On August 27th, 1976, I don’t remember being born. A few years later, bored, I sat on the curb outside my parents’ studio burning solar holes in a red rubber ball. The magnifying glass had a black handle, hexagonal. I killed ants, too. Los Angeles light is cold and cruel no matter how you use it.
Physicists write and rewrite the origin of our universe with greater and greater accuracy. Cosmogony approaches perfect recall. In 1927, the theologian Georges LeMaitre first proposed what would become known as the Big Bang Theory, which holds that the universe, when it first appeared 13.7 billion years ago, was infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, and infinitely dense. The current uniform presence of Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965, tells us that the infant universe was symmetrical. It did not explode into existence, but upon appearing it expanded and cooled. It did so irregularly, breaking the symmetry, distributing matter unevenly. Why this entropic expansion from symmetry to asymmetry?
When the surface of a lake begins to freeze, it does so in isolated regions that expand and butt up against each other, forming topological defects. The continuous surface of the ice sheet features disruptions in the regular crystalline structure of ice. Asymmetries appear when matter moves from one state to another. Likewise, interactions between elementary particles in the early expansion and cooling of the universe created topological defects. In 1976, Thomas Kibble, a physicist at Imperial College London, theorized that these defects were Cosmic Strings, narrow strands of primordial matter thinner than a proton, whose gravitational interactions may form galaxies.
The Bicentennial was huge, according to my older friends. On July 4th, 1976, bright lights bloomed and decayed over Independence Hall as President Gerald Ford pronounced, “Before me is the great bronze bell that joyously rang out the news of the birth of our nation from the steeple of the State House.” Then cardboard shell casings, mock-bomb remnants, littered the streets.
Entombed between two plexiglass sheets, a US Treasury commemorative coin set accrues value somewhere in my parents’ Historic West Adams craftsman-style house.
On January 1st, 1976, Rocky Balboa fought Apollo Creed for the heavyweight championship of the world and lost. Days earlier, he triumphantly raced up the endless steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, giving American cinema one of its most iconic moments. Neither scene would exist were it not for cinematographer Garret Brown, who filmed both using his newly invented Steadicam, a revolutionary motion-control device that effectively eliminates any irregularities in a camera operator’s movement.
By isolating the camera away from the operator’s body, increasing the camera’s moment of inertia, and shifting the camera’s center of gravity outside itself, Steadicam give filmmakers the image steadiness of a dolly combined with the wide range of motion characteristic of a handheld shot. It enabled Brown to race alongside Stallone step by step, to weave in and around Stallone and Carl Weathers as they performed their choreographed fisticuffs, and to capture it all flawlessly, without accidental jerks, pans, or tilts, with a precision heretofore unimagined.
With Steadicam the visual document approaches a “truer” experience. As Cinema Products, the company that introduced Steadicam to the market in 1976, argued, the device repositioned the viewing audience: no longer “passive observers,” the viewers become “active participants” in the spectacle. Steadicam aspired to a phenomenological form of telecinematic realism.
In 1976 Ed Ruscha made the pastel drawing “Three Seconals, Three Darvons.” It’s a phenomenological sci-fi drug drawing of a phase transition. Out of a warm dust advance six clinically cold meds. Or else they drift into the dull smog. They simultaneously are and are not the same thing. The pills are life-size, a little more than half an inch long, but decontextualized—they float over a relatively large (23 by 29 inch) abstract desert-like plane, an expanse of ruddy mesa dissolving up into a thin rim of black space. These photorealistically rendered objects drift by silently, like lonesome interstellar Martian pods.
Ruscha ups the alien ante by further decontextualizing the drugs: they are shadowless. The drawing’s precursors, “Aspirins” (1971) and “Muscle Relaxers” (1971), similarly depict tablets hovering over an arid landscape, but as indicated by their shadows, the four aspirin and three muscle relaxers float less than an inch from some ground. Light shines down and defines, albeit surreally, a “known” location. These six downers float nowhere, or so far from a surface that shadows can’t be cast. They are high.
Seconal, a barbiturate, depresses the central nervous system, induces drowsiness, and has hypnotic properties. Darvon is a relative of the synthetic narcotic methadone. Three of each and the world drips away. Means to absolute forgetting and self-annihilation, they were also two of the most commonly dispensed medications during the Vietnam War, which Gerald Ford pronounced finished in 1975. “Three Seconals, Three Darvons” is the other Vietnam War Memorial.