Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Techno-Nightmare on Eastern Pkwy, pt. 3

Sergio sits down among a hushed audience in the top floor triangle room of the Brooklyn Museum.

"Sergio," the director says, "Help me understand this. You are saying the digital theft is a theft, but at the same time not a theft at all, but part of our museum's constantly evolving heritage."

"Esatto," says Sergio. He pulls out his iphone and starts fiddling with it.

"Excuse me," says the director, "I'm talking to you."

"Scusa," says Sergio, not to the director, but to someone on the phone, "I am in a meeting and people are talking to me." He turns to the director. "If you don't mind, I am in the middle of talking to some important collaborators about the future of this exhibition."

The director rolls her eyes. "That's what this meeting, here in the building, is for, Sergio. Didn't I make explicit that mobile devices were to be turned off during the meeting?"

"It doesn't turn off," says Sergio. He speaks into the phone, "Constantina, ciao. Have you any news?"

"This is ridiculous," says the director.

"Excuse me," says Art Guy, relating to the distress of the director. "Perhaps..."

"Speak into the microphone," someone says.

Art Guy tries again. "Perhaps this is a naive question. Is there any harm in still launching the online exhibition, with a few changes so that the thief will not have the same content?"

Everyone laughs.

"Can you imagine what the younger demographic would do with that?" says someone whose job title Art Guy can't remember.

"The younger demographic is not to be feared!" says Gus, turning in his swivel chair and sipping his espresso. "We must not fight them, but join them."

Art Guy is confused by his colleague. Gus continues, "This is an opportunity in open access. Sure, the temple is compromised, even violated, but who is to say it was ever ours to begin with, that it was not we who violated it in the first place, by ever opening those funerary vaults?"

"Esatto!" says Sergio. "Open access. The tomb is open. The dust is gone. They will see what was not meant to be seen, and all crumble before the 21st century 18th dynasty, Nefertiti 2.0, Brooknak Temple restored."

"So you've decided to join us," says the director, "and I still have no idea what the hell you are talking about."

"You must sell off the physical collection," says Sergio.

Silence falls once again over the cutting-edge conversation. Art Guy can be heard struggling with his espresso maker.

"You must," Sergio says. "For the collection is not yours anymore. Now that the content has been compromised, it belongs to the open market. Your one chance at retaining a franchise presence is to do what I suggested earlier: a heritage website, which we at DATA specialize in creating."

"So you don't specialize in catching digital art thieves at all," says the director.

"I take my work very seriously," says Sergio.

Espresso and steamed milk suddenly shoot across the table from where Art Guy is sitting, splattering the director's suit lapel and scalding Sergio, while soaking the latter's iphone. Everyone crowds around Sergio to see if the iphone is alright. They bandage Sergio's face with napkins.

"It is destroyed," says Sergio to Art Guy. "You have destroyed our opportunity."

Our hero feels the glare of many eyes.

"I didn't mean to destroy an opportunity," says Art Guy. He stands up. "I came here to investigate an art case. I am an art guy. I am interested in New Kingdom Egypt, and I find porphyry fascinating. I am very sorry to hear of your recent troubles with cyber space. Sometimes, when I visit family, I bring my laptop along so that my niece can fix it for me. I don't know much about how to solve this digital theft. One thing I do know is that Brooknak Temple is a fantasy, and the objects in your collection are real, and you'd have to be wanting in IQ points to follow this lunatic--no offense, sorry about your ipod--into his lair of lies that he calls the future, when everyone knows that the Brooklyn Museum represents the past. And furthermore I don't think a mummy-pharoah will attack you just because of your Egyptian collection, although I could be wrong."

After a few moments, Sergio says, "What is this mummy-pharaoh?"

"You know, the Mummy. Boris Karloff."

"My face is going to be scarred. Excuse me," says Sergio, standing up from the table and packing his things together. Some napkins fall off of him, and one attaches to his heel as he leaves the room.

Gus begins laughing. "He went for a little walk!"

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Techno-Nightmare on Eastern Pkwy, pt. 2

There is a hushed gravity in the open halls of the Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian Collection. The precious stone figures and monuments, which still stand in the exact spot they belong, have been digitally stolen and compromised.

"We're art historians," says Gus at the front desk, showing his badge. "We're here to investigate the digital theft." While the guards phone the offices, Art Guy wanders the gallery in his jeans.

Not more than fifteen minutes later, a powerful-looking man with no hair, a black t-shirt, a tan Italian suit minus the vest and alligator-skin slippers comes out of the elevator. He deposits an iPhone into the inside pocket of his jacket and approaches the art historians.

"You must be Art Guy in Jeans," he says to Gus, even though Gus is not wearing jeans, but chinos and a black t-shirt.

"Gus. But I'm on Art's team."

Art Guy pulls himself away from a porphyry bust and introduces himself to the host.

"I'm Art Guy, pleasure to meet you."

