From the All Worlds Fair February 22nd-23rd, 02013 San Francisco, California, Earth-Prime
If you are friends with me on various social networks, you may have seen some odd posts from me in the past month or two related to the sea, or dream analysis. Or you may have puzzled over how I joined Pinterest, particularly since I was collecting photos of submarine interiors, watery dreamscapes, and vintage meridian-crossing ceremonies. Well, it all came to a head last weekend.
The All-Worlds Fair was conceived of by gentleman artist, raconteur, and high-concept roustabout Chicken John Rinaldi, a two-night-only event taking the overwhelming wonder of the old World Expos and extending the exhibitor list to all the worlds that could have existed, across all time and space. And what better place to stage it in than the historic Old Mint building? Blessed with a unique combination of steel vaults, exposed brick walls, and grand ballrooms, it was an armature you could build a rich event on. I was a crew member with the Seas of the Subconscious, in which there was nautical derring-do, half-lucid logic, and dream cartography. (More on that later.)
The rules for guests were suitably arcane: "In keeping with traditions established in the Treaty of Argon, the dress code is Monochrome, White on Black, emphasizing White…In order to preserve the delicate Discontinuous Network that powers the Fair, the usage of digital devices is not allowed inside the fairgrounds. This ban includes Cellular Telephones, Electronic Wrist Watches, and Digital Cameras of any caliber." Over the course of the event, I came to deeply appreciate the atmosphere these policies fostered: without phone cameras, you had people actually being in the moment, instead of pulling themselves out trying to capture it. The dress code lent an air of magic, as well as an easy way to identify the rubes from the performers.
Guests were broken into groups of 180, who would be let loose on the bottom floor for an hour before being bells would ring, all crew would feign sleep, and the guests would be taken upstairs by the kindly hands and bell-ringing of the docents. Properly ascended, they'd have an hour upstairs before the closing performance, a stormy Butoh sequence that brought some faraway universe into being. Meanwhile, the crews below would have time (30min the first night, more like 15 minutes the second) to reorganize, rest, eat, and get ready for the next wave.
One thing I should mention here is that it was patently impossible for anyone to experience everything. Even the organizers were constantly being surprised by added wrinkles and secret wonders in each room.
In fact, it was only on the second night that I went outside with one of the mermaids during a slight lull to watch the Passport Control staff at work. A group of some 18 identically-dressed women in red outfits and black-antennae'd pillbox hats, armed with clipboards, desk lamps, stamps, and the imprimatur of unyielding bureaucracy. A portion of the crowd would file into a kind of rodeo-chute flanked by the high desks of the passport ants, hand in their carefully-filled out surreal paperwork, and have it looked over and most often torn up in front of them. Then, at the arranged signal, there were 18 perfectly-synchronized STAMPS, passports were issued, and the chute would be released to enter the bottom floor. It was remarkable to watch, and apparently they were able to run through all 180 guests per shift in under ten minutes.
As one might expect, I spent most of the time in the Seas of the Subconscious room, but I would sometimes be found outside, signalling semaphore, haulingmermaids, or swabbing decks. Inside our vault was a kelp forest, an interior lit by jellyfish lamps, and vague suggestions of cargo-netting and parachute material (one of the details that emerged was that, seeing as it was a vessel sailing through dreams, the Unfathomable often changed from a steamer to a tall ship to a submarine, or sometimes all at once.) At the back of the space was a long bench and table on which were laid stacks of blank dream recording forms, pens, globes, kaleidoscopic spyglasses, actual nautical manuals like The Watch Officer's Guide, and a number of strange navigational instruments that seemed to spin wildly, (thanks to some eccentric battery-motors made by one of the crew).
Behind it, the map: a grand chart of the subconscious, from the Straits of Despair to the Reefs of Exaltation, with larger island chains in the regions of the Motherlands and the Fatherlands. Lengths of brightly-colored yarn connected various locations, in an attempt to ostensibly triangulate our position, but looking not dissimilar from the Nash Insanity Wall from "A Beautiful Mind." Next to that was a bar that acted as a library of dreams, where filled-out dreams were rolled up and put into small vials, passports were stamped (each exhibit had its own stamp for visitors to collect, and there were also custom secret ones we made up along the way, like mermaids' kisses.) Depending on our supply of dreams, visitors could exchange their dream for someone else's.
There were typically a couple sailors in the back, a couple in the front, and one manning the dream library. Most of our language was comprehensible, but with enough dream logic to push people out of standard frames of reference. There was a lot of spinning out of nautical phraseology into nonsense ("Hoist sea-furling fore and aft sails!" is almost there already.) I spent most of my time in the front, managing crowd flow. If there weren't enough people, I'd go out and drum some up, at one point shanghai'ing some from another exhibit. Most of the time though, the flirtatious mermaids out front did the trick, especially when they were handing out cardboard cutlasses. We had a TON of cardboard cutlasses, so we ended up fighting a lot of duels. (Also, gambling with our Norton-dollars.)
