GUEST INTERVIEW : TAVI GEVINSON WITH DAVID HILDEBRAND WILSON
The Museum of Jurassic Technology looks like a humble little storefront on a street in Culver City, California. Upon entering, however, you find yourself in a maze of oddities — a row of microscopes on mosaics made of butterfly-wing scales, a hall of flower X-rays, tiny sculptures displayed literally in the eyes of needles (the sculptor timed his carvings by his heartbeat). At first it feels like being transported to another world, until you see what a loving representation it is of the wonders of our own. You might suspect some of the displays are made-up, or that footnotes, names, and the plaques and pamphlets sitting in the gift shop are fictionalized, until you come to love the ways in which the museum inspires that very act of questioning. Lawrence Weschler wrote in his 1995 book about this place, “It’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.”
If you are among our devoted readership then you know that Tavi Gevinson of Rookie Magazine is a friend and collaborator. Here, she guest interviews David Hildebrand Wilson, the founder of the MoJT, in honor of her stint at Ace Portland during PDX Fashion Week and our upcoming annual Content installations November 9 on the second floor. Tavi will be in town on a book tour to promote Rookie’s second publication, Rookie Yearbook Two, with Reading Frenzy at the Q Center November 8. Read on, get misty-eyed, and remember to leave your house this week for both of these events.
How would you explain or describe the museum to someone who’s never heard of it?
I think typically what we say is that we’re a small museum of natural history, history of science, history of art, and then everything else that comes along. We’re inspired by older museums — 200, 300 years ago, a museum wasn’t a museum of a particular thing, it was a museum of everything. We don’t think all museums should be that, but we think there’s a place for that kind of museum, kind of an encyclopedic museum.
Would you say then that there’s anything in particular that unifies everything you have on display?
There are definitely underlying, unifying principles to what we do, but sometimes they’re kind of hard to discern, or hard to define. We have a motto, which you actually almost never see in the museum, but it’s “Un translatio nature,” which means “nature as metaphor.” That doesn’t really sum things up so much, but it actually is meaningful to us, because the kinds of things we like to put in the museum tend to be either natural phenomena or man-made — which, you know, there’s no real distinction between what’s man-made and what’s natural, because humankind is pretty natural as far as I can tell. We find ourselves gravitating toward material and phenomena that have meaning in and of themselves, and that also suggest other levels of meaning — kind of radiating spheres of meaning.
It’s interesting what you said about the line between man-made and the natural world being sort of blurry. To many people — and I always kind of thought this until I went to your museum — science and art are mutually exclusive. Some say it’s science’s job to tell humans that we’re not important and art’s job to declare that we are. How do you make them work together?
Essentially it goes back to a 17th-century or even earlier designation of artificialia and naturalia — what is artificial and what’s natural. It’s kind of an act of hubris or pride, I think, that things that are made by humankind are in some way out of the natural order. We’re certainly, absolutely, profoundly part of the great glittering chain of being. I mean, look at birds’ nests — are they artificilia or are they naturalia? A bird makes this gorgeous nest, and that’s considered a natural artifact — so why is that different for humans?
I read that you had this sort of epiphany in your late teens…
There was a moment when I was probably just turning 19 — and it was through nothing I did, there just kind of came to me an opening of my mind and my understanding. It was inexplicable, but it gave a level of meaning to my understanding of life that I had never had previously. That experience lasted over a period of days. Towards the end of it, I became afraid that…I was just very concerned to not lose the understanding that came as part of that experience. And really, that moment has had a profound effect on how I spent the rest of my life and spent the whole of my life’s energy.
Do you feel like you’ve done justice to that realization?
I don’t know that you can ever do justice, but I think I’ve spent the rest of my life kind of dancing around those understandings, because those understandings are really…I don’t know how to describe it other than a sense of…meaning. That kind of understanding that things were exactly as they should be, and that there was infinite and intricate meaning in the order of things. It’s really utterly incomprehensible. That doesn’t really help. I don’t know how else to describe it.
I think that in itself says enough, the fact that it is indescribable. What were you like as a teenager? What were the biggest influences for you at that time?
After that [epiphany], there was a certain change in my external demeanor. Prior to that, I was somewhat introverted, but I still had a pretty active social life. But after that experience I became more introverted and spent a great deal more time reading and trying to delve into areas of human activity or natural phenomena that reflected the kind of understanding that had come to me. I began to read Eastern philosophy — and this was not too easy to find at the time, in 1965; the culture has changed enormously since then. I [also] became interested in medieval times. I felt that… [Tavi’s dog won’t stop barking] Who is your dog?
