Summer 2006

Thing / No. 3

Mostly blue and pretty small

Andrea Codrington, Joshua Glenn, and Tal Schori

“Thing” is a column in which writers in various fields identify and describe a single found object not recognizable to the editors of Cabinet.

Given Cabinet’s sprawling network of correspondents around the world, and given that that world is so thick with “things,” we expected to be inundated with submissions to this, our occasional column known as “Thing.” As it happens, there has been a rather perplexing dearth of suitable entries—one series of cryptic Polaroids, received over the course of several weeks in the summer of 2004 and depicting a smallish pink plastic tarpaulin draped over an unidentified object in a variety of settings, nearly made the cut, though it was ultimately adjudged by the committee that they depicted the covering of a thing rather than the thing itself, and thus were disqualified. With all this, readers will understand our great excitement in discovering the enigmatic little doodad pictured below. As always, we’ve passed it on to an expert panel for their learned assessment.

Several medical equipment shops line the narrow road leading to the UNAM Medical School in Mexico City. I pass these businesses frequently on my way to the Copilco Metro station, and have become particularly fond of the veterinary lab supply store. A ragtag assortment of photocopies cover every inch of the shop’s front window. These copies excerpt key information from the literature that accompanies each item available within, and are tagged with circular, fluorescent stickers indicating each item’s inventory number in ballpoint pen. Seen from the street, the display resembles a gigantic, polka-dotted bulletin board.

Recently, the excerpt for Item #172 caught my eye. Unusually, this one supplied an image—a photograph of a man in business attire awkwardly struggling to insert a cotton swab into the rectum of an anything but compliant stork. Hoping to discover additional photos in the complete text, I entered and asked the veterinary student behind the counter about Item #172. She retrieved a hermetically sealed, sterilized, plastic package containing two items. The first was a cotton swab, and the second is the receptacle we see here. The literature I sought was taped securely to the back of the package in a tightly folded square, so I purchased the item, which cost about two bucks.

The results were rather disappointing. The information sheet included no additional photographs, instead presenting detailed diagrams relating to the proper collection of avian fecal matter. I had purchased a kit to collect such matter for testing for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza. The swab is used to collect the fecal matter. It is then inserted through the top (white) portion of the receptacle, breaking a thin plastic seal that ensures the receptacle’s sterility prior to the swab’s introduction. Once the swab is fully inserted into the primary cavity of the receptacle, the white lever is depressed, simultaneously sealing the receptacle and releasing a saline preservative solution from the ancillary “bunny-ear” cavity to ensure that the sample does not dehydrate, which would render H5N1 undetectable.

The back of the sheet introduces Dr. Richard Hyun, the subject of the photo. An independent ornithologist, Dr. Hyun founded the Hong Kong-based Friends of At-Risk Oriental Storks (FAROS) in 1999. In the panic over a possible human pandemic of bird flu, the Oriental Stork (Ciconia boyciana), among other endangered migratory bird species, has been slain in a misguided attempt to curb the spread of the disease. Since 2003, FAROS has expanded its mission beyond the Oriental Stork and has proven instrumental in providing various institutions with these sampling kits to encourage testing, to ensure appropriate collection methods, and, most importantly, to avoid the indiscriminate slaughter of healthy birds. The pamphlet closes with the (hopefully) immortal words of Dr. Hyun, “We must remember that this is a War on Bird Flu, not a War on Birds.”

—Tal Schori

I found Favrace one October evening standing outside my apartment door. I may never have noticed him had I not dropped my keys by accident. Small and blue and apparently shy, Favrace stood quite still, as if he wished me away. It was only after asking him a second time whether I could help him that he responded.

“Just waiting,” he said, and it sounded like a flugelhorn blowing into a goose-down pillow. It was the first and last time I ever heard Favrace say anything.

When I opened the front door, he moved inside and settled into the bedroom, although for the life of me I don’t remember him having feet. After eating and taking a bath, I dozed in front of the TV’s blue stutter. Favrace made soft whirring noises in the corner, which I took as a sign of contentment.

I soon found out that Favrace was very particular. He liked seltzer, Chet Baker, Vicks VapoRub, and scabs. He hated flannel, anything having to do with eggs, direct sunlight, and cooking shows.

One day, I came upon the idea of leaving the Food Network on for Favrace during the daytime, since nothing bad ever seems to happen in televised kitchens. It turned out to be absolutely the wrong thing to do. From then on, any time I watched Iron Chef, Favrace would hide under the chair in an agitated state. His white bits—I’m uncertain of the proper anatomical terminology—would pump up and down and soon the room would smell of lemons and tears. I thought about opening the windows to air out the apartment, but I became concerned that Favrace might do something drastic. I got rid of my TV instead. You can never be too careful.

