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Mercury City




I’ve been dispatched to a private estate on the edge of Mercury City by my editors at a certain posh East Coast news aggregator to confirm rumors of a sprawling subterranean bunker that has recently been unearthed. The official story circulating in the media is that it was discovered by a stonemason during a routine rock excavation. The how and why of its existence have yet to be articulated. Is it the dwelling of a secret society? A hideout built during the heyday of Cold War paranoia? Or perhaps it is the site of some advanced scientific experimentation? Considering that the coast of Lake Erie has recently jumped to the forefront of molecular engineering it could be all that and more.

Some of the contents discovered in the bunker have been identified as fragments from the civilization of San San, a 523-mile urban sprawl located along the western coast of the United States. A mega-city imagined by Cold War futurists that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco. Why parts of its archaeology are in a private bunker in a Midwestern city is not immediately clear.


I meet the caretaker, who goes by the name Doctor Doug, at a gas station that doubles as a beauty salon called Bubu’s Unisex. When I arrive, he is in the middle of a routine laser treatment. At first, he has the innocuous warmth of a high school basketball coach, but he is quick to inform me of his past as the proprietor of a pill mill that led to the loss of his medical license and two years’ probation. Overseeing the property that encompasses the site of the bunker is something that he is doing for a friend, he says. A childhood pal who made a fortune in aerospace and now spends most of his time in the African sub-continent. He assures me his friend, whose name will not be disclosed, did not construct the bunker and takes no responsibility for its contents. Initially all I can glean from Doctor Doug is that the structure of the bunker is roughly 27 feet under the earth’s surface and exists as an amalgam of natural history museum, capsule hotel, kitchen turned chemistry lab, art brut library, office and theater.

The more we talk the more vague the information becomes. At several points in the conversation he veers from the subject of the bunker to his emergent business in microfabrication beauty services. Bubu’s Unisex, it turns out, is his flagship operation and he insists I try one of his signature electromagnetic skin treatments.


After much deflection, I persuade Doctor Doug to break from his techno-cosmetic obsessions and take me up the road to the private estate.


Along the way he states that the bunker could possibly be a good place to bring girls, which, considering I’m about to crawl into a hole in the ground, is less than reassuring.



Descending from the meadow above I travel down a damp cinder block stairwell that opens up into a cavernous chamber constructed of fine mahogany. Its condition is suspiciously pristine. Recessed into the walls are a series of natural history dioramas. Initially the world on display appears to be replications of the wilderness above ground, but upon closer inspection it reveals a condition that is more than a touch artificial. The habitats portray a curious version of nature wherein biological organisms have merged with crystalline minerals to create a new ecology that appears cryogenically frozen. The cause and reason for this metamorphosis is outlined in a travel agency-style brochure that reads more like high-gloss propaganda than actual science.


On the surface, it is a site for the preservation and study of the natural world. But in actuality it is a place where wildlife is fictionalized and made unnatural. San San is unique in that it is considered one of the only urban-nature sprawls in existence. Large swaths of parkland break up the density of cities so as to create sanctuaries that are not so much wilderness but idealized visions of nature. These sites are where the mineral, biological and technological have been hybridized into cluster organisms. The museum consists of five distinct diorama displays. Each is a portrait of a habitat unique to the San San.



A mountainous peninsula in the southern region of the San San. Its canyon basin is an urban network that is defined by the most advanced telecommunication network on the Pacific coast. Buildings are not so much autonomous structures but a series of interconnected informational nodes and conduits. A center for media transmission. The mountain region is largely untouched by development. The bedrock is granite but has been restructured and augmented through genetic modification to make way for adjustable current waterways, data mines and new techno-plant hybrids. Through centuries of ecological restructuring the surface is now composed of a crystalline crust of sodium tetroborate metazoa, a man-made mineral-biological organism that has the capacity for replication and independent movement.



A volcanic system consisting of lava fields, postglacial basaltic crater rows, and small shield volcanoes. The submarine Cleveland volcanic system is contiguous and is considered part of the greater San San volcanic system. The tephera layers that cover much of the area contain an essential mineral used in the components for advanced imaging technology. Celluloid, invented in 1869, was originally derived from pyroclastic rocks, which is still the base material for the latest in holographic processing units.



