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Salvaging a theatrical train wreck, Kevin created a 1960’s style BE IN that could only be described as inspired… if COMPLETELY EFFING CRAZY!
We join college boy Kevin for:
A FROLIC IN THE ZEN ROMPER ROOM
> Sometimes it seems to me, in my most cheerful and optimistic of states, that all of life is just a ZEN ROMPER ROOM, provided by Mother Nature for us to romp in.
. This story begins in the late fall of 1977. I was a volatile 20 years old, in my second year of film studies at the California Institute of the Arts, lovingly referred to as “Cal rAts”, and I was growing increasingly disillusioned with the whole experience.
. Nonetheless, gripped in the passionate fervor of my youth, life was full to bursting. The play of my life had a huge cast of characters. I was the male equivalent of a Drama Queen (probably still am, though mellowed in my reticent old age), and by this point in the human saga, several hundred people had been caught up, wily-nilly in the whirlwind of my overpowering presence, and sucked into the vortex of my creative drive. As an emotional man, I treasured them all- and most of them, I believe, treasured me back. (I had no idea how great I had it at the time.) And I was girl-crazy, according to the biological imperatives of my gonads, and not merely capable of falling into mad, delicious love at any instant, I was busily practicing the lifestyle. My journals of the era give equal time to the lure of romance and virtually everything else.
. Most of the classes I took at Cal rAts left little impression. Some were of limited use. But taking seriously Disney’s admonishment for artists to mix it up, I decided to take a sculpture class- not because it might help me animate, but because I always loved the medium, and suspected that if I got started in it, I might be very good- or at least have a very good time doing it. I was correct. (more to the second point than to the first.) Though I routinely missed classes through disinterest, intoxication, or exhaustion from the previous evening’s intoxication, I always managed to make myself available for Stephen Van Hume’s “Structures” class, because it was always fascinating, and more than any other instructor I had there, Stephen was inspired by his art- all art- the possibilities art introduced. Well-known in his Dutch homeland, Stephen was a fairly young man of ideas who communicated them in an exciting way.
. One day, he introduced the most astonishing class project, that was perhaps, the most inspired act of art I have ever been privileged to participate in. Stephen got to thinking about the concepts of permanence and transience, and how he might meld the two with an installation that would appear irrevocably permanent, yet would only last for a few hours. His inspiration: we would all sneak into the main hall of the institute in thee wee hours of the morning and build a brick wall that divided the room, then tear it down later that afternoon and leave the space looking exactly as it did before our guerilla art was installed! Of course Stephen knew that he could not ask permission of the administration, because there was not the slightest doubt that his proposal would be turned down flat. Bricks? On top of their precious floor? Not a chance in Hell! Stephen acknowledged the likelihood of ending up in hot water in the wake of the project- but he only had a few months left on his contract anyway, and couldn’t resist the pull of his Muse. So, swearing us all to secrecy, this is exactly what we did. We practiced it was a pantomime again and again, until everyone knew what their roles were and exactly what to expect. The conspiracy of it all- doing something we shouldn’t do, under the leadership of an instructor was a big rush. It was remarkable how quickly it went up, and that no security guards were able to swoop and ask us what the hell we were doing, before the wall was fully up. Yes, the administration was apoplectic. No, we left no trace of damage behind after destroying it. Yes, Stephen was called on the carpet to explain himself. No, his contract was not renewed.
. But we were allowed the benefit of his genius for the few months of the semester that remained. And the next project he proposed inspired me so, that it became the focus of my next creative orgasm.