"Piacere. I am Sergio-Rachmaninov Greci, but just call me Sergio." He removes a pair of perscription light-adjusting sunglasses, which he begins using as a gesticulation prop. "I am the director of marketing at the Brooklyn Museum and also the liason between New York museums and the Digital Art Theft Agency (DATA). I published the tweet you saw on your iPhones."

"I understand someone has stolen some kind of online content related to your Egyptian Collection," says Art Guy.

Sergio smiles. "In a small way, you are quite right, Mr. Guy. But in the largest possible way you are wrong. Come."

They follow Sergio through a winding labyrinth of back rooms which are difficult to imagine existing alongside the public galleries.

After ascending several stairways, they are brought into a vast triangular office area near the roof, with windows overlooking New York on two sides. There is a triangular table, reminding Art Guy of Judy Chicago's piece in the collection, with hip looking professionals seated around it.

Introductions consist of much confusion. The director of the musum is there, as is the curator of Egyptian art, but the rest of the people are from outside institutions with exciting job titles that are difficult to remember.

When Art Guy and Gus are seated, our hero notices that every table-spot has a wireless microphone, a small built-in computer screen with a digital pen poised over it in a stand, and a mini-electric espresso machine.

Sergio gestures towards the espresso machines. "Fuel for intellectual adventure!"

Everyone laughs. When the laughter subsides, the director of the museum speaks.

"We are glad you could join us today, Mr. Guy. Gus," she says. "Despite the humorous optimism provided by our colleague Sergio-Rachmaninov, there is nothing light or fanciful about the current situation at the Brooklyn Museum."

She lets the curator of Egyptian art take the floor. As he flips some switches to prepare the room for a presentation, the windows seem to magically darken. The wall facing the inside of the building becomes a digital screen. On the screen appears a 3D model of a fantastical New Kingdom Egyptian temple interior, filled with all the objects in the collection.

"The thousands of objects which make up our Egyptian collection," he begins,"have two existences. One, the stale, context-less existence of their physical arrangement in the museum. This existence is furnished by their hijacking from a meaningful context years ago in Egypt and reappropriation in the building. Their second existence is the Brooknak Temple, a palatial New-Kingdom hypostile space, a theater created in the digital universe, the one you see before you. This, as many of you know, is the direction we are moving with all of our collections."

On the screen, the camera begins to pace through the temple, room by room. Art Guy leans forward to inspect. The space juxtaposes pieces from mismatched periods, but they are cleverly arranged. For instance, there is a room of objects made of lapus lazuli. The space is annotated with little triangles, each marked with a circled letter 'i,' to which presumably one gets closer and learns more about the objects.

"What you see on the screen is a video capture of the space taken two days ago, when Brooknak Temple was finalized and released to the museum server, where final test runs were to be taken before its release as a public online exhibition for 2013."

The audience expresses their adoration by grunting and saying "huh," "hmm," and an occasional "ahh."

"Today at 2 PM," says the curator, "a malicious hacker attacked the monuments with malicious software, dismantling our raster data, dismembering our object files, and razing our access interface to dust. The virtual vandal is still at large, and has exclusive access to all the objects. We must ensure the safe return of this precious collection, which has so long been jewel of our museum."

Art Guy is about to ask questions to help him with the case, such as 'what is a raster data,' but the other guests start in first.

"Have you thought about representing uncertainty?" says one collaborator. "Perhaps a shaded scheme integrated with a timeline of when the crime most likely occured, linked to an open-source graphics engine."

The curator diligently takes notes on his digital tablet.

Another collaborator says, "It would be interesting, don't you think, to visualize the networks of conversation, as a dynamic and interactive web of lines, perhaps integrated with the same timeline?"

"In what ways have you considered, from an analytical perspective, the change over time of these recent events, and the new affordances of these revolutionary digital technologies?"

The curator writes frantically on his tablet.

"If I may," says Sergio, "because my friend the curator, he looks a little bit overwhelmed." Everyone laughs.

He continues, "I think, this project is not simply a case about who stole the temple. Maybe you stole the cookie from the cookie jar, maybe I stole the cookie jar; this is the realm of old-world, traditional scholarship. If we face this new-world challenge only in the traditional way, we are sure to be lost at sea."

Sergio has everyone's rapt attention, including the director who looks at him in an unsold way.

"We are not a community of dinosaurs, like they have on view in the Natural History Museum downtown." More laughs. "We at DATA know the mind of the digital criminal. It is not the mind of the digital dinosaur. We will not catch him. It is impossible, if I may be so blunt. Instead we must treat this as a public narrative, a transformation of the real and virtual fabric, drive the, how you say, event horizon."

Art Guy notices that the 'how you say,' is disingenuous, as Sergio clearly knows the language of his trade.

"I ask you all to realize, this is a digital theft, but it is also an institutional history, that the lack of the object, the digital trace, the institutional void, is now part of the exhibition, as real as the very object that the void now replaces."

"What are you saying?" says the director.

