The Boy Mechanic

Nicholas Mirzoeff

Among the many tasks of photographic documentation is to document what is almost or soon to disappear, and in this way photography is linked with both social memory and history. It stakes a claim in a world so saturated with images that one can hardly look at them. Kaucilya Brooke’s “Boy Mechanic” project documents what is no longer there, what cannot be seen, and what is never the same even if it can be seen. In an ongoing project that ranges from video documentation to interviews, photographs and chalk-board maps, Brooke is creating an alter-geography that generates a sense of direction and space in relation to lesbian bars and nightclubs both present and gone. These bars come and go, feuding with liquor license boards, landlords and other aspects of the state, but leaving behind a ground of memory that is all the more important for being impermanent. As one surveys the complexity of the project, it becomes apparent that the queer optic opened by The Boy Mechanic gives a vantage point onto the seemingly unknowable moment of the contemporary, this imperial dreaming in which high courtiers sneer at the “reality-based community.” From the tactile and sensory reality of the queer underground, Brooke makes us re-encounter the everyday, encounters of memory and association that I try to evoke here without being so contextual and specific as to lose her sense of virtual reality.


There will be no ruins of the American empire. In previous imperial moments, much thought and energy was devoted to the creating of monuments and memorials to the glory of the regime. The stone lions of Babylon, the Colosseum, the British Museum and other massive enterprises speak to and for empires past. As stone piled on stone, poets thought of memorializing themselves otherwise. Shelley looked at the remains of a monumental sculpture and mocked the pretensions of the now-forgotten Ozymandias. But the Roman poet Horace had thought ahead, writing his verse as monumentum aere perennius [a monument more lasting than bronze]. There are no poets writing about the American empire and there are no monuments that anyone can see. The signature moment of this empire was not the attack on the World Trade Center but its clean-up. Within weeks, a monumental ruin had been effaced, cleaned and swept, leaving a space that could only be called Zero. 1.8 million tons of debris had been removed to the evocatively named Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, now the subject of its own exhibition. The downtown site is mired in disputes between developers and politicians, families and museum officials, and architects and everyone else that seems likely to end up in a very unremarkable collection of buildings with a nice station.

As for the writers, three recent fictional accounts of the events of September 11, 2001 in Manhattan take the identical strategy of placing their characters in desirable real-estate locations with a panoramic view of what then occurs being, as it were, an unintended bonus. Each writer—Deborah Eisenberg, Benjamin Kunkel, Jay McInerney—fails to create anything approaching what Walter Benjamin called the “dream image,” a crucial moment in which “what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”Instead, we are regaled with images that are so familiar from the mass media as to verge on the meaningless. The present fails to become monumental, it fails to be heroic, it fails even its primary function in the empire, which is to sell.

In his exhibition Course of Empire, the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha knew too much to attempt the monument. His title created a dialectical interface with Thomas Cole’s nineteenth-century grand machine cycle of paintings of the same name, depicting the great swirl of history from the “savage” state to the glory of empire and its inevitable fall. In today’s empire, there is nothing to see. Here are the branded, breeze-block structures of empire, sheltering behind rusting chain-link fencing, all awaiting their destiny: which is to become vacant lots so that the course of empire can begin again.


Such a structure might once have been a nightclub. Or it might become one in the next cycle. While it lasts, the club is a moment of interference in imperial transmission. The nightclub is part of the dream city, one that does not map precisely onto the city grid. Clubs are always hard to find—“it’s here somewhere, I know it, it can’t be far”—and that is part of their desire. The club that everyone knows is Cheers—and that show has dropped out of syndication even in the remotest reaches of the cable universe. Everyone knows the difference between “clubbing” and returning to that same location the next day, maybe now alone, maybe now sober. It’s not the same space. This is what the Situationists called “psychogeography,” a mapping of the dream city that exists in and around the physical city. It occupies the cinder-block buildings of the empire but it is not in the empire. It is remembered in the affects of sound but they don’t last. Once that sound was the vibration of the railroad tracks that you could hear in the blues, the sound of the Great Migrations from the South to the North. That sound is just a required trick for the performers on American Idol now. Clubs offer a temporary shelter for the idea of the future that is yet to come by creating a fragmentary present in which there is at least the idea of possibility.


Is a pyschogeography of queer nightclubs art? A question for the tenure committee alone. In the age of empire, art is a term without meaning—I was about to say a “term of art.” The products of the art industry circulate without rest, moving from one location to the next in a global artscape that is everywhere claiming its difference but is everywhere the same. The only things I want to see now are those that defer their own commodification: there is no permanent refusing of it any more. The artist is like Benjamin’s ragpicker, wandering over the heaps of modern refuse, but in search of the site of refusal. “Easy for you to say,” says the artist, “but I have to make a living.” Wouldn’t art be precisely that somehow? Making living? “I want to learn to live, finally,” reads an opening from a book on ghosts from one who is now himself a specter.

General Dream

The lycéens [high-school kids] in the French general strike of March 2006 had a slogan: “Rêve générale,” the general dream, a play on the combined student and worker’s call for a grêve générale, a general strike. The term combines the imagery of May 1968 with the intellectual legacy of the left into a new form. When he was an anarchist in 1906, Georges Sorel called the general strike a means of creating “a general unified image” of the interplay of classes at that moment. For Rosa Luxemburg, the mass strikes “show a typical picture of the logical development and at the same time of the future of the revolutionary movement on the whole.” This is not language we are used to any more in the time of empire. The desire that causes the dialectical dream image to suture from the flow of history into a standstill is the general strike. That’s art for you.