Moving Room To Room, Tentacle By Tentacle: Michael McCall’s Long Strange Trip

By Peter Frank
Forward to:
Captain Squid & The Tentacle Room:
Adventures in Life, Love & Art
by Michael McCall
Fabrik Press, 260 pp., $35.00

Michael McCall came of age at a time when it was cool to live your art. That time may be coming back (no little thanks to McCall’s example, I’ll wager), but between coming of age and compiling this account, McCall’s lifestyle came to be regarded as more vagabond than renegade, more hippie than hip, more irresponsible than irreverent. Plenty of wannabe art-lifers gave the art-life a bad name. McCall — always an art maker, not just a goof, and always answering to aesthetic and ethical standards — wasn’t one of them, and he was brave enough to stick to his guns, keep on living his life as if it were an artwork, and keep on being committed to that life/art.

Image for post
Image for post

McCall wasn’t always, or even usually, at what the art world would consider the “right place at the right time.” Los Angeles in the 80s? Washington DC in the 70s? Key West ever? These were not hot spots. Except that they were — and not just in their own ways. They were loci of eccentric innovation, not just backwaters. And they turned out to be key sites in the social as well as the aesthetic development of art in America.

Well, maybe not Key West. But what a clever place to start. Key West is one of those locales whose exotic history, not to mention ambiance, assures some sort of creative energy, no matter how dissipate. It’s a good place to try out anything (short of snowboarding). It’s definitely a good place to try out living your art as your life and vice versa, because the weather as well as the people will tolerate and even support you — up to a point. You find out what that point is, you learn about limits, you figure out what guns to stick to and which to put back in your holster, and you work it from there. McCall could have done this in upland Maui, perhaps, or in the south Louisiana outback, or in Mendocino County somewhere; when climate allows American orneriness to flourish comfortably, art can be lived. A son of the south, McCall just headed as south as he could, and drove his stake in at the tipping (not to mention tipsy) point.

But a stake is not a root, and, true to his generation and, even more, his artistic spirit, McCall pulled his stake once his lesson was learned and moved on. He was looking for challenge and growth and the chance to communicate with a “real” audience. DC seemed perfect, another southern town but big and strange and tough and full of people who pay attention because they’re paid to pay attention. And in the mid-70s, in the midst of America’s art revolution, Washington — which for once was dumping money and largesse and enthusiasm for the arts all over the country, not least on itself — thought itself ready for artist types. Washington? That’ll be the day. But if there was any moment at which DC was ready to bohemianize, it was 1978. The visionaries and space cadets had taken over the National Endowment for the Arts and the local museums and art spaces, making DC for once a vital artistic locus; so McCall, who had literally proven his space-cadetedness by creating Key West’s first alternate space, was landing among kin.

Michael McCall, 1972, Los Angeles
The First Official Membership Meeting, Dec. 2, 1980. The DC Tentacle Room, photo courtesy of Mark Gulezian

Trouble is, 1978 was the last moment to bohemianize DC, not the first. McCall got there a little bit late — not too late to work the magic of the Tentacle Room, and certainly not too late to learn how to professionalize his act or how to live his art in an urban environment, but only soon enough to ride the high-water DC art-wave to shore. There wasn’t another; the Reaganauts saw to that. Personal circumstance conspired with political to pop McCall off the Potomac, hurtling him west. This time, he fell to LA. And this time, McCall found himself in a scene just beginning to boil and burgeon. He’s been here ever since.

McCall has lived in the same town now for almost three decades. He’s gotten married ’n’ divorced. He has offspring. He is a fixture on the scene, and demonstrably a longtime contributor to its growth and vitality. McCall’s nomadic days are definitely behind him. But he’s still the “lifestyle artist” he was in Key West (even if less license is now allowed his lifestyle). And he’s getting new props from the new punks.

Olivia Street Tentacle Room, Key West, 1976
Tentacle Room, DC

All the old dogs are getting new kicks, actually. McCall’s re-emergence is no more remarkable than is Billy Al Bengston’s, or Steve Kaltenbach’s, or that of any still-living Fluxus artist — except for the fact that McCall is a few years younger than these other survivors. But what he’s been through — okay, put himself through — is similarly impressive in its daring and its color and its avoidance of all but the most necessary and logical compromise. Not that McCall has necessarily suffered from it; you get a sense from his account of his art-life that he would have been in pain every moment of a more normative existence, and has viewed the difficulties he brought on himself as simply part of the process of living. He’s not incautious, much less foolish, but he took many calculated risks and did better than he might have.

We’re the better for it, too. We have McCall’s artwork — some of it, anyway — around to admire. And we still have McCall around to invite us along. Reading his narrative, you never get the feeling that he’s challenging us to rebel against the status quo, nor even that he is rebelling, necessarily. The feeling you get is that he’s simply opted for the road less traveled, and that he had the skills and the patience and the appetite to make it work for him. Michael McCall doesn’t want us to live like him; he wants to share with us how he’s lived.

— Peter Frank, Los Angeles

Written by

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store