"I am saying, give up on the case," says Sergio. "And start preparing for your 2013 spectacular: 'The lost treasures of the Brooknak Temple.'"

To be continued...

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Techno-nightmare on Eastern Pkwy, Pt. 1

Our hero and his faithful comrade Gus are meeting for coffee in Brooklyn.

"The mason marks tell volumes," says Art Guy. "What is the relationship between mason and capomaestro, what's the lingua franca, is the east end sanctuary given priority over the crossing and western parts?"

"I can't remember," says Gus, playing around on his iPhone.

"Well naturally we don't know yet, but it raises these interesting questions, and others. The Arab influence on the support structure, the muquarna crossing vaults."

"Crossing vaults," says Gus, still preoccupied with his phone.

"Are you listening to me?" says Art Guy.

"Oh, sorry Mr. Guy, I'll be right with you," says Gus. His concentration focuses as he changes the phone's orientation in the air and begins typing at the screen.

"Take your time," says Art Guy, assuming that Gus is dealing with a pressing emergency.

Gus bursts out laughing.

"Gus, are you speaking with someone on that thing?"

"Tweeting actually."

"Can't you do that later? I was hoping we could discuss upcoming research."

Gus puts down his phone. "But this twitter is more interesting than you."

"I'm sorry?" says Art Guy.

"You had my attention at first, Mr. Guy, but then you started droning on and on. Then i got this tweet, and in the competition for my attention, the twitter won."

Art Guy doesn't understand. "Whatever," he says, "but put it away. It's rude to talk on the phone in the company of someone else."

"It was rude," says Gus, "8 months ago. Now it's a model. Wired and wireless communication compose a presence as real as physical occupation."

"I don't remember voting for that," says Art Guy, not being sarcastic but genuinely believing this was something you might vote on. "What is this twitter about anyway?"

"It's about Romanesque architecture," says Gus.

"I'm talking about Romanesque architecture!" says Mr. Guy. "What could the twitter possibly be saying that is more interesting than muqarnas?"

Gus seems intrigued.

"Let's put it to a contest," he says. "My tweet says 'Conques example of barrel vaults.' What would you say to compete for my attention?"

Art Guy sits back and reflects. Everyone knows about the Romanesque and barrel vaults. But what about the exceptions? What about the use of Burgundian pointed arches?

Our hero says, "As far as the Norman Romanesque is concerned, the Burgundian arch has its most exotic adaptations in the Greco-Arab inhabited region of Sici-"

"That's 140 characters," Gus interrupts. "I didn't know what to make of that. Very long-winded, and what's Sici?"

"You didn't let me finish!" says Art Guy.

"The twitter took 33 characters to tell me something. You took 140 characters to tell me nothing."

"You know what your problem is, Gus? All this new technology is reducing your attention span. You're just like those curators at the Tate with their 'less is more' exhibition."

"Which exhibition?" says Gus.

"Remember? From my blog a couple years ago? You were there."

"Oh," says Gus. "I didn't know you were still updating that. You need to include some advertising, track some twitter accounts, embed some apps, a few flickr links, and some flash media graphics."

"I feel like a dinosaur," says Art Guy.

Gus laughs again.

"What's so funny?" says Art Guy.

"It keeps linking me to 'lemmings with stone masons.' If you're not careful, they fall off the scaffolding."

"Alright, call me," says Art Guy, getting up, "or text me, or whatever it is one does, when you want to discuss our next assignment."

Suddenly Gus's phone starts playing a hip-hop alert.

"Thats my art museum update app," says Gus. "Hold on, Mr. Guy."

Gus is alarmed by what he reads.

"It looks like we have a case. A robbery. At the Brooklyn Museum."

"What was stolen?" says Art Guy.

"The Egyptian collection."


Gus looks up. "It was a digital robbery."

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


"Mr. Guy, wake up," says Gus.

Art Guy and Gus are on an overnight train through Germany and Austria. The point of this trip is twofold: one, for Art Guy to do some research on Strasbourg Cathedral; and two, for Gus to give a presentation in Vienna. They have just come from Strasbourg and will arrive in Vienna early this morning.

"Wake up, Mr. Guy," Gus says again. He sits below his bunk, wide-eyed, eyes fixed on his laptop screen. It is 5 in the morning, and Gus's presentation is not yet finished.

Art Guy rolls over in his bunk. "Yeah? What is it? Why is it so cold in this train car?" says our hero.

"I don't know," says Gus. "I need your help."

"If you're not sleeping, could I use your blanket?" says Art Guy.

Gus isn't listening. "I don't know what word to use for the," he pauses. "...I don't know what word to use."

"What's the word?" says Art Guy.

"I don't know!" says Gus.

"What does it sound like?" says Art Guy.

"Theodorik, destruction of antiquities," says Gus.

"Those two things have nothing whatsoever to do with each other," says Art Guy. "Theodorik outlawed the destruction of antiquities."

