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Sound, Scent and Steam: Michael Parker’s Steam Egg
by Andrew Berardini

So almost every week for the three wintry months these last two years I’ve participated in an ongoing art project that involved taking off my clothes with strangers, crawling into a mirror-covered, egg-shaped steam chamber, concentratedly sweating until I could no longer take the heat, and then slithering my wet body back into the cool air. Rinse, repeat.

Clement Greenberg never did this.

I did it nearly every week because I loved it, but throughout the experience I’ve been reluctant to write about it, not wanting to spoil a magic that I understood to be quite fragile, built on the weird trust of people who show up at a place to unabashedly exist in their bodies with others in a way that isn’t exploitative or overtly sexual. We don’t take off our clothes and squeeze sweatily next to just everyone, a unique mixture of clubbiness and anonymity.

It was made by an artist, Michael Parker, and largely served as an informal ritual for his community, mostly of artists and musicians, and the various friends of those who collaborated with him on the permeating scent that went into the steam machine and the sounds that accompanied the gatherings. During each steam, someone volunteered to choose the scent to get mixed into the steam water and someone else to play the music (either live or by DJing); often they worked in concert. Some took it very seriously, creating imaginary spaces so developed and unique that it was really passing into an almost fictive new world, others were less engineered, perhaps to give more space to the weird wonder of the situation itself. Some experiments failed. Ground-up vitamins don’t make a particular interesting scent, recordings of famous speeches dampen exchange. 

The chamber and the steam in the artist's sizable downtown studio were constant, the scent and music changed each week, as did the community that each of the collaborators would bring with them, though a core group came often no matter what. The steams, an event, a ritual, a gathering, existed in a distinct context and time. 

Sometimes an artwork is made for a context so specific that to remove it from that context is to risk losing all those accumulated qualities that made it special in the first place. I have a writerly reluctance to pen any stories about the steam, most of which can be founded right there. Even using a word like “magic” wraps the experience up in notions of ineffability that I’m sure might really bother some people out there. 

For the now-famous Projects Class led by David Askevold at the Nova Scotia School of Design in 1969, Robert Barry asked the class to make an artwork that consisted of them all holding the same idea in their heads at the same time and not mentioning the idea to anyone outside the group. The artwork lasted as long as this trust was honored and the artwork was over as soon as someone spoke of it, which could have been minutes after they parted class or may still be at work to this day, only those who broke the trust would know that the artwork was over.

Made and orchestrated by Parker, the weekly steams were authentically sculpture made into a community space, one that this participant (perhaps in my own version of utopia) only told others about sparingly, bringing only carefully selected friends who I thought would understand and enjoy it as much as I did. In some ways, the knowledge of the shared experience was as important to the work as the actual experience.

Pictures don’t do much for the steams, the flash strips away a lot of the mystery. It needs to be a little dark. Though the steam-chamber could be plopped into a museum, it is a physical and special thing with the accrued sweat of hundreds to add to its sense of gravitas; it is best when it’s functioning and not removed from usage to become a mere object. It’s such a sensual experience, I could describe it with clarity: the handmadeness of it all, the unpopular spot where the steam enters the chamber and thus where it’s hottest, the weird lingo that has developed among the regulars (from “Hot Spot” to “Herb-J,” a complement to DJ), and the presence it's made in the community, the stories that have formed around it. I can describe to you the feeling of beads of lavender scented sweat pouring down my face or the strange, sometimes emotional conversations that emerge from people putting their bodies to extreme temperatures. I could enumerate the participants and collaborators, which have been legion and include many significant Los Angeles artists and musicians.

But being there and reading about it are two totally different things, each a valuable experience in its own right, but different. One is experience and the other at its best is legend. Art and artists of the last six decades or so have been very interested in legend; whether Yves Klein or Beuys in history or Piero Golia in the present, legend is an important part of their work. Other lesser lights might call it branding, but for certain artists, it’s never branding, only the partial knowledge passed around by word-of-mouth, the story becoming so much larger than the event. Chris Burden’s bullet wound is more now a legend than an actual artwork. In some ways I don’t even need the artwork to exist anymore, it exists in story in a much bigger way than any singular action. Askevold’s Projects Class is another example of this. Part of my profession is to do just this.

The giant egg-shaped, disco-mirrored steam chamber has its own iconic presence as you stand next to it, touch it with your hand, crawl into its belly, but its real power is as a part of a ritual. Seeing it reflecting light from its many mirrors into the dark room, while half-naked people in towels (provided by Parker as needed) mill around the room, lounge on sofas, stumble wetly out of the bottom of the chamber, the scent of wild sage or geranium or ginger permeating the room along with often other-worldy sounds sometimes played live, is something indeed particular. The steam becomes literally a social sculpture, the parameters set loosely by the artist, but loose enough to let a whole community define its sensual ingredients themselves as needed.   

A social sculpture, coined by Joseph Beuys, is a sculpture that includes human activity and is intended to reveal art’s potential to change society, leading to every individual becoming an artist and participating in a Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art) that was actually the practice of everyday life. This is a notion captured most succinctly by his contemporary Allan Kaprow in his most famous saying and title of his retrospective, “art as life.” Both Kaprow and Beuys sought a more authentic relationship to art and everyday life. Kaprow scored Happenings, Beuys started a university; both functioned in the real world and both were artworks, using the various components of reality as mediums for making art. There is a sense of the utopic in social sculpture and though much has changed in life and in art since the 1960s when these ideas first emerged, there is also a sense of the utopic in Parker’s steams.

