Levitating the Masses and the Wisdom of Crowds

685,000 pounds of Riverside County rock, designed to "destroy 'gestalt' concepts" according to the bookmark-shaped handout being distributed by the very nice LACMA staff member (in black, with a bright "safety yellow" USDOT approved reflective vest) rolled past the end of my street on Tuesday. The gestalt in my neighborhood (and the next day along Atlantic Avenue in the Bixby Knolls district of Long Beach) was doing just fine, however, by emulating the immemorial human capacity to turn any occurrence out of the ordinary into the opportunity to stand by the side of the road and gawk.

That's not a criticism. It's what we do, when a very big Erector-set-plus-Tonka-Toy carrier holding a shrouded lump of what we are advised is a rock moves ponderously, ceremoniously, and much like a circus parade (minus the steam calliope) through the streets of an everyday suburb on its way to becoming the county art museum's first E-Ticket ride. (It will send shivers down the spines of seven-year-olds walking beneath the rock's firmly anchored outcrop, the only art patrons possibly believing that the rock might fall but having faith - this very minute - that it won't topple on them.)

It's what we do, imagining a perfectly safe danger, playing atavism against knowledge.

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But that will come later. The arrival of the rock and its serial departures (apart from being $10 million worth of free advertising for LACMA) make an ad hoc place for people to rub shoulders, even if the place is a nondescript stretch of overpass cramped between a wood-and-metal guard rail and the rusting network of a chainlink fence bordering the butt end of a rundown trailer park.

When the rock rolled away from my neighborhood after midnight, people applauded.

In the glare of worklights, the white plastic cover over the rock made it look like a monstrously deformed and mutantly big Thanksgiving turkey plucked from the freezer case at Vons.

Instead of having to go to a typically overblown Christo installation, it came to us, rolling on several dozen small tires. (When I was a boy, some showman bought a beached gray whale calf and trucked it around the small towns of the county, showing off the corpse in a poorly ventilated tent in parking lots for - I think - fifty cents per gawker, until the smell caused the customer base to evaporate.)

On the next bright, windy, stupendously beautiful day in Bixby Knolls, the crowd mostly ignored the wrapped rock and its carrier after glancing at it and taking a cell phone photograph of it and having another passerby take theirs with the rock in the background.

Bands played, DJs spun vinyl, the local public library pitched the solitary pleasures of reading, a painter painted the rock's portrait, and t-shirts were sold. People crowded the sidewalk, smiled, bumped into strangers, grimaced, displayed themselves in their shameless ordinariness, and had a modest amount of free fun.

It's what we do when given half a chance to occupy the spaces in which we otherwise would be mere motorists or pedestrians or potential customers or annoyances to someone else hurrying on his way to more important and personal things.

It's what we do, assembling in crowds to taste the crowd's pleasures and risks (a human tropism that drove every right thinker from Edmund Burke to Hosni Mubarak nuts).

The hidden rock - less present than a dead whale even - was just the excuse.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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