Text: Helen Kaplinsky

Black Box Kulture

The romance of Kustom Kar Kulture can be summed up by the image of the scorching California sun hitting 10 layers of sparkling brittle clear-coated enamel. It is the story of how we fell in love with the surface of technology, ironically at a time when it was still possible for the consumer to get under the hood of the actual machine. Kustomising enabled consumers to transform an affordable, standardised and efficient Ford into a unique artwork. The body of the car was streamlined: chopped, raked back, channeled, spliced, shaved and trimmed to make the machine look longer, smoother, enhanced. The car became a native in the flat, hot, desert landscape. The dry, sprawling openness of California worked in partnership with the organic and aerodynamic energy of the Kandy machine. Of course the artist (or mechanic) was not simply producing an effect upon the surface of the car, they were boosting its organs, beefing it up, hotrodding it so it could really vex the road. Suped up cars have existed since the 1920s, but after the Second World War, soldiers returned with a basic knowledge of mechanics, massively increasing the numbers of young men with the technical knowhow to fiddle with their ride. In addition, small military airports all over the United States were abandoned after the War, leaving vast strips of tarmac ideal for drag racing and hanging out.
The impulse to customise has seen production and mechanisation go full circle from the unique artisanal crafted product, to efficient standardised Fords back to the time-consuming customised product of Kustom Kulture. One can see the Kustom as grass-roots Post-Fordism; the transformation of the utilitarian into the flexible product, tailored to the consumer's taste. However, today Post-Fordist product is simultaneously 'open' to morph according to the consumer's identity and a sealed automaton black box. Today we can tinker with the surface but as consumers this is as far as we can hope to creatively supe up. The black box at the centre of the automaton means that the essential characteristics are impervious to tinkering because neither the consumer nor the artist has access to the mechanics of information processing. The concept of the black box emerged in the early 1940s following the invention of network synthesis filters: electronic signal processing to achieve a particular function. When the code necessary to process the function became the property of the manufacturer and therefore hidden from the consumer and artist, this opacity was coined the black box.
Fordism's transformation into Post-Fordism is a process in which design amalgamates the characteristics of the artwork. Kustom Kulture operated through a dual process of remodelling both the organs and the surface of the machine. Today, with the mechanics hidden from the consumer's view, 'surface' is all we are left to play with. Perhaps this surface flexibility amounts to a decorative, symbolic Post-Fordism not quite divorced from the origins of Kustoms. From the beginning, the decorative surface (quite literally in terms of paintwork) was paramount to the aesthetic of Kustom Kulture.The clear coat that protects and provides depth to the metallic paint job is a key signifier of the Kustom look, making it more ornament than functioning machine. Miniscule anodised aluminium chips were combined with nitrocellulose lacquer paint. On top of this one could slather infinite layers of clear coat. A labour intensive and meditative ritual, each coat would need to dry and be sanded back before the next was applied. The more layers the higher the exaltation of the artist, Hot Rod Magazine praised fifty coats and it is in many cases the paint job that renders a car a museum piece. With time the thick lacquer stratum becomes a brittle beauty, spent in the California sun. Just starting the engine risks a crack in its surface.
In 1949, the first Muscle Car came on the market.These off the shelf high performance supped-up engines emulated the light frame, high-speed philosophy of the Kustom Hot Rod. The Muscle gathered popularity in the 1960s and in 1963 Ford produced 200 lightweight drag-racing specimens.The Ford Galaxy was also released as a road-legal edition of 5,000. It claimed 0-60 in less than 6 seconds. Following this were numerous low-slung gleaming objects of youthful male American desire. The XPAK 400 was designed and built by Barris Kustoms in 1960. The concept capsule was without wheels, instead floating on a friction free cushion of air. Although this was intended to make it drivable on both land and water it was exclusively a showpiece and never left its guide rails, travelling from one exhibition centre to the next, a neutered star.The seat was covered in white pearl Naugahyde, the carpet white plush and the body was painted with 35 coats of imported Swedish nitro cellulose lacquer pearl made with the essence of crushed fish scales and diamond dust. In 1965, the author and journalist Tom Wolfe visited George Harris, the foremost Kustom Kar engineer of Barris Kustoms, which resulted in the article The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. "Barris looks like Picasso, the body-shop is a gallery," Wolfe contends, (Wolfe 1963, 81), "the cars are sculpture...curvilinear abstract sculpture" (Wolfe, 1963, 82). Although one could blame the neutering of the Kustom on the Muscle Car and the exhibition centre, in fact as Wolfe says, the body-shop was already designated a gallery, the Kustom willingly sterilised itself through the tipping of the balance towards surface.