Though the community is formed through social relationships, there was a relative permeability to participation. Parker never questioned to my knowledge anyone who came through the door or knew enough to be there. What made it particularly different than most sculptures that a community coalesces around is its incredible situational sensuality. In the various, very physical sensations that occurred, there emerged a kind of intimacy, a trust based on a personal sense of having a body with others, something I feel like I might even be violating by writing about it now. 

Over time, I developed a protective feeling about the whole experience. In fact, one of the reasons I always attended and looked forward to the steams was the fact that there was a kind of earnestness in the endeavor that didn’t need to be vivisected, the joke that loses its humor once it was explained, a shared secret that you didn’t want everyone to know about to risk it passing from a community into a scene, from experience into legend, the thing that was better before you got there. Experience is always more visceral than legend, though legend is important too.

One can say Michael Parker couples some of the aspects of West Coast mysticism (itself a rejection of social and economic norms) with notions of social sculpture, the result being a mélange of sound, scent, and steam in an informal community with a strange iconic sculpture at its center. 

Parker isn’t the first artist to use intentional communities or alternative/progressive issues as subject for art; his friend and teacher Andrea Zittel has long made work about autarky, or notions of radical self-reliance, examining the structures and communities of those that choose to go off the grid and why. There is an element always in alternative communities, like the title of the book about the post-punk/indie scene of the 80s and 90s, “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” but Zittel has always handled these subjects with enough of the complex nuances of the motivations of those who would go off the grid to take the jump from model to art. Parker here taps into some of the underlying tenets of alternative culture, especially the West Coast/California variety after eden ahbez, the first Nature Boy: a bend towards healthfulness, ideologically fluid notions of spiritual experience often augmented by the sensual, generally leading back to promoting a sense of peace and well-being, though blessedly marked at its best with a sense of humor, a lightness.  

It would be easy to dismiss the steams as hippie clap-trap or worse hitch it to some bourgeois notion of leisure activity, but it isn’t truly either. Hippie clap-trap is a redmeat kind of word uttered by besuited Republican art dealers happy to keep art as a profitable object economy (not to sound too Marxist, I like objects often too). A bourgeois leisure activity also makes it commodifiable in a way that defangs some of its more progressive notions. Through his sculpture and the experience of the participants with it, Parker is examining what it means to bring these ideas into the city, though still maintaining a connection with contemporary visual art, something other social sculptors haven’t always done.

How does one discuss the social construction of meaning in art as a form of intentional community? How does one discuss changes away from Fordist models of production and distribution and still not be alienated by the isolation caused by the internet? The answer isn’t a pseudo-corporate lounge shoved into museum exhibitions (though one appreciates the free internet). I always felt pretty cheeseball/late to any of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s parties. I don’t like literal and often dunderheadedly rigid forms of political activism to colonize art and suck all the fun out of the room. Art can be sensual, fun, even sexy.

Parker’s steams seem to bring together a nexus of difficult to talk about changes in how people are seeking human encounter and physical experiences in a situation that isn’t static or prescribed, sanitary or approved. Nothing is for sale. Nothing here is really even reproducible, at least not in any way that would maintain its integrity and it only works because of its integrity. Parker, through his steams, talks about alienation and community, the importance of the physical and sensual in a digital age, the difficulty of integrating utopic notions of intentional communities into the city, to even integrate them into the common practice of art, without ever taking itself too terribly seriously.

Michael Parker’s project has been one of the defining, ongoing experiences of my last couple years here in Los Angeles. That said, I don’t really want to translate the experience into easily consumable artspeak, package it in appropriate window-dressings of critical theory, or describe it with the purple narrative prose with which I generally love to paint. I don’t really want it to become another thing to sell or a ready entertainment, I find myself needing to take it more seriously than I would consciously desire. Like the character of Ousia Kitteredge at the end of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, I don’t wish this experience to become anecdote.

My reluctance to write about Parker’s project emerged from my desire to give it space, and though the experience and the project may have functionally finished a cycle, I write about it now in a hope to make it endure.

Andrew Berardini


(All images: Michael Parker, Steam Egg; Courtesy Michael Parker.)

Posted by Andrew Berardini on 9/18/12 | tags: installation mixed-media

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Beautifully put sir. On some level, writing is just a different kind of experience, but here it's true I mea culpa a bit, it was too much of a physical experience, too intimate in its way to do anything but reflect upon.
what the sculpture looks like from the outside has absolutely no resemblance to what it's actually about. All I have is your recordings...attempts to convey what I cannot know from where I type this in Europe. And you have, Andrew, hit a nail firmly on its head. This kind of Art has its roots in ritualistic tribalism, or primitive art, and is what all art experience has its roots in. Only that this is 'the' primal experience...the mother of all 'roots' so to speak. Internet, on the other hand, fails miserably because it alienates the experiencer from the experience itself...basically internet perpetuates the idea that there is a one who experiences apart from the experience. While these 'hands on all senses beheld artworks' like the one you have described, make for a holistic experience where it becomes so clearly evident that no amount of describing could possibly capture the experience...

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