The Poo Syndicate's Dude's of Honor at a West Virginia coal field.
From left: Balb is the Squayak, Keff is the Gock, Poob is the Beeb,
and Cranium Coco Puff.
"God Save Us From the Poos..." by Whitney Trettien for getunderground.com
Head west from my hometown, Frederick, Maryland, and the city sprawls
out into a suburb, a smattering of houses, a hill, and, eventually, a rocky highway
headed toward almost-heaven: West Virginia. A land of tire swings, bare-toes and
car carcasses crawling with naked babies; a land of -lesses -- toothless, shapeless
bodies, penniless families, hopelessness; where the quaint, hippy posh of burgs
like Berkeley Springs and Shepherdstown seat counties with an annual average
income equivalent to the price of a plasma television.
West Virginia jokes aren't funny because of hyperbole -- they're funny
because they can't even come close to reality.
"These things don't exist outside of here, really," says Balb is the Squayak,
West Virginia native and founding member of The Poo Syndicate, "West Virginia's
Only High Weirdness Art Collective."
"We struggle against [our West Virginian identity]," adds Poob Is the Beeb,
"because the cultural elite don't know about basic geography. Most say, 'Oh, I've
been to Virginia beach.' So when we drop something this unique on them, they
just scratch their heads."
From Huntington, West Virginia, a "humid valley east of the Ohio and west
of the Mason Dixon," The Poo Syndicate is a loose collective of childhood friends
-- artists, writers, and the unemployed -- who have turned their geographic identity
crisis into a post-modern artistic endeavor: bring WV's cultural detritus to the
masses. With the Poo's sponsorship, objects snagged from flea markets across
West Virginia adorned the shelves of Brooklyn's City Reliquary earlier this year
during an Art Collector's night, the collective's first step toward introducing
hillbilly bizarre to New York's art elite.
A stuffed tongue passed through the hands of incredulous patrons, while
member Poob Is the Beeb posed sardonically with a small elephant statute with
monkey feet. Other objects featured include a small "Crust" toothpaste patch,
hillbilly buckteeth, and a wooden plaque of Abraham Lincoln chopping wood.
Explains Ham Is the Ghib, "The contradiction between mass consumerism
and poor-ass people that spend their money on junk is beautiful. The
interconnectedness of poor people, myself included, makes for a form of high
culture that is overlooked simply because of its financial status."
Poob: "Also, the way that rural culture translates popular culture into folk
art is fascinating and anthropologically significant."
Fancy rhetoric, indeed. But are the Poos a legitimate artistic endeavor, or
high-blown ridicule? As Balb Is the Squayak ("it means 'Verbose Sasquatch' in
Poonese") explains, a little bit of both: "With the most recent stuff -- the DVD and
the show at the City Reliquary -- it was mostly about bringing the Flea Market (as
we've known it) out to others. We're in a unique position to share this stuff with the
world, and since we're choosing specific avenues to showcase it, the chances of
any of our subjects noticing are nil. It's like making fun of the Amish."
While gathering items for the Flea Market Collection, the collective filmed
its adventures. The result is The Flea Market Project, thirty minutes of "tall tales
and true stories" from West Virginia's white trash. Retired Irene, an elderly flea-
market hopper with, as Ham Is the Ghib points out, a "wonderfully refined racism
that defies all logic," relates her disastrous remedy for poison ivy ("White shoe
polish. I'm scarred from it, but it's worth it."), while one garrulous seller claims
authorship of the Space Blanket ("That Space Blanket? That was mine. I got the
papers at home. Sent that into the Department of Energy."). Another with a
penchant for the tag "son" tells the story of pot that grew from a shag carpet and
a leaky waterbed.
"It's hard to get people to look beyond stereotypes," Balb says of the
project's goal, "whether the kind expressed by Retired Irene or the kind our
potential audience holds for our subjects."
Telling curious and camera-shy market-goers that they're "just students
goofing off" -- the word "college" and the fancy camera invoking no small amount
of curiosity -- the Poos sift through piles of fur (only two dollars), "Stuntman" art
misspelled "Sturntman," and canjos, a small banjo made from a baked-bean can.
The flea market is WV's cultural detritus at its best, and the project captures it in
all its organic glory.
The idea came from member Cranium Coco Puff. "I had a fascination with
flea markets and thought it would be a great place to explore. It is such a great
microcosm of Appalachia that it's hard to avoid."
"We wanted the rest of the world to see what a strange place West Virginia
is," says Keff is the Gock.
"And beautiful," adds Cranium.
When asked if he would consider the film project less artistic and more
just weirdness, Cranium said, "There's a difference?"
Keff: "If we took this seriously, it would really be stupid."
Balb: "The thing is, when somebody mounts a deer head in a studio, it's
High Art. When you do it in West Virginia, it's called interior decorating."
Poob: "When you do it as an art collective from West Virginia with fucked
up names, it's us."
The line certainly blurs in the world of Poo. The group's first project began
when, as Ham Is the Ghib explains, "my father bought an old-ass computer that
had a microphone and recording software. And then Mr. 40 oz. stopped by one evening."
"We were forced to record or save up things, so we could hit him with a
dose of the down home culture that he had been missing," says Balb.
When pushed for explanation, Keff explains, "Basically, we recorded people
at random and against their knowledge in West Virginia."
One of the groups first victims was member Quaack is the Gray-Ock's
grandmother, recorded "moaning, groaning, farting and humming." The result is
God Save Us From ... The Poo Syndicate, released with little fanfare in 1994. "Really,
it was just a way of sharing a perspective that a lot of Americans hold on the youth
of today," said Balb.
"We just like to hear their reactions to cultural signifiers like punk rock
haircuts," Poob adds.
Though the Poos have grown since God Save Us ..., the beginnings of
Flea Market Project can be seen in the group's reckless instigation of cultural
stereotypes. Immature, yes -- but pointedly so, in a way that demands a
reconsideration of the cultural stereotypes. Babbling grandmothers and monkey-
footed elephants are not "art" because they signify a world alien to the art elite, but
because art essentially blossoms from culture. The canjos of Appalachia are funny,
but more than that, they capture an image of canned-food poverty and the music
which has sustained the mountain culture for decades.
Those epiphanic moments when the Poo Syndicate captures the fine
balance between culture and art, the high and the low, make their projects fresh
and worthwhile. With a little direction, they may eventually have coiffed curators
singing the praises of the "Sturntman" artist.
"When you live in the middle of this cultural hellhole, you stop hating it.
You lose any sense of irony. You start to just really appreciate how fucked up and
odd the people you live with are, and how great it is. ... She [Balb's grandmother]
was a rose between two thorns."
And the goals that continue to impel the Poos?
"Bring Appalachian culture to the forefront of modern art."
"Make the high low, and vice versa."
Says Ham, "When every living room in America has an esteemed piece
of 'flea market art,' we will have won."
Balb, the self-deprecator in the group, says with a sigh, "We are what
happens when dipshits from the country get halfway educated, culturally."
For more on The Poo Syndicate visit thepoosyndicate.com.
Article as it originally appeared.