Living Art's Rewards

Acrylic paint on canvas

From the forthcoming (I hope) book Gothic Black 2

John Small was the sort of person who’d call an exploding universe pretentious. One of those who lives in a sheltered haze of acquiescence from all around him, slightly chubby, looking lifeless unless actually moving. Fused genetically into the world around him, he was the person upholding the societal norms.

Quite obnoxious, in fact. He was the one who’d remember the joke on TV. He’d be the first to demand the egalitarian norm, and the first to demand his social status. A predictable person, the kind who for some reason isn’t shot on sight.

He was in media, naturally, where most clichés go to be appreciated. He specialized in a form of demanding whine in his material, whether it was interior design, crime, lifestyles, fashions, music, books or anything else which was unfortunate enough to have a noun attached to it. The new décor was “naïve”. The green lifestyle was “self righteous”. A book about a corporate criminal was “a tale of a great man gone wrong”. (He never offended anyone who looked even remotely likely to get out of jail.) Fashion was either moral or immoral, and he never wrote the first article. He was conspicuous for finding a position to agree with, at any cost.

Like most media people, he loathed anyone under 40, and was prepared to say so. His own youth, which had been so nondescript as to be a form of abuse, was the model. People were born in middle class ideals, lived in middle class ideals, and that was that. People went to college, voted conservative, hated sex, love, and were cautiously expedient about their values and religion.

Meaning that any controversy was avoided stringently. Everything was about taking sides. Having been educated in the 90s, when most of the teaching profession was in a sort of shock, he’d received the best possible introduction to media. If nobody knew it was crap, it was fine. The bone lazy production methods had been worked into him like a wood stain. Money ruled, and he’d made plenty just by keeping his mouth shut.

In many ways he was the ideal media executive, so utterly devoid of anything resembling intelligence as to endear him to any CEO. No arguments, no positions on anything. No personality, either, as far as anyone could tell, not that they spent a lot of time looking. Even “conformist” that final burial of any real human, was too mild a word. Even as a senior executive, he’d been so timid and so obliging that the most rabid corporate cowards often wondered where they’d gone wrong.

One of the many people who loathed him described him as the modern “cunning peasant”. Facile, utterly devoid of any social skills apart from wearing clean clothes and saying nothing, he was like a one man manual for the sickly networking ideal. His marriage was practical, rather than personal. His family was a group of people he lived with.

His children hated him, partly because he was very difficult to live with, but largely because they didn’t see a person they wanted to know. He was a “good provider”, as anyone would be making that sort of money. Their issues and problems were solved arbitrarily, and their wishes heard, but not usually understood. The problem was that they knew he didn’t understand them. He had the unusual gift of making it quite clear to anyone that he was speaking from a purely conventional position, and that the position was never going to change. They were expected to be the children of the brochures.

His ignorance knew very few limitations. Art was “classical”. Music was “successful or classical”. Literature was whatever the covering letter said it was, unless someone else had found a position on the books. It was a pretty straightforward process. Everything had a script, and everyone had a few lines. Any simpler than that, you really couldn’t hope to achieve.

So, when confronted with something called “gene art” from a well known gallery, his reporter simply rewrote a few articles. These were so flattering that nobody would ever have guessed that the reporter hadn’t been paying attention when he made his cosmetic visit to the gallery and asked a few very banal questions, like “What is gene art?” and other quips from the vast abyss of mediocre media techniques.

Flattered, the gallery owner and the artist thought they’d invite Small and his entourage to a reception for the artist at the gallery. They would dine surrounded by the works. Small accepted, partly because he made a point of being seen among his subject matter, and largely because he knew that free food was socially acceptable. He and his utterly bored, uninterested, family came along for the same reason.

The kids knew a bit about gene art, from college friends, and livened up a bit when they saw the exhibit, which did in fact deserve some praise, and was a bit different. It used living genetic materials, some of it human, and was extremely controversial, although Small, who’d just OK’d the article, didn’t know that, because the reporter wasn’t too conversant with gene ethics, and had guessed, rightly, that Small would edit mercilessly if he mentioned them.

The exhibits were in tanks. That was another departure from the norm. instead of models, or graphics, this was real “living art”. It was bizarre, to Small, who simply saw a mass of unrecognizable things and classified them as such in his single-issue brain. It was pretty dramatic, though, seething movements of weird shapes, enzymes splicing and recombining genes at a furious rate. The things were never the same over a one hour period. Things that looked like tree branches sprouted from one, and things looking like giant amoebas slithered in another, across a model city. Some vicious looking black thing set off tiny snowflake sparks, based on the old DNA circuitry idea, where the organisms used natural conductivity to zap proteins. In one tank a protein was building a huge, complex crystalline structure, some wildly extravagant bit of visual information Small couldn’t quite absorb. For some reason he’d actually tried to have an opinion about that one, and he resented not being able to understand the thing.

He waded through the exhibition using words like “remarkable”, “marvelous”, “uncanny” and a few quotes from the article, which he’d memorized. Although most people did at least suspect that he was reciting his position on any given subject, artists are an optimistic breed, and it didn’t occur to the artist. Gallery owners aren’t optimists, but they are business-oriented, and the owner just hoped that Small meant what he said.

The dinner limped along, dragged down a bit by Small’s slow wit, although the Small kids liked the change from a murderous normality at dinner. As coffee was served they were informed that a presentation would take place, some of the artist’s new work. That, Small hadn’t known, and rummaged around the tired old cattle yard of his vocabulary for something apt.

