SIGNS OF LIFE
words CHRIS RUEN
U.F.O. (powerHouse Books) begins simply enough: three white letters stenciled on the book’s pitch-black cover. It’s a black & white beginning, followed by 196 pages of gray matter.
For sake of clarity, let’s start with the black & white.
“I think anytime we get involved in a project it’s about us trying to create a reality of something that’s maybe just more intense than it needs to be, or is,” says Caleb Scott, writer and member of the Combustive Motor Corporation (CMC) artist collective.
“More intense than it needs to be is very well put,” agrees fellow member and photographer Alex Wright, with a touch of collective self-effacement. Caleb and Alex make up one half of Brooklyn-based CMC, the creators of U.F.O. On its most basic level, U.F.O. is a graffiti book exploring the alien-focused work of one New York City graf artist, known as UFO. In dozens of nighttime photographs taken by Alex Wright, the reader is exposed to UFO’s use of spaceships and other extraterrestrial imagery, most commonly an inflated alien head attached to a flying saucer, with propulsive flares at the bottom. Just as potentially interesting as the imagery, though, are the varied locations, sizes and versions of the images. They range from a pencil-drawn tag on an ATM machine to a larger two-color image on a cruddy bathroom mirror, to full-scale, multi-color wall murals.
In addition to the book’s photography, the ideas and history behind U.F.O. images are engaged by the members of CMC via essays, narrative flourishes and in letters written to famous figures in art, science and politics, asking for their response to the graffiti—inquiring as to what it might mean. The letters were sent with photographs of UFO’s work in a painted black box with the addressee’s name stenciled on top in white. For example, the box they sent to Bill Clinton read, in rather creepy stenciled typography, W. Clinton.
“If Art Bell had a blind cousin who never talked to a girl for forty years, this [the boxes] is what he would make,” laughs Alex.
CMC (which also includes producer Chris Noble and visual artist Jack Warren) were initially tied to a gallery and performance space—first in Bushwick, then in Williamsburg. But an eviction from their second location forced the collective to re-think their creative endeavors, moving away from projects requiring physical exhibition space. They produced a few short films, but no major projects. Until, that is, they sat down one evening for an exploratory meeting.
“Chris Noble at the time wasn’t completely in collaboration with us and had the notion of exploring the correlation between graffiti and U.F.O. worlds via this UFO glyph,” says Alex.
“Which is a great idea,” Caleb interjects, “and we kinda jumped on it right away. We thought we were going to make a film. And Alex immediately started photographing them.”
But the film idea, imagined in a documentary form, soon fell by the wayside. “We imagined it as a quasi-documentary of the world that we created,” Alex says. “If you can imagine us running around and hacking out these letters on old typewriters and chasing people around and asking them ridiculous questions. And as things progressed we did some treatments and showed it around.… People were into it—but it’s really hard to get that kind of thing off the ground, and before we knew it became a book. At that point it seemed to suit it pretty well. We were enjoying putting it together and laying it out and it just seemed a natural progression. So we just went from one to the other.”
All four members had been exposed to the UFO glyph during their years living in New York, but maintained zero contact with the artist before or during the book’s creation. Rather, their publisher, powerHouse Books, apparently cleared the book with UFO himself.
“We didn’t want any contact with him (UFO) while we were in the midst of working on this,” Alex says. “We made that clear to the publisher, and they agreed to act as a link where we wouldn’t have to communicate directly. They said they were going to clear it and we said, ‘Do whatever you want, but we’re not doing it.’”
The way Alex and Caleb tell it, they were wary of creating anything that might resemble a conventional graffiti book. Just as important as the graffiti, for the project’s purposes, would be plunging into the world of U.F.O. interpretation—a subculture convinced that flying object sightings, ancient indigenous folklore involving beings descending from the sky and the existence of alien images dating back thousands of years, taken together, add up to irrefutable signs that alien beings have visited before and are giving us clear notice of a grand alien-to-human engagement on the horizon. From the very perspective of this subculture, laughable as it may seem to the modern eye, CMC identifies the contemporary graffiti of UFO as a new, significant sign of past and future visitation, and go about fleshing out this theory in words, images, scanned notebook pages, classified government documents, and in presumptuous letters to the aforementioned intelligentsia (including the likes of Stephen Hawking and David Bowie). An excerpt from Caleb Scott’s letter to Norman Mailer, one of many which went unanswered, ought to provide some sense of the ends to which CMC forced themselves: “The UFO story, timelessly told through the dissemination of a unique set of symbols, offers the possibility, if not the inevitability, of extraterrestrial contact, the ultimate manifestation of numinous forms.”
