Classified Report from The Secret Clubhouse

Childish Impulses, Brillo Boxes, The Mystery of Transubstantiation, Snow Shovels, Burying Things in the Wall of the Queens Museum, The Lovely Whiff of Ruins, The 1975 Palace Invasion of the North Vietnamese Army, Keys, Styrofoam Hills, Witch Burnings, The Many Uses of Old Pallets, Jaunty Chapeaux

Classified Report from The Secret Clubhouse

Morgan Meis
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Queering the World, One Fort at a Time

We’ve been fort builders from the beginning. Flux Factory—an arts collective originally fo­unded by a group of New School students in Williamsburg in 1994—is itself a fort, and every art project we ever produced was a fort, too.

I am, unabashedly, pro-fort. It is a childish impulse, I suppose, the building of forts. One generally constructs them out of pillows and extra sheets in the first go-round. Then you graduate to the out-of-doors. You go into the trees in an act of reverse-evolution, harkening back to distant ancestors with prehensile tails. But you’re also playing at building things, re­enacting basic civilizational urges embedded in the species mind. As soon as you’ve built one fort, you try to make the next one even better, bigger, more innovative. I had a friend in the Hollywood Hills, where I grew up, who built a fort with indoor plumbing, electricity, mechanical devices. But it still felt different being in the fort than being in the house. The fort was an experiment and the house was just a house.

I suspect (but these things cannot be proven definitively) that the relationship that art has to the real world is something like the relationship that a fort has to a house. They exist in the same world, they even share basic functional roles. And yet, they are dif­ferent. The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto writes:

Since we are aware that some things are not works of art, the philosophical problem for contemporary aesthetics is to explain what makes the difference. This problem becomes acute when we consider works of art that re­semble, in all the particulars, some object that is not a work of art, such as Warhol’s Brillo Box. In this case it would be unreasonable to argue that such material differences as may exist between the artwork and the soap-pad packaging suffice to explain why the one is a work of art while its utilitarian look-alikes are not.

There is no way, on the face of it, to distinguish Warhol’s Brillo box from an actual Brillo box. So, you have to explore the object in terms of what it is trying to do, what it is “up to.” A regular Brillo box isn’t trying to be anything other than a Brillo box that can be used as a Brillo box. But Warhol’s Brillo box is up to something else. It doesn’t want to be used as a Brillo box, it wants to be understood as a work of art.

So it goes with the fort. You must have access to the “up-to-ness” of the fort in order to understand why it is special and different from a normal structure. Take two identical objects, one built to be a toolshed and the other built as a fort. They look exactly the same. But once you know that one is a fort, it transforms. You approach it with diffidence, with the respect of someone entering a sacred space. That is why children hide their forts and surround them with all manner of booby traps. Special spaces require special measures. For the uninitiated to enter the fort is for the fort to be sullied, to have become polluted. When you are a child the last thing you want is for a parent (for instance) to enter the fort, bringing with them, inevitably, the stigma of the mundane. A parent can be allowed into the fort only under special circumstances and with a firm understanding that they will play by a different set of rules: fort rules. It is like trying to take communion when you’re unbaptized. You can put the wafer in your mouth a thousand times, but the mystery of transubstantiation will elude you.

It is the same with works of art. You don’t treat them as mere objects even if, strictly speaking, there is nothing in their material makeup to differentiate them from mere objects. But as Marcel Duchamp ­famously demonstrated, taking an otherwise worldly object and presenting it as art produces an almost metaphysical transformation. I’ve always been particularly impressed by the audacity of Prelude to a ­Broken Arm (1915). It’s a snow shovel, one of Duchamp’s earliest “readymades.” Readymades were simple, everyday objects that Du­champ presented as works of art. Duchamp was being­ cheeky, of course, having a little fun. But he was also trying to figure out how subtle the gesture could be that knocks something from ­reality into art.

Flux Factory realized that the fort isn’t just like art in its structural relationship to reality. It is, in fact, art, because it does the same thing with the real world that any other work of art does. It queers it. The fort participates in the same world that everything else does (every­thing that is not-art) but without the same purpose. The fort, like the painting, is free to be indifferent to purpose altogether. When you’re building a fort you can learn a little something about shape and form and function and interaction along the way. If not, you still have the fort, which is nice.

Armed with this simple but unimaginably powerful insight, we at Flux Factory began to “fortify” ourselves and places around us. We started in earnest during a now-­infamous installation at the Queens Museum of Art during the fall of 2002 in which we occupied a room of the museum for several months and, basically, built a fort there. We collected crap from all around Flux and on walks around the neighborhood. With these simple items, we began to build something. The room turned into a place and the place turned into a way of life and a set of rituals and procedures. We came in every morning and performed our opening ceremony with music and photo-ops and a ribbon-cutting. We had an official tea ceremony every afternoon. We built rooms and documented every­thing in the between times. At the end of the day, we had a closing ceremony and repaired the ribbon for the next morning’s opening. We became so excited about our fort that we secretly tunneled into the walls of the museum and left bits of what we called our “permanent installation” buried in the museum’s infrastructure. They still find pieces of it to this day.

