Holy Glueguns! Dust off your tiaras. Get out your baubles and beads. Machine Dazzle is in the house. The Museum of Arts and Design, that is. Their show, Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle, filled museum floors with crazy mad colored costumes. The exhibit was pretty colorful too. The rainbow of revelers fill the invitation only opening night, which climaxed with a performance by Machine and the Dazzle Dancers, reunited after 20 years. That orgy of uninhibited celebration quickly made Dazzle’s maximum costumes minimal, then besides, shall we say, the points.
MAD Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs Elissa Auther met Machine, AKA Matthew Flower, four years ago and wondered “Why aren’t museums showing your work?!” She changed that, even giving him in-house studio space. “In his quest to queer design,” Auther said, “Machine Dazzle demonstrates how costumes have world-making capacity, why unorthodox materials have become the preferred way for those outside of majority culture to describe themselves, and the ways in which excess can both transform and transfigure the queer body.”
Or as Machine puts it: “I’m an emotionally-driven, instinct-based, concept artist trapped in the role of costume designer.” There are layers upon layers of traditional drag burlesque embellishments: tulle, sequins, rhinestones, ribbons, glitter, feathers, beads. Then, found objets — soup cans, ping pong balls, hoop skirts, pipe insulation, toy soldiers, chess pieces, holiday lights — detritus rescued and reimagined.
“My costumes are life stories,” he says. “When you tell a story there is background, a past, present, and future, ups and downs, ins and outs, light and dark.” Complex and layered. “I love to dress up and take my costumes to the street,” he says. Just not on Halloween.
And he sings.
His is the classic story of a gay child from a dysfunctional family. Money was tight and they had to move periodically for his father to find new work. Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up in Texas, Idaho and Colorado. His mother suffered from depression. “Coming home from school you never really knew what mood you were going to get,” he told me. “She always talked about being happy somewhere else.” He, too, would hope the new start would bring happiness. But, he always felt like an outsider. No longer. “I’ve never felt more supported in my life,” he told me of the MAD show.
“I am a very experimental non-conventional artist,” he continued. “I bridge a lot of gaps without having a strong hold in any of them. I work in theater but I’m not really a theater designer. I make art but I’m really not in the art world. I am a performer but it’s always circumstantial. Even my producing partner, Pomegranate Arts (who also handle Phillip Glass, Lucinda Childs and Laurie Anderson) don’t know what to do with me.” That’s OK. He’s creating his own projects. Next will be an album from his Joe’s Pub appearance slated for Oct 21. His rock ’n’ roll cabaret act is about his mother, first performed in his “Treasure” show, part of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series.
“I came out wearing a swing coat, made out of an American flag, which I painted and adorned with flowers that I found in the dumpsters in the cemetery where my mother is buried,” he told me. “It was during fashion week, September 2019. In the middle of my show, 13 of my model friends came out in looks inspired by the stories I told. My mother was a cheerleader in high school, so there were pompoms all over that part of the exhibit. Because we moved, the models carried luggage. Because, my mother came of age in the 50s and 60s, I had a big bouffant hairdo and cat eye glasses.” There’s a “Treasure” section in the MAD exhibition, under a neon sign that reads “Hi Mom.”
What’s next? “I had the privilege of sitting next to (MAD Chair Emeritus) Barbara Tober at the party,” he said of the woman much associated with MAD. “She’s fun and has so many ideas about what to do with the show. She’s so wonderful, I can’t even believe it! She likes to make things herself and is excited in the same way I am about being creative.”
Other guests included Penny Arcade, Noella Bella, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, Haleigh Ciel, MAD Chair Michele Cohen with Marty Cohen, Amy Fine Collins, Duke Dang, Darlinda, John “Lypsinka” Epperson, Taylor Mac, Andrew Martin-Weber, Dirty Martini, Marsy Mittlemann, MAD’s Nanette L. Laitman, Director Tim Rodgers, Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas, Dan Romer, Jean Shafiroff, Christopher Tanner and Davóne Tines.