. The assignment was this:
. Thinking of what a great, ugly, useless, monster Cal rAts was housed in, he realized that this piecemeal building was the most haphazardly designed space he had ever seen. It was laid out kind of like a big square octopus with hallway tentacles leading down blind curves to dead ends. The architecture was anything but user-friendly. In fact, even after months of roaming the endless corridors to nowhere, I still occasionally seemed to have no frigging idea where I was in the damn thing! The building had certainly not been designed to house artists and their studios and workshops- far from it. It had been retrofitted for the use, and there didn’t seem to be a really good place to put anything. As a result, many spaces were ill used or underused or completely abandoned. Stephen wanted us to choose an interesting nook of the labyrinthine mess, and imagine how the space might be differently, or better used. Now we were to take big 8-by-5 glossy photos of the space from every conceivable angle. These we Xeroxed and glued to poster-board to construct from the pieces, a model of the actual space. The results of course, were predictably whacky. Stephen knew they would be. When a three-dimensional object is translated into a two-dimensional representation, the distortions of the camera mean the pieces cannot be put back together in anything resembling their original configurations. I was rather stoked to have Stephen hold mine up as the best of the lot! (I could sense the real artists in the group, which was most of them, flashing resentful looks of unspoken disapproval.) To look at it, as an untrained artist I had made the lamest model of the lot. It was kind flimsy and dog-eared and certainly not artful. But it was Stephen’s favorite because I had obviously done something none of the others had thought to do. Where the “real” artists began with a solid foundation and worked upward, I began by piecing the walls together with the least amount of distortion I could muster, and then attached a floor, that was by necessity warped and twisted and curved, to meet the walls.
. Now came the really interesting part: We were to take our models and somehow alter them, then go to the actual space, and alter it in the same way! My jaw dropped at the absolute brilliance of this, and as soon as class let out, I went out roaming the ghastly monstrosity, model in hand, searching for the perfect little spot for inspiration to strike…
. I soon zeroed-in on one little void that presented possibilities. It was a small nook- an indentation that contained an open phone booth in the right corner, next to a big vacant space that had obviously been designed for vending machines that no longer existed. I checked the phone. The line was dead. The enclave was virtually abandoned. And it was perfect. Here was a spot I could alter, without disturbing anyone’s trip! I began to ruminate. Pleasant possibilities began to percolate.
. Because I never had the budgets necessary to produce them, I could not pursue the filmmaking I came to college to do. I had to focus on what I could do, not on what I couldn’t. Following my current interests of environmental and performance art, images suggested themselves, ideas were born, plans hatched. My close friend Shannon was recruited to tackle whatever technical issues might arise. A concept solidified, and the piece got christened: “Zen Romper Room”. It would be a “process piece”: what ever happened in the space would constitute the art. It was all about people sharing real time together, while reacting to each other and the environment they are in. In this way, the success of the piece was measured by what the observer invested in it- just like life! Open your mind and heart, allow yourself to be vulnerable and receptive- then it would be a success. Bring your troubles, habits and patterns in with you, and for you, it will be a failure.
. Realizing that the environment I hoped to create in the unused space might take some time, I decide to draw the process out, and make the ten days leading up to it a true piece of conceptual art by actually living in the developing space right up to the opening night of my projected five night run. I would truly be the ‘artist in residence’ in the Zen Romper Room.
. That first night, I put up a curtain for privacy, installed a small stereo to get some tuneage, collected a pillow and some bedding for the long nights, moved in a cooler full of food and beer, and borrowed my dormmate Stacy’s beanbag chair to relax in. Munching on some mushrooms, I fired up a joint to christen the space, and set my creative mind to “expand”. Popping in a cassette tape of 801 Live, I grooved on their amazing version of the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows: “Turn off your mind. Relax and float downstream…” Wired and buzzed, with a mouth as dry as the Sahara, I slid into a meditative state to just absorb the space and open myself up to the possibilities. I feel excited by the short duration nature of the project, the small crew of one, and the freedom of having a zero dollar and zero cent budget. As usual, what began in elegant simplicity was quickly compounding in complexity. I let my imagination run riot while soaking in the silence of the massive institute at night, feeling very, very good.
. That first night squatting in my Zen Romper Room, I was accosted at 5 AM by a grumpy, officious security guard with a twisted, malformed face that was fascinatingly gruesome. He wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, why the hell I was there, and what the hell I thought I was doing. Startled by being suddenly awoken by a living gargoyle, I explained my situation, assured him I had permission from the institute that I didn’t have, and asked him to please go away and leave me alone for the next ten nights. Quasimodo did not take this well, muttering and complaining under his breath as he left.
. Three hours later, I went out to buy a hot coffee from the dorm café, returning as the morning crew arrived for classes, pausing to read the mission statement I had posted on the wall, and frequently stopping to peak in, and ask what was up. I could see from their faces that they really had no idea what to make of me, yet most seemed intrigued enough to want to return when it was up and running. After a run-in with the next security shift, I continued my preparations, borrowing a large mirror on casters to divide the space in half, bringing in a couple fold-up chairs, a floormat, a trashcan, art supplies, and a small wooden box to use as a table- as the ideas and inspirations continued to percolate.
