In an effort to seek out and engage multiple voices and viewpoints from the local arts community, we occasionally will present on The Thousandth Word postings by "Vicious Guests" — that is, writings by various artists, curators, guest critics, journalists, art experts, art lovers, and other essential members of the arts community who have a story to tell. Michael Fallon presented the first "Vicious Guest" piece, by Gabriel Combs, last month.
Brennan Vance is an artist that lives and works in Minneapolis.
— Andy Sturdevant
"Where there is the stink of shit, there is a smell of being." –Antonin Artaud
IN THE LATE 1950’s, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) achieved rapid success when its brainchild, the Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT), was suddenly demanded by more than 25 percent of America’s high schools. This success forced the ETS to move its main offices from a cramped but lovely brownstone in downtown Princeton, New Jersey to a gaudy corporate office park in one of the town’s surrounding suburbs. My grandfather was one of the few dozen employees who had to pack up his office downtown and move outward over the sprawl of ’50s suburbia, watching his colleagues mutate from a handful of familiar faces into a few hundred nameless strangers. Regardless, the expanded ETS established itself as the nation’s premier institution in the effort to "standardize" America’s youth.
Not long after the migration to the new building, the first of the Nests appeared in the third-floor men’s bathroom. My grandfather, sitting at his desk just down the hall from the lavatory in question, recalled the befuddled expression upon a male colleague’s face when returning from there. The colleague, nearly inarticulate, struggled to describe his sighting of a structure built of toilet paper inside the bowl of the bathroom’s only stall, atop of which someone had shat. My grandfather and his coworker shared a look of curious disgust, but both quickly returned to their paperwork and dismissed the incident as a one-off prank.
But a few days later, the same structure reappeared. Then again, a week later. And again, ten days thereafter. At report of the fourth and fifth sightings, enough gossip had spread throughout the third floor that curiosity in the male employees finally peaked. By the time my grandfather could make it to the bathroom to behold this mysterious and perverse object, a small crowd had already gathered. Men had convened by the sinks, stifling giggles about the smell, attempting to maintain their professional demeanor while making playful accusations as to who had committed the act. Being a man of discretion, my grandfather decided he wanted no part in this puerile spectacle and turned to leave. But someone at the door clutched his elbow, whispering, "No, you need to see this."
Pushing back the aluminum stall door, my grandfather peered towards the head, cautious. The bowl was full, nearly to the seat, with toilet paper that had absorbed the bowl’s water, forming a thick, pack-like papier-mâché. The sheets had been laid one-by-one in a concentric pattern, spiraling endlessly around the interior of the porcelain oval and thrusting upward into a mountainous structure. At the formation’s peak was a perfectly circular impression, not carved from the structure as an afterthought, but masterfully assembled as part of the intended design. In this hollowed-out crown, a pristine heap of human shit rested, deposited precisely as not to smudge any of the structure’s snow-white surface. The shit coiled into a serpentine conical shape, as though dispensed from a soft-serve ice cream machine. Under the glow of the ceiling spotlight, it glistened.
My grandfather shuddered with a mixture of awe and abhorrence, as if he had happened upon the work of an ingenious serial killer who precisely and beautifully arranged the carved bodies of his victims. But he couldn’t turn away, standing there fixated by the object’s gruesome beauty and absurd lunacy. Morbid curiosity having been satisfied, the other men finally returned to their offices, but not before giving the indescribable objects a name, Nests, and the supposed madman a clever moniker, the Nester. My grandfather was the last one out, disturbed both by what he had seen, and perhaps more so by the empathy he felt.