By the close of the Queens Museum project, we began consciously to see art as a fort. We wanted to build more forts. We also became even more fascinated by the idea of secrecy. Secrecy is to human relationships as forts and clubhouses are to the structures of the real world. We realized that we must create a secret clubhouse of our own.


The Rules

For “Secret Clubhouse” we secured some space in an old warehouse, the location and specifics of which, alas, must remain secret. But it was a lovely space, I can tell you. It had the whiff of ruins about it, a sense of lost time. The machines and vats and conveyance mechanisms littered about the space had simply been abandoned when the business shut down. It reminded me of the basement of what had been the Presidential Palace of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. Since the day that the North Vietnamese army rolled in (an NVA tank literally crashed through the palace gates), on April 30, 1975, the place has been left entirely untouched. You can visit it today and view a turbulent fragment of 1975, with the maps and the phones and the desks completely undisturbed. A chunk of what-it-was-like-then frozen like a time capsule within the what-it’s-like-now. The secret warehouse for Secret Clubhouse was like that.

Next, we rounded up fourteen “club members.” We wanted to find artists who were willing to go into a space, sight unseen, and start working. The only aesthetic rule was that each artist had to create something in the space that remained unfinished and that would be passed along as “raw material” for the next artist to work with. And you had to do it alone, just the artist and the Clubhouse (with two exceptions—one sanctioned by the founding Clubhouse members, one not). We needed people who wouldn’t be upset by the idea that their own work might be utterly transformed (maybe destroyed, even) by the artists who came in after them. Most artists are not fond of the idea that several weeks’ work might be obliterated the moment they leave. Many who were approached declined immediately. But eventually, we found our fourteen. One by one we gave them the key to the space and allowed them exactly two weeks to work. Only one key existed, and after your tenure expired, you weren’t allowed to reenter the space until the Clubhouse was finished. Of course, we will never know exactly what happened in the Clubhouse during all those lonely and unsupervised hours, but that was part of the mystery. None of our artists, before receiving the key, would know anything about who had come before them or who would come after.  When they were finished, they would leave as anonymously as they came, the only record of their presence being their work and the daily messages they dictated to a voicemail account we set up so that they could describe the process as they saw it. This audio record, along with some pictures and video, ended up being the only surviving document  of and testimonial to what took place.

This was the foundation for a secret clubhouse of aesthetic experimentation. What it created was something beautiful and strange and unique that existed for a few short months and then was obliterated from the face of the earth.


What They Found There

Unfortunately, our Secret Clubhouse ended up being even more secret than we intended. Certain unforeseen (honestly) legal issues came up halfway through the project and we were never able to show it to anyone who wasn’t a member. We had accidentally pushed the whole thing to its self-mandated extreme; the Secret Clubhouse would remain absolutely secret. It was now reminiscent of the sculptures atop European cathedrals that can never be seen by the people below. They are for God alone.

The first person in the space was an OCD-afflicted young artist named Paul Burn. I wanted Paul to go first because I wanted him to inflict his neuroses and perfectionism on the empty, gutted, dank hole of a space. He obliged. Paul began with a series of ramps leading from the raised concrete platform at the front of the room to the rest of the room below. He built an entranceway leading down this ramp with sheets of layered plywood narrowing to an exit point, thereby creating the impression of passing through a ­giant eye. He threw wooden ­pallets around and he made a sculpture of a man wearing a bandanna. He created a small mountain out of black Styrofoam at the back of the room and suspended a circle of thin wood in front of the mountain. On one of his voice messages, he said, “To put an arc on top of a rectangle is very bold.” He thought of himself as “fighting between grids and circles,” with circles winning out. Paul was trying to create point of view and the possibility of texture. He was making something out of nothing, like a primal deity. In his earliest messages he said he wanted to create an “explosion.” When he was done, the room was no longer a nothing-to-be, it was a something-to-be. But it was also, of necessity, a not-much. His aesthetic stabs into the unknown were lonely and unconnected. I suspect that it caused him a certain amount of pain. The pain of first creation.

