THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Forever in Love with Bertha

On Deathly Kitsch at Funtime Junction

by Liby Hays

Illustration by Maggie Tseng

published September 23, 2016


 

Of the many junctions I know and love (and there are many, in this lattice-bound society) very few self-identify as junctions. Funtime Junction, located in Fairfield, New Jersey is a notable exception. The playpex and arcade occupies the second floor of an anonymous brick building off of Route 46. The slogan under its logo compels the child to “Climb Aboard For Fitness and Fun,” but as a sour adult I have no train ticket. I can at best be stowaway hobo in the cargo car for half an hour, roasting a single weenie over the tin-can fire of puerile nostalgia.

This impulse to haunt my own past is nothing new. In fact, the same 7-year gap separates my first visits to this playplex as a little kid, my ironic middle school return, and my current tour, with brain cruel, bloated and evil. The Timeline looks something like this:

[Sincere Play: Ages 3-7]---~7 Yrs---[Ironic Return: Age 13/14] ]---~7 Yrs---    [Current Tour.]

As a little kid, to don Funtime Junction’s wax-paper admissions bracelet was to cross a sacred threshold. I’d put my shoes in the cubby-hole—a purification rite, but also collateral of sorts—and with that, I had won my freedom for the day.

In middle school I returned with friends as a gesture of ironic disavowal, to cement the PURE! ABSURDITY! of socially conscious beings such as ourselves lolling around in ball-pits and padded structures—when really, under the mask of facetiousness, it was a long and bittersweet goodbye to play.

Nowatimes, in mid-2016, I’m not so naive. My irony is no surrogate for fun. My nihilism runs deep. I’ve already looked at enough authorless New Jersey kitsch this past summer to fuel my appropriative art practice well into the year. I’ve rubbed up on emptiness like a horny dog on a leg. I’ve collected every disgraced and self-defeating object in my purview from every flea market, thrift store, and dollar store in the tristate area. In the name of art, and the name of boredom, I’ve cultivated a shimmering constellation of lack. And like all repetitive compulsions, this quest for broken relics has no end in sight.

But Funtime Junction does hold one object of very special interest, even for a connoisseur like me.

My blushing bride awaits.

 

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My mom drops me off at the playplex. (I’m 20 but I still can’t drive.) I head up the stairs, passing a poorly rendered mural of a bear dressed as a conductor with rabbit companion. I am more receptive to the aesthetic of the light switch, painted fresh carnation pink with adjoining blue and orange pipes. I am trying to cultivate an interest in abstraction, but kitsch is still my only entryway. I am desperately prodding for its weak points, for its junctions, so that I might escape. 

I arrive at the faux barn doors of the entrance kiosk. When I first got into haunting my past, I was hooked on scale-shock—the uncanny quality of returning to a room from childhood and suddenly dwarfing the toilets and water fountains, etc. The room is no more than 200 feet from wall to wall. I can’t help but recall how back in my glory days, this room had no walls to speak of, and everything sprawled out with boundless, unfurling, unmapped potential—a world that existed for my express pleasure. (My dreams still always take place in department stores, flea markets, book fairs, and other open plazas.)

It’s ironic that I keep revisiting my past for fun, given that fun itself is ahistorical, and occupies a separate timeframe, this nominal “Funtime.” In my earliest visits here I discovered that Funtime could be set in motion by a series of operations. Crucially, it was not a form of play where I imagined myself as a character or an animal, as I often did on the playground with friends. At Funtime Junction, I isolated myself in order to investigate my own productive capacity, abandoning all guise of performance. My adventures through the labyrinthine structure of plastic tubing in and out of crawlspaces and over treacherous patches of thatched polyester—with many flows and stoppages caused by children crawling backwards up the slides—were part of an elaborate system I was consciously plotting. I arbitrarily adjusted my speed based on the different colors, sizes, and materialities of the tunnels. When I reached certain landmarks, like the ball-pit or domed lookout windows, I would reorient and retrace my previous journey. I understood that if I physically exerted myself enough, the greasy pizza slice and Screwball that awaited me at the end of the day would feel like a meal fit for a king.

