by Tom Vanderbilt
These unlikely questions coursed through my head early one Saturday morning as I walked through an otherwise benign, white-walled, wood-floored space in New York's Soho. In one room, a beaker of napalm sat atop a reception desk next to a stack of discs containing computer viruses as a dog watched balefully in the foreground. In an adjacent room, the grim shock of recognition set in as I realized the open suitcase I was looking at contained two neatly placed pipe bombs. So did a nearby Bible, an ornately bound, rust-colored Hewlett's that was hollowed out and opened to the chapter of Matthew. At the top of the pages read the following: "Murder of Abel" and "What It Is to Kill."
Welcome to the subterranean world of artist Gregory Green, whose works of art, pending the addition of just one ingredientranging from semtex to plutoniumwould become illegal bombs. One of the central points of his recent show, "For Information Purposes Only," at the Max Protetch gallery, was that anyone, even a self-professed "yahoo from Brooklyn" like Green, could make such a device.
Like the paintings of Magritte, Green's objects make startling claims and evoke profound reactions despite trafficking firmly in the quotidian: the suitcase bomb consists of a steel-gray shelled Samsonite with a purple satin interior where two lengths of dully glistening pipe capped at each end sit attached by red, black, and white wires to an Eveready alkaline battery and a Sunbeam egg timer. Taken together, though, these household objects form one of the most potent symbols of late-twentieth-century lifea terrorist's bomb. But like Magritte's famous painting, "The Treason of Images", which depicted a pipe that was precisely not a pipe (it was a painting), Green's work strains the link between symbol and languagethese devices do not work; so could they, despite their alarming visual connotations, really be bombs?
Green, while a proficient bomb craftsman, has a vastly more expansive agenda. In the range of objects found in the Protetch showfrom the pirate radio station to the spherical atomic device holding a baseball in place of an explosive agent to the room-sized missile called "Big Bertha"he strives to examine issues of power and techniques of control. His latest work, which centers on "techniques of empowerment available to anyone in the world," responds to his earlier work, which focused on authoritarian power. These were, he says, "some of the more dangerous pieces." Take "Blade Work," a Black-and-Decker-meets-Bosch extravaganza that he describes as "a grid of 60 motors on a wall with circular-saw blades attached to each motor," all of which would rotate to the droning accompaniment of some "very authoritarian voice." In another early work, Green produced business cards for Chicago gang members, who purportedly used them to mark their visit to another gang's territory, or occasionally to commemorate the death of one of their own. As anyone who has been to a New York cocktail party can attest, what are business cards, essentially, but a blatant move to stake out territory, a "symbolic exchange" of power? (Although it's still hard to imagine the El Rukns and Gangster Disciples arranging to "do lunch.")
But it's the bombs, and the instructions on how to make them, that have elicited the most attention, whether from the Dutch secret service or the Chicago police. Green calls the bombs "conceptual terrorism"; this gives him the same access to the media that a plane hijacker would have. But Green says the bombs should not be read in isolation from the rest of his work, a series of seven different explorations into the nature of power. The bombs form part of "the terror group," the objects of violence that Green says are traditionally the first method people turn to when seeking power. Also present are "alternative systems" (e.g., the flag for Green's nascent nation) and "sabotage" (e.g., computer viruses), among others.
"It's as if I'm working on a novel and the bombs are the first chapter," said Green. "Hopefully everything will eventually be read within the whole context of all the works that will be done."
Linking bombs and novels is not really such a stretch. After all, doesn't the writer possess the same desire as the terroristto change opinion through a form of one-way communication, working away in isolation, secretly tinkering with the object that they will launch upon the world? In a work missing from the Protetch show, Green goes beyond the objects themselves and into the dark lair of the paranoiaca small, Edward Keinholz-esque room strewn with conspiracy accoutrements and a sleeping bag. In the fiction of Don DeLillo we find "men in small rooms" who seek to change history, whether it be Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra (Viking, 1988) or a novelist character named Bill Gray in Mao II (Viking, 1991). In the latter book, he expounds on the connection in a bit of dialogue by Gray, the novelist-turned-bomber:
Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.
