The Oakland Museum of California is a one-of-a-kind institution that, under one roof, shows art, history and science, all from the Golden State. A mysterious installation tucked into a corner near the front of the floor that is devoted to art includes all of these things, somehow encompassing several worlds and eras in a space not much bigger than a two-car garage. Gorgeous, enigmatic and deadpan-funny in turns, Notes from Camp (AKA Transdimensional Ghost Town Discotheque) is the work of Bay Area sculptor Torreya Cummings. In part, this poetic title invokes the prospector-and-settler past and present of California: the edge of the continent, where continuous waves of arrivals have reinvented themselves in a place where being a disruptor/ outlaw is often more norm than exception. An additional reference is being made-- to Susan Sontag’s famous essay "Notes on 'Camp'", in which Sontag avers that “Nothing in nature can be campy . . . Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban.”(1)
Oh, really?- Cummings seems to say, as she invites visitors to enter through a portal of assertively fake stone. Plunged into darkness in a high-ceilinged space, the first thing you notice is that it’s both black and shiny all over, a little like a dream-version of being under water. Every surface is reflective: black Plexiglas walls and a black vinyl floor, soft and slightly squishy, weirdly tender underfoot.
In this ‘70s low-budget-sci-fi-movie version of a cave, a video projection plays continuously on one of the walls. There are swimming schools of fish and spinning minerals; crystals, becoming their own reflections, invoking all things natural and sparkly as they segue into a winter scene of grasses in snow. You hear the sound of footsteps on frozen ground… of snowmelt, swelling a dark, fast stream. The sound of water, of music, of water.
Silvery beanbag boulders offer a place to sit while watching the shifting video scenery. If you’re patient at all, you view the loop in its faintly-hallucinogenic entirety, and, when ready, pass through another narrow door into a disco the size of a moderate closet, its surfaces covered with crinkled Mylar.
Almost invisibly, a soft black netting stretches over it all; reaching out to touch the shine, fingers encounter instead the texture of the netting. Noli me tangere. It’s sexy and it’s strange.Turning back to look at the sparkling video one more time, you notice a figure in the frozen landscape-- just for an instant-- as black water rushes through icicle teeth. Music, and those spinning crystals return. Is it Art, or Science? Nature or Culture? And really, what’s the difference?
Cummings has thought about these questions, and many others. As she puts it,
Nature gets used in arguments about human behavior—the argument goes that heterosexual bodies and behavior are somehow natural, and queer bodies and behavior are unnatural. And rather than appeal to nature, queer aesthetics delight in the artificial, the hyperbolic, the synthetic. ‘Natural’ is a construct, but it doesn’t know that.
Enter the final tiny room: wainscoting, wallpaper, then rough wood walls. Not a miner’s shack… maybe something a bit sadder or stranger: an abandoned homestead, or a prettier version of the Unabomber’s cabin. Now look up.
Fairy light filters through the tiny holes of old metal colanders and graters that line the ceiling above you, making them twinkle like a thousand stars in a frontier/disco sky. Look! There’s even an old teakettle, seemingly pierced by dozens of bullets, leaking the glow.
And there, on a nearby wall, an artfully antique-looking wanted poster/broadside/ playbill gives some clues about this place-- in the form of elaborate credits and thanks for all the assistance the artist received during what must have been a long gestation, execution and installation. It takes a village, this seems to say.
The text also exhorts visitors to remember that “Every Town is a Ghost Town if you live there long enough.” Out on the frontier—whatever frontier that might be, whether urban or rural-- you can reinvent yourself repeatedly, but you carry your mental landscape with you wherever you go. There is less distance or difference between worlds than we have thought or understood. There are ghosts, everywhere, and we might as well get used to it.
I’ve visited Transdimensional Ghost Town Discotheque several times since it first appeared some eighteen months ago. I avoided reading the label text on the wall outside the piece (which, in any case, gives little away, and consists mostly of questions and poetic disquisition), or the press release, or in fact anything at all about the work-- until I felt pretty sure that I had figured out what might be going on. As peculiar as this seems for a self-identified Art Explainer, my motivation was simply this: the experience being offered here is rarely available (outside of films, which, being only visual and aural, are a poor substitute for complete immersion). Ann Hamilton’s epic installations offer this kind of thrill. That Cummings figured out how to make a compact space like this so rich makes it a genuine marvel.
I wanted to be able to just have the experience, without the interpolation of words, critical or otherwise—an opportunity which I have now (regrettably) taken away from you. But there’s more to this place than these few sentences. Plenty more, for anyone who has the time or inclination to see for themselves. Frankly, the pictures are terrible. Drop by, and try to parse what the relationship might be between the sky full of stars that Cummings saw every night of her rural childhood, and the disco ball/sequin-bedecked queer aesthetic she has come to know from her life here in the city. Between the shining, swirling schools of silver fish, and all that black vinyl and gleaming silver Mylar. Between camping… and campy.
1. From "Notes on 'Camp'", first published in 1964 in the Partisan Review, republished in Sontag's first collection of essays Against Interpretation in 1966.