I miss the monoliths. Or rather, since they are still popping up, I miss the mystery. How cool it would have been to be counting Big Horn sheep from a helicopter and glimpse sunlight bouncing from a tall silver bar planted in a red-rock canyon? Otherworldly, mysterious, charged with possibility. This was the year the Pentagon formed a task force to investigate UFOs….
What followed, though, was ever so human. Somebody used Google Maps and video from the helicopter flight to triangulate the location (which the state had not released for fear of idiots wandering around the canyon and losing their way). Seekers showing up from all corners (which trashed the site). Virtual spectators tossed theories about: It was art. Aliens. A prank. An allusion (in the wrong medium) to the stone monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The column in the desert (we will call it a monolith as shorthand, though it was not stone) was made by human hands, with precision-milled sheets of stainless steel and rivets. More intriguing: It had stood there undiscovered for four years. The idea that anything can go undiscovered for four years cheers me.
What is depressing is what came next.
At least eighty-seven metal columns showed up at sites all over the world. The first two, I can understand: There were three monoliths in 2001, so we needed closure. But when Utah, California, and Romania were followed by “monoliths” in the Netherlands, Morocco, Finland, Warsaw, Australia, Canada, and lots of small U.S. towns, the alien fantasy fell apart and the whole thing took on the feel of a multiplayer game. Fine—2020 was a rough year, we all needed a distraction. But a mini-monolith, three feet tall and stuck in a raised flower bed in Florida? Gawkers gathered and took photos of that one, too. A monolith in Budapest that bore a gift tag from the Galactic Foundation, an alien society? A monolith at the Quincy Quarry Reservoir in Massachusetts, carefully positioned in front of rocks painted with bright Seventies-style graffiti (“YOU are conscious matter”; “Climb the world”)? Somebody wrote below the Instagram photo, “Looks like a wooden post painted silvery gray.”
The monolith had been reduced to a meme. And if we ever needed proof that social media encourages mindless imitation and “going viral” means replicating by copying the code … we had it. Bold artists all over the world are inspired by a playful project, so they all go do the same thing. And it gets more predictable and cheesier with each iteration.
The problem is not new. I cannot count the times I have heard a publisher, editor, vice president, or agency director announce, “It’s time to get creative,” then immediately ask what the competition is doing. What can be copied? What can be repurposed? What has already been done that can be tweaked or reinvented?
Ecclesiastes told us there was nothing new under the sun, but that did not mean to stop looking. Why not take the spirit of the thing—a mysterious, arty object that makes a reference to another world—and at least come up with a different mysterious, arty object? Ideally after the first three monoliths, but at least after the first thirty-three.
But, no, it took eighty-seven monoliths (and they may not be done). Why? Because the project was co-opted. A monolith promised attention to a small city’s commercial district. Got hikers into the wilderness. Brought people to an animal adoption center in San Diego and sent them on their way with a squirming puppy in their arms, monolith photos forgotten.
Financial gain was the usual bottom line—an artist collective in New Mexico coyly hinted it might be responsible for a few of the monoliths, then offered three monolith structures for sale online at $45,000 apiece. But ideology also inserted itself in the game. The first monolith was removed nine days after its discovery. Idealistic young environmentalists carted it away on a wheelbarrow, one muttering over his shoulder, “You don’t leave trash in the desert.” Sylvan Christensen later went online to explain that, reluctant as they were to tamper with art, “the mystery was the infatuation, and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here—we are losing our public lands.” He mentioned the twenty-four-inch gouge made in the sandstone to anchor the monolith, but his real concern was the internet sensationalism: “This land wasn’t physically prepared for the population shift (especially during a pandemic). People arrived by car, by bus, by van, helicopter, planes, trains, motorcycles, and E-bikes and there isn’t even a parking lot.”
The second monolith, atop Pine Mountain in Atascadero, California, was built by four artists and fabricators as a temporary installation, just to cheer people up and end a grim year on a high note. It was torn down by men chanting “Christ is king” as they livestreamed themselves putting up a wooden cross in its place. After a verbal wink from the town’s mayor, who apparently preferred the secular column, the original builders agreed to make a permanent monolith for the same spot, presumably ousting the cross.
The battle for souls will no doubt continue. Meanwhile, the monolith at the Quincy quarry had a pagan feel, surrounded by a spiral “crop circle” carved in the snow.
And then came the good old-fashioned American gimmickry, with a monolith built outside Grandpa’s Candy Shop in Pittsburgh “to remind everyone to support small businesses.”
How much are the traditional media and social media to blame for the devolution? Reporters posted obligatory write-ups even of the lame eighty-sixth and eighty-seventh monoliths. The guy who posed next to the Quincy monolith added thirty-one hashtags, including #snow. The monolith on the Treasure Coast soon had its own Facebook page. And there were breathless reports in El Paso, where monolith was captured on video by local news stations before it disappeared later that day, at which point social media took over, streaming video of people hoisting it into a truck. Click, tag, share.
We have grown used to grabbing onto whatever is already working, hitching a ride instead of thinking up something fresher. And because of the way our media is structured, copying is what works.
You would think aliens could help us remember how to pull an original prank.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.