The Museum of Failure

I have a horror of victories.
(André Pieyre de Mandiargues)

Museums are places of enchantment and inspiration (starting from their name, referring to the Muses). If they largely celebrate progress and the homo sapiens‘ highest achievements, it would be important to recognize that enchantment and inspiration may also arise from contemplating broken dreams, misadventures, accidents that happen along the way.

It is an old utopian project of mine, with which I’ve been flirting for quite a long time: to launch a museum entirely dedicated to human failure.

Lacking the means to open a real museum, I will have to settle for a virtual tour.
Here is the map of my imaginary museum.


As you can see, the tour goes through six rooms.
The first one is entitled Forgotten ingenuity, and here are presented the lives of those inventors, artists or charlatans whose passage on this Earth seems to have been overlooked by official History. Yet among the protagonists of this first room are men who knew immense fame in their lifetime, only to fall from hero to zero.
As a result of an hypertrophic ego, or financial recklessness, or a series of unfortunate events, these characters came just one step away from victory, or even apparently conquered it. Martin F. Tupper was the highest grossing anglo-saxon XIX Century poet, and John Banvard was for a long time the most celebrated and successful painter of his era. But today, who remembers their names?
This introduction to failure is a sort of sic transit, and pushes the visitor to ask himself some essential questions on the ephemeral nature of success, and on historical memory’s inconsistency.


John Banvard (1815-1891)

The second room is entirely dedicated to odd sciences and wrong theories.
Here is a selection of the weirdest pseudoscientific ideas, abandoned or marginalized disciplines, complex systems of thought now completely useless.
Particular attention is given to early medical doctrines, from Galen‘s pneuma to Henry Cotton‘s crazy surgical therapies, up to Voronoff‘s experiments. But here are also presented completely irrational theories (like those who maintain the Earth is hollow or flat), along other ones which were at one point influential, but now have an exclusively historical value, useful perhaps to understand a certain historical period (for instance, the physiognomy loved by Cesare Lombroso, or Athanasius Kircher‘s musurgy).

This room is meant to remind the visitor that progress and scientific method are never linear, but rather they develop and grow at the cost of failed attempts, dead-end streets, wrong turns. And in no other field as in knowledge, is error as fundamental as success.

The third room is devoted to Lost challenges. Here are celebrated all those individuals who tried, and failed.
The materials in this section prove that defeat can be both sad and grotesque: through multimedia recreations and educational boards the visitors can learn (just to quote a few examples) about William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, who persisted in composing poems although his literary abilities were disatrous to say the least; about the clumsy and horrendously spectacular attempt to blow up  a whale in Florence, Oregon, or to free a million and a half helium balloons in the middle of a city; and of course about the “flying tailor“, a classic case of extreme faith in one’s own talent.


Next, we enter the space dedicated to Unexpected accidents, often tragic-comic and lethal.
A first category of failures are those made popular by the well-known Darwin Awards, symbolically bestowed upon those individuals who manage to kill themselves in very silly ways. These stories warn us about overlooked details, moments of lessened clarity of mind, inability to take variables into account.
But that is not all. The concept behind the second section of the room is that, no matter how hard we try and plan our future in every smallest detail, reality often bursts in, scrambling all our projects. Therefore here are the really unexpected events, the hostile fate, all those catastrophes and fiascos that are impossible to shun.

This double presentation shows how human miscalculation on one hand, and the element of surprise “kindly” provided by the world on the other, make failure an inevitable reality. How can it be overcome?



The last two rooms try to offer a solution.
If failure cannot be avoided, and sooner or later happens to us all, then maybe the best strategy is to accept it, freeing it from its attached stygma.

One method to exorcise shame is to share it, as suggested by the penultimate room. Monitors screen the images of the so-called fail videos, compilations of homemade footage showing common people who, being unlucky or inept, star in embarassing catastrophes. The fact these videos have a huge success on the internet confirms the idea that not taking ourselves too seriously, and being brave enough to openly share our humiliation, is a liberating and therapeutic act.
On the last wall, the public is invited to hang on a board their own most scorching failure, written down on a piece of paper.