That was the scenario that Mark Power faced when he entered the Secret Clubhouse. He talks in his messages about being “blown away” by the fact that the previous artist had had such an impact on the space. Mark spent a number of days just wandering around the Clubhouse, looking. Finally, he started thinking about the ceiling as one little area he could “connect with” in an “intimate way.” Mark is a sculptor, but he was thinking like a landscape artist. I think he walked into the room after Paul had been there and his eye was drawn ever forward to the false horizon of circles and Styrofoam hills. My god, he must have thought, we’re re-creating the very elements down here in this secret hole! Or maybe he simply realized that Paul Burn had been looking down, so he decided to look up. Mark made lovely “packages” (he describes them as “Tootsie Rolls”) out of bundles of puffy white packing material and he tied them to the ceiling. Now the Clubhouse had horizon and perspective and verticality. He also added a “triangle of foam” to complement Paul’s circle. During one of Mark’s voice messages, he mentions that his packages were closed little bundles that reflected his own closed emotional state since he “was supposed to have been married a few days ago.”

Next, the key landed in the hands of Karen Azoulay. Karen found the Clubhouse cluttered with what she called “abandoned sculptures” and other detritus. She described Paul’s plywood eye as an “ass that frames the space,” and is the first person to call Mark’s sculptures “clouds.” Her first action was to unwrap one of Mark’s packages and break down the frame he created for her own use. Then she became obsessed with collecting twigs and scraps of wood from the neighborhood. Slowly she built up a structure not unlike a bonfire. She brought a friend in (technically against the rules) and put her in the middle of the bonfire as if it were a witch burning. All of this she photographed. (She mentioned these photos in her phone messages, though left no photos for the next artist.) Personally, I think she followed her intuition that space and time had been dealt with but not density, not history. She was adding some trauma to the mix. As she put it, she “found some pieces of wood and thought, Oh, this looks like something I could turn into fire.” She was certainly playing with the implicit sense of danger. The mental journey from secret clubhouses to witches and their covens is not so great, a couple of degrees of separation. If nothing else, I think Karen had the desire for something to happen in the space and for that happening to leave a strange and ambiguous trace—the sooty, sinister remnants of a blaze. It no doubt helped that she found that old iron vat. It looked plenty like a cauldron. Turns out that cauldron + Secret Clubhouse = witch burnings.

Elisa Lendvay started by taking photos of pallets throughout the warehouse and then arranging the prints on one of the Clubhouse walls. She brought in a few chairs for the space. Then she collected beautiful objects in glass and brought them to the Clubhouse. This was a promising approach. Glass suggests, however vaguely, that quasi-­scientific experiments have been going on. The problem was that Elisa’s private life was in some degree of upheaval during the time of glass collection and she spent most of her Clubhouse residency moving the hell out of her former apartment. She was going to arrange a lean-to as a house for the glass and a “cozy space.” But on the eve of day fourteen, she couldn’t make it. The assembled glassware would remain a forlorn testimonial to the ongoing struggle between the demands of life and the demands of art.

When Thomas Hutchinson’s turn came, he was ready to start ­really clubhousing in the clubhouse. Thomas went wild with pallets. He made a staircase up to Mark’s “clouds,” and worked with what he calls Karen’s “fire diorama.” At some point he tried to put a “lightning bolt” into Mark’s clouds but took it down later. Most massively and impressively, he built an entire room from pallets. This was a huge undertaking and required countless hours of carrying pallets around from one part of the warehouse to the Clubhouse. With these, he created an entryway at the front of the Clubhouse and filled the pallet “hut” with a few odd “archaeo­logical” warehouse relics. The Clubhouse now had an entry ­tunnel to crawl through (essential in any clubhouse) and a nice pallet-constructed bench where a group of pals could easily congregate. The pallets gave it one hell of a look, like a place where hobos would sit around and cook up a can of beans over stories about hopping the old Bath and Hammondsport railway line.

Our Secret Clubhouse was not the first time Trong Gia Nguyen had explored the immense possibilities contained within a box. Trong made the bold move of subdividing the Clubhouse into two discreet spaces. He wanted to “block the back of the Clubhouse from immediate view.” So he built a giant wall about two thirds of the way toward the back of the space. The wall, made of cardboard boxes, featured a central window that framed the floating circle and the Styrofoam mountains. He began to refer to it as “the VIP area.” The wall seemed both imposing on one hand and a monument to mortality on the other, a tribute to the in­evitable collapse of all earthly things. (It collapsed three times while he was building it.) He called it a “Q-Bert installation.” Trong also provided a cardboard hat for Thomas’s entry room. Crowned with cardboard boxes, the entry room became jaunty. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a jaunty entry room coiffed in a magnificent cardboard chapeau, but you don’t soon forget the sight.

That’s when the poets came in: Marion Wilson and her friend Michael Burkard. They took to writing bits of text on pieces of paper and affixing them to the walls, the floors, and the various sculptures and structures they found within. One text bit read, “There aren’t enough grey cars. Will we be there soon, grey.” Also, they started to organize items in the Clubhouse according to color. They understood that it is of the essence of a Secret Clubhouse that it cannot reveal itself but in codes that, naturally, only refer to the unrevealable ­nature of the Secret Clubhouse. Michael claimed he found it hard to leave, that he had been enchanted in some way.