I know, I’ve been quietly typing all-caps emails to my dad asking if he can let her in—
[Laughs] No, it’s nice!
It’s driving me crazy! I’m upstairs and she’s right outside by my window, and I’ve been trying to quietly ask my dad—
You don’t have to quietly do anything! You can go tell him if you want to!
I think I will if you don’t mind; really quickly I’ll go let the dog in!
Take your time!
Problem solved. I’m sorry about that.
[Laughs] Do you live in Chicago?
I live in a suburb just outside, Oak Park.
So what do you? Is this your full-time occupation, doing Rookie?
I mean, I’m 16 and I go to high school, but yeah, I mostly work on Rookie.
Is there an economic reality to it?
[Laughs] Unfortunately, yes!
There are so many different economies in the world. What we think of as money is just one of many. There are all these different kinds of rewards.
What have you found to be most rewarding about your work?
It’s just, like, inexplicably rewarding on all fronts. I think ultimately the payment comes from watching people experience the museum. It’s wonderful to go in and kind of discreetly be in the space with people as they experience the museum. That’s the primary reward.
Have there been any particularly memorable reactions?
An infinite number. I mean, yesterday I was up in the space-dog room [a room full of painted portraits of all the dogs who have ever been to outer space] and we just, as of this weekend, started to run in our theater a film that we made over the last couple of weeks. A few of us at the museum went to Central Asia, to Turkmenistan, to Pakistan, and very wonderful places quite far away, and shot a film, which we cut together far more quickly than normal. I was out lighting the lamp under Laika, and a middle-aged woman came out [of the theater] and said, “Sir, I just wanted to say that that film spoke to me in a way that I absolutely needed to hear right now.” And you could tell it had an important effect, it communicated in some way something — and you could see this in her eyes — something that she really needed to hear. There was something in there that had true meaning for her, and I think that kind of thing is just exactly what you do all the work for.
How often do people recognize you, as you’re trying to discreetly roam around? Did that change after the book?
The book didn’t have that much of an effect. We actually didn’t love the book. We love the writer, Ren Weschler — he’s a wonderful human being and he’s gotten to be a really good friend, and whenever he’s in Los Angeles he stays in the adjoined trailer. He first wrote about the museum for a magazine article, in Harper’s, and we thought, This’ll be gone in a month. This too shall pass. And then a month or two later he phoned me and said, “Wonderful news — we’ve got a book deal!” And my thought was, What do you mean, “we”? [Laughs] There were certain things about his approach to our work that we felt were limiting, rather than expanding. But that was a long time ago, a decade ago or more. And it’s been fine — it’s just one in a great many events that have happened in our history. And not so many people actually read the book. We see about 25,000 people a year here, and I think five percent or three percent of them have ever heard of the book. So it didn’t really change things so much.
I was also curious about the display of Ricky Jay’s decaying dice. Of all the things you could get from a magician to show in a museum, why did you choose decaying dice?
I think that’s a good example, in a way, of the kind of material that appeals to us. We had always wanted to have a gem and mineral hall, like, you know, they have at the Field Museum that glorious gem and mineral hall — or the Museum of Natural History in New York. But we would probably never be able to collect enough in the way of gems and minerals to be truly significant. But then somehow this little hall [where all the dice are displayed], with the way that it’s lit, looks just like a gem and mineral hall. We love that. So that’s one level on which the dice are appealing to us. Another level is that there’s a metaphorical overtone. Dice imply luck, so that exhibit is sometimes called “Rotten Luck,” because, you know, decaying dice — there’s kind of a play on words there. Many of those dice are loaded dice that con artists use to gain wealth unfairly, and there’s something about that that appealed to us, too. And then there’s the poetry of the decaying aspect of the dice, and decaying luck — because all things pass, and knowing that and holding that in mind, which is hard for people of the age that you’re mostly talking to, ’cause when you’re at that age everything seems to be in front of you, and possibilities seem limitless. But I think it’s also really important for people, even at that age, to understand that none of this is forever — which is maybe part of what happened to me when I was that age.
In a strange way I think that’s a very comforting thought. Probably because just daily interactions give me so much embarrassment.
Yeah, and anxiety. To have that longer view, where you understand that all of this is impermanent, can be comforting. Liberating, actually. Anecdotes are great, so I’ll tell you an anecdote. Just last night I was listening to the music of a person named Gurdjieff — do you know who he is?
