things to think about

today i am thinking about: THE WORLD’S LARGEST KALEIDOSCOPE
August 3, 2009, 1:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The World’s Largest Kaleidoscope is in Mount Tremper, New York. It was a project of love built by a German immigrant in the 1920s in his farm’s barn and families used to take their children there to look at the beautiful hand-stained glass kaleidoscope. It stayed like that until the 1990s, when an EVIL CORPORATION bought the farm the kaleidoscope was on. While they maintained the kaleidoscope, they decided it needed an update.

And so came THE ERA OF THE COMPUTER GENERATED KALEIDOSCOPE. Instead of beautiful abstract designs, there was a computer-generated animated history of America — yes, a history of America — with Washington and Lincoln and Rosie the Riveter and Jimi Hendrix and marijuana, all turned into the most ridiculous tacky computer show imaginable. With pictures of eagles kaleidoscoping. And stars and stripes. And the sound of eagles screaming. A 9 minute ridiculopathy of tacky-ass entertainment.

When I went to the world’s largest kaleidoscope I expected something beautiful and pastoral. A holy piece of history, something beautiful that someone from long ago had created. Instead I found something tacky and plastic in its place, fakey fakey and weird. There was a large glass wheel next to the exit from the kaleidoscope show, from the original barn kaleidoscope. How sick, right? To take down history and replace it with some bizarre computer generated marketing team version of what a kaleidoscope might be good for. I left feeling gross, like someone had ripped down my family tree. Like finding your great-grandparents’ home, only everything is neon plastic from the 1980s. Fake, false, tacky, and gross.

Except guess what, friends.

That isn’t the true story! I MADE THAT STORY UP. TO TELL MYSELF. Miss Sugardish and I were in the Catskills this weekend, making a tour of tourist attractions, and when I saw the world’s largest kaleidoscope listed somewhere, in passing, I knew we had to go. I didn’t do much reading on it, just found the address and concocted a story. FINALLY! A ROMANTIC BEAUTIFUL OBJECT WITH A BEAUTIFUL HISTORY FROM A BEAUTIFUL BRAVE IMMIGRANT.

Only here’s the real truth, courtesy of Roadside America (the best website ever if you love visiting weird things):

The $250,000 Kaleidoscope was designed by ’60s psychedelic artist Isaac Abrams and his son Raphael, opening in 1996. The elder Abrams calls it the “first cathedral of the third millennium.” It is the brainchild of Catskills developer Dean Gitter, a local P.T. Barnum. Visitors walk through the mall to get to the Kaleidoscope, while their senses are assaulted by scented candles and Space Age Bachelor Pad music. The merchandise-to-attraction ratio is high — the trademarked words “World’s Largest KaleidoscopeTM” appear on a plethora of gifts and souvenirs.[…]The show is ten minutes of frenzied fractal imagery, very loosely based on the history of America. We see the faces of Civil War soldiers, Lincoln, Stalin, Marilyn Monroe, Native Americans, kaleidoscopic patterns of American flags. Loud synths and corporate guitar riffs blend one era seamlessly into the next. The presentation finally finds its rhythm with a whirling pattern of marijuana leaves and audio snippets from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”

It is amazing sometimes the fiction we tell ourselves. I was SO MAD about this! SO MAD. This is what I told my friend Q:

world’s largest kaleidoscope was a SHAM. it was once this amazing obsession project by some guy. then this luxury resort bought the land, including the kaleidoscope, and turned it into NO SHIT a COMPUTER GENERATED KALEIDOSCOPIC HISTORY OF AMERICA SHOW. by which i mean kaleidoscoping pictures of revolutionary war generals and abraham lincoln and POT LEAVES AT THE 1960S WITH JIMI HENDRIX COVER BANDS and oh god it was the most horrifyingly tragic and tacky shit ever. i wanted to watch it 5 more times. i couldn’t stop laughing. they had the original kaleidoscope disc and it was amazing and yet they made it into this shitty computer animation of rosie the riveter and DID I MENTION THE POT LEAVES. it was like going to your great grandparent’s house in the old country and finding out they turned it into an amusement park with rides like THE SHOAH: A ROLLER COASTER and IMMIGRATING TO THE NEW WORLD COTTON CANDY. do you know what i mean?

