Corcoran Exhibit Sees D.c. Through The Eyes Of Outer-Space Aliens (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Corcoran Exhibit Sees D.C. Through The Eyes of Outer-Space Aliens

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I’m Rebecca Sheir and right now, thousands of people from around the world are gathering in Las Vegas, Nev. for a very particular event. It's not the latest Criss Angel show. It's not even Donny and Marie. No. These folks have converged on the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino for the 2013 44th Annual World Series of Poker.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:00:31
So quite a moment tonight. These two guys have been there for all 400, and the others fallen by the wayside, but Greg Merson on the left and that man, Jesse Sylvia, now playing hand number 400 at this final table.

SHEIR

00:00:47
This is a clip from the final moments of last year's World Series. And, as you can hear…

#1

00:00:51
And now the river card.

SHEIR

00:00:52
…the winner…

#1

00:00:53
It is a seven. And there it is, Greg Merson is the new (word?) champion.

SHEIR

00:01:00
…was 24-year-old Greg Merson of Laurel, Md.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2

00:01:04
Maryland, my Maryland. Greg Merson brings it home.

SHEIR

00:01:08
How Merson performs in this year's World Series remains to be seen, but in the meantime we're taking a little inspiration from his card game to end all card games, and bringing you a show we're calling "Wild Cards."

SHEIR

00:01:26
In other words, we're going off-theme for the week and presenting a mish-mash of stories about all sorts of people, places and things across the D.C. region. We'll meet the U.S. Army's first black helicopter pilot. We'll preview a new memoir about the arrestingly strange incidents that framed a Washington writer's life. And we'll head to Ocean City, Maryland where some locals are on edge about an upsurge in crime.

SHEIR

00:01:56
But first…

MS. ELLEN HARVEY

00:01:57
I mean, read a little bit of it.

SHEIR

00:01:59
…we'll take a trip. A trip…

HARVEY

00:02:01
Which one should we read?

SHEIR

00:02:01
…to the distant future.

HARVEY

00:02:04
I guess the White House, known as the Oval/Triangle Pillar Thing. And it says, "There's considerable controversy as to its probable function. The exclusive use of Smooth Frilly Pillars has suggested to some that it was used by Medium Pillar-Builders to perform the intimate orientation dances used to guide Large and Small Pillar-Builders back to their beloved oceans when flirting and Pillar-Building were over."

SHEIR

00:02:26
All right. So you're probably wondering, what in the world is going on here? But the question we really should be asking is, what in the universe, because we're at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where artist Ellen Harvey is reading a black and white tourist brochure titled, "The Aliens Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C."

HARVEY

00:02:42
And on one side you have this utterly useless, but rather beautiful drawing of D.C., as an archeological site. And then on the other side, you of course have the guide for the aliens, which all of the great landmarks of Washington, D.C., like the Really Big Pillar, known as the Washington Monument.

SHEIR

00:03:03
The Flat Pillar Thing, is that the Lincoln Memorial?

HARVEY

00:03:06
That's the Lincoln Memorial, yeah. I think it's actually my favorite. I love the Flat Pillar Thing. (laugh)

SHEIR

00:03:11
Okay. So Harvey also created the Flat Pillar Thing, because you see, this brochure is actually part of her upcoming exhibit, Ellen Harvey: The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C. The exhibit proposes a scenario that goes something like this, long after human civilization has ended, aliens land in Washington, where they encounter the rubble of the city's many neo-classical buildings. The aliens then hand-draw these brochures, which Corcoran visitors will collect from a giant souvenir stand, which incidentally, looks an awful lot like an old D.C. standby.

HARVEY

00:03:43
Yeah, all those incredible hot dog stands, with those beautiful hand-painted signs and then they have all this, like, crazy amount of signage for hot dogs. And I thought, this is amazing. This is a great way to display paintings. I know my installer counted and he lost track at about 150 paintings.

SHEIR

00:04:00
Indeed, the stands' inside and outside walls are lined with large and small paintings of our ruined town. As for why they're paintings, as opposed to the usual mass-produced tchotchkes we usually count as souvenirs…

HARVEY

00:04:11
The aliens don't believe in mechanical reproduction. So they basically hand-paint all of their souvenirs, which means that I basically hand-painted all of their souvenirs.

