The Silence of Roger Ball

Randsburg, California is trying unsuccessfully to be a tourist attraction. When you walk down the town’s single drag you risk being solicited by proprietors and shopkeeps because of the lack of local foot traffic. Small galleries pop up and disappear, faded eateries close at unpredictable hours, and there’s a bar frequented by people who come to the area to offroad. The sun beats down overhead.

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Old West Days, a local themed festival that plays off Randsburg’s origins as a mining town, brings a sense of thematic revelry to the area, like a tiny RenFaire, once a year. This annual nostalgia spasm fails to revitalize the town in any significant way, and so in between, Randsburg limps along.

This situation may or may not be exactly as many Randsburg residents like it. The houses pocked unevenly around the town out into the desert are quiet, and desert-dwellers often have their own reasons for being here that have nothing to do with nostalgia.

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Roger was the only person in the central strip of the town that did not seem interested in selling me anything. I squinted at the facade of a white stucco strip mall halfway down the street, and read a hand-painted sign that said “CALIGARI’S WORKSHOP: A NON-BUSINESS.” I did not know what a non-business was, so I decided to find out.

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I was disoriented because of the indoor shade and the shafts of light cutting through the dust, but my eyes adjusted and I saw, to my right, a large collection of black-and-white photographs arranged in a sort of crowded, compact museum, and to my left, a man with a beard who looked like Father Time, working at a drafting table. Behind him were a wall of extraordinary, absurd hand-painted signs. They in large part did not reference real companies or products, and it seemed obvious that he had painted them himself.

I said “hello.” He nodded and said hello back. I said “I was just curious what a non-business was.” He said “well, here you are.” I looked around a bit. The collection of black and white photographs turned out to be pictures of silent movie stars.

I looked at the signs behind the man. I took everything in. I waited for him to ask me if he could help me, or to offer to sell me one of the signs, or to ask me for a donation. He did none of these things. He just kept working.

This was Roger Ball.

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I said thank you for letting me look around, and he said you’re welcome, without looking up. I left, since I was spending time with my family and girlfriend.

I knew I would be back.

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Roger Ball is an endangered species.

He first acquired a phone and a computer within the last year or two, and that makes him rare enough. It seems like nothing can really exist today without a business plan, or a marketing budget, or a social media presence. It became clear during my visit that his “workshop” did not “exist” in any traditional, capitalist sense of the word.

After I left, I could not find any trace of it, or him, on the internet, and I looked. I didn’t even learn his name when I came the first time–I just figured, as one generally does these days, that I could google “Dr. Caligari’s Workshop Randsburg” and find him somehow. I was very wrong. I found one or two traces, almost nothing, and couldn’t locate his full name.

I eventually made peace with the fact that the only way I could gather more information would be to drive back out into the desert, walk back into the shop, and ask him. It was mid-summer when I finally did, and being in Randsburg in mid-summer in a building with no air conditioning felt suicidal, but Roger didn’t seem to mind. I offered him water, but he made clear that he consumed only two liquids: coffee and alcohol. I had neither.

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“Well, I came here in April ‘91, to go to work at the mine. The mine was in operation at that time. I came here from Ballarat. And prior to this place, I’d lived in Ballarat for four years. That’s sixty three miles north by northeast from here.

It’s a ghost town. Smaller than Randsburg. Very little of it left now.”

Ballarat is closer to Barker Ranch, the last hideout of the Manson Family, than it is to anything that could be called a town or a city. It currently consists of approximately two buildings.

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I knew these kinds of places, and places like Randsburg, and other one-intersection junction towns and forgotten enclaves; They’d been a part of the background of my childhood, and had marked out the edges of a kind of nothingness. For me, life in the desert had consisted of this nothingness, though I hadn’t had a name for it: an absence of centrality, a marginal vibration, and an immense silence. If you wanted to crowd around the bright center of human civilization, you went to a place like Los Angeles. If you wanted to do the opposite, you went to Ballarat.

I told him I liked places like that.

He said “They have their own character.”

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I wanted to know if he’d always existed between these forgotten outposts. It seemed like a bottomless life.

“No, no. Mostly, my younger years were spent in northern California, from the age of five. To go back to my first impression of the desert, I was ten years old, in 1963. I was a passenger in my uncle’s Austin-Healey. He’d gone down to Tijuana, from northern California, and took his son (my cousin) and me with him for a little vacation. And coming back from Mexico, he took the desert route, and that was my first view of the desert. And I was impressed by it. It left an impression.”

What kind of impression?

“It looked intriguing; inviting. A mystery.

That’s when I was ten years old. I didn’t see the desert again until 1985 or ‘86. I was working for a construction company in northern California, and it was time to take a vacation. I’d been there six years. I lived there; I was there full-time.

