small environmental things

Slightly before I started making stencil graffiti I became interested in making very small interventions in the urban environment. I called these interventions & other similar things "Mystery Catalysts": things that might not have any obvious explanation.

I also became interested in other things in the environment that appealed to me as 'glitches' of sorts: things like multiple layers of ripped posters that no longer conveyed much of the information that they were intended to display but instead became collages made by multiple people without any intentional collaborative motivation.

I looked for all sorts of oddities like things embedded in the road tar & other 'imperfections' in the planned environment that were signs of chaos.

Here's an example of fragments of multiple posters circa 1979 Baltimore.

A broken car mirror embedded in the road circa 1979 Baltimore.

I spent an enormous amount of time wandering around the streets of Baltimore. There was a mannequin on display in an old drug store window that was making an unusual hand gesture. Whenever I passed the window I mimiced the gesture as if I was communicating with the mannequin. It wasn't until after I'd been doing this for awhile that I learned that the hand position says "I love you" in American Sign Language.

My friends Charlie Brohawn & Lamar "Chip" Layfield were making photocopy collages at the time that were similarly inspired by the disjunctive layers of street trash. These were called "STEE-V SQUEE-G DECODE" in honor of a guy they'd seen through a window giving himself an enema or some such that they named "STEE-V SQUEE-G". This spawned a whole series of works including things like the poster shown above, in this instance partially torn off.

Charlie made STEE-V SQUEE-G address label stickers too. Here, I'm putting one on a pole under what looks like a poster of the Shah of Iran who was deposed around this time.

On January 24, 1979, my friends & collaborators Richard Ellsberry & I launched the 1st of what we called the "B.U.T.N. (Baltimore Underground Telephone Network) phone stations" which was a phone number that spelled out "TESTES-3". This was advertised with graffiti, usually stickers. In the case of the photo above, you can partially see written "4 A GOOD TIME CALL TESTES-3 (OR IN CASE OF EMERGENCY)". This appears to be on a piece of sheetrock that had been a graffiti-covered wall that was part of my bedroom when I lived at the Musical Sales warehouse a year earlier. When I moved, I took the wall with me.

One of the most inspired things I did as a Mystery Catalyst activity was to have my pictures taken at the Black & White photo-booth at the train station in 1979 & to then put those photos on display on the outside of the booth as if they were sample photographs provided by the company. In the 1st one I did I drew a diagonal moustache on.

In the 2nd one I stuck multiple circular stickers on my face. In the Black & White of the photo-booth image, they looked somewhat like bullet-holes. Years later, I met a guy at a party who talked about taking the photo-booth display strip from the train station because it looked like the guy had been shot in the face. I explained to the guy that that was me & we were both amazed that the 'small world' had brought us together so I could explain this to him.

The 3rd & final one involved my puttting crunchy peanut-butter on my face. Again, in the Black & White of the booth, this didn't look like peanut-butter & made me look horribly ill. Within a week or so of making & displaying this one, I met my friend Sin-Dee Heidel at a party & she told me that she'd taken display photos off the booth of a guy with a horrible skin disease that she then realized was me.

I don't have images of the original photo-booth strips so I made this synopsis of the 3 in a color image to preserve some memory of the project & to send to Throbbing Gristle in answer to the questionnaire that accompanied one of their early records.

Another favorite activity of mine from circa 1979 was my use of a cylinder seal necklace. Cylinder Seals, as I recall, were seals consisting of sculpted images that could be rolled on malleable surfaces such as wet clay closing off the lid of a pot - the idea being to show that the pot belonged to a personage of significance & that the seal was only to be broken by the intended recipient of the contents of the pot. The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore sold a necklace based on this history - in this case the cylinder seal represented a chariot. What I liked to do was find chewing gum, stuck under the edge of a table eg, & roll the seal across it so that the image of the chariot would be imprinted on the gum. Imagine the astonishment of the highly unlikely person who might actually notice the image in the gum!

Around the same time, my friend & collaborator Richard Ellsberry made a rubber-stamp that read "THIS IS ALL A DREAM" & had multiples made to give to friends to use. Someone rubber-stamped it above this drinking fountain.

An acquaintance named Bill White was making interesting work using hands spelling out things in sign language. I don't recall whether these arms were also his work or not.

Something that definitely was Bill White's work was the spelling out in sign language of his name & address. Since I was studying sign language somewhat at the time I deciphered what he wrote. Above is his last name: "White". What partially interested me about this was that he was peforming an illegal activity, graffiti or postering, & making who was doing it & where they lived completely open - but only if you read sign language.

Here's Richard Ellsberry contemplating a small circular sticker with "hetero-sexism can be cured!" written on it.


I'm not sure when I made the above snow-shoes. It may've been as early as 1975. I still have them. I made a mold of the bottom of a pair of my boots & used the mold as the bottom of the snow-shoes.

photos: Paula Gillen

photographer unknown, probably Paula Gillen

photo: Paula Gillen

I'd walk in the snow wearing these snow-shoes. The idea was that since the bottom of the shows were negatives of boot-prints that the imprint would be a positive of a boot-print in a sense 'sticking up' out of the snow. It would've taken a very observant person indeed to've noticed this particular oddity in the environment.

From 1979 to 1980 I organized a series of "Crab Feast"s that didn't actually involve the eating of any crabs but were, instead, mostly strange interventions in environments, some guerrilla, some not. To advertise them, I made a CRAB FEAST poster which I then altered to present the latest information every time there was a new Crab Feast. The above is a well-worn Crab Feast poster probably after the whole series was done.

I worked for the public library from the end of 1980 to 1981. At the library was some sort of printed matter about how to be energy efficient with advice such as "Turn radio and stereo off when no one is listening". I truncated some of this advice on a bookmark that I had printed in red ink (a novelty for me at the time) & had a truncated version of "TAKE MY ADVICE" written along the length.

I then made an unauthorized display for them at the library that said "FREE ADVICE" above a receptacle for holding the bookmarks.

In 1978, Richard Kostelantez & Henry James Korn published their 8th Assembling.

Within that publication there was this "Abandon Poetry" piece that prompted the reader to cut out the poems contained within leaf shapes, to color the leaves green, & to leave the results somewhere in the environment. The lower left leaf has been cut out here.

I followed the instructions & left the leaf poem in a pile of leaves in the Mt Royal area in Baltimore. It can barely be seen here as a somewhat unnatural spot of light green within the pile of leaves.






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