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(At New York City's New Museum)

by Barry Thorne

As tourism and museum attendance declines in the wake of 9-11, some New York museums have become desperate in their attempt to draw a crowd. This past spring the New Museum in downtown Manhattan took sensationalism to the limit with the display of the installation Cloaca, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. Cloaca (the name derived from the Latin word for sewer), is a machine that produces human fecal matter. That’s right, food goes in one end and 12 hours later, out the other comes a blob of simulated human feces. The machine’s design, with its abundance of exposed beakers, tubes and weird dials, seems to be intended to convey feelings of horror and mystery, such as you may get from the set of a Frankenstein movie. The mysterious Wim Delvoye takes the place of Dr. Frankenstein here, but unfortunately for us, the end product of his creation is a bit less inspiring than that of the good doctor.

What role does the New Museum play in this theatrical charade, the role of Universal Studios no doubt? Just as in the original film, the museum has gone to great lengths to authenticate the production and endow the piece with tremendous merit and deep art historical significance. The culture smiths and word magicians employed by the museum have constructed a labyrinth of mumbo jumbo to distract and confuse the viewer. Curators and gallery owners frequently use this technique. Just as the eye is tricked by the slight of hand of the magician, the reason of the viewer is tricked by the slight of verbiage and the device slips into place as a respected object of high art.

The Cloaca device, created with the assistance of some University of Antwerp scientists who had nothing better to do with their time, is certainly an interesting piece of machinery. It would be a noteworthy exhibit at a Midwestern science fair, but the question remains, is it art? According the New Museum it is not only art, it is art that "forces viewers to question elaborate cultural mechanisms." It is also an "ongoing investigation into abjection as fundamental to the human condition" and an attempt "to replace an iconography of narcissism and power with one in which discomfort and pain are tangibly present." Perhaps the museum curators have made an error in their interpretation of the device? Perhaps it is not human fecal matter that is produced, but that of our old herbivorous friend, the tricky bull?

Just as shaking generators and electrical charges pulsing across the dungeon laboratory were not enough to resuscitate Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, our producer, Senior Curator Dan Cameron, must go further. Pulling a lever that pushes the generators up to full power, he blows another fuse. To him the device is so intense it goes beyond intensity: "our cultural anxieties about these processes [shitting] are so deep seated that they do not even qualify as anxieties in the first place." Accordingly, the device is related to "other biological uncertainties, including (but not limited to) guilt concerning sex, embarrassment over nudity, shame about aging, fear of disease, and death." It reminds us of "the vast aspects of our most intimate lives — and by extension the world." Perhaps Curator Dan has been eating too many of those fatty gourmet meals from the same Soho restaurants providing fodder for the Cloaca device and has trouble relieving himself. To him it seems that taking a crap has got to be one of the most anxiety ridden, existential, mind blowing experiences imaginable, while to most people, sitting down and taking a good load off is an enjoyable experience.

Of course, the full power generators were not enough to resuscitate Frankenstein. The doctor had to open the roof and raise the monster up. Only the ultimate power crashing down from heaven itself would give life to the creature. In keeping with the original production, our master takes it to the limit: "Cloaca directly confronts the contemporary confusion regarding when or where human life begins or ends. Cloaca forces us to catch ourselves in the act of self identification." It is about "what it means to be alive, but we are surprised that this particular challenge has originated outside the field of artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, it is strangely consoling to recognize that some of the most basic facts of our physical lives remain as foreign and mysterious as the deepest secrets about the origins of the universe." There you have it--a little intellectual slight of lip and a bunch of beakers and tubes that turns a nice meal into a plop of simulated crap is more amazing than artificial intelligence, as serious as the question of life’s beginnings and as mysterious as the origins of the universe.

It does not appear that the question of life’s beginnings and the origins of the universe will be answered by the Cloaca device, but the question of whether or not it is art seems to have been successfully eluded once again. Another question is why the curators of the New Museum are sitting around spending untold amounts of money and time promoting and contemplating the deep meaning of a turd on a conveyor belt? Is the reservoir of culture so dry? Is this the best they can come up with? We may never know the answer to these questions, but there is one thing we do know for certain, a fact that has been confirmed by the museum’s curators themselves. At New York City’s New Museum in Manhattan--art is a piece of shit!

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