SHEIR

00:04:21
But here's the thing, despite the aliens meticulous observations about everything they find in Washington…

HARVEY

00:04:26
Basically, the aliens get everything wrong. They come to Earth, there's no life, and they see all these very solidly built things with all these pillars. And they start fantasizing about the lost Pillar-Builders of Earth. And they think they probably lived in the oceans. You know, all of these pillars are on big rivers and estuaries so probably they swam up to mate and then would build pillars. It was probably some big annual party of some kind.

SHEIR

00:04:53
The aliens also believe the Pillar-Builders -- a.k.a. humans -- were divided into three sexes.

HARVEY

00:04:59
Small, medium and large.

SHEIR

00:05:00
And they built three styles of pillars. But instead of the styles we know…

HARVEY

00:05:04
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

SHEIR

00:05:06
The aliens opt for more straightforward descriptors.

HARVEY

00:05:09
Boring, Frilly and Very Frilly.

SHEIR

00:05:12
They say it like it is.

HARVEY

00:05:12
They say it like it is.

SHEIR

00:05:14
And since you can find these pillars on buildings the world over, the aliens believe that, obviously…

HARVEY

00:05:19
The Pillar-Builders were telepathic.

SHEIR

00:05:21
As for how the aliens know that classical and neo-classical architecture is a worldwide phenomenon when they've only visited Washington, well, you can find the answer upstairs at the Corcoran.

HARVEY

00:05:32
Famously known as The Inside-Out Pillar Thing, because all of its pillars are on the inside.

SHEIR

00:05:36
Inside a cavernous white room with three walls covered in postcards. Three-thousand postcards, something like that?

HARVEY

00:05:43
Well, we sort of lost count. It might be more like four. I developed quite a sort of eBay habit, and they started coming in a sort of fast and furious way.

SHEIR

00:05:54
Harvey calls this room The Pillar-Builder Archive.

HARVEY

00:05:57
And it's an archive that the aliens found in a time capsule and have been trying to make sense of.

SHEIR

00:06:04
The postcards show classical and neo-classical buildings from all over the world, organized by particular architectural features. So, for instance, clustered around a postcard of the Pantheon in Rome, you'll see postcards of other buildings that resemble what the aliens would call a Circle/Triangle Pillar-Thing.

HARVEY

00:06:21
The Adath Israel Temple in Louisville, Ky., which looks exactly like the Court House in Mayville, New York, which looks exactly like the Art Gallery in Toronto, which looks exactly like the Bolton Market in Karachi.

SHEIR

00:06:33
And if you scan the entire archive from left to right, you'll notice a kind of pattern. Starting at the left, you'll see postcards of the Washington Monument, what the aliens call The Really Big Pillar.

HARVEY

00:06:43
And then all the obelisks, which then start morphing into these sort of round arenas with obelisks in them, which morph into actual arenas and things like the World War II Memorial, which then morph into round buildings. So you start with obelisks and you end with broken pillars. They think they're all related somehow.

SHEIR

00:07:04
And actually, says Harvey, the aliens' methods aren't necessarily that far from our own, as we try to interpret our world.

SHEIR

00:07:10
The aliens, I mean, everything they believe makes perfect sense. They're just honestly extrapolating from what they see.

HARVEY

00:07:17
Yeah. And they don't have much to go on. They basically have a lot of pillars and some postcards and they're just making it up as they go along, based on their own life experiences, obviously.

SHEIR

00:07:26
Harvey also adds that, like the aliens, we've done our share of taking historical treasures like monuments and ruins, and sensationalizing, commodifying, even fetishizing them, by turning them in to souvenirs. Case in point, the 3,000 or 4,000 postcards plastered on the walls of the Pillar-Builder Archive.

HARVEY

00:07:42
You know, these things, they're all places that were seen as tourist destinations. So not only do people build all this stuff all over the place, they also travel all over the place, and when they went to see them, they'd say, look, it's another one of those buildings. I need a postcard to send home to my friends, who are living in a city no doubt also replete with identical buildings.

SHEIR

00:08:00
Okay. So Ellen Harvey is exaggerating just a bit, of course, but when you come to the Corcoran and experience her exhibit, you can't help but wonder if maybe, in a way, these so-called aliens really aren't so alien, after all.

SHEIR

00:08:25
Ellen Harvey: The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C., is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from July 3rd through October 6th. You can find more on the exhibit, including a photo of a rocket ship that's considered the very latest in pillar-builder inspired space travel on our website, metroconnection.org.
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