Massive Freight

There are many events where one could choose to mark the beginning of contemporary consumer culture, but for me none is so prescient as Jan 4, 1903 when for the first time industrial technology, big media,  and the entrepreneurial spirit all converged on Luna Park, NY for the filmed execution of Topsy the elephant.  In Topsy's sad melodrama there is plenty of real tragedy and a horrific account of human cruelty and callousness. However, these well known aspects of her story do not interest me here so much as a the symbolism of Topsy's death and an analysis of the cultural forces that rippled out from that event eerily foreshadowing our postindustrial consumer culture.   "Massive Freight" serves as an overarching and flexible metaphor that refers to the weight of ideologies: colonialism, scientific positivism, economic neoliberalism, and capitalist progress.  The title also refers to the wight of institutions- industrial technology and mass media/entertainment. Finally, it acknowledges the weight of our own moral culpability as the beneficiaries and enablers of these ideologies and institutions.  With Massive Freight I am attempting to bring together and create as sense of continuity between the industrial excesses of the early 20th century and  the post industrial, consumerist excesses of the twenty-first.  

As a symbol its easy to think the of Topsy as an eco-martyr, a charismatic mega-fauna victim of progress in the nature/culture war. While there is much to this all-too-easy reading, what makes Topsy's death so compelling and timely to me is that it serves as one of the first intersections of industrial scale technology, mass media and Laissez-faire capitalism, the same three forces that still act as the engine for global consumer culture.

In 1903 when poison and strangling were not up to the task, Topsy's owners finally turned to the modern marvel that was Tesla's AC current to dispatch the elephant, an obsolete and costly liability of the pre-industrial age. Cameras from The Edison Manufacturing Company recorded Topsy's electrocution to be played on Edison Kinetoscopes for the amazement and voyeuristic interest of those who were not among the throngs who payed to witness the spectacle in person. 

In Massive Freight I have purposely conflated victim and perpetrator. As the smoke clears following the electrocution, I have re-edited a Grand Theft Auto machinima into a lucid flying dream, a positivist/utopian reverie of progress that startlingly transitions into a free-fall plummet. But there is no climactic impact, no final reckoning or redemption.  The scene simply resets. For better or worse we remain convinced that science/technology/global capital will save us from the inevitable failures of the same: Hiroshima, the cold war, Fukushima, the banking crisis, BP Deepwater Horizon, global warming... Hope, like disaster, springs eternal. We, like Topsy in the third frame, swim endlessly, comically, head down, in an exhausted, half-submerged trance. Meanwhile, masssive freight inexorably, continually plies its way in endless global circuits...    


Massive Freight uses a video copy of the original Edison Manufacturing kinetoscope movie of 1903, Electrocuting an Elephant

Animated sequences are adapted from Indirivacua's elephant machinima of the video game Grand Theft Auto,( 

The container ship footage of the Mol Glide arriving in Savannah, GA was shot by David Mabe.  

The sound clip "Cyrus the Great" is from Orchard Music's  Sounds of the Circus: South Shore Concert Band.

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