Thursday, March 29, 2012


Far above the fruit fly's lazy circle a red-tailed hawk glides for food. Leaning into the backyard's cushiest chair, I see chores to do like changing the chicken's water, tinkering with the museum window displays. More laborious projects like moving the limestone blocks to build up a new garden bed. I should go in and write. But right now it's time to stare at the sky and watch plants grow.

There is this work of looking around that leaves no trace, and then the hard, fun, gradual, collaborative labor of assembling atmospheres as viewsheds—land- and cityscape vistas designed to be looked at from certain perspectives (but that also sound and smell certain ways). Ross Ward was a sign painter who settled outside the ghost town Madrid, New Mexico, in the ‘60’s. One of his signs reads, “‘Tinkertown’ was begun as a hobby in 1962. It was not intended as a public display, until your interest helped build ‘our museum!’” Over the years he and his wife Carla built up bottle walls to house their collection of miniatures arranged in a long homemade display case. Their tiny objects and figurines live on Tinkertown’s Old West-style main street, where garbage becomes anything but what it was. The saloon’s bar stools are spent spools of thread. A big old roll of canvas becomes the circus Big Top. Years of public intoxication at Madrid's Mine Shaft Tavern transform into glowing bottle walls built of mortar and sunlight. If you look closely you'll find the bottle with Tinkertown's slogan: "We did all this while you were watching T.V.!" You can look at Tinkertown forever and still catch something new.

Leisure time, viewing habits, hobbies that become lifestyles or all consuming full time jobs. More than full time – never enough time to tinker on the (unpaid) labor of building DIYsneylands. Vince, who can never go on vacation because tourists drop by the Cathedral of Junk every day of the year, talks with a visitor. “This started out as a hobby. Some people play video games, or go fishing or whatever.” The wise visitor says, “You don’t even have to catch a fish.” “Exactly. Catching fish isn’t the point.” Later I see a bumper sticker “I’d rather be fishing” on the same truck as “I used up all my sick days so I called in dead.”

Tinkering, and sitting back to gaze at what you tinkered, taps this longing to be dead to labor. Realms of ordinary aesthetic production like cooking, gardening, or playing music disengage the efficiency or scientific management of goal-oriented labor that drives formal economic production. These activities unfold in special spaces for timewasting, like the front porch. You have the privilege of leisure time and spend it hard at work on your hobby. Maybe productive wastes of time like playing guitar or baking cookies is all you really want to do, but it doesn’t pay the bills. It is a block of time and sensation that slows way down, saturating a moment with its own density and repetition that starts to feel like a little eternity.

Getting around the city can also involve this slowing down and wasting time. The commuter train's flashing red light gates swing down at the railroad crossing, making traffic back up to the next major intersection. Cars swerve out from behind buses stopped to unload passengers. Sustainable forms of mobility like riding public transportation, biking, and walking generally all waste time compared to car travel. We want to be like digital information, with its magic trick of moving instantly from here to there. It seems to be nowhere and everywhere at once (but you know this is a false perception when your hard drive crashes or you lose your phone). This is why time on a walk or jog or bike ride feels like it puffs up – because you are loitering in the ordinary liminality of commuting.

Music seems to float in the in between. A song is an infinite stretch of things to know through hearing or feeling out the rhythm, or to remember in your muscles. You could waste eternity improvising variations of a song. The song and instrument teach you things in an education that never stops.

At Tinkertown, “Otto the One Man Band” is an antique machine that plays a single song on drums, accordion, and glockenspiel with the notes punched out of a player piano roll for the automaton to feel. Ross Ward also carved a band of puppet hippies on their porch playing fiddle and guitars and hooked them to a found mechanism to make them move. Feed it a quarter to watch them perform and hear the tinny prerecorded song. Before his death from Alzheimer's in 2002, Ross salvaged and repaired these machines, playing around with them ‘til they worked right. They were antiquated things beached in the ghost town. At the Mine Shaft Tavern, Ross’s paintings tell the story of Madrid’s rise as a coal company town and its post-war abandonment. In a way the whole town became garbage like Otto, waiting to be recycled and repaired by the hippies as a tourist trap, the perfect place to drop out, waste time, see what happens next.

We were drifting through town on the scenic Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway heading from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. After a tour of the Old Coal Mine Museum, stopped for lunch and a beer at the Tavern and got to talking at the bar. A local pointed out Ross's paintings of Madrid all lit up with Christmas lights in the '30's, back when the coal company supplied free electricity. Then the company leaves town and the houses become dark skeletons. He said we had to backtrack to Tinkertown, and we were welcome to camp on his land on a hill top under red mine tailings and stars. Wasting time opens up these kinds of discoveries, as if the landscape's micro-tourist enchantments only become sensible when immeresed in spare time.


No comments:

Post a Comment