With the introduction of efficient manufacturing Ford cars came off the assembly line faster and faster. Paint was the point past which production bottlenecked. 'Japan Black',the fastest drying colour available, was the only colour used from 1914 until 1926 when the Duco fast-drying lacquer was developed. Critically it was during the period of Japan Black totalitarianism that Kustom Kulture developed. Essentially the surface initiated the impulse to adapt. Overall the gains in productivity achieved through the assembly production line were passed onto factory workers. Their pay increased three fold over three years of service and Ford reduced the overall hourly working week. The development of Teenage culture is partly associated with a rise in affluence, thanks to the supposed trickle-down effect of Ford achieving higher profits. Before the economic growth of the mid-fifties there was no such thing as youth-culture. Working class youth were expected to start earning a wage from the age of fifteen and learn to become adults whilst handing most of their wages over to their mother each week. Middle class youths were protected from temptation by a series of academic hurdles. A restricted amount of money and time were made available to them, preventing opportunity for leisure.
The emergence of teenage culture, which went hand-in-hand with Kustom Kulture, appears as Libertarian Romanticism: a desire to banish controls, for an unfettered freedom to express the Self. Hysteria becomes an important experiential phenomenon; mobs of young girls at concerts winding each other up into a shrill frenzy of worship. Pushing experience to limits as a function of release was also performed through drugs, mysticism, and a fetishisation of Eastern philosophy rooted in Coleridge's brand of Romanticism. The hippy movement followed the birth of teenage culture and its key signifier of free hanging long hair is a symbol of emancipation. 'The Proverbs of Hell' by William Blake (1789) taken out of context of his whole work provided popular rebellious slogans: "Damn braces: Bless relaxes", "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction", "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires". However the analogy of Romanticism and teen culture goes deeper than a rebellious temperament, the Neo-classicists playing the role of the proverbial parents. Both are flamboyant, spontaneous and existential, both somehow provide asegue into the platitudinal figure of the bohemian artist. The artist, like the art object is by definition different. Just as Post-Fordism took the art object as the quintessential product, the unique quality of the artist is of course the blueprint for the individual Post-Fordist worker. Railing against 'the system', the artist assists the progress of history and in the process shirks any benefit that the system might provide, such as contractual stability. Artists, and increasingly Post-Fordist operatives work for themselves; they have no responsibility to anyone but their own existential spirit.
The seductive pastoral vistas and textures of nineteenth century Romanticism once transported the reader to a place kinder to the senses than the pandemonium of industrialisation. Today we are romanced and pleasured by the impenetrable machined surface. The first mechanised assembly line of 1797, which produced Eli Whitney's cotton gin, coincided with the year that Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan. While the assembly line would result in the sleek ideal of Kustom, the Romance of the object inseparable from the California landscape equivalents the English response to Industrialisation tied to the landscape, our "green & pleasant Land" (Blake, 1808/ Parry 1916). The Romantic period is characterised by an emotional, subjective contemplation of nature. The power of vision and imagination spurred by the spirit of the subject sought to counter-act the objective values of the Enlightenment which preceded mass Industrialisation. Imagination was a means of escape from the abject horror of urban squalor. Our idealised vision of the English countryside is based on a sense of loss of place that the peasant émigrés of the Industrial Revolution experienced. In the British context, Post-Fordism was born in the 1960s during the age of the permissive society; the coming together of Humanism and late Romanticism. Christianity became less confident in its moral assertiveness, Humanism became a leading force in promoting widely supported reforms which represented a shift in the moral code of the country; capital punishment was abolished in 1965; laws relating to abortion, family planning, homosexuality and divorce were all liberalised. The class of consumers we are dealing with today are cultured, liberated and well educated; the demographic audience for an inspiring coffee table book.
Helen Kaplinsky
William Blake (1789).The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. William Blake (1808).And did those feet in ancient time/ Hubert Parry (1916). Jerusalem. Opus Media Group (2013). Making of an Opus. Available: http://www.thisisopus.com/making. Last accessed 16/05/13. Tom Wolfe (1963).The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. London:Vintage.
Helen Kaplinsky, London, 2013.