Public Parking
A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
This can’t be the right place: reflections on an insurrection
Thursday, January 6, 2022 | Mike Curran

The Upside-Down White House, Wiscounsin Dells. Via Dells website.



On Interstate-94 between Minneapolis and southern Wisconsin, flattened farmland gradually gives way to sandstone buttes. 18,000 years ago, this ground held a glacial lake. When the glacier receded, an ice dam broke, unleashing a violent flood that forged the buttes’ contours. Eventually, in the flood’s wake, the Waterpark Capital of the World™ would be built.

Since the first waterslide was installed in 1980, “the Dells”—shorthand for this area—has become a land of “COUNTRY’S ONLY” and “PLANET’S BIGGEST”. Among these achievements is the United States’s largest inverted monument: the Upside-Down White House. This imitation of the presidential palace is the reason for my visit. I hoped that, a year removed from the U.S. Capitol insurrection, walking its upturned halls would bring some clarity to a democracy forever taking on water, now sinking to impossible depths.

By the time I check-in at Wilderness Resort, the Upside-Down White House has closed for the day, so I decide to swap my boots for sandals and wade into America’s Largest Indoor Wave Pool™. The water is momentarily still, and I plod out until it laps against my neck. I’m unprepared when the buzzer sounds and the invisible wave generator starts up, propelling the rising waves too quickly. Through blurred eyes, I think I notice the nearest lifeguard set down her koozie, readying herself for a possible rescue. I’m grateful when the buzzer sounds again and the pool retracts to its concealed calm.

A little embarrassed, I tread back to my room and air-dry in front of the flatscreen. I settle on Newsmax, the right-wing network recently sued for spreading election disinformation. Greg Kelly, the square-jawed anchor, speaks to the mother of Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman”, who was just sentenced to 41 months in prison for his role in the insurrection. “If Jacob had known what he was getting into, he wouldn’t have done it,” she asserts through a pixelated connection. “I hope people heard God coming through him.”

Kelly promises to “stay on the case” before cutting to commercial, where a man with a gold chain announces his frustration with earwax buildup. He puts a spray bottle to his ear and smiles while a disembodied voice proclaims that, “WaxRx was designed by a doctor, and may even improve your hearing.” He can hardly believe the results.


* * *


The Upside-Down White House is situated on the outskirts of Mt. Olympus Resort, between a Trojan Horse reproduction and a laser tag compound. Other inverted White Houses have been constructed in the resort cities of Orlando, Florida, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But where those monuments also function as science museums, utilizing their campy layouts to introduce visitors to physics experiments, the Dells’ destination seems to be made purely for entertainment, as seen by the armed Transformers robots lining its perimeter. The building itself seems to be crumbling—though it’s unclear whether this is the intended design or due to neglect. Despite a sign that announces “TODAY ONLY! $5.00,” mine is the only car in the parking lot.

“What’s the deal with the Transformers outside?” I ask the woman at the ticket counter while my card processes. She replies curtly, “What do you mean? They’re just part of it.” A man in a crisp polo emerges from a back room, assuring me that, “This is the real White House. The other one’s a replica.” The self-guided tour begins with a placard that corroborates the workers’ story: “In 2002, the White House landed upside-down in the Wisconsin Dells. To cover up this fact, it was made into a tourist attraction.” The explanation is definitive, discouraging further questions.



The press briefing room. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 


A restricted hallway within the Upside-Down White House. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 



I move to the next room where I’m greeted by a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama, his face slashed. I’m relieved to find the Donald Trump cutout similarly defaced—at least the slashing was bipartisan. The room leads to a hallway where the building’s orientation abruptly flips and the ground becomes the ceiling. In the Oval Office a mannequin with a powdered wig stands behind a desk, resembling a bat hanging by its feet. The press briefing room’s podium is similarly suspended before twelve plastic chairs covered in dust and handprints, presumably from past visitors sitting on each other's shoulders, looking to leave their mark.

