We Imagine a People
A year ago I had a party for my 30th birthday. I’ve thrown a bunch of outlandish birthday parties, but I can’t even imagine having another after this one. Call it a Culture Jam. Dozens of people creating a fictional culture, from the dawn of man to the modern day, told through art crafted with increasingly complex art supplies. It’s kind of a party, and kind of a large-scale collaborative art project. Like life!
This party was weird and complicated, and I barely managed to explain it to guests without scaring them off. Before we begin, you probably want to read the same invitation I sent them. It’s a totally made up vision, but a gratifyingly accurate picture of what actually happened.
Subject: Art Unhistory Party, Sunday September 28th, to celebrate my 30th Birthday
They say you can trace the roots of our culture back to Ancient Greece. Sometimes they say this about Shakespeare, I think. Probably about early Islamic culture too? Honestly, if you could fill in the blanks with the true statement here, that would really be great. I don’t know enough about art history. Luckily, where we’re going, we don’t need know.
What if we started from scratch and created a new ancient culture? How would that culture evolve? Would we still end up with the Harlem Shake? For my 30th birthday party, we’ll be answering these questions. I’ve got a hankering to make some art, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m dragging you all along with me. We’ll be converting our house into a lo-fi laboratory of art, culture, and alternate history. The party will last all day, and guests will come and go as they please, though my favorite guests will hang around a lot.
The activities will be twofold: 1) party. 2) invent an alternate culture over the course of the day, by creating art from within that culture, building upon the days’ creations so far, using a parade of increasingly more advanced artistic tools.
You know how to do the first thing, so you’ll feel right at home. There will be champagne cocktails in the morning, beer in the afternoon, and hard liquor in the evening. Food will be ample and satisfying, with a little help. The company will be sparkling!
You probably know how to do the second thing too, but just in case: arriving in the morning, you’ll help form a neolithic culture just beginning to express itself. You’ll craft creation myths to explain the world around you, using basic tools — charcoal cave paintings, crude carvings, storytelling, etc. As the day progresses, the house will accrue artifacts and change shape, as civilization develops in distinct eras. You’ll receive new tools to reinvigorate your work and help you tell the story of the society through the art of its people.
Let me paint a mental picture to try to clarify this mess. Over the course of the day y’all might:
- Tell a fable of how the three-legged rooster got its poisonous heart.
- Once clay is introduced, make a clay crown worn by the holy king.
- Once paint is introduced, paint an image of the king, wearing the same crown, driving out the pestilent rooster farmers from his kingdom.
- Once sewing is introduced, make simple costumes to put on a short play satirizing the king’s sick descendants.
- Once pencils are introduced, draw a poster for a snake oil said to cure rooster-pestilence.
- Once the piano is introduced, compose a song written by a farmer in the throes of snake oil hallucinations.
- Once the camera is introduced, take a photo of some young partiers singing an old-timey snake oil hallucination song.
- And once we’ve gotten all the way to the modern day (or sooner), you might just take a load off and relax/party, barring utter exhaustion.
Now, if you’re confused, don’t worry — I am too! But this isn’t my first confusing birthday party rodeo. Just show up, jump in, and have fun playing with ‘art stuff’. You need no artistic ability. I want your stick figures and your bad poetry, your cut-off jean jackets and commercial jingles. The important thing is to respond to the art around you, to make art from within the culture (or a shitty approximation of it), and to move the society’s story forward through it.
Okay, a few more notes. (This party is complicated.)
- The longer you’re around, the more evolution you’ll get to see and take part in, which is the fun! So come along and stick around. if you can.
- You’ll be constrained to the tools that have been introduced so far, but you won’t be beholden to any real-world styles or content. In fact, try to steer away from existing cultures when possible.
- We’re not roleplaying! At least not with our words. We’re hanging out. But our art is doing the roleplaying, I guess?
- If you’ve got art supplies of basically any kind that we can use, please contact me privately! I’m buying lots but oof, money.
Send me your complaints, requests, questions, and RSVPs. I’ll hug them real tight and look forward to the day. Okay. Too excited now,
So there you go. You know everything a perplexed guest knew upon joining the party. Now here’s the very very long wonderful no-good beautiful story of how it went down.
