Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System

Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System

Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System

Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System

Excerpt

Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, June 2000: in the 300-footlong gallery of a converted textile mill hangs the Überorgan, a combination bagpipe, pipe organ, and player piano “elegantly jury-rigged mostly out of materials you might find at your local Home Depot and RadioShack.” Cardboard ducts wrapped in aluminum foil convey bellows, bleats, and moans from air-filled bags of woven polyethylene; a nylon net holds the bags in place; and the ensemble is connected by wires and alligator clips to electronic sensors that detect the movements of gallery visitors. At the “Composer Console,” twelve ink pens record notes on butcher paper. These dabs and dashes are then transferred with black paint to a 200-foot-long role of Mylar, which winds over twelve photoelectric sensors arrayed like piano keys. The score, derived from church hymns, sailors' ditties, and the American standard, “Heart and Soul,” is suitably hybrid; its sound, both familiar and hard to place, is not unlike the discordant musicality of William Gaddis's last work, Agapē Agape.

Under a ceiling whose structure resembles a ribcage, the Überorgan's massive biomorphic bags appear delicately traced with blood vessels and nerve endings. The enormous room now houses a human form—but one whose body, heart, and soul are no less mechanized than the turbines and massive looms formerly housed there. The scale of the installation is at once monumental and cartoonish; the sound we hear with “a familiarity that fades in and out” is also the sound of our own breathing and our own blood coursing through our veins. The idea of making a vast pipe organ from notional organs of the body surely would have appealed to Gaddis, as would the epic construction out of secondhand materials using low-tech sophistication. The Überorgan is, after all, an instrument of organization, a means of overcoming chaos in ourselves and disorder in a world without certainty or absolute values. A combined Übermensch (overman) and overhead pipe organ, the huge . . .

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