Just Not Safe

This is part of an ongoing series of things that really, just aren’t safe.

It's Just Not Safe Exhibition Sketch

I can see a whole exhibition’s-worth of interactive objects that give you a little bit of pause.

I can see bare (maybe sparking) wires. Dangerous substances to taste. Questionably safe machines. Buttons that will almost certainly hurt you. All with helpful interpretive displays inviting you to seal your own doom.

Prayer Machine II by Wes ModesOn one hand, this is kind of an ongoing exploration for me.  My Prayer Machine II once blew up an old lady at a show at the (appropriately-named, in this case) Felix Kulpa Gallery.  My Shrine to the Melted Telephone with it’s BZZZZing 40 thousand volt Jacob’s Ladder was far from safe.  I created a pencil sharpener which, in its original conception, you had to feed the pencil into the whirring blades with your teeth.

I also think this is an exploration of personal agency. We live in a society where, as much as possible, we are isolated from danger. If someone does something careless, stupid, or reckless and gets hurt, someone other than the affected person is responsible.

I remember when I was in Limon, Costa Rica years ago.  I was walking down the street, looking at stuff, only half paying attention and stopped just in time not to fall through a hole in the sidewalk. It was a deep hole too, a  big  jagged person-sized hole in the sidewalk six feet deep or so. It looked like some workmen were working on the sewer lines or something and got hungry and gathered up their tools and walked away.

Pencil Sharpener  by Wes ModesIt was a revelation: Oh my god, no one is looking out for my personal safety every moment of every day here. A strange feeling of relief washed over me. I could die if I carelessly stepped off a curb, or leaned too hard on a rail. It was invigorating to me.  It was as if I’d been re-gifted my own agency in Costa Rica.

This also brings to mind a story that my friend Jefe told me, an epiphany for him at Burning Man.  As artists stuffed fireworks and explosives into stuffed animals and doused the project with gasoline, the crowd that had gathered around to watch took one giant collective step backward.  Jefe told me that in that moment an amazing thing occurred to him:  No one was going to tell him how to stay safe. No one was going to say, “Hey, dude, unless you want to have your hair singed off, you might want to take a step back.” He said he realized, right there, that in this context, he was responsible for his own safety.

If this is about personal responsibility and agency, there is also a counterpoint: Too often the same arguments are used to evade responsibility, blaming the victim of carelessness and irresponsibility. The child’s parents should have kept him out of my unlocked gun cabinet. The McDonald’s patron should have known we superheat our coffee to boiling before giving herself third degree burns. This is unconscionable.

If I am encouraging people to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions, I’m offering to hold accountable those who do not, particularly those individuals and corporations who hold power over others.

Woman at Pyromid Burn by Brad Templeton

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