I am so ready these days for more stories about destruction. I live in New York, a land where it is guaranteed that pretty much everything you love will get ruined for something more marketable. I kind of assume at this point that most cool things are either staged or on the verge of destruction. Of COURSE the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope started off beautiful and individualistic and ended up a marketing trick. The idea that it was always a marketing trick is infinitely harder to digest for some reason — maybe because I feel like a sucker or maybe because it just isn’t that interesting any more. The real story is in the perversion of the beautiful thing.

There’s a real story here, though. The real story is that THIS is the thing that someone thought was marketable. “I know! A large kaleidoscope telling a story about American history!” Someone still sat down and worked this out, and even if that person was not doing it for a romanticized love of art it is still something someone made. Moreover, it is an INCREDIBLY HORRIFYING THING that someone else made and, in fact, felt that it would be a draw.

What do you think they were thinking? Stories, please. Make sure you turn the sound up.

3 Comments so far
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So let me get this straight, this is all like, some computer generated images projected on the ceiling, right? In what sense is it still even a “kaleidoscope”? Why don’t they just project an enormous picture with a “brush” filter all over it and call it the WORLD’S LARGEST OIL PAINTING.

Comment by Sensitive Poet

you know, I was thinking about these kind of roadside attraction things, and how they seem to start off as labors of love, then evolve into more public-oriented displays (where the highway sign kind of shows up on the road and you are on the NJ Turnpike exclaiming “what the hell?? Land of Make Believe, Exit 12???” and then, somewhere after enough people have read the highway sign and actually pulled over to see where it led, some New Jersey Amusement Association comes along and needs to Put Their Stamp on it and invariably fuck it up. It’s the process of public consumption – the enjoyment of curiosities falling down the maw of Mass Appeal.

I don’t always know when those lines are crossed, when it doesn’t matter if you’re swimming away from the shark’s mouth because the tide’s just gonna sweep you in anyways. For all I know, there’s someone out there who thought the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope was a sham before the big takeover in ’96, just like Williamsburg’s been done since way before the early aughts. The city is never, ever what it used to be – that will always be true – but it’s the broader direction where it’s headed that’s the problem. There is no evolutionary vision that exists outside of the wholesale soul-suck of commercialization. We need some Jane Jacobsing, stat.

Comment by mickey

you know, here’s where I fuck up on reading comprehension and then have to laugh ironically at myself. my previous sentiment still stands (the land of make believe is definitely one of those stories that will give the ones you made up above a run for their money). but I didn’t get to the part below, thanks, ADD.

anyways. yes, things are always about marketing to some extent – people are generally not producing stuff for entirely private enjoyment, and in capitalistworld, making things for other people to see is inseparable from marketing.

but. what’s the difference between something that has a primary purpose of marketing, and something that is marketed but has a primary purpose (of course, we assume, a Higher primary purpose) of something else entirely? how do those things get noticed and appreciated for what they are, and not what gift-wrapping they’re in? is the thing that says “yep, baby, you got it, I’m a shameless, right out there, bald-faced marketing scheme,” necessarily artless or base? is it better to be able to identify those things from that standpoint so you know how to relate to them? I think that’s more what it’s about. You want to be able to draw the distinctions between the trampled love-labors and the hollow shiny things, and sometimes, those cows aren’t so sacred, or so easily identified.

It’s why there was so much debate over the loss of CBGB – there was this feeling people were having over an important part of the city’s history dying, when it was debatable that it had actually died many years before that and we were just comforted by its dry husk occupying that space on the Bowery. What does it mean, for example, that I am really broken up about Guss’ Pickles moving to Borough Park, but I haven’t been to the stand in at least a year? The stories of vanishing history are not so easy to tell – especially when our ties to that history always feel tenuous and inauthentic. That’s actually kind of what it’s about – how there’s always someone who was there before you, who is more directly impacted, who had a Bigger Experience than you did. When we can right-size our connections to vanishing history – neither claiming experience that isn’t ours nor brushing off our own experiences when they don’t feel Enough to mention – we’ll be able to give it the levity it deserves.

Comment by mickey

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