The End, or Something Like It

Christopher Maclaine and a film still from ‘The End’

Here comes the end of the world. It’s coming, it’s drawing closer, or rather, it’s the end of my own world which has come creeping up on me. Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse


Christopher Maclaine was a beat poet, filmmaker, and methamphetamine addict who created one of the most compelling experimental films of the 1950s.  Shot largely on the streets of San Francisco, The End is a fractured sermon delivered on the eve of nuclear destruction.  In a voice that alternately evokes a tired priest delivering stern warnings of doom and then slipping to a lilting plea for tolerance, I imagine Christopher Maclaine with an overflowing ashtray, a bottle of bourbon, a drum kit and a microphone as he narrated his film in the dark of 1953.  The sublime and iconic image of the mushroom cloud from the 1946 H-Bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll bookends the film that tells the stories of 6 unsuspecting individuals who are living their last day on earth. Things did not end well for Christopher Maclaine either, who died alone and institutionalized in 1975.  But he left us this quietly frantic film that so embodies the despair and sardonic humor of the poet’s soul. “Observe them well, see if they are not yourselves” he exhorts while the screen goes black.

Otto Friedrich suggests in his book The End of the World: A History, that just as the certainty of mortality encourages the individual to lead a meaningful life, apocalyptic visions prod humanity toward metaphysical narratives. It is as if we are genetically and culturally programmed to imagine our demise in order to value and understand the present moment.  The root meaning of the word apocalypse is to uncover, to reveal the true meaning of the world.  Apocalyptic anxieties are fundamental to human culture.  An errant comet’s sudden appearance in the night sky could send Bronze Age empires into genocidal frenzies.  Poor Noah had to build that unwieldy ark at the command of the vengeful god of the Old Testament, who then washed the earth bare with relentless rains.  As if envious of missing out on that genetic cleansing, many contemporary Christians believe and even look forward to an impending Armageddon as a dramatic final clarification of who is on the right side of God.  For nihilists of the secular persuasion, the end is always imminent. It has happened before; the fossils below our feet give evidence that a world can end, that thousands of species can become extinct virtually overnight.

In popular culture, some existential threats to humanity have the power to bring us together.  An invasion from malevolent aliens, for example, might provide an opportunity to redeem ourselves; that we might finally transcend divisive prejudices, cruelty, greed, self-negation and willful ignorance to come together with the common purpose of saving our collective ass.  But let’s be real, the end of the world will likely be of our own making; rabid viruses, nuclear war, and catastrophic climate change being the most promising contenders. History is full of minor apocalypses that appear like regularly scheduled rehearsals for extinction, but some periods feel more ominous than others.

It is hard to be fond of a decade that began with the election of Ronald Reagan, the assassination of John Lennon and then proceeded to devastate an entire generation with AIDS.  Yet in many respects the 1980s were my formative years. I finished college, started a band, moved to San Francisco, went to grad school and got my first full time teaching job. I started the 1980s as a kind of punk street photographer evolving to the more trendy practices of appropriation, installation and performance.  I didn’t die. I thought dark thoughts. I made a lot of art.

Maybe it was the hangover of growing up during the Cold War, of actually having practiced duck and cover drills in my catholic schoolroom in the early 1960s that imprinted a shadow. Or perhaps it was simply the angsty post-punk esthetic that I embodied like an obedient soldier, but while living in San Francisco, there was an uncomfortable contradiction or disconnect between what I was feeling and the beauty of the city surrounding me.  The charm of exuberantly painted Victorian homes and the slithering fog under the Golden Gate Bridge provided visual and sensual pleasures to which I refused to succumb.  While sitting in the high-vaulted graduate seminar room in the evening, overlooking North Beach and the Bay, discussing post-modernism, the death of the author and Reagan’s latest outrage, I watched the light fade on Coit Tower; as if to negate this lovely vision, my eyes inevitably swept to the north, seeking Alcatraz.


Survival Research Laboratories poster, 1985


California Noir is the evil twin of California Dreaming.  From Day of the Locust to Charles Manson, from the Black Dahlia murder to Hitchcock’s The Birds, in art, literature, film and real life, the bright promise of sunshine and surfing is tarnished by the dark undercoat of psychopaths, earthquakes and diminished ambitions. Maybe this is partial karmic payback for the two hundred years of plunder and murder required to colonize the North American continent.  The exuberance of Manifest Destiny, the 19th century dogma that justified the inexorable expansion toward the Pacific came to an abrupt halt at the continent’s end and settled into a venomous pool just below the surface of the California landscape. It seeps into the water table giving birth to major and minor American mutants like Richard Nixon, the Beach Boys, Dan White, the Kardashians and the cops who beat up Rodney King.