"No, but the whole movement. You know. The Vandals, the Goths. The overthrow of Rome!" says Gus, despairing as if it has happened yesterday.

"The 'barbarians,'" says Art Guy, yawning. He puts up air quotes.

"Barbarians," says Gus, eyes fixed on the screen. "If you say so." He types it.

"Not barbarians," says Art Guy. " 'Barbarians.' Look at me." He puts up air quotes again.

Gus looks up at Art Guy. "Barbarians in quotes? Why?"

"Because barbarians is wrong; they're civilized races," says Art Guy. "You need quotes."

"But the GESTA style guide says you're not allowed to use rhetorical quotes like that. And besides, I'm giving a presentation. I'm not going to stand up in front of a bunch of Austrian and German art historians, putting up air quotes."

"How do you think Germany and Austria would feel about an unqualified phrase that goes, 'Barbarians swept down from the north?'"

"I don't know," says Gus. "Probably not good about it. But air quotes are stupid."

"Just an idea," says Art Guy, turning back over and trying to go back to sleep.

He tosses and turns for half an hour, before finally sitting up.

"I can't sleep," says Art Guy. "You're right. It is stupid. Why do we use air quotes? If barbarians doesn't suffice, why can't we replace it with something else?"

Gus stares at his screen. " 'The quote barbarian end quote tribes from Northern Europe and the East, having penetrated the limits of the Empire, turned towards its nucleus,'" he dictates.

"Are you going to say 'quote...end quote' or use air quotes?"

"I don't know," says Gus. "I might just jump under the train. Twenty minutes at least gives me time to do that."

A stewardess knocks at the door.

"Gutenmorgen," she says. "Wien ist nahe."

She distributes elegant pastries and coffees to the passengers. No sooner has she left is Gus finished with both items.

"Calm down," says Art Guy. "You're fine. You just have to be specific. Say what groups you mean."

"I can't remember them all," says Gus.

"Neither can I," says Art Guy.


Gus stands in the magnificent Palais Eschenbach explaining to a full house his recent findings on Roman fortifications.

"Beginning in the third century," he says, "the limes were broken by invaders. Then, the, quote-" he pauses and raises hooked fingers in the air. "Barbarian-" he says, curling his fingers up and down, "end quote, tribes, from Northern Europe and the East, having penetrated the limits of the Empire, turned towards its nucleus.'

Voices in the crowd begin to murmur. Gus looks up from the podium, still with the same wide-eyed, sleepless look he had earlier that morning.

"But they're actually quite civilized!" he says, diverting from his presentation. "And we shouldn't go about calling them barbarians, quotes or not."

If Gus is not in Vienna, but rather Kalamazoo, MI, the audience laughs, and it is understood that everyone in attendance has reached a new level of comfort with each other. But Gus is in Vienna, and his outburst echoes in the coffered ceiling and falls upon a silent audience.

"Tough crowd," says Gus. More silence. He searches for the line in his presentation where he diverted. "Rome had one defense, the Aurelian Walls, rebuilt in two different campaigns."


Our hero and his trusty, yet deflated, ally stand in the nave of Vienna Cathedral, bathed in a rainbow of stained glass reflections. They are both enebriated from the reception banquet.

"Hideous," says Art Guy, looking around the church. "Just barbaric. A slap in Marcus Aurelius's face."

"Pointed arches," says Gus. "That's just wrong."

"This after a barbarian banquet," says Art Guy.

"Not classical," says Gus, raising his voice. "Schnitzel. Not classical at all."

A cleric shoots them an icy look.

Gus sits down in a chair and starts flipping through the liturgy. "German, I can't read German. I'll bet Attila the Hun reads German."

"Since it's so Romantic sounding," says Art Guy, "he seduced Aquileia to death."

"Joke all you want, I think German sounds great," says Gus. "I want my GPS to speak German."

"I wonder if there's an Attila the Hun setting," says Art Guy. "Turn left, but leave no hilltop city unraided."

"Ah, good. This is good. I feel better now."

"I don't," says Art Guy, changing into a sober humor. "What do you do with the confusion about barbarians? It's like Varari's 'Gothic.' We're still stuck with that one, and look at what a joke it is."

"'Impressionist' was meant to be condemnatory but now it's iconic," says Gus. "The Fauves too."

"So we call them barbarians, and that's iconic?" says Art Guy. "I don't know."

"It reminds me of this time I went to Ravenna," says Gus.

"Yeah, Theodorik and all that," says Art Guy.

"No," says Gus. "This time in Ravenna I got mugged."

"You got mugged?" says Art Guy.

"I had on me all these little gifts from a giftmarket," says Gus, "little trinkets and stuff, and this band of guys came up from behind me and took my little bag of trinkets."

"That's terrible," says Art Guy.

"I said, hey 'that's mine!' So they came up to me all threatening and said, 'What do you have in here?' And I couldn't really remember."

"Uh-huh," says Art Guy.

