Writer in Residence · 09/15/2010

Artifact 27: An Artists' Interregnum

Truly, an inconceivable caliphate: everything would seem off, wouldn’t it? At least, reversed. And yet, all along, a left-handed cabal had waited their turn at the reins of state, perennially incipient, rock to right-handed power’s paper, smothered (and anyhow, allergic to scissors) and scorned as underhanded by their opposite.

The Golden City’s orientationally-segregated and long ignored class, artists all, unthinkingly damned to a final indignity with the introduction and patent of an exclusively right-handed security system at the courts, threw off the injustice with a cry of foul—no longer even admitted into the presence of the Law? outlandish!—and rushed the tipped scales of the judiciary, seizing the Governor’s Palace in the process. A long-awaited right-brained dynasty was upon the City.

No longer larval, the imago of their fiefdom, so-styled “The Colony,” was no mere mirror-image. Encouraging indolence where industry had formerly prevailed, contemplation was now king, depth no longer a measurement but a beneficence. First, because it was a necessary adaptation to such a sudden disruption: the right-handed majority expended no small amount of cogitation merely figuring how to go about their daily business in a world reversed. And second, because the Law now demanded it, requiring the examination of all problems using the most oblique methods at hand. Days, even weeks, were spent in the bath—this was when hot water was still available—not so much thinking on a problem as thinking around it. Periodic eurekas were shouted in the streets (nudity, thankfully, no longer taboo), such that some sidewalks were slated to be given non-slip coatings to prevent further injury. When this pensive period had passed and projects were truly in hand, however, it was found that the indolence had turned once again to industry, in fact to a kind of indentured servitude, with whole lifetimes promised to the merest glimmer of creative return. Life as artwork; artwork as life—the right-handed strove to please their left-handed majesties the only way they knew how.

“You gotta get your hands dirty, you know? You just gotta, like, follow it where it takes you, man,” was the muezzin’s call. Everyone had their own thing and did it, under penalty of law. Rulers no longer issued edicts; prompts were the order of the day. For those who could not transform experience into effect, dungeons stood waiting, emptied at accession, but not to stay that way for long. Of course, punishment was capricious, inspired less by the severity of the crime than the parameters of the daily prompt. Woe to those caught blocked on an Exquisite Corpse or otherwise thanatotically-themed day. Even at a seemingly innocuous prompt, “bird” say, things could be exceedingly unpleasant for the uninspired: one man was hung by the neck of a goose, another tarred and feathered, plucked, and roasted, lacquered in sweet bean sauce.

Palaces and factories were converted into studio lofts. Time-tables went out the window and schedules were forlorn before pride of project. The very trains were sites of transit masterpiece: if the Number Nine was nine minutes late, a right-hander might reasonably expect the Twelve to be a dozen minutes off, but perhaps the conductors that day did not intend symmetry, or were possessed of a different style of such. Then again, the lucky commuter on the timely train might be window dressing for a fatal experiment, a delightful three-engine collision the canvas in the offing that day.

Delivery of necessities was feckless but stylish. Stores were stocked with a single item or none at all; alternately, incongruously filled with refuse. One pointedly ignored provisioner was piled floor to ceiling with elephant dung. Rare was the grocery adequately larded, rarer still as the days went on. Fields were allowed to go fallow, or sowed out of season. Effect was prized over economy or ecology. Prepared food was no longer meant to be nutritious. Often as not, it was not even to be eaten. The heathen who dared take a bite could only rescue himself by claiming L. H. O. O. Q.-like intentions. City planning, sanitation, and engineering were the dreams of children, bizarre and fortunately too extravagant to be realized. In all areas of life, variance was not tolerated: it was de rigeur.

A sharply-reduced birthrate seems to have been the net result; as art sprang up in every quarter, its makers locked themselves away from each other in separate studios in an effort to give their life’s works their just due. Silence often languished for weeks at a time. The right-handers struggled to produce. Meetings were convocations on process—conversation was mostly avoided and small talk entirely banished. Conjugation was strictly grammatical, pregnancies creative rather than procreative, the result of performance and/or conceptual art rather than mistakes of lust or products of love.

Children found themselves at the threshold of warrens of studios they were forbidden to enter. They strayed. Utterly without chaperone, they made sand-castles of these crumbling structures, carefully drew pictures of their parents drawing pictures, and played artists-and-infidels in long-forgotten offices of the former bureaucracy until their play became toil, turned to ashes in their mouths. What could they do, finally, but rebel against this, too, institute the iron fist in place of this unsupervised Montessorian nightmare?

The question, as in all times, was how? How to rebel against a culture whose only commandment was “Thou shalt create?” Pencil-down protests worked only on certain days; on others, they were merely counted conceptual and clacked ostentatiously. The conflict quickly got ugly: the youngsters resurrected kitsch and camp, defied the elders to find worth in what they had so far derided. The most hideous sentiment was dragged through the streets from the queues of incinerators left guttering without their furnacemen and returned to the broad shoulders of drawing room easels. The elders, refusing to be affronted, turned their creative energies to recycling, endlessly ripping off, and otherwise reinventing these wobbling wheels with great gusto. It was years, perhaps a full decade, before the revolt gained traction, giving the children time to come into adolescence, some even into young adulthood. Physical strength, pheromones, and the teenager’s natural inclination to herd mentality were the chief players in the revolution’s eventual puissance.

