I was fixing chair legs in the cafe down by the gallery atrium in the week before it reopened after its multi-million dollar overhaul. I noticed about a dozen guys in high visability vests congregating, as if something was scheduled to happen in the foyer.
One of them wheeled in a dry ice machine and started pumping haze- while the other guys watched, arms crossed- until the two story space was filled. Then very loud sirens went off, followed by a massive roar as extractor fans sucked the smoke out in a blender-vortex through the ceiling.
It seemed like I wasn't at work anymore but a chance guest at a performance by someone with a lot of resources to throw around. Like one of those European things Joel likes where they can afford to drop cars from the ceiling and fly cows about on strings. Or a movement of the dreamlike, purposeful Third Horse in Dunedin earlier this year.
I was grinning, but a bit sheepishly because the guys in vests looked like they were still at work! Their arms-folded, workmanlike attitude added to the effect, like disciplined extras on set.
And then it was over. The guys got onto their cellphones to sort out final paint jobs and wiring and all the rest of the to-do list.
Tim Etchells' latest column, and in particular this quote, reminded me of this experience and made me want to write about it: "It's one of those sights that makes you wonder why art is needed at all, since the world itself – once you're looking hard enough – is already such a complex and disturbing arrangement of signs and signals." This made me think about the smoke test as a rare co-incidence: I suppose the reason I was looking in that way was because it just happened to occur in an art gallery, and the reason I enjoyed it was because it just happened to occur. More evidence that "its all about context?"
As for the unimpressed vest guys, I'm sure you don't need that many boys to witness a smoke test. I strongly suspect it was the highlight of their day, too.
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