of course --
LR: -- is bejeweled.

Unarian HQ

MD: And that would be a 100-foot high alabaster wall.
LR: Wow, the "power tower." Great that they have it in Spanish also.
MD: "Peace, prosperity, internationalism." In Duncan Hunter's own congressional district. And here are the founders over here. Ruth Norman. Doesn't she look adorable?
LR: She looks amazing. Is it a painting or a photograph?
MD: I think they added a little William Blake to Tesla here.
Unarian: Do you want me to light up the star map?
LR: Why not?

LR: Is this space the physical center of of Unarius?
Unarian 2: It's the physical manifestation of the celestial world of Unarius.
Unarian 1: There are seven spiritual planets, teaching centers where scientists, artists, philosophers, and everyone else goes through time periods as they start to progress into a higher awareness of themselves. Nikola Tesla is the head of the scientific plane of Eros. It's where all the scientists who have left their mark in the world come from.
Unarian 2: Like many of the famous people of the past. Maybe they don't consciously remember, but in their sleep or out-of-body experiences, they gain knowledge. ...

Wow. The interviews in BOMB are a valiant effort to answer the old and eternal question: where does art come from? The process of turning life into art can be a truly mystifying one. War-trained dolphins and Unarians, the Rodney King riots, coyotes and street gangs ... It's a good thing BOMB arrives every few months to help the reader sort it all out.

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