In between the operations of my fitness-to-fun machine, I would also play the arcade games, whose resemblance to real-world economic systems has not escaped comment. The games/means of production cost tokens to play and dispense certain quantities of tickets, depending on your level of skill (although many, like the claw machines, are programmed to fail unconditionally in certain timed intervals). The tickets can then be redeemed at the end of the day for prizes. Distracted by all the excitement, the laboring-Junctioneer might not notice that from US Tender to tokens to tickets to prizes there has been an exponential devaluation, and even having played all day, they can afford only terrible crap. The prizes themselves are namely low-quality putties (sometimes containing toy lizards, sometimes not.) This seems apropos. The prize—supposedly the end-goal of the whole endeavor—is really an excretion, a congealed residue, greasy by-product that lubricates the cogs to keep the machine steadily churning. In this way, kitsch achieves something like the autonomy of high art—kitsch for kitsch’s sake.

 

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Today the Junction doesn’t feel so liberating. The kids are mostly closely accompanied by adult chaperones, and there are even some couples walking around with no children at all. Other adults sit facing the playplex in a row of rocking chairs, one of Funtime Junction’s few limp-wristed touches of folksiness. (Indoor porches aren’t a bad idea on principle, this is just poor execution.)

Employees are sluggish and aloof. I’ve noticed people who work with children are often this way—sludgy, perhaps because they deal with groups of kids as one big multinucleated slime mold. A few workers are busy administering a little boy’s birthday party. The party room is like the party rooms in movie theaters, or museum dioramas, with a wide glass window looking in.

I’m still on the lookout for that object of very special interest. It should be somewhere in the arcade section. The operating principle of the arcade games here is to incite players to violence—ball throwing, mallet smashing, button jamming, etc.—by confronting them with the most insipid and banal unlicensed characters imaginable. Their designs employ a vernacular of cartooning-tropes but capture none of their mainstream counterparts’ charm. I personally have no use for the familiar exuberance of Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. Far more refreshing are the anemic kitsch aesthetics on display in Funtime Junction. There are the tricycle-riding alien “Space Jammers;” the red fur-fringed gremlins of “Bug Bash.” There is “Frantic Fred,” a bear with a hairless, vibrating welt on top of his head (“Dat Hurt” (sic), says he). The characters are what you see in the second before you die. But I am in love with this world (Earth) and also in love with the uncanny characters that mirror back to me my own death’s-head. Having accepted the inevitable, I feel no need to lash out, boink or swat their generic faces. I feel light and wistful among them. I am one of them. If, as Mike Kelley says, the first sculpture was a corpse, the last sculptures are these interactive multi-media coffins, shaped like plastic log cabins with embedded TV’s and steering wheels attached.

You might not think it’s possible, but my object of special interest takes things even further.

As a child the special game object both fascinated and terrified me. The game’s conceit was that you had volunteered to help sate a ravenous circus fat lady whose plastic food spheres were housed outside of her arm’s reach. The machine would play circus music as Bertha—‘Big Bertha’—commanded you to hurl balls into her gaping maw. As she fed, hot air would bloat her sack-form body which, like her skin, bore a filthy patina. But most depraved of all—being but an open bag, Bertha quickly metabolized the balls and soon the player was feeding Bertha (what metaphorically amounted to) her own feces as her plush uvula swung pendulously and the circus music sped up to a feverish clip.

This game had great psychological resonance, for reasons clear. Bertha is the Oedipus complex melted in a nuclear reactor, a repulsive and expulsive mama-baby baby-mama. She is a fetish-object in every sense of the word. You could argue she presents a literal take on sports, revealing the thinly veiled primal aggression behind scoring goals in orifice-like goal-holes. You could say she represents women’s dissociative relation to their own bodies, an inside-out anorexic. You could say a lot of things, but Bertha will say the same thing: Feed me!