Over the following weeks, as the third-floor offices continued to achieve skyrocketing SAT sales, so too continued the anonymous work of the Nester. Sensing the situation was rapidly escalating out of their control, the professionals of the third floor at first hoped that their passive resolve would lead to the problem finding its own solution. They decided against defecting from their native bathroom — escaping to the second floor merely to piss would be letting this terrorist succeed in his quest for chaos. But after nearly three months of random yet persistent Nester strikes, the tension between coworkers finally snapped. Paranoia flooded the third-floor offices like an oil tanker spill. Harsh glances shot through doorways, accusatory mutterings bounced off cubicle walls, condemnatory thoughts stewed everywhere. Men were hesitant even to be seen near the Nester’s bathroom, so as to avoid the suspicions of their colleagues.
At last, nearly at wit’s end, they finally took their concerns to the top: Human Resources. The case was heard, a resolution was made: an investigation was to be conducted. During open building hours, a security officer was to be vigilant in the bathroom at all times. A logbook was to be kept. Individuals would be summoned for questioning. The maintenance staff (those unfortunate souls who had to shovel out each Nest and repair any damage to the plumbing system) gave a collective sigh of relief. Everyone was eager to aid in the capture of this shit-mongering anarchist.
My grandfather, again refusing to partake in this juvenile spectacle, curiously observed what insecurity the Nester had inspired in the otherwise conservative, confident and civil professionals of the ETS. Only hours after the resolution was announced building-wide, my grandfather entered alone into the third-floor bathroom and found what was to be the last Nest ever built. He gasped as he strode into the stall, and stared once again into the strangely illuminated porcelain bowl. Looking over his shoulder, he took a few curious steps closer.
Hovering there over the bowl, my grandfather felt an insatiable curiosity seize him like an obsessive-compulsive tic. Succumbing to the urge, my grandfather extended his hand in the direction of the black, horseshoe-shaped seat. He just had to know. Quivering, he pressed his palm softly on the plastic.
It was still warm.
Above: ETS’s corporate campus in Princeton, New Jersey. Photo by Mike Skliar.
THE NESTER’S TRUE IDENTITY was never discovered. The risk of public reproach and humiliation likely became too strong. The investigation ended as soon as it began and life amongst the flummoxed professionals returned to normal. The situation was soon reconstituted as office lore that could, without fail, conjure a hearty laugh. The Nester quickly became Princeton, New Jersey’s best party joke.
But now, fifty years later, I share this story out of love, not irony, judgment or for the purposes of a good chuckle. I share my grandfather’s forbidden curiosity. If it had been myself in that just vacated bathroom, poring over that final mound of paper and shit, I would have touched that seat as well. We have the
unfortunate tendency to chalk up the uncouth behavior of lunatics as inhuman, beyond our moral sympathies. Rarely do we take the opportunity to express empathy and explore the motivations that lead to their extreme actions-motivations that tend, alas, to be lacking in more conventional artistic endeavors.
For me, an artist who struggles to find sincerity in what I feel is an egregiously masturbatory arts community, the Nester’s tale affords an unexpected source of inspiration. In contrast to the excessively self-conscious, contrived, Jerome hero-pimping, gallery culture-obsessed status quo that plagues the Minneapolis art scene, the Nester’s habits provide a guide for a more authentic approach towards creativity. If we allow ourselves to see them as creative gestures, these Nests are a shining example of how we can cure ourselves of the disease of "artiness" and the thumb-up-each-other’s-asses culture that seems to follow art everywhere it goes. If the inhibiting quality of art is the curse, then I feel the Nester’s disturbed yet earnest approach towards creative statement is the spell-breaker.
Though the Nests successfully transcend normative art practice, they also fit tidily into our prevailing definition of art: (1) They had a clear aesthetic— note the precise and painstaking effort in their construction; close attention is paid to concerns of composition, color, form, craft. (2) They constituted a performance—a routine was repeated ritualistically; the relentless disruptive nature of this ritual made clear that these Nests were meant to say something. (3) They were constructed for a desired audience—the Nester most likely imagined his colleagues needed a wake-up call of sorts; he chose to rattle his audience through a mix of dismay and perplexing beauty, forcing issues of anal-fecal psychology and paranoia that corporate office environments rarely encounter. (4) The Nests made a social statement–presenting his shit in a regal, pristine manner, the Nester possibly intended to subvert the pompous attitudes present in his office culture by forcing his viewers to confront a human reality that somehow causes us so much shame and embarrassment.