From here on, the attraction’s architects have abandoned any attempt at creating an earnest reproduction of the monument, and the remainder of the tour traverses a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories. A laboratory containing the remains of aliens salvaged from the Roswell incident precedes a corridor lined with wooden crates, each neatly labeled: “Lunar Landing Props,” “Yeti Evidence,” “Amelia Earhart’s Logbook.” As the crates pile up, the Upside-Down White House morphs into a showroom of quaint conspiracies Americans might joke about around the kitchen table, while avoiding mention of the countless theories undermining our society at present; that, among others, Democrats rigged the 2020 election and are operating a child abduction ring in order to perform Satanic rituals. The tour avoids the latter, but traffics in the same fundamental belief: that the nation’s darkest secrets hide in its marble halls, waiting for you to expose them.

With each passing room—through an archeological dig site unearthing a red glow, a formal dining room filled with vaguely orientalist artifacts, and a souvenir photo booth—I begin to feel increasingly disoriented, struggling to find my footing on the uneven ceiling. I quicken my pace, searching for the exit, until I’m expelled into a vestibule where the ground again becomes the ground. The sole feature of the room is a fortune-telling machine whose genie has been replaced by an animatronic Trump demanding a dollar for his reelection bid. I oblige, and a ticket spits out. “You have recently experienced a situation where you were unfairly treated,” it starts.



A “decontamination tunnel.” Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 


The building’s facade propped up by steel beams. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 



While processing my prognosis, I step outside, where the frigid air suffocates. Before heading back to the resort, I circle around the impressive facade, its familiar ionic columns carved from a hard plastic. But, turning the corner, I’m surprised to find the facade is just that—an illusion propped up by steel beams, covering an unassuming building with an aluminum roof that appears to house the majority of the attraction. Bewildered, I realize that I, too, fell for the deception.


* * *


The scenes that stick with me most from the insurrection are not those of rioters facing off with police or shattering windows with flagpoles. Rather, it's their aimless wandering from room to room once they breach the Capitol. It’s the man with a rubber bullet lodged in his cheek meandering into the Senate Chamber floor. “This don’t look big enough,” he says. “This can’t be the right place.” Behind him, atop the dais, the QAnon Shaman asks a camouflaged man to take his picture.

Wearing a combat helmet, another rioter—later identified as a retired Air Force officer—reminds the crowd that they’re fighting “an information war.” Animated anew, a group begins rifling through the binders that senators jettisoned while fleeing. They find little of interest, ignoring the bureaucratic minutiae found in each stack, searching instead for some elusive folder neatly labeled “Real Election Results.” As more people flood the Senate Chamber, one sincerely suggests: “While we’re here, we may as well set up a government.” Others push past him, searching, pushing, and searching.

To be sure, they are violent extremists. But they are also adults playing dress-up, rambling through the cavernous Capitol, banging on doors and taking souvenir photos. In this light, the mob dissolves into individual tourists aiming to get the most out of their admission fees.


* * *


After returning from the Upside-Down White House, I change into my bathing suit. The flatscreen is already set to Newsmax, where tonight Greg Kelly denounces critical race theory and workplace diversity initiatives. I learn that the nation is transforming and I, as a white man, am being unfairly treated. I remember the ticket, now crumpled in my coat pocket—surely this is a clue, part of a larger pattern waiting to be exposed.

But I’m on vacation, and so I descend into the hot tub that borders the lazy river, where a boy plays dead to amuse his friends. Floating limp, the current carries his body until a man approaches and announces he’s just ordered pizza. The man sips his beer before rejoining the other fathers who line the river’s shore, never taking off their sandals.

It’s unfair to place this burden on the shoulders of these fathers, but as they lounge in their tight pack, sharing stories just out of earshot, I wonder about the insurrectionists. They arrived by busloads from Pennsylvania, drove from Alabama, and flew from California to attend Trump’s rally on January 6th. Of the thousands who made the journey, how many retreated to their hotels and waded into heated pools? The next morning, over the continental breakfast’s waffle iron, how many regaled each other with accounts of the damage they wreaked, the souvenirs they stole?



