About Terminals


Connie Samaras


When Victoria Vesna approached me four years ago to be part of this project, my immediate thought was: death-what does that have to do with my work? However, as I stood pondering this question and its origins-the mind-reducing brainwash of professionalism-it was quickly superseded by a cruder consideration from (what I call) the Homer Simpson-side of my brain: What does death possibly have to do with me? Ridiculously laughable, a thought so absurd that I knew I had hit yet another subterranean vein of unnatural ore. It was, to be sure, the substance of individual psychology but, like a "bad" child, one which had been culturally and socially banished to the geological recesses of the psyche in order that political conventions need not be inconvenienced by its rude and disturbing presence. I came out of my trance, turned to Victoria, and said, "sure, let's do it." A mind reader, she responded by telling me that "death" is the word most often keyed into search engines. My Homer-hemisphere piped up: Ask her why! Instead, my superego took over and reminded Victoria that, despite my nascent and growing curiosity about cyberspace and new media, I still had no understanding of what was involved in mounting an on-line exhibition. "No problem," she said thus welcoming me to the social space of interdisciplinary collaboration particular to digital culture, specifically: to the neighborhood where it's architecturally understood that romantic master plans of heroic individualism cannot survive long in this ever-expanding mechanical universe.

TERMINALS 1.0: Considering the End 1996

My initial involvement with Terminals was curating the virtual and actual exhibition sites for UCI. My approach was twofold. First, I decided to invite artists, like myself, who had not yet had the opportunity to exhibit their work online. Unlike Victoria, who was concentrating on culling work from the then, small but critical mass of artists creating Web projects, I was interested in offering artists outside this medium the chance of having one's work translated to digital language. However, without the computer skills and brilliance of artist Vince Golveo (then a graduate student at UC Irvine in Studio Art), none of these translations would have been possible. My second curatorial concern was to select work in which political critique was a primary element. However, rather than positing a singular theoretical construct as to what properly constitutes socially-engaged art, I specifically chose a range of work to underscore that oppositional art is hardly a genre but instead a powerful arsenal composed of multiple political strategies, cultural particularities, and historical and material variances.

The work of artists Allan de Souza, Robert Blanchon, and Jessica Irish offer various critiques of representational systems. Both de Souza and Blanchon engage in a historical revisionism of 19th century artifacts representing the common "man." Allan de Souza deconstructs the "quiet narratives" of American colonialist still-life paintings ("denials of decay and death") by visually re-asserting the subtext of violence and horror of such silenced histories as American slavery and the 19th century U.S. Indian Campaigns. Robert Blanchon uses a forties typewriter to reproduce a 19th century text on the proper use of burial shrouds. By juxtaposing these quotes with photographs of contemporary clothing labels isolated on the human body, he calls into question the meaning of changing traditions in relation to changing technologies. Irish's project, "True Vacancy" is a poetic rumination on the politics of space expressly shifting constructions of public and private.

The works of artists Carol Jacobsen, Eve Luckring, Marlon Fuentes and documentary photographer Paula Allen are rooted in community activism. Jacobsen and Allen share a strong commitment both to feminist politics as well as to establishing a process of long-term collaboration with their subjects. Carol Jacobsen (also included in 2.0), has been working for several years with the Michigan Women's Clemency Project. Like Allen, she is concerned with the ways in which the lives of women on the margins continue to be "hidden from history." Her videos, which are shown in a variety of contexts from "high" art venues to parole hearings have remarkably helped to change public policy on the issue of clemency. Paula Allen's five year project, "Women of Calama," documents the decades-long struggle of a group of women from a small town in northern Chile to locate the bodies of relatives disappeared under Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror. In contrast to historical and media deliberations as to the "right or wrong" of murderous acts carried out by individual heads of states, Allen's work makes visible the ongoing emotional and psychological consequences of such deeds on individual survivors.

Artist Eve Luckring, for her site, curated the work of three young women: Ana Chavez; Liseth Chavez; Yin Lee. A co-founder of REACH LA, a grass-roots organization utilizing the arts to educate inner city teens about AIDS, Luckring chose to make present teenage perspectives on death. As she points out, these writings remarkably underscore the material reality of these young lives: the recent astronomical rise of HIV infection rates among young women (14-24); homicide as the leading cause of death in Los Angeles County for youth 15-24. Like Luckring, artist Marlon Fuentes (invited by Vince Golveo) is also concerned with providing opportunity for community dialogue on social issues. Fuentes asks virtual gallery goers to visit and contribute to the internet data base at the Institute for Multicultural Research in Art and Technology, an interdisciplinary research organization based in Los Angeles and Washington DC.