. Despite the fact that it was a work in progress, and still days from officially opening, I did allow curious visitors to step in for a gander and to ask questions. One such unexpected visitor was Susan Peckinpah, daughter of the famously violent director. She was a piece of work! If I had ever met a more insecure woman- I sure don’t remember her! Susan wanted to go inside and see what it was all about, but she was afraid I would rape her in there. Seriously. At least, that’s what she said! I was flabbergasted. This was the kind of behavior she expected from men? Insulted, I told her to forget about it and go away. If she was that distrusting, there was nothing for her in there. Shamed, the timid mouse tentatively inched inside, stayed for about fifteen interesting minutes, and seemed to be surprised to have enjoyed herself, and to have left the Romper Room unmolested. I couldn’t help but wonder if her famous father’s famously dour view of humans had been vested upon his daughter. (A few months later, someone showed me a brief interview Susan did for Penthouse Magazine. Naturally they prodded her to talk about sex, and predictably, she talked from the viewpoint of somebody who seemed to have strong attitudes on the subject, and never to have had it.)
. I had been decorating the romper room with lots of images, posters and pictures to stimulate the senses, and one day when I returned from a bathroom run, I was furious to discover the best picture of the lot missing. I could, and should have predicted this. It was a picture of Walt Disney and his characters posing in front of Cinderella’s Castle that I used to welcome people in- and it appeared to have been autographed by the great man himself. It was dumb of me to post it, and just too much of a temptation for someone going to Disney’s dream arts college.
. But other than that, aside from the regular early morning roustings by the Quasimodo of Cal rAts- I was not messed with. And even before the installation was officially open, I began to have delightful experiences in it. I remember sweet, earth mama Catherine dropping by to keep me cheerful company. She typed one of my poems, as I dictated from the hand-scrawled original, while Stacy filmed the whole thing on what was then, a very primitive video camera. I happily surrendered the dregs of my stash to reward her with a smoke and it was all very cozy indeed.
. A few nights later, roiled with longing, loneliness and suppressed emotion, I overheard my current romantic obsession stroll by with someone, singing: “People! People who fuck people! Are the luckiest people in the world!” and then busting into giggles. As they walked by, I realized her companion was my rival Howie- and that, though I had been actively pursuing lovely Canadian actress Sara for a while, with some encouragement, I had failed to close the deal, and now I was too late. Howie had prevailed. I plunged into the deep end of the pool of depression, drinking too much tequila and writing philosophical claptrap in my journal to cheer me up, while falling under the spell of 801 LIVE: “I’m looking in my little black book/ To see if I was right or wrong/ Wrong/ Between the lines on the scattered pages/ My spidery writing inclines…” I wrote things like “Art is man’s homage to madness”, and “Sanity is madness”, then rocked myself to sleep in that familiar sleeping bag, awash in a sea of drunken tears. It was a good release and I felt better in the morning.
. Until, as I roused myself into the day, I happened to overhear a guy named Szymon tell a guy named Ze’ev that the drawings I had posted in the adjacent corridor were “the worst stuff I’ve ever seen hanging on the walls at Cal Arts!” It’s possible this was true. I couldn’t dispute it. I was not, in fact, that kind of an artist. I had barely had a day’s training. But there was a placard posted with them explaining exactly this: that like all children, I was an “artist”, even without training or a plethora of innate talent- as are we all. I created art not because I was good at it, but because Art helps make Life good. I acknowledged that they were rough works in progress, and explained that for me, Art is a process, not an outcome. Apparently Szymon chose to completely ignore this, and as I passed them in the hall on the way to the bathroom, gawking at the train wreck of my “Art”, the best I could muster was: “I’m not surprised you feel that way Szymon.” Zev laughed at this and Szymon huffed with indignation, not knowing what to say.