"So they said, 'If you don't know what you have, how can it be yours?'"

Art Guy and Gus sit silently. The stained glass reflections have begun to shift.

"Well I've got to get going," says our hero, "I want to make it to the Nationalbibliothek before they close."

"They might not let you in if you're drunk," says Gus.

"They can try and stop me."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The People and Art History: an issue of trust

"I am Vasari, I lie for the art.
I lie for the art for the arts have no tongues.
And I'm asking you all at the top of my lungs!
What is this field, this field that I see?
This field they call art history?
You seem to be chopping as fast as you please!
See what you've done to my Florentine hierarchy?"

(unpublished preface to "The Li[v]es of Artists").

Vasari's eerily Seussian epigraph raises a question for our generation of art owners/viewers/lovers: how much can you trust art experts?

Before reading my cheesy blog post, you should get a hold of "The Mark of the Master," a recent article published by the New Yorker in which the Biro family business of 'forensic' art authentication, that is, searching for fingerprints on paintings to secure the identities of their artists, is exposed as a fraud (the article convinced me anyway).

Searching for fingerprints (Biro), invoking a sixth sense (Berenson), and just plain lying (Vasari) are now incorporated under the umbrella of the 'art expertise racket.' In good classic style prose, an argument is constructed on truths that the writer and the audience can both fully grasp. Art history, on the other hand, is dotted with writers who called upon information that alienated the audience. It is embarrassing that this keeps happening, and it has brought the topic of trust between the people and art history again to the fore.

Say you can't trust art historians or art experts anymore. Does that mean you can't trust art? Naw - it just means you need to plug your ears and block out all the noise (including wall-texts, magazine articles, cheesy blog posts, etc.) while looking at art. Art doesn't lie (per se) and architecture doesn't lie (period). Art has the capability of lying to its contemporary audience, and super-smart art can lie to future audiences, but even when it does, at least it allows itself to be taken with a grain of salt. Art experts who tell you that they would have cried had your painting really been painted by Duccio (Berenson) do not react with NaCl. Run it back through the filter and you just get a puddle of treacherous tears and a pile of salt.

So put up the blinders and look at your art with fresh eyes. Then, if you feel like reading the opinion of an expert, don't believe anything unless you see it for yourself. Don't be convinced by forensic evidence that you cannot understand, observations that you can't agree with. Don't let anyone tell you where your eye traveled or what jumped out at you. You can't trust everyone, but this way you will be able to distill the things you can.

You may find that in the contemporary world of art experts, there's a lot of us you can trust: art history is increasingly about show-and-tell. You wouldn't show up to class in first grade with a model submarine and tell everyone that it's state of the art and worth 10,000 dollars - or an abstract painting with smudged fingerprints and tell them that it's a Pollock - or a Duccio's Rucellai Madonna and tell them it's by Cimabue - someone would want to see some evidence. I think that more and more these days, art history essays provide proof rather than conjecture. But don't believe me! Take a look for yourself first.

Now I'm going to get cheesy. The true artist or date of this or that painting is not the only thing at stake here. At stake here is the legitimacy of art history as a discipline. Part of the art historian's claim is that art is a viable piece of evidence for the study of history. A lot of people care about the story of art and the story of history and would love to unlock both of them. But for some reason, we've done nothing short of installing more locks. This ranges from using Latinate terms ("in situ") which make an essay needlessly impenetrable, to using condescendingly basic wall texts ("The Christ-child reaches out and touches the Virgin's face with a lifelike sensitivity.")

Here's the secret: an art historian will often find that his argument is more flawed than he thought when he tries to explain it to a non-art historian. For example, say you are arguing that the architects of Chartres did not place their flying buttresses in the most effective position. If someone asks, 'So where IS the correct place to put the flying buttresses?' and you are not sure, the correct response is not, "It's difficult to explain - statics in cathedrals are always in flux" ; nor is it, "Okay, imagine it's like a house of cards and a wind comes along..." ; but rather, "I don't know; what's your guess?" Having researched the statics of Chartres, you may be more informed than your audience. This means your job is to bring them up to speed and then play with an open hand.

Art historians and non-art historians alike have the full capacity to understand art history's great body of treasures and artifacts, just as they are capable of telling when they are being lied to. It is not up to non-art historians to be more trusting - it is up to art historians to be more trustworthy. But with today's art history market's tougher standards, I hope we're getting there!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

An Intercessory Mission, pt. 3 (the missing link).

[disclaimer, see M. Foucault, The Order of Things (London, 1970), for much of the following].

(c. 1400)

Icchu Pako steps back from the canvas for a moment. His paint-caked fingers are suspended, arrested by his gaze. Between the vast cage of the canvas that will soon absorb him - his object to represent, and the visual field he inhabits - a representation in our minds eye, Icchu Pako occupies the center of an oscillation.

