The San Francisco dump has a glorious artist in residence program run by Recology. Artists are given 4 months and studio space on-site which then becomes the gallery for a 2 day exhibition. Witnessing the constant flow of unwanted things from sunup to sundown is a profound experience and some artists recoil and leave because of it. For me, the sheer joy of hunting unlimited treasure outweighed the burden of truth. And at least I get to take some stuff away from “away.”
During my stay I was visited by Ed Humes, who’s book Garbology, Our Love Affair with Trash, is a stunner. A short poem of mine on the subject is included in one of his chapters and I performed another, much longer one, for my exhibition. The program’s description of my work is a taut bit of well-worded script, so I’ve included it here and my ode to inanimate orphans can be found below.
“Benjamin Burke explores the concept of the uncanny valley, a term coined for robotics or animation that too closely resemble the human form—figures that are incredibly familiar, yet disturbingly wrong. For Burke’s cast of uncanny characters he has vivified found mannequins and other forms through lo-fi animatronics to create interactive assemblage pieces. Sculpture meets theater as this troupe of misfits become actors in a presentation which will include performances by Burke, whose interests lie in traditions of theatrical showmanship. Informed by carnival and vaudeville, Burke’s art incorporates fables, story-telling, and dark comedy to explore the magical or arcane, using the past to contextualize, or even reinvigorate the present. The works may channel the ghosts of performers of old, or perhaps just prompt a night of crazy dreams.”
Home for Creepy Things
There are many bags of whistles
There are boxes filled with pork
There are foxes stuffed as a mantelpiece
Who’s meat never touched a fork
There are vacuum cleaners that do not suck
They say there’s one born every minute
And when a house is brought down, there is usually found
A big pile of things that were in it
O the things that get tossed
And the memories lost
It’s the stuff of which treasure is made
It’s all coming up emeralds
Dig a ditch for the ephemeral
With a broken hoe and a rusty old spade
Furniture that’s long forgotten
Food that’s clearly far from rotten
And toys that just simply got played
Every tool, every lamp
Things you used to take camping
Lay in darkness, but, friends, they can be saved
For first there’s Life
Then the dump
And then there is something that happens
For which I haven’t the words
But no doubt I will find them
Someday in a pile of things that someone deemed absurd
“That’s just crazy!”
“If it’s true, then that’s lame.”
But at the close of each day we dispose without shame
We assumed something’s broke so we chose just to blame
All those gizmos inside, cause we don’t knows their names
“I couldn’t possibly fix it.
No, not with my brain.
Besides, I’m too busy
Maybe next time it rains.”
All of this
All of that
And even those things over there
Will be kicked to the curb
Without even a word
Why, it’s almost as if no one cares
But what if someone does?
What if someone wants?
What good is a ghost with no house to haunt?
What if these things aren’t really broken
They just want to move on
Is there not a place for these souls in our new-fangled dawn?!
It is here then, where you’ll find us
With this mountain behind us
Giving life where death visits the just born
We’re the timeless lords of the spineless hordes
The wretched, the tattered and torn
And also the brand-spanking new that’s unwanted
Like clothes that have never been worn
And it comes in all colors
But mostly red, white and blue
It’s the way that we do things
It’s a fine how-do-you-do
Cause we just don’t do things that good
Cause we’re too busy
Too rich or too poor
Do we want more
Which is it this week?
My TV broke, so
“Hey let’s go get a new one
And get rid of this wreck”
“What should I do with the old one?”
“I don’t know- I’m upset!”
For it seems
Well it’s just got to go somewhere
I’m sure that we all know that feeling
Why every cell in our bodies wants to go and do something
We like fishing
So our minds are reeling
But every thing that you caught
Well, it’s got to brought home and cared for
‘Til it’s last dying day
Not just used up and thrown down
Eat the skin and bones now
For there is no such thing as “Away”
There’s the street
The good earth
And always a dark alley
Or the loving arms of the Orphanage of the Uncanny Valley
We’re on a ship with no overboard
But there’s cooks in the galley
With recipes for these scraps
This one, I call “Sally.”
The Art of Winging It
In 2013, I was one of 20 people chosen annually to become a TED Fellow. My first talk, delivered at the main conference in Long Beach, CA, was on the subject of winging it, a process which is very dear to my heart and good for my mind.
The World is Weirder Than You Think
In 2014, I delivered a talk for TEDxYouth at Facebook entitled “The World is Weirder Than You Think.” I spoke to the current failings of our education systems and used my own circuitous story of finding my life’s work to illustrate some key strategies for winding your way through the woods. Unfortunately, all the speaker footage from the event was stolen by the videographer. Which is weird.
An Old Friend Who Never Misses a Good Revolution
For the fellows retreat at Asilomar in Monterey, CA in 2015, I tried to make peace with a destructive force after slipping into something more comfortable.
For the academy’s “One Truth, Many Lies” program, I presented a lecture entitled “Repurposed Materials” on the subject of the human microbiome, endosymbiotic theory and its poetic implications for our perceptions of self. I also led a workshop where visitors assembled contraption shadow puppets inspired by microorganisms from an array of household items and random objects.
The Dream Community in Taipei, Taiwan, is an extraordinary group of people. Their artist in residence program brings in creators of all kinds from all kinds of places throughout the globe to spread big, weird art throughout Taiwan.
I spent 3 months there in 2012, with 4 other artists from New Orleans, and we built a two-headed alligator mausoleum voo-doo throne Mardi Gras motorized party-wagon float for their big annual parade. My magnum opus of contraptions was at its heart, nested within the mausoleum belly and surrounded by 6 “tomb windows,” each of which housed a lo-fi animatronic puppet. Composed of 9 bicycle wheels, a stack of bamboo and 50 feet of aircraft cable, it allowed the “pilot” riding atop the second story party platform to manipulate the puppets by turning a ship wheel side-to-side. No I don’t have any pictures at the moment. It was typhoon season. Things were hard. But I’ll find some.
I was then sent to two small villages in the south to help the locals design floats for their own traditional annual parades. Indeed, Gordon Tsai, the Dream Community’s founder, seemed to be right. There were a lot of folks out there in this country that were bored with the gorgeous artistic traditions of their homeland. They had enough traditions. They wanted a space lion driving a flaming motorcycle. An elephant house on wheels. A dolphin airplane with funny, sexy flight attendants flanking it on all sides for the year’s biggest celebration. I’d present them with a few ideas I felt were relevant and they would say, “Yeah that’s fine but what’s that on that other page? Is that an airplane that’s also a dolphin? We love that. There’s a pod of rare pink dolphins that visits our cove every year. And it’s a plane? That’s crazy. Let’s do that.” So that’s what we did. Again, no photos yet. But here’s a photo of me and team New Orleans fulfilling our duties as parade birds in south Taiwan.