TERMINALS 2.0 1999

What turned out, however, to be the longer and more intense aspect of my involvement with Terminals (as predicted by my sub-Homer strata and evidenced by my essay later in this volume) began with my invitation to Sheree Rose Levin in March 1996 to exhibit at the UCI Fine Arts Gallery in conjunction with the launching of the Web projects. Sheree's partner (in crimes of art and love) the poet and artist Bob Flanagan, had just died a few months before. Outliving doctors' predictions of his demise by thirty years, Bob had finally succumbed to a life-long battle with cystic fibrosis at the age of forty-three. (As the legacy of his work testifies, Bob was a prodigy of play whether literary, sexually or aesthetic and it was, in part, because of this ability that he was able to extend his life.) Because his death had deeply affected so many here in Los Angeles, I tentatively approached Sheree to see if she would be interested in doing a memorial installation honoring Bob for Terminals. I was touched by her response. Having just finished the graduate program at UCI the year before, Sheree was moved by the opportunity to create a work like this in a supportive environment. Thus, for the exhibit she composed an installation of photographs she had taken of Bob's body shortly after his death and juxtaposed them with what looks to be, at first glance, like an altar of ritual magic but is revealed, upon closer inspection, to be a collection of medications from the last days of Bob's life.

Subsequently, over the next several months, Victoria and I considered a number of different editorial design plans for the book and CD-ROM. We wanted neither a traditional art catalogue nor a typical anthology. At first, it seemed as though we were attempting the impossible. In retrospect, what initially seemed infeasible evolved into an editorial fluidity which thus allowed us to respond to the unforeseen and tragic events of not only Bob Flanagan's death but also to the loss of writer Kathy Acker and artist Christine Tamblyn the following year. Upon deciding to see if we could include excerpts from Bob's, Kathy's and Christine's journals as part of Terminals, I found myself again feeling tentative about approaching their executors (Matias Viegener for Kathy Acker, Becky Tamblyn Pence for Christine Tamblyn, and Sheree Rose Levin for Bob Flanagan) only because I knew how much these three people were still grieving. However, our requests were warmly and enthusiastically met and I was again moved by both the collaborative effort that ensued and its emotional tenor.

Sheree Rose Levin was, again, very supportive and generously shared with me a number of Bob Flanagan's writings (unfortunately, many of which still remain unpublished or out of print). What we both ultimately decided on using was the shortened version of the "Pain Journals" which Bob edited shortly before he died from writings he had kept almost daily during the last eighteen months of his life. Becky Tamblyn Pence, Christine Tamblyn's sister, graciously edited for us a series of quotes on death culled from selected papers of Christine dating from the early seventies to the year before her death. An inveterate journal writer, Christine had kept every diary she'd written since childhood.1 In addition to the quotes here, a number of her journal entries are also being published posthumously by the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies and in Tamblyn's last a CD-ROM Archival Quality (both forthcoming 1999). Matias Viegener and I sat down with the last journal Kathy Acker had kept in London shortly before she returned to California for the final time. Written a few months before she died, it was from this volume of Kathy's many journals which she kept over her lifetime that Matias selected the entry reproduced here.2

For me personally, both Kathy's and Christine's deaths were immense losses. Kathy, a good friend, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1996. Christine, a valued colleague whose work I'd admired for many years, was diagnosed with this same disease a few months later as she underwent a routine physical exam as part of her new appointment to UC Irvine. Both Kathy and Christine, ironically, received the same prognosis. Kathy, after having surgery to remove both breasts (as she commented later to her friends, they were never her best feature) refused chemotherapy and radiation and instead sought treatment with psychic and holistic healers. Christine, in contrast, undertook the latest and most experimental treatments the UC medical facilities had to offer. Kathy lived until Dec 1, 1997. Christine died the following month on New Year's Day, 1998. Both women's deaths disrupt the silence surrounding (what many consider to be) an emerging epidemic.

It is impossible for me to express how deeply I miss these two remarkable women. As I write about later in this volume, I was with Kathy and Matias (who had taken on primary responsibility for Acker's care) when she died. In an article published in the London Guardian the year before she died, Kathy talks about "the gift of disease." Being with Kathy when she died was a gift of consciousness not unlike the journal entries here of these three powerful and visionary artists.


[Introduction by Victoria Vesna]