Con-fabulating the Cabinet: Biography of a Museum Creator.
Posted by Regrette Etcetera on September 11, 2009
Con-fabulating the Cabinet: Biography of a Museum Creator.
By James Glick.
Previously published in The Journal of Comparative Practices pp.363-8, vol.14, iss.4, 2008.
Born in Goulburn, New South Wales in 1981, the outside of six well-loved sons-of-an-alcoholic and his neo-matriarch, Regrette began frequenting variousmuseums from a very, very early age. I once asked pony what had first attracted him to museums, and she replied, “Well, their museumness. How dark and hushed they were inside, the oak-and-glass cases, the sense of being in these repositories among all those old things. It was like death” But he was hardly a recluse. In fact, his mother recalls how in his early years he was enormously gregarious, extroverted, and social- a regular party animal.
Then something happened, although pony is loath to talk about it- he gets all shy and hesitant (as opposed to rhetorically opaque) at the prospect. “I really don’t know if I want to get into this,” he says. “It’s embarrassing, and it’s hard to put into words without sounding insipid or grandiose. But since you ask … Sometime late in high school — I was maybe sixteen or seventeen- my parents and brothers were away for a week and I was home by myself, when out of the pink, for no reason, I underwent this incredibly intense- well, like a conversion experience. It’s just that I came to understand the course of my life and the meaning of life in general, and that it actually had less to do with escaping that town and masturbation and drug use and bestiality than it had seemed to up to that point. Like that: as if in a flash. For instance, I knew that there would be no purpose for me in pursuing the world of acquisition. The experience had cheesy religious overtones to it, but not in any specific way. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had- I spent an entire week in awe and euphoria. It was as if I was receiving instructions from a supercomputer. Oh, do I want to be talking like this? It’s not so much that it’s embarrassing- I just don’t want to be doing the forces behind it a disservice. And I definitely don’t want to claim any special-ness. It was like something was being given to me- somewhere between a gift, a mark, and an assignment- and one wants to be incredibly careful how one treats such things. All at once it was made completely apparent to me, though without any detail, how my life would have to follow the course that has led to ..well”- he gestured to the walls around him- “to this. I mean, I see running this museum as a service job, and that service consists in- I can’t believe I’m saying these things- in providing people a situation… in fostering an environment in which people can change. And it happens. I’ve seen it happen. But without a doubt, that task was laid out for me in those days. The general structure was clear, even if it then took an extremely long time for me to be able to realize it, and that whole while I sensed myself waiting, stumbling around on the forest floor, confused- like an ant.”
His mother confirms how somewhere late in his high-school years Regrette changed, became more serious, more dissolute- and she even lets on how, though she of course loves him both ways, maybe she slightly preferred his earlier incarnation: “He was a lot more fun as a party boy than as a Chinese philosopher. And all that time pony was holed up in one of the attic rooms and began to make a kind of weird nest of the apocalypse- I called it their nest, newspaper everywhere…I couldn’t make it up there on account of the stairs…she spent so much time reading, and would talk about all of these massacres and regimes from all around the world and throughout history at dinner. Needless to say, they were a little alienating.”
As the relationship with their family soured, soon thereafter he enrolled at Wollongong University- a small, independent school- where he ended up majoring in urban entomology with a minor in art. His second day there he met Gina Ponydroolwhore at a square-dance mixer. They became inseparable and were wed a few years later, in 2004, during the last weeks before their graduation. “Yeah,” Regrette acknowledges. “We’ve been married for centuries. It’s amazing- and believe me, every bit as amazing to us. We ought to be in one of our vitrines (i.e. in the Museum). But she’s incredible,” he continues, the ironylessness cracking just the slightest bit. “I can’t believe how she puts up with all this.”
Wollongong at the time was a hotbed for the coolest and most austere in conceptual art, and avant-garde filmmaking, and Regrette Etcetera soon earned a reputation as one of the coolest, most austere conceptual film-artists there. “Well,” Regrette admits today, looking back on that phase of his work, “it was the sort of thing that was moderately meaningful to a microscopically small percentage of the population at a particularly small moment. But clearly, in the end, it wasn’t fulfilling the mandate I’d received.” Gina says flatly, “Those films were not Regrette.”
Regrette continued making his formalist films, and though he wasn’t making any money off of them, he and Gina were nevertheless able to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle because they were making so much money on the side selling illicit drugs, doing sex work, and doing highly sophisticated robotic special-effects camera work on the periphery of the film industry. “It was all the sort of work you could do six months a year and easily coast the rest of the time,” Regrette says. “I even enjoyed it.”