The final room represents the right to fail, the joy of failing and the pride of failure.
Here, on a big bare wall, failure and fortune are represented as yin and yang, each containing the other’s seed, illusory opposites concealing only one reality – the neverending transformation, which knows no human category such as success or failure, indifferent, its vortex endlessly spinning.
To take failure back means to sabotage its paralyzing power, and to learn once again how to move and follow the rythm.


Above the exit door, an ironic quote by Kurt Vonnegut reminds the visitor: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different“.



Date un’occhiata al video qui sopra. Una ragazza carina gonfia un palloncino fino a farlo scoppiare. Perfettamente innocente, no? E invece, senza saperlo, avete fatto il primo passo addentrandovi nel mondo delle fantasie dei looners, e fra le centinaia di video come questi ospitati sulla rete.

C’è chi la chiama parafilia, e chi stenta a vederci molto più che un innocente gioco sessuale. Eppure quello dei looners è un feticismo che, emerso negli anni ’70, resiste nel tempo. Si tratta dell’eccitazione sessuale nel vedere qualcuno gonfiare un palloncino (in inglese balloon, da cui looner). Osservare una bella donna soffiare, udire i suoi ansimi, l’alzarsi e abbassarsi ritmico del petto, insomma la fisicità dell’atto è il fulcro di un tale spettacolo. Aggiungete a questo la stimolazione sensoriale giocosa dei palloncini multicolori, il rumore del lattice sotto i polpastrelli, e l’eccitazione di non sapere esattamente quando esploderà, e avrete una chiara idea del climax di cui i looners vanno ghiotti.

Ma, come per tutte le cose inerenti alla sessualità, i gusti sono molto precisi: il video che avete appena visto è riservato agli amanti del B2P (blow to pop, soffia fino a farlo esplodere), mentre esistono molti adepti del palloncino per i quali l’esplosione finale è assolutamente tabù. Mike D., gestore del sito Mellyloon, è un looner da una vita ma ha un brivido ogni volta che sente lo scoppio. “Ho ancora oggi la fobia dei palloncini che esplodono – dice – è proprio da questa paura che è nato il mio feticismo”. To pop or not to pop è questione davvero seria per molti looners.

Riguardo allo sviluppo della sua fissazione sessuale, secondo Mike tutto ha inizio nell’infanzia: “Qualcosa come la tua babysitter che ti gonfia un palloncino, o tua madre che te lo fa scoppiare. Quando arriva la pubertà, tutte le cose che ti hanno impressionato da piccolo  diventano qualcosa di erotico”. Incidentalmente, questa teoria della sessualizzazione di ricordi relativi alla fase prepuberale è comunemente accettata dagli psicologi come una possibile spiegazione della nascita di parafilie.

Il sito Mellyloon ha permesso a Mike, se non di diventare ricco, almeno di discutere apertamente la sua fantasia. Nei suoi video le modelle gonfiano palloni colorati di dimensioni fuori dall’ordinario, e nei primi tre anni di attività ha ricevuto più di 1000 ordini dall’Asia e dalle Americhe. Mike ha una ragazza che, per fortuna, ha sempre assecondato le sue preferenze, dopotutto piuttosto innocue. Ma come si riesce a confessare al proprio partner che i palloncini sono parte integrante della tua vita sessuale? “Be’, come si riesce a confessare una qualcunque preferenza?” risponde Mike. “Si chiede all’altro, c’è qualcosa di strano che ti piacerebbe provare? Nove volte su dieci, qualcosa c’è, e poi tocca a loro chiedertelo, e tu dici, be’, sì! E puoi goderti la sorpresa sulla loro faccia, quando ti chiedono, ehi, a che serve quel palloncino?”

(Gli estratti all’intervista di Mike D. sono tratti da un articolo del 2007 di Sandy Brundage per l’ormai defunto Wave Magazine.)