Sometimes I brought dates home to meet Favrace, but this usually led to more smell combinations—occasionally pleasant, but more often than not foul. They were different for every person. P. provoked Victorian hospital carbolic, while T. got something vegetal and distinctly fermented.

“Oh Favrace,” I’d say, leaning against the door after the date left. “What am I going to do with you?” That’s usually when I would put on a Chet Baker album and he would jitter around the floor in obvious pleasure.

Without the distraction of TV or romance, I was able to spend more quality time with Favrace in the evenings and on the weekends. I even checked with the human resources department at my company about the possibility of working from home a few days a week.

Ironically, it was the day that my home office furniture arrived that Favrace went missing. I am not suspicious by nature, but I am almost sure that one of the deliverymen slipped him into a pocket while I was turned the other way. For weeks I had a hard time sleeping at night thinking of Favrace in the back of a moving van hurtling toward a Perth Amboy office complex or a Cherry Hill nursing home.

It’s been six months now, and I’m sad to say that the flyers and letters to the local press have done little to locate Favrace. Still, the pain of his absence is starting to dull; sometimes I even feel optimistic that he will find his way back. Today, for example, I walked down the street and the trees, newly budded, smelled like sex and the color green. As if Favrace were wishing me a happy spring.

—Andrea Codrington

Forget The Da Vinci Code, that ham-fisted compendium of half-baked claptrap. You want psychedelic revelations about the artificial nature of reality? Want ringside seats for the never-ending battle between radical change agents and the oppressive forces of epistemological orthodoxy? Look no further than the 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine, an Argonautica-meets-Alice in Wonderland musical fantasy in which the Beatles voyage across space and time to free a utopian Pepperland from the Albigensian Crusade-style depredations of the Blue Meanies. Need proof that the quest for gnosis is a threat to established institutions? Look no further than the object pictured here, in all its obscene materiality.

Directed by George Dunning and art-directed by Heinz Edelmann without any input from the Beatles themselves, Yellow Submarine was an exercise in misprision, a creative misreading of an influential text—in this case the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The film’s effort to construct a coherent narrative from Sgt. Pepper’s was every bit as paranoid, really, as Charles Manson’s near-simultaneous effort to do the same with the Beatles’ so-called White Album. But Yellow Submarine was also paranoid in the they’re-out-to-get-us sense because the film portrays the powers-that-be as always looking to crush gnosticism.

How, exactly, is Yellow Submarine a gnostic movie? It’s obvious once you know what to look for. The gnostic attempt to achieve intuitive knowledge of the infinite is enacted by the yellow submarine’s voyage out of the material world into Nowhere Land. Also, the gnostic desire to be united with one’s higher self is perfectly articulated by the “John” figure, who, upon encountering the Lonely Hearts Club Band, sagely opines that they’re “extensions of our own personalities suspended, as it were, in time, frozen in space.” And the religio-political establishment’s aggressive
determination to be humanity’s sole conduit to divine wisdom? It’s expressed by the Chief Meanie’s dictum: “Let us not forget that heaven is blue ... Tomorrow the world!”

Audiences at the time were shocked by Edelmann’s employment of “limited animation,” an inexpensive alternative to Disney-style cartoon realism in which cels and sequences of cels are animated on top of static cels. Yet limited animation, even if it did pave the way for Hanna-Barbera crappiness, is what Marshall McLuhan called a cool medium: Its low definition of information requires viewers to participate actively in the creation of meaning. Given the movie’s gnostic message, this medium is only appropriate. “John,” “Paul,” “George,” and “Ringo” (who aren’t voiced by the actual Beatles), not to mention the Nowhere Man, the Chief Meanie, and the movie’s other figures, aren’t characters but symbols. And—as we’ve been instructed most recently by the paintings of Laylah Ali—in order to engage the imagination, symbols must remain flat abstractions. (“You surprise me, Ringo,” says the John figure at one point in the film. “Dealing in abstracts.”) Creative misreading, which is a good way of describing gnosticism in general, is impossible unless the 3-D “real world” is flattened out into symbols pregnant with discoverable and inventable meaning.

As for the object in question, it’s a rare Yellow Submarine merchandising tie-in, a weapon referred to but never actually pictured in the movie: not the Meanies’ Anti-Music Missile or the Dreadful Flying Glove but the O-blue-terator. It was doubtlessly conceived and produced by the pop-culture arm of the anti-gnosis institutional complex to which I have already alluded. It’s obscene not merely because it’s an epistemological WMD for kids, but because Yellow Submarine cannot and should not be three-dimensionalized.

—Joshua Glenn

Andrea Codrington is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor specializing in design and architecture. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer and editor, currently for the Boston Globe. In the 1990s, he was editor and publisher of Hermenaut, a philosophy and pop culture journal.

Tal Schori currently lives and works as a freelance designer in Mexico City. Formerly the manager of Storefront for Art and Architecture, he will enter the Master of Architecture program at Yale this fall.

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