When it came, it came from a certain, familiar friction: everything of the Left-Handed Caliphate had been personal, hermetic, de trop—truly revolutionary would be the work of communion, committee, of compromise. Children conferred together, conformed together. Everything, from now on, would be middle of the road, lowest common denominator. Above all, predictable.

In celebrating the humdrum political past, the children’s revolution tugged at Golden memories that embittered right-handers had so far kept under wraps. Countless inartistic traffic jams were caused by a single monument to a long-gone patriarch straddling the main north-south avenue. Exceptionally realistic and utterly uninteresting sculpture (of bygone bureaucratic heroes, no less!) displayed in the square brought legions of loyal left-handers low. Portraiture freed of the subjective, completely clinical and kowtowing to reactionaries turning in their graves, was plastered over the walls of the Palace, flung in the face of the abstract expressionist painters who formed the royal court. Guards, commissioned to scrape the offensive graffiti from the façade, refused, calling it sacrilege. Many were holdovers from the previous regime, denounced as fascists at the left-handers’ ascent, but subsequently found necessary to the cause. Several were beheaded for insubordination, but eventually, compromise was reached, the results of revolutionary craftsmanship defaced and defused during the night.

These children of the Caliphate relished the impermanent, the disposable, above all, the cheap and mass-produced, anything that anyone could understand and take in—in full—at a glance. They converted lofts back into factories, pumped out copies of the most ludicrous claptrap. The left-handed counts and courtiers were powerless to resist the monotonous onslaught of tearjerkers and propaganda. Clumsily crafted, as they thought, this pabulum hit the bare minimum of notes so hard they cracked, and then hit them again, and then again—“this is just what, like, the Man wants you to like, man”—and yet, no one could help but like it, if only in the basest, most craven way. It seemed the tide was turning.

The rebels rushed into the breach left by the boredom of the everyday and seized control over certain municipal services. Every so often now the trains ran on time, mail was delivered without undue delay, water lines flowed as normal: things briefly worked, and hastily hidden tears of joy were shed all over town.

By far, though, the most successful of fronts was the revolution’s loving reconstitution of the old, creaky bureaucracy. Slowly but surely, agenda and minutes were returned to the City, along with councilmen and memos, accountants and parliamentary procedure, the proactive and the banal. The Caliph’s once daily prompts, apt to change even during delivery, now took weeks to reach the floor of the senate, passed only by slim majority, and were posted in bowdlerized schedules, samizdats distributed on set days of the month. Long unused to such convenience, the people were suddenly freed from their terrifying indecision: what to do next? always at the top of the list, was now struck from that list with calendrical ease.

The last gasp of the Left-Handed Caliphate occurred on the eve of the ten-year anniversary of its ascendancy (though the Caliphate’s amanuenses had long since ceased keeping track of the date, its right-handed subjects had suffered in secret on abaci of incredible precision, and had no trouble establishing a time-line when called upon to do so). The humongous statue of the Golden patriarch was scaled, its left hand welded shut into a defiant fist and then severed, dropped into the middle of the avenue to blockade the Governor’s Palace. Loyalists summoned all of their artistry in fixing it in place. It integrated perfectly into its setting. Once spotted in its new environment, one could not envision it elsewhere. It would be immovable, traffic to and from the Palace, impossible, a reminder to the revolutionaries of who ruled the City. History, however, has shown the gesture to be in vain.

With ant-like efficiency and infallible logic, the right-handers consecrated the Palace, its grounds, and the little neighborhood of sycophants behind it as “The Artists’ Colony,” shunted the main avenue off into side-streets, and simply ignored the left-handers barricaded there. The Caliph and his court continued to rule over this quarter, but the business of the City was fully in the hands of the right-handed and left-brained revolutionaries setting up government in cement blocks anesthetically constructed in far-flung suburbs.

The Artists’ Colony was henceforth the site of much curiosity, but it could easily be avoided and often was. It received scattered attention only when one of its inmates briefly escaped, spreading his or her personal vision like an infection. Steps were taken to inoculate the citizens against possible contamination, the inmate was either returned to the Colony or placed in a dungeon, and business went back to normal, the faddish, febrile season safely concluded.

Right-handed historians of the City apparently counted this whole episode, on the very cusp of the City’s ruination, dubious, denied the interregnum its legitimacy and the left-handers their very existence. They considered this period to have been but the perversion of a Caligulan tyrant whose caprices were subsequently embellished much beyond their actual infamy by a creative-type desirous of portraying his ilk as stalwart against the reactionaries that called down the Fire from the Sky. The Left-Handed Caliphate was a mistake of the imagination, a phantom for the books. It simply wasn’t feasible; the only place such a society could exist was in the mind. The discovery of the closed left hand that sat at the entrance to the Governor’s Palace, however, proves, at least partially, that the point is not simply academic: disputation, no matter how learned, cannot alter the material evidence. The careful sculpting and then resculpting of fiberglass and steel is not the product of the mind, but that of the hand. The question then becomes: what does the hand tell us of the mind?

Gabriel Blackwell’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Web Conjunctions, The Collagist, Puerto del Sol and Uncanny Valley.

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posted by Amber Sparks