We invented a culture. Just like it says there on the box. Beginning with primitive art supplies and moving on from there, we told the story of a people, from the dawn of man to the modern day — once united by love for a common deity, later torn apart by schism, eventually stabilized in secularism, and finally whimpering into decline. The story was told not through words or role-playing, but through the art those people created. We responded to each others’ art with more art, but also discussed it with them. A select few stayed for the whole twelve hours, but most came and went, learning about the confusing mess they stumbled into and leaving a mark for other to build upon.
There’s really no way to do this but tell the story chronologically. Fifty people can do a lot of crap in twelve hours, so settle in. I want to clarify that little of the culture in this post was created by me, and none individually. It all emerged organically over the day, through art-making and conversation. As an ethnographer — even one who lived through the culture’s whole history — my own perspective is flawed and incomplete. Some stories have differing tellings that may never be resolved, as you’ll see later in the post. I couldn’t be happier that it went down that way, and I encourage those who were there to conduct their own scholarship. To facilitate, at the end of the article I’ll post a complete catalog of all the art created that day, only a fraction of which is seen here.
I’ll set the stage. Prior to the party, a bunch of friends flew into town and did hard labor for me. We rearranged pretty much the entire apartment. Furniture and decorations were mostly removed, to make a big open stage for artin’. The floor was meticulously protected with brown kraft paper. To form our cave, the fountainhead of art, we blocked the entrance hallway with dark sheets from both sides, and covered the walls with paper. We covered over thrift-store canvases with white gesso. A couple tracks of nature sounds were set on loop. And finally, a public school’s worth of art supplies had been prepped, sorted, and placed into boxes, sealed away to be opened in the appropriate era. We were ready to go.
Era 1: Paleolithic
At 10:30 in the morning the punctual, plied by promises of pancakes, gathered around as the first box was unveiled. I was asked to give a speech. It was a speech. At that, the box was torn open and its gifts of creation revealed. Our people learned:
- Stone Architecture
- Charcoal Drawing
- Simple Drumming
Okay, the stones were fruit boxes from Safeway, and the drums were aluminum pots. But the rest of that stuff was legit. You gotta cut corners somewhere.
With the tools we were given, the disciplines naturally split to separate corners of the house, which would remain cultural centers of those trades for the rest of time. Contact was frequent, but infrequent enough that distinct branches emerged.
It was decided immediately that we would need some basics: a creation myth, a deity(s), some simple iconography, some clothing. Then, without hesitation, people got to work, screwing around with tools they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with. Stories quickly developed, passed around like rumors, and emerged through the work. We named ourselves the Oussian people.
In the cave, we each got started on our own little charcoal projects, most of which would end up pretty influential. M. told the story of our people’s origin, apparently crossing a great footbridge, through the cave, into the living room.
Mark that one in your head for much later.
Meanwhile, I worked on some iconography for “person”, figuring we should really have our own analog to stick figure. After some iteration, this is what I settled on (later crafted by an unknown artist in wood).
Across the hall, one image in particular stood above all others. Princess Bird. Princess Bird began as a story. It’s actually the one story that began before the party. Jon had heard through a friend about a little girl who made up a story, and sang a song, of Princess Bird.
Princess Bird has no eyes, and has long, flowing hair that grew forever. They suggested in passing that Princess Bird might make a top-rate deity for our people, and forgot about it. Only hours later did they realize that the story of Princess Bird had spread from them, to Nodira, to Cat, who had drawn her beautifully in the cave.
That image became an unsung hero of the culture, inspiring those who knew it to spread the word of Princess Bird. And the word did spread. We’ll get there.
For her part, Jenn wanted a symbol for our people as a whole. After the rigorous iterative process seen here, she settled on the bold symbol to the left — the one bearing the eye.
Historians should note that the eye began as an empty circle, and was later filled in by an unknown artist. This kind of retroactive imposition of religious iconography was relatively common.
While the rest of us carried on in the cave, Jenn left for The Table, where work defining our early apparel was underway. We had discovered a surplus of leather, some scissors & hole punches (if you want to make an omelette, you gotta break a few anachronisms), and strips of leather with which to thread larger scraps together.
We were without shame for the jeans and t-shirts we were born in, so most of our clothing was decorative or ritualistic. Indeed, once word got out about Princess Bird’s glory, her influence grew pretty strong.
