From the vaults: I’ll side with the vandals

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Timur was a fellow security guard at the art museum. A couple of times a week, he and I would grab a beer after work. He was exceedingly average in some respects: twenty-six years of age, a few inches shy of six foot tall, dishwater-blonde hair. He lived with his girlfriend, who was pregnant. Yet Timur was exotic in some ways, as well: he moved to America at thirteen, spoke a heavily accented English, and his demeanor reminded me of the sort of desperate teenagers that perform death-defying stunts on foreign-language YouTube videos. The way that he carried himself, his body might have been made to soak up tension. He spoke very little about his life, and his infrequent flashes of extreme rage made me wonder if he wasn’t spiritual cousins with Gary Gilmore.

Security work can make one batty. Imagine standing up straight in an airtight room, twelve feet square, for days on end. The tedium can have a violent impact on one’s mood.

It was a slow day in the security office, and I welcomed the distraction when rumors began to circulate that management was conducting an “investigation.” What had happened to Night Sky #2? It took someone a few days to parse the hundreds of hours of security camera footage, and she didn’t know exactly what she was looking for until she found it.

The DVD shows Timur at his post. Ruminating perhaps, with nothing to occupy his time but his frustration, his fears, and that damned, mocking painting: a plain black canvas with white specks signifying, I suppose, the night sky as seen some place with low levels of light pollution. He stares down the painting, his opponent, with his back to the viewer. On the video he is perfectly positioned, as if this were all for the benefit of the camera. He looks to the left. He looks to the right. He hasn’t much thought this through, for he is a man of action. And this job, with its stillness and confinement, is driving him mad.

Timur looks to the left. He looks to the right. He lunges forward, with a nail or a pen, or a key, or a screwdriver, and cuts a gash into the canvas. And then he walks away.

A minute later he is back, examining his work. He too is an artist. He has shown the overpaid prats who run this place the true meaning of the word “interactive.”

Instead of the stultifying boredom of the Groundhog Days, he rides out the rest of his shift on a wave of adrenaline. Adrenaline, of course, is the true motivation of most petty vandals. And me, I’ll side with the vandals.

I walked home the day they arrested Timur. He was charged with institutional vandalism, which is apparently a very big deal. The police detective spirited him away quietly, in handcuffs, through the loading dock. On the walk home I thought about freedom, and about handcuffs. I thought about the tyranny of cash, credit and commerce, and about how few options there were for a vegetarian meal in my neighborhood. When I saw a large, tacky storefront display, something that only existed to sell six hundred dollar handbags, I was struck by the urge to put a brick through the window of Coach. I remembered Timur’s response when they asked why he had attacked the painting.

“I did it with a key,” he said.

“I didn’t like the painting. I’m sorry.”

* * *

I’m not sure why this story came to mind this morning, but I like it so I thought I’d share. “I’ll Side With The Vandals” is the fictional account of an incident that happened when I was a museum security guard; an Azerbaijani immigrant and guard named Timur Serebrykov “snapped” (his word) while working at the Carnegie Museum of Art and defaced a painting by Vija Celmins, a Latvian-American artist with, one friend of mine attests, something of a bad attitude.

The incident caused a minor ripple in the media, and provoked a pretty humorous response in io9, which referred to Timur as befalling some sort of “space madness.” As someone who’s spent entire days standing in one spot in the white-walled vacuum of the Carnegie Museum of Art, for months on end, “space madness” is as apt a description of the effect as any.

This story appears in a slightly different form in a novel I wrote. Don’t bother looking for it — it’s no longer available.