As a devotee of John Heartfield, the great anti-fascist, dada montage artist, when I prowled the streets of my new city, my eyes began to pick out the crude graphics that papered walls, telephone polls and highway underpasses advertising the ‘machine performances’ of Survival Research Laboratories.  Founded by Mark Pauline in 1978, SRL was a collaborative group of artists, engineers, and various hangers-on that built large aggressive machines only to set them against one another in orgies of mechanical violence. Their ubiquitous posters featuring contrasty black and white photographs of menacing machines with bold headlines such as ‘Epidemic of Fear: The Relief of Mass Hysteria’ and ‘Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief’ would appear overnight all over the city announcing new shows.


Survival Research Laboratories, performance in San Francisco, c. 1986


These nihilist spectacles were usually held in empty parking lots on the ragged edges of San Francisco.  Old polka music, punctuated by recorded screams and explosions, blasted from the large speakers while thousands of bohemians converged in twilight.  Imagine a drag queen Mary Poppins singing “Leather and denim, and black burning tires. Skin ink and piercings, and anarchist flyers…” and you will get a picture of a few of San Francisco’s favorite things.  The line blurred between audience and performers as SRL’s machines stood as sentinels before sparking up and releasing an hour of unrelenting mayhem featuring metal crunching, noxious fumes and moments of real danger for the audience.  Enthusiastic cheering and tribal chanting greeted the gasoline spritzing from damaged machines like spilled blood.  This voluntary mass hysteria generated voyeuristic thrills and almost simultaneous disgust at the decadent display of gratuitous violence.  Like naughty children we were playing the end of the world in miniature.  Meandering home from the smoldering ruins, fierce arguments about ethics and complicity would ensue.


Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, 1864


As a product of the industrial era, photography arrived at a dramatic moment in American history, just as the tensions between the North and South began to boil over regarding the promise of Westward expansion. Would the new territories be free or slave-holding? As soon as photographers could pull themselves away from the carnage of the Civil War, they followed the armies, land surveyors and homesteaders to document and justify that inevitable expansion toward the Pacific. From Watkins and O’Sullivan through Weston and Adams, photographers have revelled in the abundance of light and land as if the territory west of the Rockies was a primordial vision, an unoccupied Eden. For a hundred years, this collective idea dominated the cultural imagination, until the 1960s and 70s, when a critical and sometimes ominous subtext began to fuel the works of photographers such as Robert Adams, John Divola, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach, as neglect and rapid suburbanization began to compromise the terrain’s grandeur and sully the delicate California light.


Robert Adams, Interstate 25, Eden Colorado, 1968


John Divola, Zuma #9, 1978


Richard Misrach, Desert Fire, 1985


One of my comrades in the MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute was Mimi Plumb, she was a California girl but not in the way the Beach Boys defined it.  Her photographs of the Western landscape and its inhabitants seemed to barely contain the sharp anger of her politics.  Yet her images were funny too and smart about how they extended and challenged the idea of West Coast photography. Compared to painting, photography is a cumulative art.  It is difficult to discern a photographer’s intentions from a single image.  Being emphatically descriptive, Mimi’s tough photographs wink in the direction of her California forebears while accessing what I can only call an infusion of Reagan-era anxiety that burnishes her images in a paranoid glow.  A quick inventory of her photographs from this period would list a clutch of spectators in front of an undetermined smoky disaster; abandoned homes littered with toys in the desert; a docked aircraft carrier piled with jet fighters and the San Francisco skyline in the distance, a hand holding flash which in turn illuminates a gas-masked mannequin; young men playing with bazookas, a cracked road decaying into an impassable precipice, a globe burnt to a cinder in the corner of an abandoned schoolroom.  In Mimi Plumb’s photographs from 1980s, the utopic California is long gone, replaced by random detritus and slow motion entropy.


Mimi Plumb, from Dark Days in the American Dream, c. 1985


Mimi Plumb, from Dark Days in the American Dream, c. 1985


Mimi Plumb, from Dark Days in the American Dream, c. 1985


Mimi and I shared an affinity for contemporary Polish literature, God knows why. We particularly loved Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel A Minor Apocalypse, in which the protagonist spends a surreal day wandering around Warsaw with a can of gasoline in one hand and matches in his pocket trying to decide to set himself on fire for some vague political issue.  The Polish have been trashed by history so many times, that its not surprising that dark satire would be a default sensibility.  Mimi, having spent some years as a radical activist, had similar doubts about the efficacy of protest. Yet, what to do with one’s outrage?