That bracelet in particular was a triumph of Jenn’s iconography project. She had taken her symbol and mass-produced it (probably through compelled labor), into an emblem we could all wear. Each of us was given a bracelet, and a handful more were reserved for the next few arrivals. The first in-group was formed!
Meanwhile, in the center, architecture was beginning with what meager tools were available. The Temple was our most ambitious project, and like the Winchester Mystery Mansion was never truly finished. It started as a sacred place, but not a place of religion, per se. We weren’t religious, as Jon, our most storied historian, pointed out. We were more mystics. Nonetheless, our one great structure started modestly, but a few key architectural choices resulted in some pretty impressive structural stability. In particular, wooden rods were employed as binding agents. These rods had been repurposed from their “intended” role of woodwork.
Out on the porch, the people were just beginning to find ways to use wood and tools.
Finally, at the couch, rhythmic drumming had been eagerly adopted. (I honestly was so happy people were willing to use these sorry pots and boxes. Imagination!) There was a consistent beat of drumming, and from time to time someone would come to do a dance before the drummers, or a round of chanting would begin. I never made music, but did invent a dance tradition called “Swooping”, and a chant in which one fills one’s mouth with fruit and nuts, to represent the voracious vegetarian appetite of Princess Bird.
And that’s basically how the first two hours of the party went. There were also pancakes. Four more eras to go.
Era 2: Classical
Around 12:30, the people started to get restless, so it was time for, uh, disruption. We dragged out a few boxes from the pile of future tools. Our high priest gave a blessing, and the people tore the boxes open.
They may not be beautiful, but those boxes are also essential natural resources for construction projects. We use every part of the buffalo.
- Papyrus & Calligraphy Pens
- Stringed Instruments (mostly Ukulele, in practice)
- Cotton Fabrics, with Needle & Thread
- Dried Pigment & Eggs for making Tempera Paint, Paintbrushes & Paper
These moments had just the Iron Chef thrill you’d hope for. After each ingredient was presented, folks grabbed at the new pieces and got to work. Sometimes there was a revelatory moment, where the new technology filled a hole that could only be seen once it appeared. The builder’s union, for instance, saw the white fabric and knew immediately that they needed it to spice up their temple, acting as an exterior and adding a little flair of the sacred.
At The Table, work began in earnest on more complex garments, which would have been impractical using stiff leather. Our high priest was made a robe of lush wool. Here’s me wearing it as a hand-me-down, hours later.
The clay naturally found its way to the porch, where wood shavings had already made life a little inhospitable. Some continued their long-term wood projects, while others started learning to work with the clay.
The tempera paint situation made its way outside, too. I had some half-baked idea of how to do this, but luckily Lauren had actual experience. We separated the egg yolks, emptied their contents into cups, mixed it with dry pigment, and started painting. Some familiar themes emerged, iconography from the cave.
As for the ukeleles, they were mostly used to play bawdy pirate shanties and Disney musicals.
Over in the newly established Writer’s Corner, two historical events were quietly taking place.
At the desk, Jenn, master of iconography, was taking it upon herself to invent an ideographic writing system. (With papyrus and calligraphy, somebody had to do it.) Not only did she create our Rosetta Stone (the “Pinketta Paper”), she also wrote our people’s first history in it. I’ll leave the decoding up to you.
Perched on the floor beside her, Andrew was drawing an image of protest against the status quo, and as it would turn out, against Princess Bird herself. He drew a figure, bedecked in the many-breasted breast plate he had crafted earlier, displaying his power before the people. I asked him the figure’s name. Andrew paused, then responded “No”. No was born.
Soon after the image started to make the rounds, we learned the story of No. No had been a faithful follower of Princess Bird, and had been given her many-breasted breast plate (once a piece of her own body) as a display of her power and love. The plate imbued No with immense mystical power, but in doing so revealed the extent of Princess Bird’s own power. No grew resentful that Princess Bird had withheld this power, even while the people struggled and suffered. He began to display this power fearsomely before the people, rallying them against Princess Bird’s selfishness, leading a new sect in anger towards her and fear of him. These were the No people.
Some of us became followers of No, but for a long while the No people languished — a crazed cult with little popular support. More a boogeyman to the bird-loving person on the street. But that would later change.