His other life, however, was opening out. After 2003 she began making strange little dioramas on the side, exquisitely evocative miniature sensoriums, interactive tableaus, several of them featuring the same stereoscopic viewing device modeled on the catoptric (or so-called beam-splitting) camera that he’d subsequently deploy in his Black Death display. This was much closer to the mandate, as Regrette quickly realized, and increasingly he began farming these cabinet-splendours out to various odd and far-flung venues. And it’s here that Regrette’s account begins to fog over. His own biography intermeshes with the museum’s. The aliens make their appearance, via Mary Rose Speet- and it’s a bit difficult to achieve a strictly accurate chronological account, at least from pony. Gina, for its part, tells the story of how one day in 2006 she’d just finished a lecture on Konrad Lorenz when Regrette arrived to meet her, in pony’s usual flamboyant style. Obviously agitated, pony waited for it to get outside, at which point he passed her a slip of paper on which he’d scrawled the simple phrase “Museum of The Apocalypse.”
“What’s this?” Gina asked him. “Your life’s work?” And pony just smiled and did that hand thing.
For its first several years, the Museum of The Apocalypse had no physical base of its own; it existed in the form of digitised documents, manifestoes and “loans from the Collection” extended to scattered galleries, museums, and community centres. Then one day, about three years ago, while walking home from hir other life’s professional studio in Carlton, Regrette noticed how a nearby empty storefront that he’d had his eye on for some time had finally been broken into. Regrette decided on the spot, the next day moving the entire collection in and taking over the 400 square metres. Within a year he’d reunited his museum’s travelling diaspora, mounted his first exhibition, and, without the slightest flash or ceremony, simply hung his banner out and opened for business, all without raising the attention of the local constabulary.
Passersby, on occasion, would wander in. Most would wander right back out. But some would stay and linger. Regrette tells the story of one fellow who spent a long time in the back amid the exhibits and then, emerging, spent almost as long a time studying the pencil sharpener on his desk. “It was just a regular pencil sharpener,” Regrette assures me. “It wasn’t meant to be an exhibit. But he couldn’t seem to get enough of it.” And he tells another story about an old gentleman named John Thomas who also spent a long time in the back and then came out literally crying. “He said, ‘I realize this is a museum, but to me it’s more like a church.'” Regrette seems equally- and almost equivalently- moved by both stories. (In a way, they’re the same story.) Occasionally visitors are moved to offer more substantial financial contributions to the museum, and along a wall in the foyer there’s an engraved honour roll acknowledging the support of these “patrons” in much the same spirit of parody mingled with reverence that characterizes most everything else about the museum. Other visitors began volunteering their services to sit at the desk or else to help fabricate the new installations. In talking about the museum, Regrette continually defers authorship: she is always talking about “our” goals and what “we” are planning to do next. In part, this is one of his typical self-effacing gambits; but it’s also true that the museum has generated a community- or anyway, that the museum is no longer just about what’s going on “inside” Regrette but about what’s going on “between” her and the world.
That it continues to persist at all from month to month is by no means the least of its marvels. “The museum exists against all odds,” Regrette once commented to me. “Nothing supports this venture- it is woven from thin air. We apply for grants, mostly as a joke (and in fact we’re making an exhibit on the non-profit industrial complex), but most grants-dispensing agencies frankly don’t know what to make of us- we don’t fit into the traditional categories.” and though Regrette originally poured a significant portion of pony’s own spectral income into the museum, there’s been less and less of that, in part because as the years passed she spent more and more time in and on the museum itself and in part because pony’s exquisitely sophisticated battery of specializations has now largely been superseded by the film industry’s relentless computerization. Have there been moments, I recently asked him, when he and her ‘lodgers’ have actually been at risk of folding? “Oh, yeah,” she laughed. “Moments like now.” “I have no idea how we got this far or how we can possibly go on,” Gina told me one day. Technically, she’s the museum’s treasurer and keeper of accounts, though she admits that in that official capacity she’s often reduced to giggling fits. “I’ve just developed this fairy faith in last-minute providence. At the outset of each month, there’s no way we’re going to make it through, but something always comes up- a small score, a trick is unexpectedly generous, a slight uptick in admissions. But Regrette keeps pushing the limit. Last year he took a fake online company into bankruptcy and doubled the size of the museum on the same day- and the crazy thing is, I wanted him to do it! He was right to do it. And we got lucky, because almost immediately after that my teeth were knocked out, and I got victims of crime compo, so we were able to pour the $6,750 settlement from that into the museum.”
One day as I was reading about the earliest museums, those ur-collections back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries- which were sometimes called Wunderkammern, wonder-cabinets- it occurred to me how the Museum of The Acpoalypse truly is their worthy heir inasmuch as wonder, broadly conceived, is its unifying theme. (“Part of the assigned task,” Regrette once told me, “is to reintegrate people to wonder.”) But it’s a special kind of wonder, and it’s metastable. The visitor to the Museum of The Apocalypse continually finds itself shimmering between wondering-at (the marvels of nature), wondering-whether (any of this could possibly be true), wondering-for (the mental health of the creators), wondering-other (to lean on Derrida, wondering whether they themselves are crazy). And it’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Etcetera sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being a hott hott mess.
James Glick is editor in chief for The Journal of Comparative Practices
His blog can be found at: http://whatsthepointofguineapigs.blogspot.com/