The formal dining room lined with national treasures. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 



More than 700 insurrectionists have now been arrested across 40 states. Despite early declarations from the Justice Department regarding the severity of insurrectionists’ crimes, most have been charged with misdemeanors. Urging probation rather than prison time, some defense attorneys have called their clients “MAGA Tourists,” painting them as everyday interlopers dipping their toes in sedition for the fun of it. They seem to take their trivial punishments in stride. Upon receiving a 60-day sentence, real estate broker Jenna Ryan posted a video to TikTok where she excitedly says that prison will offer time to “work out a lot, do a lot of yoga, and detox.”

However, many of those confronting federal felony charges have disavowed the conspiracies that brought them to Washington, D.C. in the first place. Accused of beating a Capitol Police officer, stealing his badge, and later burying it in his backyard, Thomas Sibick pleaded for his release from pre-trial jail in a letter that characterized the insurrection as “a disgrace to our nation that left a scar Trump is ultimately responsible for.”

On January 6th, 2021, Ryan and Sibick were united under the same cause. A year later, their conflicting reflections signal this right-wing insurgency’s shortcomings: a significant swath of white Americans are prepared for battle, ready to die for what they believe in, so long as they face no repercussions and no actual risk of death. The conspiracies they treasure can withstand brief prison stints, but threats of more severe consequences collapse the facade, revealing election fraud and QAnon theories for what they are: illusions propped up by conservative leaders hellbent on suspending reality in service of preserving their fading power.



Thomas Sibick’s Instagram post during the insurrection.
Photo via Department of Justice court filings.



To downplay the insurrectionists’ capacity for government overthrow is not to downplay their capacity for extreme violence. Congressional staffers continue to carry the trauma of being hunted through their own workplace. Eugene Goodman, a Black officer, single-handedly guided a white mob away from a roomful of vulnerable senators, sacrificing himself to a horde wielding Confederate flags and nooses. And yet, over time, America’s collective memory has dulled the acute violence of that day, shifting its attention to symbolic arrests, away from an anti-democratic insurgency that has largely gone unchecked.

The attorney for Dona Sue Bissey, an Indiana hairdresser turned QAnon enthusiast who stormed the Capitol, claimed that her client fell victim to “a steady diet of cable news and Facebook-scrolling.” Before her sentencing, the judge clarified: “The fact that she subscribes to bizarre conspiracy theories, that’s her right. That’s something she’s allowed to do as an American.”


* * *


On the long road back to Minneapolis, the local radio station picks up a caller who compares Prince Charles to the antichrist. The segment switches, and an announcer cheers that Kyle Rittenhouse has just been acquitted on all charges related to his shooting of three Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse was among the paramilitaries who traveled to Kenosha in the name of restoring order and defending private property—in his case, gas stations and used-car lots. Their ranks were animated by social media posts and conservative talk shows declaring that Wisconsin was “under siege”—the same media outlets that would later adopt Rittenhouse as a folk hero. In this atmosphere, his acquittal was an inevitability, the only logical conclusion in a society that has already accommodated so many lies.



A side entrance blocked off to the public. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 


The Upside-Down White House’s exit. Image curtesy of Mike Curran. 



In the days that followed the insurrection, a moment of self-examination briefly swept across the U.S. Another government panel convened, officers were awarded medals. One year later, there will be news segments commemorating the anniversary, and flags will fly at half-mast. But tomorrow the insurrection will again be submerged, a chaotic force noticeable only when you try to swim against the rising current. With enough time, its memory might get packed into a neatly-labeled crate and stacked upon the rest at the Upside-Down White House. How far adrift will we find ourselves then?

Mike Curran is an artist and independent curator living in Minneapolis.

Thanks to Logan Stapleton for his accompaniment to the Dells, and to John Grotte and Sue Schill-Grotte for sharing their room at the Wilderness Resort.

Editorial support by Hannah Doucet, Luther Konadu and Emily Doucet.