A couple more important traditions began during the classical era. One concerns Taleen, the half-human daughter of Princess Bird.
Long ago, near the time of Taleen’s death, she had decreed that a small strip of blue fabric — said to be taken from her own shirt — be hung from the temple entrance. It was to act as a reminder of the impermanence of life. When a believer entered the temple, they were to cut a strip of the fabric. If the fabric was one day cut to nothing, the temple was to be destroyed.
All day, you would see folks faithfully cutting the fabric before entering or crossing through, even walking around to enter it from the correct side. The few times someone broke the rule, the room devolved into a cacophony of shouts and protests. Sometimes those rule-breakers did so willfully — these were usually the followers of No.
The other central tradition of the classical period was “The Chasing of the Eye”. This dance was performed at the beginning of each season. One Oussian (always played by Nodira) would dress as Princess Bird, wearing a leather hood that had been crafted just for this tradition. Another (usually played by Jon, but once by Kellan) would play the part of Princess Bird’s missing eye, by wearing a headband bearing a leather eye medallion. (Note the resemblance to ideographic “all-seeing-eye”.) Princess Bird would playfully chase her missing eye around the temple, through it, and finally out onto the porch, where it would fly away until next season.
That’s probably enough about the classical era.
Era 3: The Enlightenment
Afternoon had come, and the party had started to get packed. We received another blessing from the high priest, and opened the third set of boxes. A miracle! It was:
- Oil Paints and Canvas
- Beads and The Loom
- The Harpsichord
- Simple Pens and Paper
- Stained Glass
Fine. The stained glass wasn’t so much stained as it was painted with a Walmart art kit built for ten-year-olds, and the harpsichord was a digital piano “set to Harpsichord”. That’ll do, pig, the rest’s legit. The art grab began, and folks started integrating these tools into their projects.
Most prominently, civilization was advancing in a big way. Abe and Lee used everything at their disposal to invent the book, actually binding this lovely leather tome by hand.
The book’s message is pretty intense, and sparked a theological movement. For now, I’ll leave it up to enthusiasts to translate using the Pinketta Paper. Warning: it uses an neologistic ideogram for “ending”, the reverse of “origin”.
Meanwhile, Robin was busy inventing commerce, building currency from the discarded husk of the “stained glass” box.
She handed a big pile of these over to me to distribute as I pleased, with one directive. This was sacred currency, to be used in a specific fashion. With each exchange of a bill, the bill should be marked in pen. The more marks the currency received, the more sacred it would become.
I ran with it. The bills would be considered consumed once they had been fully marked. As such, a smaller bill was worth less, as was a more-marked bill, despite being more sacred. The bills were placed in a glass vessel blown as a gift by Sam, and distributed to each Oussian, on behalf of “The Bank of No”. Each person would reach in and grab a piece, letting the spirits guide their hand. An honest person would draw the value they needed, no more or less.
Pretty quickly people were buying and selling works of art. Emily knitted some currency into a power-tie!
Even still, there wasn’t much interest in money, which had itself come to be known as “No”. That is, not much interest until John and David decided to flout every rule of reasonable conduct, and purchase the temple itself. I later learned they had bought it from Lilia and a few other seamstresses, whose place at The Table positioned them to claim ownership. However it happened, John and David began charging ownership to The Temple, which cause quite a stir. It was offensive, but wasn’t taken particularly seriously, at least compared to The Temple’s fate in the next era.
Yes, even as this drama was unfolding, a group of revolutionaries were at work on the porch, furiously painting their hidden cause into a mass of propaganda materials.
Kellan, Johnnemann, and David called themselves the “No Moor”, a collective of second-wave followers of No, so named for the cluttered moor in which they lived and worked.
They waited until the dawn of the next era to act on their revolution, so we’ll hold off on that. At the time, it seemed to me that history had begun to slow down, and I decided that somebody had to start an educational system. I started Moorson College of the Arts and Times, a private college founded by Professor Moorson, a normalized descendant of a No Moor family.
