Thursday, July 30, 2009

Black Acid Co-Op

The kitchen is a make-shift laboratory. Duct tape seals the plastic tubes running into the jugs and beakers. Boxes of Sudafed are piled on the open stove door. A film of chemical corrosion and thick grime covers everything. Welcome to your neighborhood methamphetamine lab. Nobody’s home.

I keep thinking, what moment is captured in this intensively detailed reproduction? Right before a batch or speed was concocted? Right after? Are the chemists on their way to deliver their product to the dealer. Maybe it was right after the bust and this is a crime scene photo come to “life.” Are the boxes of Sudafed empty? Are they empty for the purposes of the exhibit, or because this exhibit shows a lab where a batch of crank has already been prepared? Wait, the Sudafed, the boxes aren’t open, the foil wrappers where the pills are kept inside the boxes are nowhere to be seen. Is that a clue?

Is this a before scenario, before an explosion? In the adjacent room is another former kitchen turned Meth-Lab. But the furnishings and chaotic assortment of debris are all charred. There has been a fire. A melted toilet is in the tiny bathroom. Am I now looking at the after space of the lab I just visited, or are they two separate labs?

Speed is deadly and dangerous. The labs are prone to bursting into flames. The chemicals leftover after making speed are toxic. Hazardous waste protocols must be followed when removing a Meth-Lab, which are often in cheap motels or trailer homes or the dingy house on the outskirts of town. Making the drug is a complex—although if you’re a chemist, relatively easy—process that requires an assortment of chemicals, many of them flammable yet readily available at the local hardware store.

The two side by side Meth-Labs—one in some stage of production, the other post-fire, are the core exhibits at the Black Acid Co-Op, an installation at the Deitch Projects, a Soho art gallery on Wooster Street.

I accept this as art—in fact, clever and compelling art. But I’m not sure the term gallery does this experience justice. The installation transforms the space, well, three floors of it, into a strange, unsettling environment. According to the Deitch press release: “Black Acid Co-Op is the moniker for a counter-culture enclave embedded in the metropolis. In this incarnation, the artists shift the focus from the production of illegal drugs to sites of sub-cultural groups and how they are situated in the larger urban environment. The installation will expand on the notions relating to the connection between counter-culture and industrial society resulting in a spatial collage that extends itself into a vast architectural setting.”

Before you enter, you have to sign a waiver. I’m not sure if this was a joke, or a way to subconsciously reinforce a feeling of danger. When you get to the Meth-Lab, it doesn’t seem completely safe. The reality is so precisely manifested that toxic exposure and potential injury crosses your mind.

The first “room” you enter I found the most unnerving. It is glaring white—illuminated by irritating fluorescent lights on the ceiling, and aligned with metallic white walls on which wigs are displayed. A replication of a cheap wig shop, one you might find in an inner city or a down on its luck strip mall. The wigs are displayed on what appears to be Styrofoam head mannequins—I was later told that they were not all Styrofoam, but actually sculptures, some molded with kitty litter. The disturbing part is that these are not just fake hair pieces, the wigs are gnarled, splattered with dried gobs of house paint. They looked hideous. Words fail to describe the effect this room had on me. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. I didn’t take pictures. The paint and other crap on those wigs was utterly disgusting and even bloodcurdling. I still shudder thinking about it. The inhumane light in the room forced you to squint. Then you walk through a hole in the wall, literally—a broken, jagged oval busted into the wall—and enter another too bright room that resembles a typical art gallery. Nicely framed black and white photos are on the antiseptic white walls I think I was too disturbed by the wigs for this room to fully register. The people in the pictures look odd, Diane Arbus sort of, except they are not freaks, most are well-heeled, formally dressed. Other pictures were of what I later recognized as the Meth-Lab.

I called these two rooms the first rooms, but after them there is no real direction to go, you could either go up stairs, or down stairs. I went through one room that was just bamboo curtains. I think you could have taken the stairs first. The wig room and photo gallery I happened to go in first, maybe there was no real first room.

Again, the press release: “the intended use of many of the sites will feel transformed or hybridized: factories have become homes, kitchens are used as drug labs, the radical chic living room is frozen in a museum, the high-rise is carved into makeshift maze to evade the law.”

