Formation-Object Lesson

 A novelty coin, pressed from a 2016 United States one-cent coin (97.5% zinc, 2.5% copper) from the La Brea Tarpits Museum in Los Angeles, California.)

A novelty coin, pressed from a 2016 United States one-cent coin (97.5% zinc, 2.5% copper) from the La Brea Tarpits Museum in Los Angeles, California.)

Known for cosmetic surgery, imported palm trees, and computer-generated dragons, Los Angeles is a great exporter of manipulated realities, with fantastic powers of craft and distribution that earlier civilizations could scarcely imagine.

Los Angeles is second only to Las Vegas in its reputation for artifice: the creative arts as aesthetics smokescreen, obscuring or improving upon nature to reshape it to quixotic and ever-changing human standards.

Where Las Vegas is about the excesses that pure money can bring, Los Angeles clads the same human impulse for power and wealth with a shining veneer of meaning— “but really, it’s about the power of stories!” the prehistoric campfire stories ported over to digital video, old craft upgraded with the tech and knowledge that accrues with centuries.

The tar is a through line of utility and human constructions: 10,000 years ago indigenous people used the tar from La Brea’s pits as an adhesive and coating, adding it to baskets and boats to smooth and seal the rough surfaces of plant materials. Today we plug up the irregular surfaces of the earth, creating smoothly contoured skins that we can ride upon in great mechanical beasts, fed by the same root of ancient petroleum sludge.

The Tar Pits today are a murky portal between epochs: modern goods dropped by careless tourists or curious teens fall into the active pools and are drawn down into the blackness; ancient artifacts and remains are pulled up through it by patient archeologists.

 
 An active tar pit, with a mixture of sticks, pine cones, buttons and plastic bottle caps that have fallen, or been dropped in by visitors to the musuem

An active tar pit, with a mixture of sticks, pine cones, buttons and plastic bottle caps that have fallen, or been dropped in by visitors to the musuem

 

Museums invite looking, and mostly prohibit touching. But we have a deep reptilian itch for the tactile, and for the ability to own a thing rather than merely admire it, and so the souvenir industry thrives.

The gift shop is filled with a smattering of geological and mammalian errata: sloth t-shirts, geode slices, salt lamps.

I don’t recall for certain if this coin is the cheapest souvenir that the museum offers, but it seems likely.

The machine for (re)making the coin is set apart from the gift shop, next to the exhibits themselves.

The souvenir coin is a tiny trophy of our ingenious, brutal tools for reshaping the material world: at once a carefully controlled, manufactured object, bearing a honorary profile in delicate bas-relief is slipped into a machine and summarily crushed, flattened and drawn, taking advantage of the malleable nature of the zinc and copper.

This destructive/creative act costs one dollar (plus the original penny), and a small, nearly ceremonial act of performative labor.
Crank, crank, clink: the coin emerges reimagined as a slim, tinny lozenge. In the smear of the coin the artifice of the penny is revealed: streaks of white zinc stretch across the surface of coin, revealing the composition.

Abraham Lincoln, a great man of history is long-gone.

He is smushed entirely, replaced with the forcibly embossed image of a wooly mammoth, and tiny letters that read: LA BREA TARPITS & MUSEUM.