Our sigil was the ideographic equivalent of a cheesy portmanteau: a person with the all-seeing eye for a head. Surrounding this figure was a three-spoked wheel, representing the three yearly seasons of infertility we hoped to address through science. (Long story, which dates back to the neolithic era.) Our model of education was basically a Ponzi scheme. Each student paid the previous student to enroll, consume his or her assembled knowledge, then produce further knowledge for the future. Charlie was the first student, and began this spiraling history of the Oussian people.
The historical record was traded across several students, and carried on from there. It captures only a smidge of our tale, but that’s history.
So that’s it for The Enlightenment. It was now the late afternoon. The people gathered around again, and the No Moor prepared their strike.
Era 4: Industrial Revolution
We gathered around the boxes of future, and settled in for another “Chasing of the Eye”.
We then reached in and grabbed out the goods, apparently sponsored by Moorson’s self-aggrandizing university. They were:
- Instant Camera
- Sewing Machine
- Spray paint and Wooden Boards
Before we could even decide what typewriters were for, the No Moor flooded in from the porch. They brought the fruits of last era’s labors — those previously mentioned propaganda materials. With them they stormed the temple (peacefully enough), covering it in No’s symbols and declaring it “The Temple of No”.
Yes, this actually felt scandalous. A lot of us were taken aback, even more so than for the temple’s sale. No’s people had always been feared outcasts, but now the next wave were presenting themselves as persecuted, misunderstood victims. The temple had been taken, but life continued. We weren’t all that into religion at this point anyway, so it was mostly a cultural victory.
The sewing machine acted — just as you’d think it might — as the early means of mass production. Robin became a one-woman assembly line, sewing a cornucopia of diverse hats for Oussians one and all.
Seriously, you turned around and everyone was wearing hats.
One of these hats in particular had a certain historical beauty. It was printed with an image of Princess Bird from an ages-old wood block. This wood block had been hand-carved by Kalia and used to make prints in the early days of Ous, at something like 11 AM. It was the very first instrument of mechanical reproduction, now being used in a retro-chic way alongside the sewing machine, well into the industrial revolution.
This wasn’t the only interesting advancement in labor happening at The Table. Those same seamstresses who had opportunistically sold the temple decided that they had since been exploited, and formed a radical feminist seamstresses union. The union was kind of all talk, but they made a lot of garments and intimidated a few people along the way.
Over at the couch, the two typewriters has been adopted by loyal proponents John and Lee, and they were reshaping our culture in more ways than one. The typewriters began as instruments of art — poetry specifically. This new ease of producing text clearly loosened a few fingers, and poems began to appear at a manic pace.
The physical sheets filtered around the room like leaflets.
I gave a live reading of one particularly arresting diatribe against the No Moor, and pretty soon a tradition of slam poetry had begun. For a while after, you’d occasionally hear a forcefully spoken poem against the background of drums, piano, ukulele, and penny whistle.
Things got really interesting at the typewriters once people looked at the instant camera and saw an opportunity. They began photographing recent events, controversies, technological progress, and taping those tiny photos to hastily typed news reports. These makeshift (and, frankly, sensationalist) newspapers were handed around and read by people who wouldn’t have a clue what was going on without them. There was a lot going on.
Those gruff newspeople held court on the couch for a while, making declarations, furiously typing, crumpling up half-finished articles and tossing them in a huff. It was a good time. Yet the news wasn’t enough to catch up a newcomer. Every time a new partygoer arrived, trying to explain ourselves was getting increasingly difficult. Still, when Ted showed up half-way through the industrial revolution, we thought it would be a fun experiment to let him just look around and try to piece together what had happened.
That didn’t work too well. So Jon was nice enough to give Ted a full tour of our history, which I was lucky enough to mostly catch on video. Jon had always been our most avid historian (and had gotten rich enough a while back to help fund Moorson College), so he was perfect. If you like, tune in for his delightful take on some of what you’ve heard so far. And don’t forget not to take a historian’s words at face value. In subtle ways, “accepted understanding” had already diverged from “reality” at this point.
The second video has audio problems, so I only kept a minute snippet of it to give you a sense of the atmosphere.
I love these videos, and they’re also interesting for historical reasons. Ted was arguably the last visitor to have a major impact on our history. He took his tour, went outside to think for a few minutes, and then he knew exactly what he was going to do. He started furiously producing, in utter isolation. He painted. He typed. He fiddled with the guitar and scribbled on paper. We looked at him vaguely nervously. When it was time to move on to the fifth and final era, he told us he had something to share with us.