Artists have done themselves a great disservice in needlessly construing creative expression into the larger-than-life mythologies, brainwashing doctrines and pseudo-political advertisements that comprise the clusterfuck that art is today. We’ve created a framework for art that warps our hearts and minds into believing that art requires authority (galleries, museums, academia); precepts (formal aesthetics, airtight intellectualism); and high culture (icons, award ceremonies, magazines). We’ve convinced ourselves that art is an austere discipline and not the boundless, soul-searching siphon that can dredge out our deepest and most authentic creative desires. Unfortunately, art is just as much about popularity, ego, money, class, idolatry and condescending intellectualism as it is about using modes of creativity to purely and earnestly explore ourselves and our relationship to the universe. In fact, I feel art is rarely used at all for the latter.
Ideological powerhouses such as Dada or Fluxus (to name only a few of many counter-cultural, "anti-artiness" movements) have attempted to counteract problems of bourgeois convention and sterile traditionalism in art. But these types of ideologies simply aim to redefine the culture, the space and the vocabulary of art practice/critique and not to radically subvert these inherent problems by stepping outside of the larger art context; this is merely rearranging chairs at the same table. We’ve trapped ourselves in a box that may allow mobility within its walls, but makes it damn near impossible to share our creative impulses outside the heartbreaking realities of a terribly defective art world.
The Nester succeeded in truly subverting the accepted contexts of artistic creation by refusing to acknowledge or engage such contexts. Sure, he showed some recognizable aesthetic concerns in creating his Nests, but never did he try to peddle them as art, nor did he invite consideration of them as works of art. In fact, the opposite occurred; most viewers thought that they’d stumbled upon the irrational dealings of a perverted lunatic. The Nester used creative means to construct something poignant and oddly beautiful outside accepted artistic boundaries. The bathroom was not a gallery, the viewers were not critics; there was no didactic above the toilet explaining in plain language what the artist intended. There were no critical blog posts written about it (until this one, half a century later). Photographic documentation was not preserved in hopes of revisiting these Nests in a retrospective exhibit in the Walker’s Target Gallery.
Undoubtedly, these Nests satisfied a neurotic urge as much as a creative one. But the Nester did succeed in engaging the problems of his community and letting loose some wild irrationality within himself. What is more pure, more human than that? Let us take that sort of model as a springboard for our own creative practice, while removing ourselves from that crippling context of art which, in all honesty, has very little do with creativity.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people go clog some toilets to proclaim their creativity. Rather, I am suggesting that we draw from the Nester’s example the conviction that we can and must treat our own creativity with the dignity it deserves. We need to stop making art that relies upon a toxic art world, to stop making art that tries to find a way into Artforum, and instead finds a way into the deeply transformative creative passion that burns in each of us.
Being artists in Minneapolis, and not New York, Los Angeles or Berlin, we have an especially unique opportunity. Few artists I know actually profit from their creative endeavors, in fact most of them even stretch themselves thin financially just to be able to create and share their work. There’s little money for artists here. Barely any. So few of us actually rely on our personal art endeavors as a form of income that commercial viability should seem inconsequential to this community. If this is the case, if we have no financial obligations for tolerating this quasi-bourgeois scene we’ve created for ourselves, why do we all strive so hard to conform to it? Since most of us are losing money on this deal anyway, why do we not reevaluate our artistic motivations and radically transform how we approach creativity.
I suggest we ask ourselves some new questions. What do we want to get out of life, out of art? How can I use the latter as a means to achieve the former? We should attempt to create from a place where these types of question guide us, while refusing to indulge an arts scene that is, for lack of better term, shit to begin with.