. I was getting a bit frustrated with my one-man-crew Shannon, as he just didn’t seem to be following through on his commitment. Many times he said he was coming but failed to show. I knew that he didn’t owe me anything, and that he’d already been there countless times for me in the past, but I still felt chapped when he chose to go to a concert instead of coming by to work on the project a s planned or ate all my psilocybin mushrooms without asking. Then the bottom fell out. His ardent love Cathy broke up with him, and I had never seen my dear friend so overwhelmed with distress. I started looking for another assistant engineer to fill his shoes.
. From here, things went downhill fast. My woes came in battalions, compounding so quickly they seemed a grotesque parody of themselves. Equipment that had been promised to me was suddenly not available. The harassment of security guards with nothing better to do, returned and increased. I was falling further and further behind in the project, and getting increasingly agitated and discombobulated by the whole thing.
. Fortunately, Shannon rebounded from his heartbreak and decided to move forward with the project, and his arrival helped set things right. A very capable technician, Shannon is also a tremendously inspired artist, and he added some pretty cool touches. His electronic unit “Mutt and Jeff Go to Mars” recorded an ambient soundtrack, and Shannon installed an oscilloscope to make the music visual. He set up a sound instillation in the telephone booth that you could hear when you picked up the receiver, and helped design the lighting and media projections: both slides and 8mm film loops that would run continually.
. When opening night of Zen Romper Room finally arrived, I found myself very fortunate to have a good sense of humor. I needed it, when the turnout was so dismal it was almost non-existent. Perhaps the problem was that with the extended period of open-previews, most everybody who was vaguely interested probably felt they had already experienced the instillation. Attracting only a handful of visitors during posted hours, I returned to sleep again in my dorm, for the first time in nine nights, feeling let down and disappointed.
. The following day was no better. Nobody seemed to pop in at times I was fully prepared to entertain them. Not two minutes before my mentor Jules arrived to evaluate the project- it suffered a power outage! I had to turn him away and scrounge for yet another extension cord. I was completely exhausted from the effort, and still had much to do before closing night. Nonetheless, I had to admit- it was getting Zenner all the time, and as with every project I’ve ever undertaken, it had been a learning experience.
. Over the next few days, it seemed most of the audience for the installation was composed of friends who came out from the valley to the desert campus to support me. I had visits from my sisters Beth and Kelly, earth mother Catherine, my close pals John, Paul, Jim, Mike, Geoff and Bill, my first girlfriend Karla, (from when I was 5 years old!) and to my big surprise, Ken Elston- a childhood playmate I had not seen in a very long while. And my special guest- the woman who made all this lunacy possible: my very patient and faithful mother. I remember her sitting there in my Zen Romper Room smiling wanly and seeming very confused and perplexed by the whole thing. I am quite certain she quietly wondered to herself just what on earth my college experience really amounted to. Can’t say I really blame her!
. Though my tenuous truce with the physical plant, (who were almost daily threatening to evict me,) had technically expired, I decided to hold the show over for one day “by popular demand”- a euphemistic way to say that my mentor Jules and my professor Stephen had yet to see the thing. (That evening, “Lou”, the very hard to understand Hawaiian security guard, decided to wade in and see what it was all about. He came out beaming and promising to keep twisty-face out of my hair, to the best of his ability. On his way out, he joked about the pungent smell of marijuana that was always leaking out from behind my Zen curtain- then asked to borrow my lighter so he could sneak off and do the same!)
. Finally, both authority figures came to experience the installation. Jules was passé- not overtly negative, but he seemed entirely unimpressed. And Stephen was not nearly as enthusiastic as I hoped he would be, saying only: “We’ll talk about it in class tomorrow.” (Though I don’t believe we ever did.) Both stayed mere minutes, and neither, I felt, really gave the environment a chance, peeking in quickly and then ducking out, each in their usual blind hurry.
> But I did have at least three very memorable Zen encounters with fellow students.
. One very cute dancer named “Pat” stopped in, and kicked up her heels for over an hour, getting stoned with me and chatting. We were acquainted through our poetry class. I recall her lamenting: “Nobody wants love out here in California. All they want to do is fuck!” as I lay, my head in her lap, and she played with my hair and caressed my face, titillating me to no end and making me really want to fuck her!