Okay, I love that word, hybridized. I went upstairs and I was not thinking of Soho, and I wasn’t thinking art—my mind was no longer reacting in a typical way of judging and interpreting a work of art with the usual mix of objective and subjective criteria. I was asking myself, where was I, what is this. If one goal is to transform space, the Black Acid Co-Op achieves that in spades. You know what you are seeing isn’t real, but you are not thinking, gallery. You are confused, trying to make sense of the kind of lives that have made what you are seeing exist.

The Meth-Lab dominates. Your mind goes back to that disturbing glare-filled chamber of horror wigs—is that a drug-induced psychosis experience? Is that your mind on drugs? Is that how a speed freak might feel—strung out and rock bottom—ugly hair on lifeless heads?

The Meth-Lab is incredible. A hundred times more realistic than the sets in The Salton Sea or Spun were, and they are good films. The Meth-Lab “rooms” leave no doubt that this is what those kitchen labs are. They are called “Hello Meth-Lab In The Sun,” and are by Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman (I am assuming they are responsible for the entire exhibition), and has been shown in this format in other parts of the country prior to this NYC debut.

The attention to detail amazes—one tube is taped to a Santa Claus mug—was the mug part of happier times before the kitchen was transformed into a toxic laboratory? The closer you looked, the more apparent the artistic skill and commitment involved becomes—the powers of observation are incredible, the unwavering accuracy and authenticity shows a singular sensibility. I’ve never been in a Meth-Lab but this encounter left me with the impression that now I had. It was like a ride in an amusement park except the transportation was so vivid you forget you are on a ride, or in an amusement park. I was reminded of the Egyptian exhibit of the inside of a Pyramid tomb that is (or used to be) at the Metropolitan Museum of art. The unsettling aspect of course is that this real life now, a ground zero of a scourge—Meth really destroys lives, it’s a destructive, highly addictive drug, induces psychosis and is a serious social problem in the Midwest, and parts of the South and West.

There is no smell in this Meth-Lab. The pungent fumes occurring during production are one way the labs get busted. What struck me is that a moment was captured—and separated from the before and after—that moment revealed desperation. The exact moment—that was for me to figure out—the setting where that moment took place was all that was given me to deduce the particulars of the scenario.

Another room was a “Crash Pad,” and sort of was just a dingy apartment, a “squat,” although it was called a “radical chic” enclave, the kind of place Yippies and Weathermen holed up before a demonstration. Okay...

Another room were utility book shelves, manuscripts and books with their covers torn off, with titles like “Life Is Absent” written in magic marker. Adjacent to the shelves is the glass jar room. Shelves of large mason jars filled with fluid and immediately you’re remembering the fetal pigs in formaldehyde ready to be dissected by students in Sophomore biology, but in these jars are a seemingly random collection of items, pages of books, postcards, pictures. Is that another manic collection by a speed freak—mania and obsessiveness are well known side effects of the amphetamine experience—or is this an archive of the mind of somebody on speed—an accelerated and dense flurry of thoughts and memories. Is this the mind itself—the fluid in the jars representing the chemical reactions in the brain when you have memories and thoughts. I was thinking about this the next day, how our brains are just assortments of organic chemicals and all our thoughts and memories are just formulas and reactions of those chemicals. Then I realize, that’s the kind of pointless concept you ponder when you are on drugs—thoughts, memories, don’t matter, are all equal—they are chemicals just like the drug you are on—the only thing that matters is your feeling of euphoria, no matter how temporary (as long as you have enough for one more bump).

There was another room that was also dark—the rooms are either too bright or too dim—of dark blue walls and a sickly red floor and the paint on the walls was peeling in huge, tatter-edged gashes. I can’t remember where this room was in relationship to the Meth-Lab or the crash pad. There are wires everywhere, strewn in the rooms, and when you go through the doorways, you feel like you are walking through a prohibited area—somewhere beyond the yellow caution tape—an abandoned building. Was the blue room a real space or the mind of the drug user? The not knowing enhances the experience.