Perhaps it's a false distinction, though, as being one doesn't necessarily preclude the other. Remember that Timothy McVeigh flooded newspapers with his screedsand what were the Unabomber's bombs, really, but a ploy to call attention to his otherwise unreadable tracts? In Paul Auster's Leviathan (Viking, 1992), a Unabomber-ish character is moved to act by what he feels is the ultimate futility of his writing.
It's not as if bombs and bombers don't find a ready audience. The hyperintelligent, pathologically resentful bomber (usually shown, like the writer, hunched over some workbench in a small room) has become a Hollywood staple. Audiences flock to films like BLOWN AWAY and IN THE LINE OF FIRE and television shows like "Melrose Place" that feature (or try to, anyway) the occasional madman. Given the bomb saturation of the media, it's hypocritical to tag the Internet as the prime reason for a rise in bombings (the FBI reported 1880 bombings in 1993, up from 442 a decade before). In a typically sensational article entitled "Bomb Recipes Just a Keystroke Away", one journalist went in search of scare stories about a wave of bombings attributed to Net-distributed information. The writer notes that in one case, police were questioning whether "computers were the source for a series of soda-bottle bombs" that went off near a college in Connecticut. Then, without further reflection, she goes on to say that police dub the bombs "MacGyver bombs," because they were once depicted in the television show of the same name. Are the police going after ABC with the same vigor with which they've cracked down on Net postings?
Green says that although the police routinely ask him about the Internet when making inquiries into his shows, he obtains all his information from public libraries or small publishers like Paladin Press, found routinely in Soldier of Fortune and other such magazines. "And anyone who's ever seen a World War II movie knows how to make a Molotov cocktail," he adds. (And so, too, did New York Review of Books readers in 1967, when that publication published a diagram similar to Green's on its cover.) Given the American fascination with violenceembodied in the frontier myth or decades spent living in the paranniac shadow of the cold war military-industrial complexit's no wonder some of that destructive energy has trickled down into the realm of the personalfrom the homemade bombs of jilted ex-lovers to disgruntled employees to curious teenagers. Indeed, there's a strange urge to know, looking at Green's artworks, how they would "work." Is this just functionalism or is it a deeper fascination with violence? In his book Great Plains (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989) Ian Frazier recounts a trip he took to "Big Sky Days," when visitors would pile in to tour the facilities of an air-defense base in Montana. The most common question, says Frazier, was: "So, how do you fire one of these things?"
One might suspect a similar fascination from Green, who was raised on military air bases. Indeed, living on Satellite Beach, Florida, in the shadow of Cape Canaveral and the Apollo missions, he dreamed of being an astronaut; and later, the "first artist in space." He may come close to that if "Gregnik," his own personal space race in the form of a table-sized, low-orbit satellite that will broadcast a laugh track on an FM frequency, gets off the ground.
But the real legacy of his military base experience is that he grew up "always aware of the potential for violence." Also, he points out, a military community is "a very controlled community, in some ways the antithesis to the very ideas the country promotes." Green is moving away from precisely that sort of antithesis. In his recent, more utopian work, he is attempting to create, in essence, his own country, based firmly on communal principles and around a society in which "violence as a strategy of empowerment will become obsolete." "The New Free State of Caroline", his nation-to-be, is an atoll in a string of small islands in the South Pacific. It has no indigenous population, save for some feral cows and pigs from a onetime plantation. He's in "the notification process" with the United Nations and several other world bodies, and looking for a country to sponsor him. Like most of his work, from the atomic bomb to the satellite to the pirate radio station, the necessary information is readily available. </end>
TOM VANDERBILT is an associate editor for The Baffler and a freelance writer. He lives in New York.