. Then one evening, I had a delightful visit from the most droolingly gorgeous student in the entire school. Happily, I spent two spicy hours with Katie from Orange County. I just happened to be tripping on the last of my mushrooms, (replaced by Shannon) and I was just flying. Being insanely attracted to her, and in this vulnerable state she knew nothing of, I began to let my guard down and tell her some rather intimate stuff. (I remember how her eyebrows rose when, referring to a slideshow image of a beautiful Thai woman standing, radiantly, in a downpour, I mentioned that I’d like to lick those raindrops off her face…) I recited my new monologue for her- a piece called THE REASON, about the true meaning of life, and Katie just beamed a beautiful smile throughout that radiated into every corner of my being. She gushed about what a great experience my Zen Romper Room had been for her, giving me a big hug and kissing me on the cheek as she departed. That night, as I curled up into my well-worn sleeping bag, I launched straight into delightful dreams of being locked in a passionate embrace with this lovely woman, whom I don’t recall ever seeing again.
. And the third encounter made my Zen Romper Room one of the most memorable undertakings of my life:
. There was a very cute graphic designer who lived on the same floor of the dorm as I, who definitely caught my eye: not because she was particularly beautiful, but because at that age I found all Asian women unusually attractive. Sandy Yung was Chinese, hailing from the then-British colony of Hong Kong, by way of her native Britain. I always found her about a mile beyond adorable, and even though she usually had her boyfriend Jim on her arm, she certainly seemed to notice me. Like our president Carter, I lusted in my heart- but I had no illusions my fantasies would ever become realities.
. One morning, at 2 AM as I was just preparing for bed after an evening of entertaining guests, a voice came at the Zen curtain: “Is your Zen Romper Room still open?” It was Sandy, and she was alone- no trace of whatshisname. She wore a Dr. Pepper shirt that showcased her perfect young breasts admirably and very tight pants that accentuated every feminine curve. We quickly fell into the kind of intimate chat I’ve always wanted to have with her. She told me of her life in China, and confided that things really weren’t working out between her and so-and-so. Frankly, all prologue is fuzzy now. I remember a nice backrub that was suddenly stopped. I remember a very sensual kiss- and not much more! But one thing quickly became clear. Sandy seemed to come to my installation on a mission: she was determined to seduce me, right then and there on the Zen Romper Room floor! I certainly can’t say I put up much of a fight. She was very aggressive, in a way I had only experienced once or twice: disrobing quickly and with purpose, removing my Levis and jumping on top of me as though I were a thoroughbred to be ridden at full gallop. With her in the driver’s seat, I didn’t last long. (It’s safe to say, self-control was not yet one of my life skills.) When it was all over, she told me we had a Peeping Tom, during our spontaneous Zen performance: the twisty-faced specter stuck his monstrous head through the curtain and leered for a while before withdrawing. I was mortified at first, but Sandy truly didn’t give a shit, and we were soon laughing at it.
. I would like to say this was the beginning of something big, but our beginning was really our swan song. The next day, Sandy floated by the open door of my dorm room, peering in hesitantly. I urged her in, and gave her a bold kiss, to test the waters- but she pulled away, obviously wary, as the door was open. I deduced she didn’t mind Quasimodo seeing us make love, but was not yet ready for Jim to see the same thing. It was clear Sandy flirted with the idea of finally disengaging from her current romantic entanglement and following her heart to me, but in a few days it became painfully apparent that this was not to be. A few furtive, passionate kisses later, an awkward discussion about exactly what it was to be “in love”, and the Dr. Pepper girl was history.
. All in all, I received a good, strong reaction to this piece despite its obvious shortcomings. Finding it impossible to classify, people were surprised by it. Those who gave it a chance were rewarded. Ultimately, I do think it said something about the experience of art- how our investment in living dictates the measure of our reward. Even the criticism I received was positive in nature. A fellow named Todd told me that what it lacked in literacy, it made up for in pure human feeling- and I took that as quite a compliment. Even people who seemed to have no idea what I was getting at, had enough fun to call it a success.
> I know, that as I lie, locked in a passionate embrace with ravishing Sandy Yung, I sure found it a success. There could be little doubt about it: I truly romped in my Zen Romper Room!
As Director of the San Lorenzo Valley Youth Council’s Young People’s Repertory Theatre (say that 10 times fast!), KEVIN GOES WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE!
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.