On this August 2016-type day, I am crushed to discover that Bertha is gone. A few scans of the arcade area reveal no sign of her. Someone of her girth could never hide for this long.

In her absence the space is dominated by a new player—a megalithic, 20 foot tall pastel-hued Demagogue-Chieftan-Duck-God made of airbrushed plexi. Goggles pushed back on his head reflect the sky. His bemused expression coupled with a dignified arm posture seem to say, “I am the father of everyone in this room.”  His huge rectangular noggin is supported by a radially symmetrical mutation of a gas pump, and emerging from each face of the gas pump is a mechanical arm attached to a child-sized transportation vehicle. Each car, plane or helicopter is individualized with images of carrots, howling wolves or squiggles. The Shamanistic Duck-Warlord takes from nature what he feels he deserves. He sends the youth on their cyclical quest, offering a taste of adventure while remaining in the safe grasp of his petrochemical arms. I don’t remember this duck from my middle school visit; he may be new.

The Military-Indu(ck)strial Duck’s influence has spread to the opposite corner of the room as well. A claw machine dispenses rubber ducks of every conceivable variety. Occupational Ducks. Recreational Ducks. Ducks that are other animals also. Ducks that embody abstract properties. He’s been using the rest of his oil to produce self-promotional kitsch, a final step towards world domination. I want to warn the Duck-CEO that if this company makes a duck for every concept that exists, Duck(everything), ‘duck’ will be evenly distributed and therefore have no actual meaning. No one could perceive the comprehensive (duck)ness of our (duck)world and his whole enterprise would crumble.  

 

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I could say I came to Funtime Junction to relive my childhood, but that doesn’t feel entirely true. There is an important difference between reliving and retracing. To relive implies lively action. In my middle school Junction visit, and other similar stunts, I relived/performed my childhood in the ballpit, so as to estrange myself from it. But in my most recent visit, I have been instead retracing, producing a loose map of the systems I saw on display. My interest in kiddy things is partially because they often adhere to an abbreviated, mapped notation. They are exquisitely literal, or you could say, conceptual. They convey information on the surface in easily processed visual terms. Take a toy piano with Do-Re-Mi printed on the keys, the health center in a video game with a big red cross. What I love about Big Bertha, the duck, and Funtime Junction’s whole prize system is that in a perhaps unintentional way, they make literal/illustrative many of the shadowy psychosexual and sociopolitical processes that govern the world—at least in the way my Western education has taught me to understand them.  Kitsch can be lucid in this way.

I also pay careful attention because, as a contemporary artist it is difficult not to vampirize kitsch.  Conceptual artists must always work within a borrowed language, in order to shift the focus from individual self-expression to a more universal critique. This often involves splicing many different elements from mainstream culture, but never resting on one for too long. All kitsch is compound, but newer, sleeker products do a better job of hiding it. Old and obsolete kitsch objects (like the arcade mascots, for instance) begin to split at the seams, revealing the crude elements they were built from. Magpie-eyed, I snatch up the fragments for my own use.

 

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None of this is without its price. There is emotional fallout to all this dissection where sentimentality once lived. Walking out to my mom’s car, I feel sad as well as bored. My preoccupations are creepy and a waste of time. I didn’t generate fun, I didn’t generate hunger, I didn’t generate irony. I had a few moments of manic excitement and ego death alongside the generic characters, which was nice. Or it was just okay. I didn’t play any games, so I didn’t get a prize (I had my eye on a putty dreidel).

Ever since those first days in the Funtime Junction tunnels, I have been interested in maximizing my own potential, in self-proscribed ways. But living by your contrivances is a bit like eating your own shit. I can keep remapping my course until I get trapped in a labyrinth of indecision. It’s bad for you to spend all day inside.

I’m evil and the world is unstable. Drat.  My mirage is stark, a smear of grease paint on the dissociated horizon.

I miss Bertha and wish I could hold her hand.

 

LIBY HAYS B/RISD’19 loves Bertha.