Back in Chicago over intersession, doing a stint at home, I had the opportunity to visit the fall-term Student Projects Exhibition at the Institute for Design. One of the leading design schools in the nation, the Institute grew out of the New Bauhaus, founded in Chicago in 1937 by Bauhaus veteran Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his associates after their flight from Nazi Germany, where the original Bauhaus schools had been shuttered by the Reich since 1933. Here in Chicago, the flagship city of modern architecture, Moholy-Nagy sought to continue the utopian mission of the Bauhaus: to explore the possibilities of progressive modern living through technical craftsmanship, architecture, and design.
Rising perhaps a dozen humble stories above the concrete banks of the Chicago River (whose course was reversed by a promethean public-works escapade over a century ago) just where it makes a sluggish green turn through the heart of downtown, the Institute building is set among one after another gorgeous metal immensities. The sweep of this hulking aggregate instills in any visitor to the Institute a surging romantic sense of the technological well before one even enters, neck aching, through the front door. At that time, one is eagerly primed to view the projects on display as the latest good news about our civilization. I stepped out of an elevator into a large open room, the main hall of the exhibition. Toward the back of the crowded maze of installations, models, and screens, I could make out a number of people, facing away from me, standing around a bright halogen lamp and holding their hands before their eyes. There seemed to be at least one or two attractive girls among them, but of course these from-behind judgments are notoriously deceiving, and so I headed over to investigate, emboldened by the consideration that if we were both the types who would show up here and agree to do whatever she was doing in front of that lamp, then we could probably, you know, get our thing together.
I made it over to the lamp crowd and paced around it to get a frontal view of these girls. That’s when I saw it: looking up at one of their faces I was confronted not with large, darkly-lined green eyes or a bold, graceful nose where the nostrils were curved like swans’ necks and there were maybe a few freckles across the bridge, but I beheld instead a blocky torus of bright blue plastic, from the side of which protruded an orange prong that, every once in a while, would twang beneath the flickering digit of the masked woman. In short: she was holding a ViewMaster! Smiling, the young woman removed the apparatus from her face. She was passably handsome, maybe even cute. And now, in an instant, this unspectacular reveal which stood to mock my jackass libido elicited an even deeper self-reproach, because at that very same moment I felt welling up in me a great wave of childhood nostalgia, something from somewhere deep that seemed even to proffer up a little cocoon within which was my childhood self, from before the hormones dulled my sense of wonder and made me mean, and that little kid told me that I must, by the sign of the ViewMaster, at least for a moment renounce the musky struggles of post-adolescence in favor of genuine experience, and I agreed.
The device we know as the ViewMaster was first developed and sold in 1939, but follows in a long line of stereograph devices going back to the nineteenth century. A ViewMaster is held up to the eyes in the manner of a pair of binoculars. Loaded into a slot is a paper disc around the perimeter of which are embedded seven little plastic stereographic slides. Ambient light enters through an aperture behind the slide (some models are backlit with a bulb). The slide is magnified to fill the entire field of vision. Slides range in content from pictures of the moon landings to stills from movies or Disney cartoons, pictures of wildlife or scenes from the age of dinosaurs. In recent decades both the content of the slides as well as the marketing of the device have made a decisive shift toward the child market. It is this latter-day personality of the ViewMaster as a toy for children with which I became acquainted during my own childhood.
The reverie receding somewhat, I took stock of the display before me. Arranged on a low table beneath the halogen lamp were stacks of slides divided into a number of groups, and beside them was a bin of standard-issue ViewMasters. I hurriedly picked out a slide and a ViewMaster, loaded the slide, and peered into that chamber which, although it was just a small empty box in front of my eyes, would transport me all those years ago into a space as still and enveloping and immense and outsideless as if I had wandered into some cathedral or museum in the dead of night. Lamplight flooded the chamber, and there illumined before me I saw…
I drew the ViewMaster from my eyes, thoroughly impressed. For a moment there in my nostalgic haste, I had forgotten entirely where I was and would have been content to look at my old friends the Muppets. Yet there was no doubt that watching kitsch jiggle its stuff and send everyone home happy was not the purpose here, but that whoever had made these things had found some fissure in our daily culture of screens and plastic through which to smuggle the powder and the detonators and a cast of hundreds. And well, there he was, seated beside his lamp and table, leafing through some magazine and eating a bag of Tostitos.
His name is Jack Cider, a native of Burlington, Wisconsin and something of an asshole. Underweight and caustically soft-spoken, Cider is one of those intense hormone-cases with an absurd Adam’s apple and gaunt cheeks whose biochemical state-of-affairs made him a fugitive from the robust dodderings of his small town’s life, and having thus isolating him, gave brew in that fevered mind and wiry body to a manic, unexpected genius at once native and global, as unexpected as the presence of a scrawny depraved obssessive-compulsive intellect among the human oxen of the heartland’s green pastures. His off-blonde hair is longish and greasy like a backwoods ancestor he must resemble, deadpan blue eyes and all.
I wanted to talk with Cider about his project- was he influenced by the massive, intricately breathtaking rear-lit transparencies of Jeff Wall, the postmodern vaudeville of the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players? How did he position himself in relation to older stereoscopic photography and montage? My attempts to wheedle all but the thinnest background out of this guy were mostly met with shallow passive-aggressive responses. These only pissed me off and made me want to bug this guy more, notwithstanding my unabashed excitement about the personal stereoscope as an artistic medium. Besides learning that he was from Burlington, WI, I also learned that the Tostitos were “okay.” I’ve always found that a number of artists and craftspeople do a disappointing job of explicating their work to the clamorers who demand that they put in fine prose what they otherwise toil for endless days to articulate in another aesthetic language entirely. But as a member of the peanut gallery I suppose it was that sliver of envy and resentment running through my awe at Cider’s ability to make something so beautiful that made me yammer at him so and exhort him like some ectomorphic Gulliver to lay himself out beneath the binding tethers of language. I would surmise that much of the attempt to force speech from the artist, to demand an accounting-for outside of the art itself, stems from this spiteful desire to bind and diminish that manner of mysterious power these people still have.
As a gesture of instant-karma banditry following my languid dismissal by Jack Cider, new Master of the ViewMaster, I waited for a moment when he was gone from his post – maybe using the bathroom or smoking a cigarette or buying another bag of Tostitos – and deftly pocketed one of the photo-discs. This was partly to confirm the existence of the philistine menace he is smugly complicit in bringing upon himself, but mostly to have a genuine artifact from an artist who I believe will enjoy considerable renown and critical plaudits in the near future. Though I have declined here to describe much of the nature of Jack Cider’s work, due to the considerations on art and language discussed above, I will share with you one of the simpler, stand-alone slides that happens to be included on my stolen disc: it is an image of an old man lying on his side in a cozy bed, wearing a t-shirt, bald, fast asleep with his head on the pillow and the all the sad, placid restfulness of a dreaming child is there in his sagging face and unopened eyes.