I go down stairs, to what seems like a basement. I’m in a another way too bright environment. It’s a shop, a Chinese bodega. There are pills and other health food store looking items, Chinese letters on the labels. These products may contain more than just ginseng. In one corner is a small rack of pornographic t-shirts. I did not take a picture. They were hilarious. These were triple-X, explicit drawings of sexual acts. Where does one wear a porno t-shirt? A woman and a man enthusiastically engaged in an act of fellatio? What is the appropriate occasion for such a garment? I imagine that speed-fueled orgies are a clandestine activity, they are not commemorated with T-shirts. I went to this drug-fueled sex orgy and all I got was this lousy porno t-shirt. Are they kidding me with this store, is this sleazy Asian retail establishment somehow connected to the drug experience, a subculture. Except for the porno t-shirts, I’ve been to places like this in Chinatown. I never thought that I could score Meth. Later, went I went through the pictures I took, I googled some of the words on the labels and the poster—Shabu, Batu. Turns out, these are indeed, Asian slang terms for Ice, a highly potent smoke-able form of speed.

There was a nice, young woman there, she worked for the gallery. I talked to her, and I also spoke with the women working the front desk about the project. Intelligent, polite and more than willing to answer questions and discuss the concepts behind the installation. It’s a confusing experience, going from one room to another—nothing is marked, there was no guide-book—one being an actual Meth-Lab, another being a disturbing wig room or a bleak blue room with torn paint walls, another an Asian bodega—a mix of external and internal pieces—is this depiction one of the real world or the mind of an amphetamine user? Those glass jars, which fascinated me—was that a manic speed freak collecting something that only made sense to him or her or was it a portrayal of that drug-frenzied mind in action. “It can be both,” said the woman. She was interested in my questions. There was no supercilious attitude that I anticipated (I was in a Soho Art Gallery after all). “It’s not meant to be linear. It is really what you think it is.”

None of the other visitors seemed interest in talking to the gallery employees. That was their loss. These women (I didn’t notice any men) honestly seemed to care what you thought about what you were witnessing.

I remembered Asian newspapers on the floors of the other rooms, a connection to the bodega? The pictures in the photo-gallery—were these rich addicts free from the degradation less well off druggies go through. Were the glass jars what the down and outers in the crash pad are dreaming of?

I couldn’t shake the Black Acid Co-Op experience for a while. I didn’t mind leaving the installation. It’s creepy and disturbing. I felt disconcerted, not just because it reproduced the dark side of the drug world or presented a decayed reality that is simply unsettling—but because the exhibit—for lack of a better term—relies on you to interpret it. There were no answers given you. The relationship between the rooms you figure out, and as you do, you remember themes—more like clues—that are in these seemly disparate spaces. I’m not sure if I would say it was fun, but in terms of fascination and engagement—I’ve never had so enjoyable time being so disconcerted.

The woman in the bodega was wearing a D.A.R.E. t-shirt. She said maybe it was her being ironic. I thought about that the next day. D.A.R.E. is an anti-drug program in schools. Speed Kills was a public awareness program I recall from my childhood and of course, we all remember, this is your brain on drugs egg in frying pan commercial. Well, public awareness campaigns have come and gone and come again. People still say yes, not no to drugs. People are still getting high and especially when it comes to Meth, lives are still destroyed. Sorry Partnership for a Drug-Free America, these ads have never and will never work. I’m not even sure they should. Drugs are a part of the human experience and I’ve always had a libertarian attitude towards the issue. Prohibition and law enforcement has never been effective against drugs. No one forces you to do drugs. On the other hand, some great works of art—works of art I love—for example—L’Absinthe by Degas, Junky by William S. Burroughs, or Heroin by Lou Reed (original Velvet Underground recording), are about the drug experience. They explore what the euphoria feels like and what the dissolute lives those experiencing the euphoria often turn out to be. It’s too far to say they glamorize drug use—the down-side of the experience are referenced—but lets face it, those and other works do not exactly discourage use. They acknowledge the fun being high can be and tend to emphasize the fun more than addiction, psychosis or criminal activity. The Black Acid Co-Op is an intense experience, and intentionally an objective, totally non-judgmental depiction of the multi-layered Meth experience and the various sub-cultures that coalesce around the drug. D.A.R.E. has been around before and during the Meth epidemic that is still ravaging parts of the country. Current drug users probably had D.A.R.E. presentations given to them in school. I can’t imagine anyone after experiencing the Black Acid Co-Op ever desiring to do Meth. That is not the intention of the installation, but it is undoubtedly one of the outcomes.

Please visit:

No comments:

Post a Comment