1953: Midnight Fireball Hits Bay -- UFO Near Miss???? No, the image isn't a real historic boardwalk handbill from Antiques Roadshow but one more bit of McMilleniana (as are the ones below and to the right) -- they're actually banners made in 2004 for the Santa Monica Pier in California for a public art project that took its inspiration from "the facts, folklore, myths, and legends of the Pier's early history," with the images "representing historical events that may -- or may not-- have actually occurred." McMillen's banners, along with those of artist Steve Galloway, were printed on vinyl and hung out on light poles on the boardwalk, flickering in and out of view of visitors as they strolled along the Pier entertaining themselves. (There are more than two dozen, and each one of them is really fun and clever... very much in keeping with a characterization that McMillen used in another context about an art project of his: "all part of an open-ended narrative, a carnival for the curious.")
My third take-away lesson from the world of art for myself as an historian of science (there is a first one -- "trying to make the (seemingly) ephemeral visible". . . and a second one -- "of crocodelephants and category confusions") as seen through the envisionings of Los Angeles artists Sam Rodia and Michael C. McMillen is related to the idea of artistic installations: art in the wild, out in the public square. McMillen's banners for the Pier are an exuberant wave of the hand, inviting those who encounter them to take them in -- maybe do a double-take -- and respond as might be, maybe with amusement or bemusement, or in sparking off a train-of-associations, or drifting in and out of a game of detecting how close to historical reality the "commemorative" homages are.
The artist initiates a conversation, drawing on the representations and forms and idioms of everyday life, and provides an opportunity for engagement in a way that brings the specialist or expert (the artist) into an inviting -- if brief -- relationship with ordinary folk, casual passers-by. The Pier's visitors didn't have to possess the right connections to enter the home of a wealthy collector who owns an artpiece only seen by invitation, or even to venture into a museum gallery that is the art world's home turf: here, installation art, as public art in its most open form, takes up residence within a commonplace that offers the possibility for an interplay between "experts" and "laity" in a way that neither condescends nor intimidates. The third lesson, then, is of how venturing out beyond professional confines has so much potential: of teaching ourselves as we improvise new forms of communication, in ways that offer different kinds of connections and opportunities for imagination and reflection. And that's why I'm here on the web, diving into the area of science and popular culture, trying to figure out how to be a digital historian of science: putting out a few banners to fly in the public square. Its time to learn how to do history of science in the wild, not simply caretake it within the neatly trimmed hedges and rows of academic propriety.
McMillen's banners are also a wonderful nudge in and of themselves to speculate about the flotsam and jetsam of science and popular culture. UFOS streaking down into the sea, giant squid breaking the surface and upending an unwary boater, late-Victorian submarine steamers illuminating the murky depths: they're all wonderful evocations of the idea of mysteries that lurk so often at the heart of popular culture phenomena, with the ocean being a particularly apt emblematic prompt. In fact these three "historical" posters offer more than just apt symbolic representations of recurring popular symbols -- they intersect with real artifacts as well, in which connecting the dots begins to reveal possible patterns of culture. If not a real-world UFO sighting, well there was the 1953 movie, Phantom from Space ("Million Monkey Theater" provides a sharp narrative and commentary) in which an alien being crashes into the ocean off of Santa Monica. Jules Verne, in the 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, gives us both a Victorian submersible and a giant squid, featured as well in the 1954 film by Disney. Off the coast of Santa Monica you can spy Catalina Island twenty-seven miles away, where (as the locals tell it) the glass-bottom boat was invented in the late-19th century to take advantage of the clear waters and abundant sealife as a novel tourist attraction-- not quite the gothic hulk of McMillen's imagining, but in 1906 you could experience a variant of the Vernian aquatic dreamscape by touring Catalina's "undersea gardens" via glass-bottom boat. Of course, Catalina being a tinsel-town playground, the tourist craft gets its own star treatment in the Doris Day movie from 1966, The Glass Bottom Boat (with Day as a NASA employee and occasional mermaid...there are interesting images of scientists to consider in this comic film). With just this brief tour, we've probably discovered at least a couple of relevant items worthy of study that are historical obscurities for most by now.
It's unlikely that a rampaging squid actually tormented a bay-dweller in 1949 as recorded on the second banner, but Hollywood, just down the road, produced The Lady Takes a Sailor that year with Jane Wyman (directed by Michael Curtiz) where an octopus apparently figures into the narrative, although it's an underwater vehicle that breaks the surface and upends her sailboat -- and, interestingly, just two years post-Roswell, the plot features a government cover-up of secret experiments (extending to messing with civilians' heads and reputations) involving a submarine tractor (bringing together, in a loose but ever more thickly woven web, echoes of ufology, troublesome cephalopods, and novel deepsea machines :-) Of course, nasty squids/octopi received iconic treatment at the movies during the cold war period in Disney's 20,000 Leagues and It Came from Beneath the Sea ("it" being a six-armed octopus that attacked San Francisco, courtesy of Ray Harryhausen) from 1955 and in the 1961 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, directed by Irwin Allen (I actually saw one of these as a kid -- I think the third one -- at Catalina's movie theater at the Avalon Casino, after having had my first tour in a glass-bottom boat. . . I can still see the vague form of a giant octopus in my mind's-eye today, it scared me that much!). Of course, giant squid are among the most durable popular culture themes and are still a big draw, being that they're so elusive -- they were only recently caught live on video in 2005.
A fascinating late-19th century California seaside connection is a science fiction short story that appeared in a periodical called The Californian in December of 1893. Entitled "A Submarine Christmas" [via Google Books], the fantastic tale by Thomas R. Caldwell shamelessly draws from Verne, but is a surprisingly fresh and up-to-date look for its time at marine zoology. The plot involves an inventor of a submarine research vessel who travels to Avalon Bay at Catalina Island to test it out, and of his intrepid friend from the East Coast who joins him for assorted undersea adventures, including a near-fatal encounter with a "giant cuttle-fish (Architeuthis), a monster at least seventy feet in length. . . Its arms were thrown about the boat: its uncanny black eyes glowing like huge plates in the glare of the search lights" (accompanied by an excellent illustration). Fortunately for the harried explorers, it was all a dream! But the 1906 piscatorial machine of the Santa Monica Pier banner would look remarkably apt as an illustration for the 1893 story; certainly Thomas R. Caldwell would have felt right at home! And, again, we've probably discovered at least a couple of relevant items here that are historical obscurities for most by now, simply by using the 2004 banner imaginings by McMillen as jumping-off points.
Making the (seemingly) ephemeral visible is part of what the art world can teach us humanists, and artists can also inspire ideas about how to visualize a carnival for the curious -- experimenting outside the petri dish -- needed, especially, when humanism becomes tinged with scientism. Not only that, but they can send us off into cultural scavenger hunts that turn flotsam and jetsam into useful things to think with and that point toward historical work that needs doing.
Images: All from the image gallery at http://www01.smgov.net/smarts/gallery/paintings/PierBanners/index.html