Everyone gathered around. There’d been talk that Ted had invented some kind of crazed character with controversial theories on the origin of the Oussian people. Something to do with the footbridges seen in the original cave paintings, and where we’d come from before that. Somewhere… Alien? See for yourself.
Yep, that was pretty much the best. We were descended from aliens, and the strife with the No Moor had been created by those aliens. Fact or fiction? We may never know.
For her part, Nodira re-interpreted the original footbridge cave painting, reframed by this modern mythology.
Anyway, the L. Ron Hubbard comment was spot-on, and Ted put together many more fascinating pieces. But even though Ted’s character was nuts, it did set the stage for a sort of reunification. For immediately afterward it was time for the final Chasing of the Eye, with Kellan filling in for the departed Jon. Jon’s ceremonial all-seeing-eye headband had gone missing in a spill of leather scraps, and we were forced to commandeer David’s giant eye knee-brace. When Kellan put this on, I had a surprise that freaked me out for a minute.
The people of No had long worn strips of blue tape on their foreheads, an affectation that the followers of Princess Bird had assumed to be a statement of defiance. This defiance was all the more offensive, given its placement near the traditional seat of their most sacred symbol, the all-seeing eye of Princess Bird.
When Kellan took the the all-seeing eye and placed it around his head, to perform the final dance of the eye, I objected. It was grotesque to place it on top of the tape, that symbol of rejection of Princess Bird! At which point he honest-to-god no joke shocked me. “Don’t you know?” he asked. “The blue tape represents the all-seeing eye too. It’s an abstraction.” The followers of No had never truly rejected Princess Bird! Although they had their grievances, and another leader, they still considered themselves her children. I’d gone the majority of the party totally misunderstanding and vilifying these “misunderstood people”.
After the final dance of the eye, I related this story to everyone. It was beautiful! A reunification of the tribes. Or an understanding that they’d never truly split.
No better time to move into the final era.
Era 5: Information Superhighway
At this point it was dark and we all needed naps. We were entering full-on chill-out mode. But we marshaled the energy to open up the final set of boxes, with limited fanfare. We had to get to the present, but the present is kind of sad! If only for being the present. The box of today had:
- A laptop
- A digital camera
- A printer
- Some circuit components
- EL Wire
- A projector
Obviously you can do stuff with that, especially in this context. Maybe if you haven’t been making art for ten hours. A couple people messed around with the EL Wire and fabric, but only two brave soles persevered into this final age, making complete works while the rest of us drank and giggled.
Ted made a bracelet. But this time with resistors! I alone received this glorious present.
Meanwhile, Abe disappeared at the laptop for an hour.
He ended up with this beast.
It’s quick, so if you missed it: that’s a flocking simulation (made in Processing) meant to capture the history of the followers of Princess Bird and No. Two separate groups respond within their flocks, and when they accidentally meet.. they explode. Those explosions can trigger further explosions, and so on, resulting in deaths from both sides. I think you can see what’s going on here. Genuine pretentious multimedia social commentary, fit for a MOMA. A perfect final act. We stared hypnotically at the simulation, waiting for its morbid resolution, over and over again. And drinking.
Near 10 PM, few stragglers remained, and the party was ready to formally end. James had brought, in his wisdom and kindness, a bottle of Cristal. As the clock struck ten, twelve hours in, I popped the cork into my neighbor’s garden. We shared, cheered, celebrated, like dazzled and proud art-school zombies.
We went to sleep.
I cleaned for sixteen hours. No joke.
I don’t regret it. This was my best birthday ever. Like some kind of fever-dream made real, thanks to dozens of incredibly creative and talented people who just fucking went with it.
Plus there was cake.
Ous live on. Keep your eyes peeled for the all-seeing eye of Princess Bird. You may find it where you least expect it.
Thanks to My N. Tran for surreptitiously taking photos when I couldn’t begin to think about it. Only the good photos in this post are hers. And even more thanks to everybody, for making the art and stories and memories.
Only a small fraction of the art we created was shown in this post. Here’s much more art, documented under the cold, context-free light of history. And here are some more photos taken of the art and artists in their natural habitat.