Gurdjieff was a philosopher at the turn of the century through the mid-20th century. Well, he was primarily a philosopher, but I recently learned that he also wrote music. Someone gave us a recording of some beautiful harmonium music that he wrote, and we’ve been listening to that. And that got me to go back and read about him — I had read about him before, but I wanted to refresh my memory. And — I wish I could find this quote and read it to you — he was saying essentially the same thing, that one of the most important things that he could offer was…wait, I found it. This is what he wants people to know: “Every one of those unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as of the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests.” So he’s saying the same thing, which is the same as saying “memento mori” — you know, “remember death.” There’s really a lot to that. To hold death close to you at all times is the thing that can give meaning to life. How did we get started talking about this? [Laughs]
I don’t know, but it’s great. Oh, we were talking about the dice.
Exactly. And things going away.
You have this appreciation for these curious things, and that appreciation could’ve been expressed in many mediums that are more convenient. You could’ve been a writer or a photographer or just stuck to filmmaking. But instead it’s expressed through this very inventive academic writing, and this questioning of what authority a museum has, and why—
Why a museum?
Yeah, or did it feel like you had no choice?
I don’t know that I could say that it felt like I had no choice, but when that choice presented itself, it was an enormous relief. Because I’d always been looking for that, but it took decades to find it. I had begun in natural sciences in college, but then I went on and did filmmaking, and so I was torn between these two worlds — the world of natural science and the just amazing wonders, the kind of incomprehensible wonders, of all of that; and then [the world of] display and putting things into the world and being able to have an impact on people with what you put into the world. I knew I really loved that as well. So I really, really struggled with that [dichotomy] for decades, and I tried all kinds of things and could never really find anything that felt right until one day it dawned on me, like being run over by a freight train, that what I wanted to do was have a museum.
Do you ever feel like there is nothing left out there that could excite you, or that there is a shortage of things worth marveling at?
[Laughs] Completely the opposite. I have never even had that thought. That thought has never formulated in my mind. [Laughs some more]
That’s very reassuring! I mean, I am a generally negative person, and I have to have a lot of energy to get my head to a place where I can keep an eye out for something that might be beautiful or might spark my curiosity. I have no doubt that there are amazing things in the world, but often my pessimism makes me doubt that I am capable of appreciating them. This sense of wonder that you possess: Do you have to nurture it? Do you have to actively wrap your brain around it? How do you keep from feeling jaded?
[Very long pause] I’m up in the courtyard, and all the doves are out and looking at me, and it’s great. They’re not usually…they’re all down low. We’re not open today, and so I think during opening days they usually fly up high ’cause they get scared, but now they’re all down towards the bottom, and it’s just great. I love the doves. [Pause] I think that everything in life comes down to, essentially, self and not self. In other words, understanding your existence or all of existence as atomized individuals versus seeing the whole — understanding your place, as an organism, in the whole great chain of being.
In my experience, singularity and isolation and jadedness are all parts of the same thing — they’re all reflections of being limited by an understanding of yourself as separate and isolated from things around you. The more [you experience] a more permeable relation to other people and other things, the more naturally that sense of wonder comes. I think if you allow it, it can happen naturally over time.
In a lot of ways, the age of [your readers] is one of the hardest times in a person’s life. I mean, they keep ramping up the difficulty in life as much as you can stand it, whoever has their hand on the dials. But [the period between the ages of] 14 and, depending on the person, 19 or 21 or something is excruciatingly difficult, primarily because of those issues — self, and having to establish a sense of self.
And feeling isolated in some way or another.
Oh, self and self-isolation are kind of synonymous. But I think you have to go through it. I don’t think there’s any way around it. And it’s hard.
Well, that’s the comforting thing. I just try to remember that everyone over the age of 20…I mean, it seems so impossible, but so many people have done it.
And most of those people have survived it.
I don’t know if I’ll leave this in, but I mean, for a while I was able to find my way around all of those general feelings, to keep myself busy, and then this fall, it just totally —
Went really hard.
Yeah. It was so strangely surprising. Like, I was always able to come home and read and watch movies and keep myself distracted, and suddenly it wasn’t enough. Then kind of two things happened. One, I started listening to Fiona Apple.
And then another was that I read the Weschler book, and I know you have ambivalence towards it, but —
Yeah, but I mean, don’t let that affect you.
Just finding out the whole story of what inspired what you’re doing, and the way that it all came together for you, and the sensibility that you bring to what you do, was extremely heartening, and…I don’t know, if not for those two things, I don’t know what would’ve happened. But thank you for what you’re doing.
Oh yeah, sure. It’s our job. But I think one of the best things you can do, is just, as much as possible, to give yourself over to those activities that, in the long run, are aimed at really and truly a greater good. In more than just a knowable, physical, superficial way. But that’s the most powerful way of doing it, to just work.
This interview was originally published on Rookie Mag’s site. Do yourself a kindness and go spend lots of time there today.