NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008
MORGAN MEIS

CLASSIFIED REPORT FROM
“THE SECRET CLUBHOUSE”

THE CLANDESTINE JOYS OF MAKING ART THAT NOBODY WILL EVER SEE

DISCUSSED: 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

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Morgan Meis is an editor at 3 Quarks Daily and a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He writes a weekly column for thesmartset.com.

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