Unlike a real art critic, he didn’t know when to get scared. Anything unexpected can be devastating to one of the dear little parrots, and they usually managed to contract some expedient disease before approaching any novel experience. The artist and gallery owner, a bit carried away with the glowing praise of the article, understandably thought this would add to their publicity value.

By rights, it should have. This was real living art, again, but highly evolved. Some of their fungi were showing incredibly articulate behavior, and they’d discovered the fungi would make structures out of inanimate materials. That is, anything they couldn’t eat. It had been an accidental discovery, someone had dropped some miscellaneous bits and pieces out of a drawer that was being cleaned out into the fungi’s dish. The fungi had made a shelter out of it, and when the pieces were removed had actually left their dish to retrieve them. They put everything back exactly as they’d had it.

Since fungal behaviorism isn’t exactly a compulsory study, anywhere, and never has been, this novel bit of architecture was somewhat unique. The fungus, a Candida species, was a protein eater, and in tissue highly aggressive. They fed it protein pellets, and as an experiment, meat. Biologically, meat is much more like Candida’s normal food, so nobody was too surprised when the protein pellets were ignored.

The Candida was a thousandth generation removed from its original. It had been put through the Leske-multigenerational derived process of adaption, and had become particularly sensitive to opportunities to spore and find food. It was the first fungus ever to require a cage. All anyone including a somewhat fried-looking mycologist could agree was that it was a survivalist of the best sort.

The presentation opened with the other works. A giant bacillus, visible to the naked eye, about the size of a small ant, set in an early Carboniferous swamp. Gigantic beyond belief, by bacterial standards. Then a coral, unspeakably beautiful, as if a filigree of gold lace had decided to build a city. This was followed by a selection of lizards, standing on their hind legs, holding food in their freed claws. They were tiny, but exceptionally agile, and reminded the Small children of some of their favorite shows and stories. The little lizards were in a very large terrarium, obsessively put together by the artist, to give them exposure to as many different terrains and elements as possible. There was even uranium in the artificial mountains.

Small’s extremely limited mental abilities were no match for this volume of new information. His conversation condemned him word by word. The cattle yard might have still been operational but by now the artist and gallery owner were of the opinion that the bull was the only thing remaining in residence.

Small’s family, who did actually pay attention to the rest of the world, were openly rather contemptuous of his comments. As Small left to attend to a call of nature, (actually, he was having a fit of indigestion, brought on by eating real food) the family and the other two became quite friendly.

There was a squealing yelp from outside. A eunuch in distress. With a single exchanged common look between them the other five went to see what had happened. One of the kids muttered that Dad must have found the soap, and not known what it was for. The artist grinned happily.

Well, no. Small was dead. Very much so. A trickle of saliva was coming from his mouth, but not much else indicated what had happened. An ambulance and some police duly arrived, including a detective who soon became increasingly frustrated with the total lack of anything resembling evidence. He said, correctly, that at any scene of a death, where there was no indication of the cause of death, that something, surely, must have happened. He was about to go back with an almost empty record of the death, when he noticed something moving on Small’s nose. He took a swab, carefully, forensic style, and took it back to the police lab.

It was Candida. The same culture as the one in the exhibit. The Candida was found in Small’s brain, which was part eaten, most of the neural network quite trashed. That species of Candida had been known to eat even dried meat, using enzymes which acted extremely fast and were shown to have had no trouble tearing to pieces living tissue in coroners court-ordered experiments. Raw meat practically dissolved, in a few minutes. The fungal spores were shown to have gone up Small’s nose, and suddenly become active. There just wasn’t any other explanation. Some bacteria can do that, but of the fungi, the tiger is Candida.

The Candida was impounded. Although eventually it was declared that the gallery and the artist couldn’t really be held responsible for Candida’s spores, which, as the defence witness, another mycologist, pointed out, were everywhere. The Candida was relegated to a secured exhibit behind a solid glass case, and inside that was a big cage, and a smaller one. The perimeter glass had a small electric current running through it. The exhibit was a great success, but as a commercial product the Candida was finished.

The Small family inherited the media interests, and became famous for their outspoken opinions and dedication to new ideas. They remained firm friends with the artist and the gallery owner, and they had a dinner of their own at the gallery a couple of years later.

As they settled down and caught up on their news, a little lizard appeared on the table, carrying a toothpick. It scurried over to the gravy, looked at the humans, and dipped the toothpick into the bowl. It made motions of inserting the toothpick into its nose, looked at each person individually, and scuttled away. It jumped off the table, a good four feet, leaped up onto the ceiling, and hared back to its terrarium.

When they stopped laughing, Small’s wife said, thoughtfully, still grinning,

“I’ve always liked those lizards.”

It was the very first case of a fungus being framed by a reptile. Small hadn’t even noticed the tiny lizard land on his shoulder, or the little stick covered in Candida which was stuck up his nose. They freed the world of a mediocrity.

The lizards set up the Candida. They didn’t want either a dangerous neighbor or the commercial competition. They went on to become superstars of the Genetic Revolution, and they were soon every kid’s favorite house pets. They were almost worshipped for their ability to destroy cockroach infestations, and everybody loved them. Even the dogs and cats liked them for wiping out their pests.

However, it wasn’t the last prank they played, and they’ve been getting a bit more ambitious lately. The little lizards are becoming more adept at their tricks every day. It’s becoming a problem, although the humor is undeniable.

We really will have to ask them what they did with Manhattan some day.

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Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

I enjoyed your writing and your very intriduing story.

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