attempting ziggurats

Installation views at Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CA (January, 1992). Mixed media, electronics, sound (dimensions variable)



Attempting Ziggurats focuses on the diaspora aspect of the story of the Tower of Babel, and, in particular, its continuing reverberations in American culture. The breaking of tongues at the Tower of Babel and the subsequent scattering of the Babylonian people was the third great punishment to be sent down upon humans in the Old Testament (following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood). Each of these punishments is more elaborate than the one preceding it; they mirror in complexity the growth of human society, culture, science, arts, and economics. The events at the Tower of Babel can be viewed as both the end of a common understanding and the origin of cultural difference. It can also be seen as a parable of warning of the consequences of ambition run amok. Many of these themes surface repeatedly in American culture and history.

 

The installation itself consists of children's wagons which carry gears, wheels, and audio speakers. The speakers broadcast the voices of immigrants and foreign visitors to the United States. They speak of their earliest memories, their experiences in the United States, and the things they would do if given the chance. They also speak about ideas of heaven. Occasionally audible are sounds of social and economic exchange, and radio transmissions from the Apollo missions to the moon. The recording played in a particular wagon is triggered on when a viewer approaches it; the viewer must frequently be in motion in order for the recordings to be heard at any length. In this way the piece allows audition and comprehension by encouraging a small enaction of diasporaradic movement among the viewers.

 

In a prototypical American childhood, a wagon is one of the first vehicles that a child is allowed to operate. It is an initial taste of speed, enhanced physical power, and a possible elevation in social status; it is one of the first tools in a child's creation of self-defined environment. As such, the wagon serves well both to allude to the hope and ambition that drove the construction of the Tower of Babel and to the early point in the Biblical version of human history at which the events took place. The wheels and gears that the wagons hold are from larger and more powerful devices, a reference to both the limits of the wagons' capacity and their lowly standing in a hierarchy of transport and mechanical ability. This comparison suggests the mismatch of the goal of the Tower builders to the technologies (if not the social structures) available to achieve it.

 

American culture is based on an inverse principle of diaspora: America (in theory) welcomes all who arrive at its shores to make a better life for themselves by allowing an unfettered pursuit of an advancement in one's social, economic, or spiritual standing. While this promise has hardly been equal for all, it has resulted in a plethora of cultural groups living within the same country. It has often been the case that some of those groups have - if not literally speaking different languages - deep and continuing misunderstandings between them. This accumulation of cultural difference has been a part of American society for so long that one can describe it in Biblical terms as being forever held in noisy confusion upon the half-built Tower, the allure of a shiny new world obscured by the difficulties in getting everyone to cooperate in it. Attempting Ziggurats illuminates this state of affairs considering it not as a single point of diaspora, but as an ongoing condition of collective, diasporadic living.