Icchu Pako confronts our gaze for only a second: we claim little of the ape man's attention in comparison to the subject of his painting. Our imagination cannot penetrate to the front of the canvas. We know not what he intends to represent. When he slaps his hand on the canvas in the next moment, it could be to add a finishing touch; or it is just as likely to be his preliminary outline.

Is Icchu Pako aware that he is the missing link?


(present day)

Time slows down, and through the flames, Edward's life flashes before his eyes. In his first eye, an image of hatching from his mother's back; in his second eye, moving to a new burrow at the age of six and leaving his friends behind; in his third, the first bird he killed and ate; in his fourth, the teenage years in which new hair sprouted on new areas of the abdomen and back legs....

-The driver takes a sharp turn at the instant Irish ignites the flamethrower, rendering Art Guy, Gus, Irish, and Edward the tarantula momentarily airborne. The flame misses Edward and Gus but catches Art Guy's napsack and the back seat apolstery. Having lost sight of the spider, Irish evacuates out the right passenger door, army-rolling through the foliage and leaving the door swinging on its hinges. At this moment Art Guy, keeping a level head, hurls his flaming napsack through the left passenger window pane. With the draft caused by the open door on the right, the glass flies back into the faces of Gus and Art Guy. Edward is likewise almost sucked out the open door on the right, but by hooking his strong right feeler on the collar of Gus's Velasquez t-shirt and hoisting himself up, he manages to sink his teeth into the nape of Gus's neck.

Concerned about the fire, the taxi driver attempts to brake, but the taxi is caught in a slide down a viney embankment.

"Everybody out!" he says, bailing from the front seat. Gus and Art Guy, on the other hand, embrace each other, each wailing in different kinds of pain, the vehicle accelerating towards certain doom until it finally charges into a shallow, muddy pond. A pressurized flooding of the passenger compartment douses the fire, but soon the taxi settles into the mud. Without thinking twice our hero and his spider-bitten comrade climb onto the roof.

Machu Picchu rises up in the distance.


Feeling less like an upstanding young tarantula and more like an undignified drowned rat, Edward shakes some water off himself and makes his way from the pond towards his burrow, which could now be miles away. The experience in the taxi has startled him; it was the first time he recalled a mental image of himself, and even hours later the images are still emblazoned on his eight retinas. Is there more to the tarantula condition than he first suspected? The thought nags him at first but then excites him, the idea that experience, not just bird-flesh, might satisfy the soul. But with this thought Edward becomes hungry. He finds a loose shred of cotton poncho and begins to build a bird trap.


F. B. Irish is not happy. She hides against a tree on the frequent lookout for more fire-breathing spiders, jaguars, and the like. She does not want to be 'rescued,' at the moment, however. If there's anything she fears more than jaguars, it is younger scholars suggesting to her traditions of Last Judgment iconography. If she bides her time, she could lend the Machu Picchu deesis a proper social context on her own watch, and catch up later with her co-explorers for the formal description and photographs. Still, she can't say she isn't spooked.

"Kaw!" goes a mean-looking bird.

"-Shut the hell up," says Irish.

The bird tilts its head.

"You'll blow my cover," says Irish.

The Machu Picchu deesis is executed by an unknown hand before the arrival of Spaniards in Peru. It receives virtually no scholarly attention, mainly because it is argued to have been repainted by an ugly conquistador, painting his own likeness over the faces of John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus.

"Kaw!" goes the bird, this time creeping up from behind Irish, perching in a soft bed of matted grass which has been paved from the scholar's tumble.

"-Shush, I mean it," says Irish. "I'm going over my historiography."

Even the dumpy little bird looks like its out to get me, she thinks to herself. She shakes her head and closes her eyes.

Not least because of the lack of historical evidence and an over-reliance on antiquated stylistic comparisons the Machu Picchu deesis requires a social reassessment.

"K-" the bird starts, but is immediately cut off by a dull thud.

Irish opens her eyes to see a cloud of feathers rising up from the carcass of her harasser. She jumps when she sees that the bird is being devoured by a tarantula; indeed, it looks like the same tarantula she saw in the taxi, but it could be anyone's guess.

She grabs a long stick for defense, but the spider shows no interest in her. It simply drags the bird carcass back into the underbrush.

"You're not so bad after all," says Irish.


"Gus, we've got to get off the top of this car at some point," says Art Guy.

"I know what I saw," says Gus.

"Look, even if you did see a pirahna, I promise we'll be fine if we just wade a few yards to shore."

"They gather together in overwhelming schools within seconds. We wouldn't stand a chance."

"Next you'll be telling me about schools of Nessies."

Gus is silent.

"Ah, come on bud," says Art Guy, hitting Gus on the shoulder. "You'll thank me when we're safe on shore."

"What makes you think the shore is so safe? Have you heard of jaguars?"

"Gus...what about the money? Machu Picchu's over there, and we can still get that money."

"My camera needs to dry out, and you threw your napsack with all your notebooks out the window of the car."

"Oh dear," says Art Guy. "I forgot about that."