And I wanted to see the desert, so I did. I took off on a motorcycle and came down. Went down through Arizona, down to Yuma, and back up again. Around Nevada, the western side of Nevada. And then I ended up wanting to see what Wildrose was. Just picking places on the map at random, and Wildrose sounded interesting. So I headed for Wildrose, northwards, through Trona.

And there was this dirt road turnoff from the pavement, and it said ‘Ballarat.’ So I took the turnoff, a random selection, and I met Ballarat.

I liked it there. I liked the Panamint mountains. So I went back to work for about a day, changed my mind, and went back on vacation. So since 1987, I’m still on vacation.”

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I was incredulous. This man literally held no job since 1987?

“I mean, my last company job was at the mine...that was a six-year span too.”

From construction to mining. It made sense, since it was one of the only industries in the region, especially the region as represented by places like Ballarat and Randsburg. There wasn’t much out here, but there were certainly plenty of minerals. I myself used to dodge open mine shafts while playing in the desert as a kid.

“I always had a desire to work underground in the mines. Now, I was supposed to go to work for a mine that was south of Ballarat. I knew the miners there. It was the Keystone mine, Goler Wash. And the day I was supposed to start work there, there was a storm. The road washed out. You know the roads there, in the mountains, run up the washes and the canyons.

And so the mine was shut down until the road could be repaired. So I didn’t get to go to work right then. And then the road was replaced, repaired, and I was supposed to get to work....and the mine folded.”

You’re tied to the land, to the physical caprice of industry, to the natural resources, to the dirt. Roger Ball had moved through the world guided by his eyes, and a few paper maps, since he was a young man. I’d heard echoes of stories like this from other boomers, people of Roger’s generation– how they’d traced a path from their hometown to their final destination by following whims, by hearing about jobs somewhere, or by meeting their wife.

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Today, it seems like almost every aspect of our lives gets planned out on our computers before we do it. We find directions to places on Google Maps, we research job openings the same way. We use algorithms to find everything, even the people we eventually love. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it’s certainly different than what Roger experienced.

We also talk. Endlessly. We type messages at each other, we post about ourselves online, we talk in our Instagram stories to invisible audiences. We communicate constantly, until we believe that communication and action are the same thing. Roger seemed almost unused to talking, and when I asked him how he’d found this building, how he’d come to be in this exact spot, it took him a moment to translate his experiences and actions into words.

“This place? Well, simultaneous, prior to, and after Rand mine, I did odd jobs. Carpentry, hauling masonry, setting tile, whatever. Which could be done here at that time, because most of the places were on [mining] claims. On claims, construction is code-exempt. So you didn’t have to have a contractor’s license.

So I did a lot of painting, and plumbing, and carpentry, and roofing and all that, as side jobs. When I first came to Randsburg, I got a job working for a resident, a resident who happened to own a building across the street that they sold later on, and do not own now. But they own this building. So we’ve been friends ever since I arrived here.”

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“And in something like ‘95 or ‘96, I took up one of the cellar spaces in this building for a workshop. And instead of paying rent, I just did work exchange, doing repair work. From that point on, I wasn’t doing work on other places elsewhere; I was working here. And that built up until all the work here was done by me.

Until I was disabled. I couldn’t work as well, as fast, though I still continued working. I was on disability, so I had an income from disability. So instead of work, I just started paying rent on this building. I started on the side next door, and that was mine, and then this was mine. And I built that up to completion where it was rentable, on that side.

So I moved out of that side, and into this side. And this side was a mess at that time. I rebuilt the floor, rebuilt the doors, the windows. Poured the concrete out there, put the wall there. Rebuilt the ceiling. Wired this place.

And now I’m no longer able to do even simple carpentry, except on a very small elementary scale. So this is my last stand, I guess.

My last place of occupation, and home. And workshop. And display for people to look at.”

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Roger seemed to have found a niche for himself by feeling for it; by using his hands. He hasn’t had an easy life, but his modest journey provokes a kind of nostalgia, and even potentially some measure of jealousy, which is absurd given my own level of privilege.

“I started out in agriculture, when I was eight years old. Picking prunes and walnuts. When your family’s not wealthy you do all kinds of stuff for income, you know. Picking up soda pop bottles which were return-for-deposit, at that time. Weeding, picking up rocks in fields, hauling hay. Painting.

I was ten years old when I painted somebody’s porch. Twelve years old I got my first house-painting job, interior house-painting job. That was when latex paint was newly introduced. It was like poster paint, really lousy thin stuff. You put on five coats and you still don’t have coverage.”

I imagined the decisions and discoveries of paint chemists, in cities far away, impacting the workday of this NorCal kid. At least it was probably better for him than painting with lead-based paint. I commented that the house-painting seemed related craftwise to the sign-painting.

“Well, signage has been a fascination since childhood. A fascination that just wasn’t grown out of, you know. It’s still there.”