PURPLE As I move deeper into the museum the displays shift from fullscale habitats to arrangements of extracted specimens and their material applications. The principle use for the unique organisms of the San San is pharmaceutical research and production. The radical mutations of the natural parklands have led to an explosion of drug possibilities. The mineralbiological hybrids of Point Saturn and the Malibu Lava Corridor have been essential to the proliferation of mindaltering substances. Once clumsy plant-based extractions have been replaced by advanced nanotechnological mechanisms that can literally customize consciousness.


Of course, with every advance in the science of mind alteration there emerges a corresponding black market that offers homespun concoctions and unsanctioned thrills. Doctor Doug, who divulged his involvement in the illicit drug trade earlier in the day, was unresponsive to my questions about the contents of this display. He did point out that “purple” is a catch-all term for a drug family that stems from magenta light molecules.


Magenta, which embodies the duality of warm and cool, is crucial to the cultivation of plant-mineral organisms because it has the fastest and highest vibration in the color spectrum and thus has the most potent consciousnessaltering capabilities. As Doctor Doug is improvising this morsel of pseudoscience I’m distracted by the sheen of his skin changing from soft pink to caramel bronze.



“Sister Moiré” is a slang term for the mutation of fiction onto biological reality. As a display, it is mostly a collection of fetish material from the arenas of advertising and entertainment. The industrial production of imagery and narrative is by far the largest economy in the San San region. Originated in the motion-picture industry of the early 20th century, it now encompasses a vast array of products and services.


This translates into a condition where there is no such thing as a fixed self. In the way that one used to be able to remodel their home from a neo-classical bachelor pad to a rococo-moderne family domicile, the body is now the site of constant renovation. Fictional characters and narratives can be directly implanted into an organism through a neural pathway remapping software. Imagined reality is now seamlessly superimposed onto the corporeal world. The entertainment-industrial complex must work in hyperdrive to replenish the insatiable desire for new and improved fantasy self-models.



At first, the banality of the kitchen seems neither novel nor germane to the general theme of the natural history museum. The décor has the demented slickness of a showroom display. White tile is polished to perfection. Stainless steel counters and devices gleam with the purity of modernist sculpture. What is supposed to be an ideal of domesticity is disrupted by what appears to be a giant moss-covered rock that sits in the center of the room. Spreading out from the rock are wires and tubes that are connected to various household appliances. The home has been turned into a DIY chemistry lab. Along the perimeter walls are mirrored portals that offer kaleidoscopic views to what appear to be other parts of the bunker.


Interior architecture as a hermetic, delusional condition had its embryo in the 19th century high-rises of San Bernardino. It reached its full embodiment as a site of consumption in the 20th century and has since evolved into a complex networked environment that is neither completely private or public but an odd fantastical hybrid. Image, drug and interior could be seen as the core trinity of the San San region. This kitchen diorama is a site of both consumption and production and an unlikely synthesis of all elements in the other dioramas. It embodies a crucial tension in San San between the reception of industrial scale and the sanctuary of personal expression.



While the dioramas offer a kind of window into the natural and cultural memory, hidden behind the low-fi theatrics of the museum is an actual physical site of information storage. I climb through a broken glass in one of the dioramas into a corridor of magneto-optical storage walls that act as a random-access memory membrane. Microprocessors constructed from tephera sediment and boron contain an undisclosed, invisible mass of electronic media. The content is not revealed nor does there appear to be any way to interface with the software. For now, the lights are out and the racks sit as vacated matter, stripped of purpose with a narrative that may or may not ever emerge.



Beyond the data-storage is the beginning of some clues as to the actual utility of the bunker. A series of rooms constructed of aluminum, glass and fluorescent light have the character of a hotel conference center mixed with a Cold War situation room. A small plaque indicates that this is the site of the Hunting Valley Institute.

This organization is of course already known as the unconventional band of intellectuals who congregated in the Winston Hotel in Santa Monica to develop esoteric systems analysis. They published 23 issues of the journal Deadeye which laid out a series of simulation games proposing a variety of possible futures for the San San region. Is this bunker one of the imagined potentialities? The basis of their analysis is the concept of feedback loops in relation to time dilation. Perhaps my descent underground was further than perceived and I’m now subject to a different gravitational force and thus in a distorted time warp?


A few of the journals are strewn around the room along with other remnants of their research models: maps, graphs, calendars, clocks, architectural models, cigarette butts, 35mm slides, antique computers and a well-stocked wet bar. Doctor Doug is at home in this room, fixing himself a drink and tending to a bit of light organization. There are tins of preserved foods and other containers with military labels that indicate somebody intended to spend months, even years living here.