After a few seconds pause Art Guy jumps in the pond and swims his way to shore.

"Hurry up, Gus, we need to go find my notebook."

"Agreed, and don't forget about your own interests too," says Gus. "Wait, did you see any pirahna?"

"Not one fin."

Gus hops down from the car and slinks his way hurriedly through the water. Halfway through he freaks out and books it to shore.

"Thanks for warning me about the pirahna, friend," says Gus.


In sober silence Gus photographs the interiors and exteriors of Machu Picchu while Art Guy walks around aimlessly with a charred notebook.

"Do you remember where she said the deesis was?" says Art Guy.

Gus shrugs, "Somewhere."

"Look I'm really sorry about the pirahna, I just had to get us down off that car."

"Well it worked," says Gus. "We got the notebook, we'll get our money, we didn't die, and you lied to your friend."

Art Guy begins to feel like he's blown it.

"Hey, Gus, what do you say we swap roles. I'll take the pictures; why don't you write the formal analysis? I think this time you'll do a better job of it than I."


"Do you want to swap or not? It's cool if you'd rather take the photos."

"Yeah, let's swap," says Gus. "It'll be a nice change of pace."

"Now where's that deesis?" says Art Guy.

"Intihuata Solar Clock; it's on the underside of an adjacent stone," says Gus.


It's at about this time when Irish decides to phone the driver, using a safety radio she has nabbed from his cab while he isn't looking. The plan is to get the driver to guide her through Macchu Picchu, contemplate the image for about the last two hours of daylight, and have a cab arranged for the evening flight from Peru.

No answer.

"Don't do this," says Irish.

For fifteen minutes, no answer on the other end of the line. She tries pressing all the different buttons, speaking into the thing, using phrases like "Hello?" "Testing, one, two," and "Amaziiing Graaace." For a little humorous distraction she breathes heavily into the radio. But the other line does not pick up, and the vast expanse of wilderness begins to send chills through her.

She stands indecisive against the tree, hearing the late afternoon roar of insect songs intensify. Then, out of nowhere, a primeval scream.

"I can't see the wood through the trees - call a spade a spade - I'm on my way," says Irish with a shaky tenor, retracing her army roll back to the road and trotting down it towards Machu Picchu, pretending what she'd heard was delirium.


Art Guy and Gus are taken aback by what they see when they turn over the deesis stone: St. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, all with the same freakishly bizarre face.

"What do you see Professor?" says Art Guy.

"St. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, arranged as a deesis, painted by an indigenous artist somehow aware of the deesis iconography, and who painted it as an intercessory image for his family."

Art Guy frowns.

"I don't think I can follow you there, Gus. The faces here can't have been indigenous."

"Why not?"

"Well it's more likely to have been repainted by a Spanish conquistador."

"Is there evidence of repaint?" says Gus. "Here, use this little x-ray application on the camera and you'll see it."

"Ex ray what?" says Art Guy.

After a lengthy struggle, they take an x-ray photo of the image.

"See?" says Art Guy, "that looks like overpaint. It would be cool if it were indigenous, it really would."

"I stand corrected," says Gus.


Like Cronus eating his sons, Icchu Pako takes a bite out of fresh pirahna while perching regally on top of a broken-down taxi in the middle of a pond. He savors the tastes of his royalty, the expanse of his kingdom, the power of his reflection in the water.

(to be continued...)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Intercessory Mission, pt. 2

"I still don't think I get it - so your Cistercian monks said, 'let's build the new church into the city walls?'" says Gus.

"No," says Art Guy. "Well, possibly. Wait, let me explain."

Today we find the assiduous scholars bushwacking their way through the Peruvian rain forest in search of Machu Picchu. They could have taken a tour bus, but I prefer to have them bushwacking.

"These Cistercian monks came to Siena because they were called there by the government," says Art Guy.

"Right," says Gus, "And then they started building the new churches?"

"Yes, exactly. And that's my main point, done."

"But so what?" says Gus.

"So what!? - So that means the reputation of these Cistercians as builders of monastic complexes, not just as architects, but also as institutional-founders, got the monks established inside cities," says Art Guy, karate-chopping a large palm out of his way.

"It all seems kind of foggy to me," says Gus.

They enter a clearing and hold still at what they see. A mother ocelot is nursing two cubs.

"There's a myth," Art Guy whispers, "that Siena was founded by Sinus, son of Remus, and therefore traces its roots to Roman times. One of their civic symbols is the mother wolf nursing Romulus and Remus."

"What does that have to do with your essay?" says Gus.

"It doesn't. I just brought it up because of the ocelot."

"Stay focused."


"What is that for?" says a Velazco Estete Airport, Peru customs agent to F. B. Irish, motioning towards the shape of a flamethrower under her decorated silk poncho.

"For killing beasties," says Irish.

The agent raises her eyebrows.

"Only dangerous ones," says Irish.

"Did you bring any food with you?" the agent says as if not hearing her.