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“They had visual appeal, signs did. Plus the lettering. I learned to read at an early age, and saw the printed word as something that was familiar and comfortable to me. And so consequently, signage is.”

Corporate logos, jingles, and branded characters worm their way into our subconscious, becoming part of our inner emotional selves, even part of our dreams. When Disney creates a princess, they’re willing a new emotional longing into the deepest lives of millions of children. Many of us have similarly nostalgic relationships with the Coca Cola logo, or the Got Milk billboards, or the eighties ads for the action board game Crossfire.

Roger the sign-painter is, in effect, an indie-pop artist: just as musicians like John Maus do, he’s repurposing pop structures to express something decidedly less commercial; to explore his own love of a form. But his work is so exquisite that I was sure he must do commercial sign-painting on the side. He seemed to find the idea somewhat repulsive.

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“An occupation? No.

Well, I’ve made signs for other people, yes. I never sold signs. I never charged for them. If something was interesting sign-wise, and I wanted to see what it looked like, I’d make a sign for somebody. And if they wanted to pay me or give me something for it, fine. Otherwise, it’s my contribution. Probably only one time was it ever a mistake. By some people who...had a thing for burning people. You know, the kind of people who cheat at cards. Was one of my best signs, put a lot of time into it.

But that was past tense. Some people will trade stuff, or give me stuff, or give me money, and if they give me too much then I feel uneven, like I owe them something. One person wanted a sign made, and they spent a hundred dollars on tobacco and papers, because I said just give me some tobacco and papers. So I made them a weathervane.

Signage, I do for my own entertainment. I don’t like doing things for money. Traditional values of the sixties. Something we’ve very much grown out of. Forgotten by the flower children who grew thorns.”

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Perennially, in management and corporate branding, there is discussion about moving back toward some kind of authentic value– toward excellence and quality as drivers of human activity, rather than just profit margins. We seem to have great difficulty hewing to values that Roger articulates quite simply.

But articulating these values is only the first step. Viciousness and greed seem to be unavoidable side-effects of compounded human activity. They’re in all of us, but when the systems get large enough, those forces of coldness, self-interest, and lowest-common-denominator thinking aggregate and amplify, and we have to actively fight against them. Roger’s devotion to “traditional sixties values” might seem quaint if I hadn’t recently heard the exact same conversation in corporate boardrooms.

But he stopped me. “Okay, the sixties, pretty much, was about the middle class. And poor kids were poor kids, and couldn’t really do a lot of stuff. The Ivy-Leaguers were into it. My situation was different.”

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“Poor kids, there’s alcohol and there was ten dollar...what you’d call now ‘shake.’ Ratty stuff. This is kind of like a world for kids who don’t have much going for excitement in their lives. I was never a hippie. Around hippies, I was more of a redneck. But I was never a redneck, because around rednecks, I was more of a hippie.

My grandmother was kind of an early influence. She was an angel, even though she died when I was nine years old. When she died, my conscience was removed. And I got rebellious, and kind of spiteful, because she was gone. So there was juvenile hall, and there was institutions, and foster homes and all that. I was not an angel or a good kid. But I wasn’t a serial killer either.

I turned eighteen in jail. I was tried as an adult– I looked old for my age, and I started drinking in bars when I was fifteen. And I decided when I turned eighteen that I wasn’t going to do anything bad anymore. And I never did. Never stole anything, never burned anybody or injured anybody that didn’t want to injure me. Except I drank. I would do illegal things, like drunk driving, driving without a seatbelt.

But when I turned eighteen...you start to mature a little bit, and you start to remember what your grandmother was about. And your grandfather. My grandfather was retired career Marine Corps, and he was a master carpenter. I kind of picked up that carpentry trait from him.”

Roger did get the opportunity to try acid, and he described the experience to me. His mind was opened to the cosmos, despite his materially bound circumstances. Roger cares deeply about creativity and innovation, and about making things that are an expression of his inner world.

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“Expressionism and surrealism are fascinating things for me. I am a product of the sixties, and so these things, surrealism, are kind of like...I’ve always liked them.

The sixties are kind of a reflection of the twenties, if you look back in history. It was a time of new invention, and freedom, and expression. So the people of the twenties, the flappers, weren’t a whole lot different than the sixties generation. Not the same, but very similar. A creative renaissance.”

In keeping with his zeal for the twenties, the entire other half of Roger’s self-constructed museum, and much of his personal passion, were devoted to an art form that flourished before his time or mine.

“Movies are something I didn’t discover until only a few years ago. And what I discovered was silent movies, which have printed dialog in them. It’s a combination of moving photographs– you know, I like cameras. Pictures. Something I’ve never gotten into creatively, but I enjoy pictures. So you’ve got the moving images, plus the lettering.”

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“Plus it’s original. Silent movies are original. They’re the first pioneers. Silent movies are where the film industry began; its birthplace. It was just a fascination.

