Flying an Anvil

Anvils are heavy tools usually made of iron or steel. Heavy metal in literal sense. Today, we rarely see them or hear their percussive sound in our cities and towns. They seem to be objects from another era. Humans have been using anvils since ancient times, making all kind of things with them. From coins to swords to horseshoes, blacksmiths have used anvils and hammers to shape everyday tools and weapons for thousands of years. In the 20th century, anvils became one of the most iconic props in animated cartoons. Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny, Elmer, Porky, Sam, and almost every character from the Looney Tunes interacted with anvils in different ways, particularly those ACME anvils with a single-horn shape (aka London standard). Sometimes they dropped anvils from roofs, balloons, or ladders. Other times anvils hit, smash, buried or sink them in the ocean. Taking advantage of the animation medium and its capacity to break physical laws, artists created absurd and impossible gags transforming an ancient and heavy blacksmith tool into an easy-to-carry object and a flying prop that could be used for a variety of comedic situations.

“Flying an anvil,” however, is an action that not only belongs to the world of animation. I have recently discovered that firing an anvil into the sky is a sport practiced by blacksmiths in the US and UK. Anvil firing has been practiced for more than 200 years by metal workers using black gun powder to shoot anvils into the air (there are several videos like this or that documenting the practice). It turns out that the performance of shooting an anvil, and making it fly, is actually older than the cartoon gags. As a sport it is quit risky and dangerous. Taking anvils out of the blacksmith workshop context, with all its weight (in the literal sense), requires some safety measures. It also requires some humor.

I once flu an anvil. Or to be more precise, I flu with a 70 lb anvil in a commercial flight, from Austin, TX, to Boston MA. I survived such comic and risky performance without any accident. Nobody was harmed, except for a carry-on bag. That was back in March in 2009, and I had spent more than a year researching humor, the slapstick tradition, and the comedic use of music and sound technologies (for more details on that research see my MSc thesis). I had also designed and built (in collaboration with my friend AJ Liberto) “Anvilhead,” a kinetic sound sculpture that was composed of an iron anvil, and that had been exhibited at the Skydive art gallery in Houston, TX. The main reason for flying with an anvil was actually to bring back the core piece of the sculpture to Cambridge and to be able exhibit Anvilhead at MIT. We could certainly had sent the anvil by mail or bought a new one on the Internet (as we did when building the prototype). However, I thought that flying with an anvil was worth it, an opportunity to perform a cartoonish action (in a literal sense), a chance to bring into practice some humor and laughter theory.

Anvilhead kinetic sound sculpture. Exhibited at Skydive gallery, Thick as Thieves, Houston, TX. (2008)

Several questions emerged after I decided to fly with an anvil. Could one bring an anvil into a plane? Could one use a carry-on luggage to transport the anvil and store it under a seat or in the overhead bin? Would one be allowed to pass through the airport security system with such heavy tool? After doing some research about flight security and regulations, I realized the safest way to do it was by using a checked bag, and pay an overweight type 1, the one for bags between 50-70 lbs. However, I needed to find a bag of almost the size of the anvil (20 1/2″ x 9″ x 9″) where I could pack it and make it tight enough so it wont swing inside. I found such a bag at retail store in Sommerville, MA, and bought it. It looked like a sturdy carry-one luggage with wheels and an expandable handle.

My flight to Austin was actually scheduled as a grad school visit to UT and I was taking advantage of that trip for flying with an anvil when returning to Boston. I traveled with the carry-on bag on my way to Austin without any problems and put it in the overhead bin. Once in town, I met with a friend of AJ who had brought the anvil from the art gallery in Houston. I stayed a couple of nights in his house in Hyde Park and experimented with different ways of packing the anvil inside the carry-on bag. My dreams where perhaps altered by the presence of the heavy object which was located next to the place where I slept. As the days passed, I was a bit nervous about what would happen the day of my return flight to Boston.

On the morning of March 30, 2009, I took a cab to the Austin international airport. The bag was heavy, I needed to use my two arms to lift it and place it into the cab’s truck. At the airport, I tried to roll it. It was a dull roll. I checked the bag at the counters near to the parking lot to avoid rolling the bag a long distance. When measuring the weight at the counter scale, the person in charge said I needed to pay and overweight. “It is a heavy bag for its size, we would have to use warning tags,” he added. He put two HEAVY orange tags on the bag on the handle and also attached the luggage tickets. BOS, and DFW where the city codes printed in the tickets, since my trip had a connection in Dallas. Then he placed the bag on the transportation belt bending his knees and making some effort.

Images of the luggage where the anvil was transported. Commercial flight Austin to Boston, with a connection in Dallas-FW.

I was not able to pick up the luggage until I arrived to Boston late at night that day. During the connection at DFW I saw from the distance how the bag was carried by the airport workers as they put it in one of the transportation wagons. I could imagine that the weight could have surprised the worker. That was one of the several times the bag was moved from one place to another, and perhaps dropped without that much care. Although I did’t see any of the drops or hits, when I picked the luggage at Boston Logan airport, I noticed a small hole (about 6 cm long) on the side, that was a sign of some bad manipulation or accident. When I arrived to my home in Cambridge and I opened the bag, I saw that the hole was located right on the side where the horn of the anvil was located. That was perhaps the only harm caused during the trip. I hope none of the airport workers that had to carry the luggage was injured. Inside the bag I also found a NOTICE OF BAGGAGE INSPECTION that the TSA staff had left. I wonder what they thought when they saw the anvil in the X rays. Did they laugh? What did they say when they opened the bag and found the heavy blacksmith tool surrounded by clothes? How did the TSA officers handled the anvil during the physical inspection? Who knows. Fortunately they did not considered it a prohibited item and returned the anvil into the bag.

I would perhaps never fly again with an anvil. It was an operation that made sense despite its weirdness and absurdity. It allowed me to bring to life a cartoon like situation (an animation gag) and played it in the real world. Like materializing a humorous metaphor. Moreover, as a performance, flying an anvil became part of the Anvilhead sculpture. The action not only made possible the pop-up exhibition of the kinetic sound sculpture at the MIT infinite corridor in 2009 but also enhanced the narrative and concept of Anvilhead.

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