So much for freewheeling phantasmagoria. “That was downtown going uptown,” PR maestro Jon Marder characterized. The next event, he continued brought “the uptown crowd downtown.” It was the Chelsea opening of artist, author, and lecturer John C. Mack’s immersive exhibition, A Species Between Worlds: Our Nature, Our Screens, at Skylight Studios (537 West 27), a reflection on what technology wreaks on humanity. And what better time than now, after retreating into the world of Zoom for a few years, to examine what actual life we give up when we live in a virtual one.
How far can our virtual trips go? And what will we leave behind? Can we even imagine? Not that long ago, talking into your watch was an outlandish Dick Tracy fantasy.
Mack spent four years criss-crossing America, and a few international spots, to present the exhibition images of U.S. National Parks and the Seven Wonders of the Natural World he shot, manipulated and combined with artificial landscapes from the Pokémon Go app. It’s presented in conjunction with a month of talks that will include Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a panel hosted by Stanford University Professors Rob Reich, Jeremey Weinstein and Mehran Sahami (System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot) and a panel on the State of Social Media featuring NYU’s Jonathan Haidt.
“Does technology break down our socialization on its own or are we giving that power to technology,” Mack asked me rhetorically. “Is it delivering the breakdown or just amplifying inner conflicts in our separation that we’ve already had? Are people even asking that question or just pointing a finger at the big tech business model? The Navajo Indians say if you point a finger, there are always three fingers pointing back at you. If you’re pointing the finger at something or someone, you have to look back at yourself threefold.” Still, he says, “If I didn’t have hope that we could make this right, none of this would exist, my project would not be here.”
He greeted Ellie Manko. “I met John eight years ago and he got me involved with the Fairplay organization, which advocates for stricter child protection laws against big tech collecting data and marketing to children,” she told me. “From that I got involved in Life Calling, John’s foundation, looking at the greater issue that asks if screens are affecting our humanity as it gets more and more involved in our human process.”
In the room: Jerry and Kathy Speyer, Tom Nides (Ambassador to Israel), Marina Abramovic, Sherrie and David Weston, Nick Rohatyn and Kara Ross.
John’s namesake father, John J. Mack, is the man who saved Morgan Stanley, as CEO and Chairman of the Board. “I’m a dollars and cents guy,” John J. told me. “My son is the creative. I think he gets most of that from his mother not, from me.”
John J.’s autobiographical book, Up Close and All In: Life Lessons from a Wall Street Warrior, will be out mid-month. His message: “Life gives you a lot of opportunities, but you have to take risks. When you fail, just start over. That’s the story of my life: I’ve been successful, I’ve had failures. At the end of the day, you reach back and keep going.”
Take the merger with Dean Witter in 2001 that made him redundant. “Five years later I came back to run the company, again.”
His biggest risk? “During the crisis when Wall Street was going down, I was waiting with my board to see what would happen. Ben Bernanke, who ran the Fed, Tim Geithner, who ran the New York Fed, and Hank Paulson, Secretary of Treasury, called me. ‘I want you to sell the firm.’ Geithner told me. ‘Out of respect for you I called Jamie Dimon,’ I replied. ‘He said he didn’t want the firm and would only pay two dollars a share.’ ‘I don’t care what the price is,’ Geithner said. ‘I want you to hang up and sell the firm!’ ‘I won’t do it,’ I told him. ‘I’ll take the firm down first.’ And I hung up on him. That’s what saved Morgan Stanley. And that’s in my book.”
So much for the financial crisis, the pandemic crisis and my first night out again in Manhattan. I was pulled back from the cloud to an over-the-top celebration of an LGBT aesthetic that proclaimed more is more and left little to the imagination. Virtual reality was shed downtown. Costumes shed uptown. Below steel canyons that touch the sky, art was asking us to strip down to our humanity. The bare end on the backside of the pandemic.
Photographs by Sylvain Gaboury/PMC (MAD); Jason Sean Weiss/BFA.com (Mack).