Irish briefly considers mentioning a brownie she bought at Starbucks, then thinks better of it and shakes her head.

"Welcome," says the agent, stamping her passport.

Settling into a taxi, Irish says, "Machu Picchu."

"That's a long way," says the driver.

"The less time I have to spend outdoors the better."

"Why's that?" says the driver.

"I'm from a place where the most dangerous thing you'd ever see in the wild is a rat."

The driver laughs. "That's not the case here. Some things here will eat you alive. Crocodiles, caymen, pirahna, jaguars."

"La la la I'm not listening," says our scholar.

"But you don't have to worry about seeing a jaguar: they're very rare. And don't worry about the tarantulas. The tarantulas aren't harmful."

"You tried in vain to save the lives of a few tarantulas by telling me that," says Irish, patting her flamethrower.

"The only thing I think you'd need to worry about is Icchu Pako," says the driver.

Irish laughs. "Just put on the radio will you?"

"It's real."

"Believe me, I've heard of Icchu Pako, and it's not real."


"Now I'm really confused," says Gus.

"I can't make it any simpler," says Art Guy. "The crossing piers were built as a particularly Cistercian innovation, something that could not have been invented by the government of Siena. In fact they even write in the city council deliberations, ed invitando di fatto frate Melano a completare l'opera intrapresa. Fra Melano, that's my guy!"

"No, I'm confused about where we are," says Gus.

The two have emerged from the jungle and stand before a sizeable Andes vista with not one Incan ruin in sight.

"Why didn't we just take the tour bus?" says Art Guy, unaware of the fiction of his existence.

"Hey, there's a road," says Gus.

They bushwack their way down to a little dirt road.

"Which way?" says Gus.

"I don't know," says Art Guy. "There's a spider on you."

Gus notices a tarantula on his shoulder.

"Ah, they're harmless. Look at him, he's cute."

"Suit yourself, Custeau."

They hang out by the side of the road hoping for a vehicle to come along, drinking some water and some whiskey.

"Right, I know they were responsible for vaulting the dome," says Art Guy.

"That doesn't sound like a very Cistercian thing to do at all," says Gus.

"That's what's bothering me," says our hero.

"Hey, I know something that'll take your mind off it," says Gus. "You ever heard of Icchu Pako?"


"Well," says Gus. "Legend has it around these parts that there's an ape man, like Sasquatch."

"Oh did you attend that cryptozoology conference?" says Art Guy. "I meant to catch that, but Peter Cherry and Roger Stalley were giving some talk about theoretical contributions of their 2009 undergraduates."

"Oooh, you missed out in a big way, my friend," says Gus. "While you were off in la-la undergraduate land I was learning about Nessie 2 and Icchu Pako."

"Convince me of Nessie 1 first and then you'll get somewhere with me," says Art Guy.

"Reports of Nessie 1 are more substantiated than Kenneth Conant's pointed arches in the reconstruction of Cluny 3," says Gus.


"I'm not going to go into Nessie 2, but get a load of Icchu Pako."

"So he's an ape man, like Bigfoot?" says Art Guy.

"Yes, but more intelligent," says Gus. "I'm surprised you didn't come across this when you went to those icon symposiums."

"Sorry?" says Art Guy.

"Oh my God, look!" says Gus pointing beyond our hero.

Art Guy whips his head around and scuffles in the direction of the underbrush before he sees that Gus is referring to a cab and not Icchu Pako.

After hailing it they pile in and are surprised to encounter Foxy Byzwiz Irish.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," says Irish.


"I wasn't going to come, but my Last Judgment project requires that I be here on site," says Irish as they ramble down the road, the driver grinning while he takes every bend at far too many kilometers per hour.

"I think the real question is, do we still get our money?" says Gus.

"Gus, I bet a hundred qualified scholars would gratefully do this as an unpaid internship," says Art Guy.

"You'll get your money," says Irish. "I need you guys to take photographs and carry out the chore of describing the images. I don't have time to be bothered with anything besides interpretation."

"I bet that's what Ghirlandaio said to Michelangelo," says Art Guy.

"Sorry?" says Irish. "I didn't catch that."

"Oh look, Machu Picchu," says our hero.

The glorious ruin comes into view. I'm not going to waste your time with a romantic description. Read Hiram Bingham's.

"I think I'll let you out a little further up," says the driver. "Dangerous out there." He looks in the mirror and winks at Irish. She grins sarcastically back.

"Hey, speaking of dangerous, you didn't happen to go to the cryptozoology conference last May, did you?" says Gus to Irish.

Irish turns to Gus and suddenly goes wide-eyed. She slowly reaches into her poncho, draws the flamethrower, and points it at Gus. She flicks a switch and a small flame begins dancing at the nozzle.

Gus's eyes follow the destination of her gaze and the direction of the nozzle of the flamethrower: it is a slowly moving target on his right tricep.

"Don't move," says Irish.

(to be continued...)