Cameras on Van Scan Fans

On Cross-Country Trip, Filmmaker Looks for the Smiles

When Harrod Blank recently drove through the streets of Manhattan in his "camera van," the most common reaction from pedestrians was, "What the f--is that?"

"That" is a 1972 Dodge van plastered from hood to hubcap with 1,700 cameras. Yesterday, it sat on Quincy Street in front of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts as part of Blank's United States tour.

"Seeing people react is definitely a main motivating factor for any car artist," said Blank, a 32-year-old resident of Berkeley, Calif. He and his van--which gets about seven miles to the gallon--have been on the road since April.

When the van was parked in front of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts yesterday afternoon and evening, it drew many curious passers-by who doubled as photographic subjects, for the cameras aren't duds.

In fact, 10 of them operate from a remote control in the van's front seat.

A few dozen photographs taken with the van's cameras cover its inside ceiling and show people in various states of laughter, amazement and disarray. Hanging from the inside top edge of the windshield are slides with dyed edges. The floor and sides of the van are covered with photographic paraphernalia.

General reactions to the converted Dodge vehicle include "a lot of awe, dropped jaws, gawking expressions, smiles," Blank said, and added that the smiles are a big part of what keeps him going.

Blank doesn't know how long he'll be on his tour, he said.

"I'm just experiencing right now," he said. His next stop is St. Louis in early October.

The van is his sole source of support.

"My job is not to have a job and do what I want to do," he said. He receives about $1,000 for each appearance at museums, colleges and lecture halls, which helps pay for gas and living expenses, he said.

For the past few months, Blank has traveled with his "co-pilot" Dan Lohaus, 24, and his girlfriend.

Lohaus lived next door to Blank when he began working on the van, which took a year to construct.

Often, people see the van and tell the same joke, Lohaus said.

"They say, 'If I had a camera, I'd take a picture of it," he said. "They crack up hysterically at themselves to a joke we've heard 3,000 times."

Blank also has another art car, named "Oh My God," which sports, among other things, a TV on its roof.

"It was something I did because I didn't feel like my white VW bug represented anything about me," Blank said of the car, which he has been tinkering with for 12 years.

Across the street from Blank's van yesterday were a Citroen car and a Volkswagen, decorated with sunflowers and mermaids and owned by Maine resident Bill Stevenson, decorated with sunflowers and mermaids.

Stevenson met Blank earlier this year in Houston, Texas at an annual car art show.

"I have to confess that I had some doubts about whether other art car owners might be a little far out in left field," Stevenson said, "but once I met them I found out they were normal people."

Blank does not limit himself to art cars. He has made two films. His first was a risque college project at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was called "In the Land of the Owl Turds: In Search of True Love" and featured him in a bathtub, his naked body painted green.

His other and less racy film, "Wild Wheels," about art cars, was shown last night at the Carpenter Center.

Although the van is not a political statement, a cabbie passing by on Quincy St. seemed to think otherwise.

As his taxi sped by, he stuck his head out the window and yelled, "What is this, the Bill Clinton re-election campaign?