Fathoming; photo by Audrey Penven
Most of the time, I was dealing with high crowd flow, giving people things to do before they went and wrote down their dreams. Thus, "fathoming," whereby I'd approach the dazzled newcomers in a purposeful manner, and ask them to hold a line of rope. Probably 99% of people did so without hesitation, even if they weren't sure why. Then I'd extend it out somewhere, or looped it around something/someone, or tied it off around my waist, etc. Then I'd bring it around another part of the rope, and hand THAT part off to another group of newcomers, slowly building complex hyper-dimensional knots and loops, sometimes suspending mops in midair as a kind of divining rod to find our heading, or making them sweep the floor themselves by pendular motion (Ala mickey mouse in "the sorceror's apprentice"). If more people came, then you could always grab another line of rope and splice it off in some interesting way. Then call everyone to heave and ho, or up and down. It was basically the tensegrity-equivalent form of playing with the parachute in gym class. Some of the guests joined the fun, handing their lines off to newcomers with a similar purposeful manner. "A pure dada-game," as it was described by the mustachioed man across the hall (his room was an old-timey huckster pitch, demonstrating a violet lamp/wand as the miracle cure of electricity).
The rest of the crew was equally wonderful. The mad captain was a trained actor, and it was evident in his perfect ad-libs and stormy fits. The Captain would call all hands, and announce we'd be "crossing the meridian of awkward hugs," and we'd have to do whatever he just cited.
The mermaids were ethereal and amusing, getting passers-by (not to mention certain stripe-y sailors like myself) to do their bidding. The second night one of the crew dressed up with stockings and a short skirt on the bottom, and a fish-head costume on the top. He went around making mischief and stealing passports to get people to chase him into the room.
Some of the other exhibitors downstairs we got to know pretty well, in part because we started setting up chains of interaction. The Night Court would send people in to walk the plank or to hard sea-labor. The Arbolaxians (extractive visitors from a resource depleted planet) would send people down with a milk can, exchanging fuel for dreams and vice versa. The Cult of Emperor Norton kept sending people to steal stuff from us, prompting us into a punitive cardboard-armed raid during the last shift. (Also, the fact that we had laser-cut about a jillion of those cardboard cutlasses, and wanted to use them up…So we ended up going and raiding a couple of different rooms, calling retreat after 20 or 30 seconds of sublime chaos in a given room.)
Friday night, we got to go upstairs and see the second floor after our last shift. It was more ballroomy, less frenetic, more observational than participatory. But such spectacle to observe: costumed representations of the book of Revelations; a beautiful quadruple-amputee stilt-walking like a horse; a plant that doubled as a working theremin; an out-of-body experience race, where people were given goggles that showed them the view from an overhead camera and had to run around like characters in a bad Playstation game. And of course, the arresting Butoh performance at the end. The guests would then be ushered out on a red carpet to the grand outer steps of the Mint, knowing they would never experience that ever again.
And neither, for that matter, will I.
There were certain moments of sublime beauty or deep silliness that will stay with me and nourish me. The inscrutable precision of the Passport Ants; The "Human Extraction" shelves of the Arbolaxians; The defiant posture of the Whore of Babylon in Revelations; David Fine selling Artisanal Merkins at his Merkin-tile; Swordfighting with Emperor Norton shortly after arresting a false claimant to the Emperor's title; drinking tea in a century-old gold vault with the other crew, shortly before being ushered out. Most of all, the moment at the end of the last basement shift, when all the crew peaked out from their sleep to make sure the guests/rubes were gone, and went giddy applauding each other. And I hope perhaps also to have inspired a few: At some point I was hauling two mermaids like sacks of potatoes over my shoulders, shouting out "Catch of the Day!" as I strode through the crowd. At another, I took a big mess of rope knotted around a mop leftover from fathoming, and realized if I held it so, it moved like a dance-partner. So I went waltzing down the hall and back, a sailor and his mop.
There were also moments I missed completely. One of the Arbolaxians told me later about the Silicon mine, where you'd crawl on your hands and knees for 8 or 10 feet through a tunnel and emerge into a chamber with a tower of old computer cases and LEDs everywhere, the color of which changed depending on where and how you touched the tower: "your chance to make it in the tech gold rush."
C'est la vie. The sooner you realize you can't do everything, the earlier you can do something that's worth the fleeing time we have on this world, or any of the other ones out there. Being as we are not immortal sentient toxic clouds (who, as it happens, were accused of buying up SF real estate and linked with former mayor WIllie Brown in flyers circulated surreptitiously at the event), we must accept our temporary nature, like the fair, and make the most of the time we have.
In short (too late): it was really, really fun. I am so grateful to the organizers, and also to the mermaid who suggested that I'd be a good addition to the Unfathomable's crew, long before our vessel even had a name.
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