Carlos Diaz Inventing Fantasy from Fact

by Anna Hammond

In 1884, LaMarcus Thompson created the first mechanically powered roller coaster for Luna Park in Coney Island, New York. Its design was based on gravity powered coal cars which were used to take miners into the shafts. Thompson had visited an abandoned mine and found people paying for rides into the old tunnels and, from that, he built the Switchback Railroad, the first of many more elaborate and thrilling machines. These machines propelled riders out of their weekday experiences of working for service and profit and into a world of fantasy and amusement. The roller coaster quickly became the most popular rides at amusement parks; it was the transformation of a machine of labor toward darkness into a machine of hilarity and leisure.

Late 19th century America was essentially culturally dominated by the elite, old-moneyed families who founded museums, art galleries, symphonies and libraries, places where leisure time could be spent in activities that edified the individual, places that could only be construed as improvements for society. Of course, society is the key word here because in the context of these edifying activities, there was only "high society." All formal cultural life reflected a philosophical attitude maintained by a relatively small number of individuals, people who could read, and who had the money for theater tickets.

Until the industrial revolution, the urban working class had little or no time for leisure activities. People worked six days a week, ten hours a day. Children worked for their families to afford the mere basics. In the simplest of terms, as society industrialized the working classes had free time. Coney Island provided the perfect respite: a place where relief from work as well as from social mores could be found instantly. Not only was it noisy and raucous, but it was beautiful, a wonderfully fantastic illusion of lights and music and painted scenery and freaks in sideshows. At Coney Island, the machines that led these peoples' lives were transformed into agents of pleasure.

Just as the industrial revolution created the mass production of commodities, it created a need for a mass market to absorb these commodities. And the market was in direct relation to the people directly embedded in the processes of mechanization. The mechanized rides of Coney Island were in as parallel a juxtaposition to the industries they mimicked as computer games, surfing the Web and even dating are to the daily activities of most people in the workplace today. That is, the very machines with which we work are also the very machines with which we play.

The contemporary parallel between work and play makes the photographic collages of Carlos Diaz particularly poignant. In the tradition of collagists such as Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield and Raul Hausmann, Diaz creates black-and-white images of an abandoned Coney Island. He carefully attaches pieces and portions of steel engravings of machines he cut out of old patent books, magazines and journals to create seamless landscapes that at first appear to be believable and real but on closer viewing become ridiculous and absurd. Every scene is devoid of people though many of the inventions that Diaz superimposes on the Coney Island landscape were intended to further simplify peoples' lives ó inventions that relate primarily to manufacturing, mining, farming and transportation. The engravings of these inventions often come from old editions of Scientific American, which, at the turn of the century came out weekly and illustrated the most important patents ó everything from Mawlam's Railway Truck Coupler to Maxim's Electric Light Projectors for Land and Marine Purposes. Often, the inventions look more like amusement park rides than the rides themselves.

The crafting of Diaz's images is meticulous and the craft of the work allows the viewer to participate in a fantasy landscape without being distracted. Often, collage work depends on obvious absurdity (a child's head attached to a man's body as in the work of John O'Reilly, for example) or the overt linking of the incongruous in order to make a clear point about the inherent disorder of politics and society (as in the work of the Da-daists previously mentioned). But in the mechanical landscapes Diaz has invented, the differences are indistinguishable between the mechanized rides of Coney Island and their counterparts in the superimposed products of industrial culture.

None of the work is bigger than 8" x 10." The ability to create a three-dimensional space on such a small surface comes from Diaz's training in mechanical drawing and engineering. Raised in Pontiac, Michigan, a center of automotive manufacturing and design, Diaz began working in the design and engineering profession through a program in high school. Later on, he worked for the General Motors Company in Detroit as a draftsman. Of all the automotive drawing jobs one could land, Diaz had the unusual task of working in the XM! program which was the designing of an experimental tank prototype, "a tank of the future." The designing of experimental machines continued when he put himself through graduate school in fine arts while working for the KMF Fusion, a laser research company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, work he describes as having become "dull and uninteresting."

But, the transitions in the landscapes between one space and another are believable not only because they draw on the technical ability to construct three dimensions out of two, but because they draw on creating perfectly believable and inherently absurd mechanisms. Diaz admits that he is drawing on a technical and confining past he has long attempted to reject because of its orientation toward the finite and factual. In his invented landscapes, the technical aspect of the work is the basis for a believable fantasy world in much the same way as the technology of the coal mining cars was the basis or the roller coaster.

In broader terms, what is good and what is evil often look alike. Work that is banal and repetitive in one context can be completely magical and freeing in another. As much as the machines of Coney Island may have created a viscous circle of mechanized entrapment, they did in fact serve a purpose in amusing the masses. And in blurring the lines between what is really part of Coney Island and what is invented, Diaz forces us to question these paradoxes as much as he forces us to accept them. ï

Anna Hammond is a critic for ARTnews and an editor at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.