Adventures in 'pataphysics
Well, pschitt! Although Alfred Jarry -- schoolboy playwright, raconteur, and progenitor of 'pataphysics, “the science of imaginary solutions” -- died 105 years ago of decidedly prosaic malady tuberculosis, his outré influence lives on. Adopted and championed by generations of outsider artists, avant-garde writers, and revolutionary thinkers, the self-styled “Pere Ubu” gave artistic anarchy a nexus during his lifetime, an iconic figurehead after.
Last weekend, the four-day Carnivàle Pataphysique , part commemoration and part investigation, gave amateur pataphysicians, situationists, and conceptual artists a free zone to mingle, to expound, and to congeal, over lectures, concerts, puppet shows, and other unique performative opportunities in and around the practically imaginary stronghold of “North Beach,” a land where strip clubs and surrealists collide.
On Saturday, beneath an almost oppressive sun, a small group of eager urban explorers embarked from City Lights Bookstore  on a situationist-inspired dérive -- a psychogeographical walking tour of North Beach using maps of Paris (ala Jarry’s creation Dr Faustroll) to orient ourselves. Our intrepid guide, City Lights events coordinator Peter Maravelis hurried us along the less familiar side streets of Chinatown, stopping to exclaim over abstract, easily overlooked details. In a psychogeographical foray, murals become prophecies, placid streets become daunting Rubicons, oddball ephemera becomes omen.
At St Mary’s Square aka “The Amorphous Isle,” beneath the stainless steel monolith of Beniamino Bufano’s sculpture of Sun Yat-sen, Frederick Young and Linus Lancaster demonstrated their latest attempt to make contact with the USS Macon, a military zeppelin which crashed in the ocean at Point Sur in 1935. Involving a slowly inflating weather balloon, soil from France, a stack of Heidegger texts, and a curious mechanical component best filed under “moves in mysterious ways,” (or, rather, doesn’t) Young and Lancaster’s absurdist experiment was conducted with all appropriate gravity until we were hurried off again to another park (“The Great Church of Snout Figs”) to watch actors Leonard Pitt and Kurt Bodden orate from a hodge-podge of cut-up texts beneath a gracious gazebo.
Marching onward, we found ourselves faced with a seemingly insurmountable mountain -- the Vallejo Steps -- leading straight into the sun. After our climb, more readings followed, courtesy of Mark Gorney and Josh Mohr, and a chance sighting of the Uniqlo blimp, shades of the USS Macon, and a jeering band of North Beach’s famous feral parrots, added local color to our border-blending dérive.
On such a journey, the most mundane minutiae becomes unaccountably fascinating. An abandoned pair of pants on the sidewalk raises the real question, who abandons their pants in the middle of a sidewalk? A cluster of television sets and sandwiches begs for an archeological explanation. Sloppy graffiti reads like a coded message. Empty streets twist unexpectedly, like lines of a labyrinth.
“I think we’re lost,” Maravelis announced at one point.
“At last!” exclaimed a committed voyager.
Our final destination, Jack Early Park, renamed for our purposes as “The Land of Lace” involved one more sunward climb, and a rare treat worth the exercise—a command performance by dark folk duo Hazy Loper, whose sorrowful San Francisco ballad “The Graywood Hotel” should be required listening for all poet philosophers and vagabond flâneurs no matter which streets they wind up wandering, and for whatever purpose.
(Interested in more things 'pataphysical? Festival co-curator Andrew Hugill’s 'Pataphysics, a Useless Guide (MIT Press, 2012) is available at City Lights, as is Jarry’s seminal work, Ubu Roi.)