Becoming Ben

A prophetic account of Deleuzian becoming-animal, Jackson’s first solo hit foreshadowed the dramatic metamorphoses that characterized his life as the man transformed himself and the world around him.

Hugely influential, Jackson is represented by a monolithic sculpture overlooking the Earth, visible whenever the moon walks the night sky, yet inaccessible, isolated on his own world.

No literal monument, the becoming-rat of “Ben”‘s protagonist is a metaphor for Jackson’s becomings, and our own.

This is
my entry to Archinect/Bustler‘s “Live Forever: The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition” The requirements were simple: 500 characters of text, and one image, 1200×800 pixels.

Michael Jackson lived one of the most extravagant, magnificent, and crafted lives in centuries. What act of design could possibly outshine the combined effect of the star’s own intricate life?

While the music and images Michael left us will seal his cultural immortality, we are still obliged to commemorate him. What is the nature of a monument to Michael Jackson? What single place do we choose to remember a person who touched the globe and had aspirations for the moon?

What is the appropriate scale to remember a man who operated on everything possible – from the studied renovation of his own human form to the creation of an architectural-scale wunderkamer at Neverland Ranch? What design proposal can top his own unrealized plans to construct a 50-foot robotic replica of himself that roams the Las Vegas desert shooting laser beams out of its eyes?

Live Forever challenges you to design a monument to the epic that was Michael Jackson. There are no limits to this open competition. Your monument may be located anywhere you choose and be any scale that you deem appropriate.

An intriguing competition, for sure, but I hadn’t really planned on submitting anything, and the deadline was August 22nd. This afternoon, when I saw that the deadline had been extended by a few days, I decided to whip this up. Though it is sort of a joke, I think there are some interesting points to be made about philosophy, architecture, celebrity, and monumentality. (And apologies to be made to Katharina Fritsch, for the rat.)

A few years ago, I was reading Deleuze & Guattari‘s 1000 Plateaus, and was struck by a passage* focusing on Willard, a 1971 horror film about a young boy who befriends a colony of rats, becoming more rat-like through the interaction. The philosophers use the plot to illustrate their concept of “becoming.” In their work, the dynamic concept of “becoming” takes the place of a static identity, as they prefer loose definitions that rely on context and process rather than an appeal to some ideal. In Willard, the frightening aspect of the film is not the killer rats themselves, but the boy – Willard – who through his actions becomes one of them, and instructs them to kill….

The film was apparently successful enough to inspire a sequel the following year, Ben, with the main rat-antagonist of the first film in the eponymous role. Paralleling the first film, a young boy, a social outcast, befriends the rats – but here their roles are reversed: the rat Ben undergoes a becoming-human, contrasting Willard’s becoming-rat in the first film.

Though neither film is great (I recommend watching the 2003 remake, starring Crispin Glover), this philosophically-rich territory becomes infinitely more interesting when you consider that Ben marks the starting point of Michael Jackson’s solo career.

The theme song to Ben (video) was Michael Jackson’s first hit as a solo artist. When considered alongside the plot of the film and D&G’s interpretation, it could be seen as prophesy: mystically imbuing Jackson with the goal of continual transformation: the dynamic becoming that would characterize his life and career.

It believe there must have been some subconscious force at work. Even before Jackson’s most dramatic formal metamorphoses, his work dealt explicitly with morphosis: no need here to launch into a description of Thriller‘s werewolves and zombies or Black or White‘s still-impressive morphing fx: both indicate at least a passing interest in transformation.

(And let’s just ignore “Black or White”‘s pre-chorus progression that – in 1991 – echos Duran Duran’s 1982 hit “Hungry Like The Wolf”- yet another reference to Deleuzian becoming…)

With all this in mind, I feel that the proposal above is the most appropriate way to memorialize the King of Pop. The form of the rat is a reference to his first hit, and to a philosophic subtext that explains his continuous transformation, corroborated by evidence in his own songs. The placement is a not-so-subtle reference to his famous dance move, but it also allows the monument to make a statement about celebrity: though always visible, the monument is also isolated, and this distance reduces the monumentality of the object to a mere speck perceptually. The contrast between real and perceived scale reminds us of the disconnect celebrities must feel as they are over-exposed and cut off from the world simultaneously. Finally, in our view from Earth, Jackson finds his rightful place: eternally among the stars.

* “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…”

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