That was right at the turn of the century; 1900 or so. A lot of creativity was born then, and imagination. One theater where [a film with a train] was shown was built to resemble the inside of a Pullman passenger train. The people would sit, and then while watching the film, the set, the Pullman, would rock.”

When I was a kid, I was always fascinated with the Star Tours ride at Disneyland, the first motion-simulator I ever tried. I was totally unaware the idea was such an ancient artifact of the entertainment industry.

“A lot of experimentation back then. Panoramic view. They did that; it was a round screen. They’d have more than one projector, like three projectors, so you’re surrounded by the screen.”

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As Roger described this to me, he seemed to grow wistful. The urge to create was inborn and native in him– in everybody, it seemed. But in my own life, it had become difficult to separate the urge to create from the urge to be seen and make money.

When I make something, these days, I’m already thinking about how it’s going to fit into some kind of promotional architecture. This shapes the work. When I was writing lots of content on Facebook, for example, I would think in first-lines that would grab the attention of the reader; functionally, clickbait.

But this wasn’t necessarily even a conscious choice. Writing on the platform for years just made me write this way. It shaped me behaviorally– when I wrote one way, people responded more, and it felt good. So I tended to write that way more often.

There’s nothing wrong with having an audience. But one of the fondest fever dreams of the contemporary creative economy is a kind of ultimate algorithm for attention and financial capture. Data gathered from how users interact with creative content is used to make creative content “better.” This force shapes human expression in profound and powerful ways– from the way photos are deployed online to the way news is written to the way YouTubers talk.

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A company called TubeScience actually guarantees their ability to use data to “optimize” your creative content. On their website, they say “What's broken today? 60% of video ads fail to increase sales. Why? The creative process lacks hard data.”

In the art world, websites like ArtRank use data to advise and influence the buying and selling of artwork– regardless of the artwork’s content.

In this model, creative success and market success are conflated. There is no real consideration of work that might have emotional or artistic value but no value in terms of market penetration. The data, the reasoning goes, would tell us if this work were important. Difficult cases like Van Gogh, whose work did not appreciate until after his death, are glossed over– glitches in the long-term march toward our total computational understanding of the creative process.

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It may be that the most vivid and present effect of this shift in human civilization will be the way each of us actually experiences the making of artwork. In the future, will we consult the algorithms in an effort to understand the impact of our work, before we make it? Or will we concede that the point of artmaking is more personally therapeutic, and less about the communicative or impactful value of the final product?

In other words, do we make art to communicate, or do we make art just to have the experience of making art?

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When I was a kid, I loved to draw maps of imaginary places. I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought maybe one day they would make it into a video game or a book or something– but really, I wasn’t thinking too much about audience. It seemed, instead, that I wanted to explore these territories for myself. I wanted to discover them. If you’d told me that in the future there might be a computer that could read the book of my life, and discover these stories and territories for me, and show them to me, it’s hard to know how that might’ve made me feel.

Would I have been disturbed? Or would I have eagerly devoured the maps provided to me by this higher soul?

Roger will likely never have to deal with these questions directly. He is a human aggregator: he has populated his museum of silent film artifacts and photos by doing the footwork. And whether or not The Roger Ball Algorithm can compete for market penetration with the finest minds in data-driven creative optimization, it still produced an environment I had never seen before, and felt driven to explore.

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“All that stuff was found. There are things on display here that were found underneath the building, under the floors, it had just been there. Other things have been collected over the years, and then still other things are collected by intentional effort; looking for them. Especially photographs. And that goes on today; I still find things.

Prior to this year, I was computer illiterate. I never had a computer until the beginning of this year. Same thing for a telephone; never had a telephone, ever until now.

So my new world is searching on the internet, finding things. Artifacts, photographs. But my sole reason for getting a computer to begin with is because I wanted to make a video. So that’s what I’m doing now.

A silent video. The title of it is Dr. Caligari’s Carnival Show.

I have something like eight or nine minutes of video so far, in a six-month period. And it’s a carnival; there’s no storyline. And it’s silent. So it’s something that is intentionally set up so that I can work on until I’m no longer able to do anything.”

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“They said I was going to end up in a wheelchair; that was four years ago. And I still walk. But even if I’m in a wheelchair, I think, this is something that I can still do.

I’ve always worked with my hands. I’m not an intellectual. I’m patient, and I always have to have something to do. So now I have something to do.

There is a second thing: I like alcohol. I’m not an alcoholic, but I can take alcohol if I choose to. And if I choose alcohol, it’s all or nothing. When I drink, I take it seriously– which I did for a while, quite a while, until I decided to make a video. Now I don’t drink at all, and I’m full tilt on the video. Everything I do is oriented and orchestrated to connect with making a silly video.”

And the video, of course, will be silent. I felt powerless to convey to Roger how much we long for silence today.

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