My infatuation with decay was further cultivated by two encounters in 1987.  I went to a screening of the Quay Brothers’ The Street of Crocodiles at the Roxy Theater on 16th Street.  Although I knew nothing about the film or its makers, the poster featuring what looked to be ravaged dolls holding court in a bomb shelter intrigued me.  On a recent trip to Mexico City I had purchased an old wooden puppet with dark glassy eyes, enormous hands and a deeply scarred face.  I fancied this puppet to be my doppelganger, my santo, my guardian angel; it was my savaged soul made manifest.  From the moment I pulled it from under a pile of doll parts, it established a strange hold on me.  Since images are so much more real to me than objects in the world, I had been photographing him obsessively, making portraits of the scarred topography inscribed on his face. In photographs his bruised beauty shone like a bejeweled wound.


Mark Alice Durant, My Santo, c. 1987


Brothers Quay, The Street of Crocodiles, 1986


The Quays’ animated films are not held together by conventional strategies of story-telling.  The narrative glue it is their sensibility, a delicate collage of exquisite ruin. In their world the apocalypse has already occurred; in the shallowest depths of field, distressed animated figures are seen rummaging through the rubble of history looking for temporary meaning.  The dystopian vision of The Street of Crocodiles is accompanied by scratchy footsteps, disembodied whispers and sweetly atonal music, full of longing and disruption.  The film was unlike any other I had experienced.  Mesmerized, I felt as though my santo was sitting next to me, shifting uneasily in the dark.  After the screening, I stumbled through the jasmine-scented alleys of the Mission District as if intoxicated.  Later I learned that the film was based upon the writing of Bruno Schultz, a Polish Jew, a writer and artist who had been gunned down on the street by a Nazi officer.  I immediately headed for the City Lights Bookshop to acquire the collected stories.

Seeing The Street of Crocodiles changed my esthetics – not solely in good ways. I became obsessed with the cobwebbed claustrophobia of dank, deteriorating interiors. It would take twenty minutes to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, where I could dance in the brisk and clarifying winds of the Marin Headlands. But I rarely took the opportunity, and when I did, I instead sought out the abandoned concrete bunkers left over from World War II, sniffing out ghosts.  If it is true what Aristotle suggested, that the eye is given the intentions of the heart than mine must have been toxic.  Like a greedy child, I hoarded darkness.

As the decade waned, the bad news threatened to overwhelm – homelessness, AIDS, Crack, the Contra War; these were not abstractions from a story about the world going to hell; the evidence was on the streets of my city, in the swelling number of ragged structures occupying underpasses and empty lots, in was in the tired gait of hospice workers and fearful eyes of taxi drivers, and in the grieving expressions Central American refugees selling bags of oranges at intersections.

Each year, the Day of the Dead festivities so central to the Latino community’s sense of cultural resilience, had come to include many gay, lesbian, activist and bohemian contingents as well.  But with body counts rising, the mischievous and sardonic Day of the Dead processions became increasingly somber.  In 1988, surrounded by skeletons dancing the slow death march of that year’s Dia de los Muertos cavalcade, a sneaking sense of my own inauthenticity began to take hold.  I was feeling particularly morose and resentful because the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) had rejected my submission for their public arts project. I had submitted a close up portrait of my santo, his blemished countenance full of pathos.  The people at AMFAR were diplomatic but thought the image would further stigmatize people with AIDS as plague victims. They wanted something hopeful or educational.

Activists from ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) were quietly participating in the march, carrying powerfully simple signs of a pink triangle on a black field with the words Silence = Death. Their fierce presence in this procession was like being slapped in the face.  Their focused anger, their ability to identify the enemy and respond in coherent and utilitarian actions mocked my lazy apocalyptic indulgences. This quiet yet forceful epiphany made me realize that this was not a time for morose pacifism.  I cannot claim transformation into anything resembling an effective militant, yet I began the slow process of loosening my soul from the sticky trap of romantic decay.  It wasn’t the end of the world, it was just really fucked up and I had better suck some fresh air into my lungs and get to work.


Christopher Maclaine, film still from ‘The End’, 1953

This essay originally appeared in Conveyor issue #4 and excerpted from the memoir-in-progress

Available Light: An Anecdotal History in Photography