Ben Puah traveled from Singapore in order to get some time in the Clubhouse. Ben filled the Clubhouse with his own form of symbology. Wielding a black paintbrush, and with the bold strokes of a man confused, angry, but thoroughly determined, Ben made his mark. He explained his choice of Chinese symbol to me thusly: “The striking, repetitive use of one single Chinese text ‘ALIVE’ that resembled a graffiti act or campaign slogan initiative is aimed to project ¡®Identity¡¯ as an unfixed and unstable state within this intervention activity work in relation to the specific space.” Yes.

Having gained language, the Clubhouse was ready for Kerry Downey and her coconspirators, Molly Schulman and David Snyder. These are people who like to make a mess. Kerry immediately felt that there was “a strange psychosexual tension to the back of the Clubhouse.” She described “balls and phal­luses and spluges.” Molly tried to “squish” Mark’s clouds. In the meantime she vacuumed and slept. The three created stalagmites out of unknown industrial materials. Kerry got hold of some old paperwork from the warehouse and used it almost like organic matter, like it was growing out of the toxins beneath the concrete floor. Kerry left a message saying, “I love this place, I love it, I love it.” She couldn’t stop talking about all the materials. They were making her crazy, in a good way. By the time they finished, these three artists had turned the Clubhouse into something ancient, prehistoric. And they created a laboratory for discovering what various found materials can do. Kerry left a message saying, “We fucking busted this shit open. I don’t know what the fuck to say.” They had become masters of the Clubhouse. They arrived to bear witness to the fact that the Clubhouse had finally gone through puberty. It was a noisy, talkative, colorful, textural, surprising son of a bitch of a Secret Clubhouse now.

This set the stage for Nick Yulman. As Dr. Seuss might have said, Nick liked clingers, and plingers, and cloodling badingers. Anything that can make a little bit of noise and become mechanical was fair game for Nick. He would wire up the entire world with an infinity of delicate filaments that knocked against a resonant other if he could. He would make all things click and clack in a complicated global orchestra of stuff making noises. Nick’s voice messages sometimes consisted only of the sounds of his mechanisms. But he also told us that the Clubhouse seemed to him like “a series of mini-clubhouses.” So he made a room within the room, just to the left of Trong’s cardboard wall, composed of wooden pallets and scrap lumber. He based it on a room created by “Music Man,” a person Nick met in Alabama whom Nick described as “a lunatic, in a beautiful way.” Inside that room, the Clubhouse learned to sing. A vast array of gizmos and contraptions controlled by a central computer program whirred and clamored and dinged hour after hour in the lonely cathedral of the Secret Clubhouse.

And that’s when Ian Montgomery came in to finish things off. Ian is his own guy. He prefers to climb through a window than to enter through the front door. But he’s got magic fingers. He has a feel for matter, all kinds of matter, and just how to coax it into form. That’s what he did in the Clubhouse. He tweaked everything. He took away some stuff that never worked and he helped other aspects of the Clubhouse to figure things out. When he left the Secret Clubhouse, it looked exactly the same as before he’d come in, only three times better. That’s the way the magic man works: he unobtrusively does his thing and then drifts away to fix the next aesthetic problem. Ian, characteristically, was silent about his activities. He never left a message on the voicemail. He never told anyone anything.


Closing Ceremonies

And that was it. That was the Secret Clubhouse. We hosted one night when all the artists had the opportunity to come back and see what they had wrought. What they saw was a Clubhouse, a fort that was also a piece of art. No one person had been in aesthetic control of the space, but nevertheless, a coherent environment had come to be. It seemed organic and fabricated simultaneously. It was as if this industrial space had developed the capacity to grow itself, to make up shapes and forms and colors out of the possibilities inherent in its raw materials. At the same time, an overall intentionality had emerged from the disconnected activities of all the different artists. Finally, the secretness gave the Clubhouse that much more of a mysterious aura, along with the whiff of fragility. Mostly the artists just walked around and around, taking it all in, laughing sometimes, exploring, playing in their Clubhouse.

I wish you could have seen it. I’ll tell you one thing: when I walked around that damn Clubhouse I just felt good. You always feel good when a Clubhouse comes together, when you’ve built the fort and can lie in it. But it is in the nature of forts of all kinds, of which Secret Clubhouses constitute one subset, to be temporary. The pillows must go back onto the couch. The blankets are needed for the guest room. That’s the price exacted for the privilege of being a fort builder. We spent one last night in the Secret Clubhouse doing secret things, having secret conversations. Then we gutted the whole room and piled it into a Dumpster. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

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