You may ask, “All this from a few graffiti tags?” Sitting with Caleb and Alex in Caleb’s East Williamsburg apartment, however, it becomes evident that CMC didn’t entirely leave their experimental theatre musings back in Bushwick. Alex: We definitely took on characters to some degree.
Caleb: In that there was this idea of creating these versions of ourselves, in that they would be people who would take this stuff that seriously…The idea that there’s kind of a web of understanding or an idea that has crossed over through time and through different cultures that all talks about this same idea – and this symbol is part of that history.
A: But those are the sort of levels of interaction that we’d like to have in the book, and it sort of takes on a performative element.
C: It’s important for us to keep whatever reality we created – to keep that as present as we can, to keep it a document relating to that as opposed to a satire or whatever – which it isn’t.
A: It’s not ironic, and it shouldn’t be. Because irony is boring.
But despite all of CMC’s efforts to portray their 1950s sci-fi crackpot theories as sincerely as possible, they’ve realized that, post-production, most of their UFO graffiti “context” is fundamentally hard to swallow.
“I showed this book to a writer that I’ve worked with before,” Caleb explains. “A comedy writer. He writes for Saturday Night Live and he was laughing, like really laughing at stuff. And you realize that it’s ridiculous.… There are things in the book that can be viewed as satirical or tongue-in-cheek because we’re making pretty big leaps from here to there. I mean, I guess there really is no truth about it.”
And here any supposed intentions for sincerity break down, as further consideration reveals this book as essentially post-modern, if not pure irony. The book, or project, is at once written by people who do and do not exist. Caleb and Alex are real people, but on the other hand, the deeply held convictions they attribute as “theirs,” admittedly aren’t. Caleb Scott and Alex Wright as they appear in U.F.O. factually don’t exist. And yet they do.
This is what I meant before by gray matter. U.F.O. and everything within its pages surely exists, yet none of it is necessarily real.
So. Where does this leave you the reader, or me the pseudo-journalist / critic? Well, I imagine the same place everyone involved in this project, or anyone genuinely excited by post-modernity, begins: with interpretation.
I can’t say whether or not U.F.O. is a “good book” in the classic sense, but I can say what meaning it might hold. I figured it out after pouring over the book at a coffee shop in Bushwick, in preparation for interviewing Caleb and Alex for this very article. While reading and studying the photographs, I felt entirely absorbed. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t think anything was stupid or tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t know for sure how serious these CMC guys were, and I also didn’t particularly care. If anything, seeing these images of UFOs and reading CMC’s humorless attempts, or rather those of their characters, to figure out what the pieces meant, propelled me into a similarly exploratory mindset. And with each photograph I looked a little harder for the UFO it contained, and also paid more attention to everything around it. Many of the graffiti pieces were in locations I’d passed regularly in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Suddenly my connection to the UFO glyphs, and now my searching for them, felt disarmingly close.
I walked out of the coffee shop, along McKibbin Street, with its graffiti-covered artist’s lofts on both sides, and suddenly I was studying the graffiti outside more closely than ever before. I put my nose up close to the walls, examining each little symbol I could find. I was searching for a UFO. And perhaps that is a piece of what U.F.O. illustrates, intentionally or not. That just as a person can search for meaning, communication, and signs between themselves and the heavens, the same quest can be at play when you’re staring at a faded piece of graffiti, painted over a crumbling brick wall or drawn in some lonely bar’s bathroom. Maybe something about this stuff really is extraterrestrial. But what? Could the assembled glyphs be a profound metaphor for the essence of communication? Man’s search for meaning wherever he or she can find it? The human soul’s desperate need for communion with others?
Or it’s nothing at all.
Regardless, as I continued home down the street, I glanced across at a red brick warehouse. And there was a UFO, peering right back at me, hovering just above a fire escape.
“We’re assuming the pieces mean something more than what most people have ever been willing to accept or acknowledge,” Caleb says. “It’s not just graffiti.”