Group pictures of regal looking parties suggest that the Hunting Valley Institute may have engaged in decadent pastimes. I inquire as to the potential connection of this think tank lab to the natural history museum or the dormant mainframes. Doctor Doug gives the kind of nonanswer that one might hear in a congressional hearing. I can see the texture of his skin changing before my eyes.



Hidden in closets off the scenario room are cubbies for personal dwelling. They appear modeled after the “pod” hotels developed in Japan in the 20th century as single occupancy capsules built for the extreme transience of urban life. These absurdly small chambers are designed only for sleep and connection to external media networks.

Each of the three capsules appear to have been customized by former occupants with remnants of a personal universe such as snapshots, sentimental tchotchkes, spiritual totems and pornography. It is in these chambers that the fictional persona, the “sister moiré” becomes the most tangible. These 4 x 8 foot boxes seem to hold all the essentials to how these individuals imagined their lives. Not a reality of self, but a projected desire.



A spiral staircase leads me up and out of the scenario room. Once on the second floor of the bunker I might as well be in another building. It is a domed room covered in handmade mosaics, amateur oil paintings, exotic fabrics and piles of cushions. It appears to be the hideout for some dropout youth culture. One that defines itself in opposition to the mainstream industrial, technological condition that dominates the rooms below.


A large picture window looks onto a terrarium that appears to be incubating a wilder form of the plant-mineral hybrid on display in the museum. Is this where scientific exploration and manipulation finds an unintended use? Is this the place where the refuse and sediment of the San San are reworked into a shadow society? Is there a connection between this room and the “purple” dioramas? The ritualistic use of psychedelic drugs has been part of human society since the very beginning. The 20th century saw an active subversion and criminalization of these traditions. Is this the dwelling where the sacred rituals became subculture? 



A wardrobe door in the attic leads into a giant domed cinema. The tiered seating is composed of rows of executive style office chairs that sit behind miniature personal desks, each outfitted with telephones, note pads, cup holders and a selection of single serving snacks. These zones of personal comfort could almost be the cabins for a business-class pleasure craft. Plastered on the arched ceiling are several large-scale cartographic diagrams of an unfamiliar four-dimensional terrain.


Are these geographies of cybernetic, time-dilated scenarios? Am I in a planetarium for the speculated worlds of the Hunting Valley Institute? Before I can even ask, the lights click off and Doctor Doug puts on a film that he announces as an amateur ethnographic study of the San San. The physical setting of the film is the placeless and timeless location of the “set.”


People exist solely in pictures on the wall, footage on monitors or voices from a stereo. The aesthetic has the surrealistic banality of a breakfast cereal commercial. The San San in the film, and to a certain extent the entire bunker, articulates a world where humans have been extricated from the narrative and the objects haven taken center stage.


My tour through the abandoned bunker had, up until this point, been a slow creep of confusion. But sitting in the pleather loungers snacking on Sicilian almonds I suddenly slip into a total spatio-temporal haze. Searching for some anchor to the present I turn to Doctor Doug, who isn’t watching the film, but applying a turquoise foundation to his already ultrasmooth complexion.



Exiting the theater through a 200-ft. corrugated pipe I am spit back out into the exterior world. But it appears to be nowhere near where I entered. I’m now on the slope of a forest ravine that has been manicured into a kind of Japanese stone repliscape. The parklands of the San San were famous for their unnatural compositions and this seems to be an homage to that style of tyrannical gardening. After the passage through the underground odyssey of the bunker I have the unusual feeling that the forest is not outside but merely another room in the natural history museum. The bunker sucked the wilderness out and encapsulated it in illusion and now it has somehow infested my perception of the outside world like a virus. Its future as archeological ruin is collapsed into its present condition. It is both monument and retrofuturist dust.


San San embodies the idea of the urban experience as a seamless, never-ending interior. The architectural condition of the bunker could be seen as the purest form of the interior, divorced from its surroundings with extreme vigilance. Possibly constructed as an escape from the world, the bunker exists as pure fantasy, outside of time, its own context.


It is from this specific condition that the chambers of the bunker seem to have formed an inert, parallel reality. Doctor Doug, whose skin has now transformed into a deep tropical tan, offers to take me to the local country club for the “Celebrity Buffet Special,” where a Japanese cover band plays ambient exotica standards during the dessert course. I don’t generally go for dessert or Japanese cover bands, but in the magenta afternoon light this seems like an obvious next stage.

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