Mortal Coil
Mourning Becomes Electronic

"A secret always makes you tremble."
--Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills,
Chicago: UP Chicago, 1995.

     At the close of the century, the threshold between life and death is not a border, but an ever-lengthening passage. The human body has become a bioapparatus, sustained, extended and even displaced by machines, while the inorganic sphere is increasingly animated with artificial life. The artists in this exhibition employ electronic media and computer-assisted imagery in order to foreground the role of the machines of reproduction in transforming the nature and cultural meaning, if not the fact of death.

     In his essay on "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," Andre Bazin linked painting and sculpture to embalming, part of a "mummy complex" that is "a defence against the passage of time," thus "satisfying a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time." (What is Cinema, transl. Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). The photographic image "keeps the dead alive" through its uncanny likeness to someone who was lost. Even more, it is a relic of "having been there" (Roland Barthes's phrase) and of light that once fell upon the actual body in the image. Hence the authority of the photograph as a reflection of the real, albeit in the service of eluding both death and time. Similarly, in the nineteenth century, the sound of telegraphic keys tapping impulses relayed from a great distance inspired the aural hallucination of communication with the dead.

     Today machines of (re)production and (re)presentation record or even generate spectral presences that interact with us; terminal identities no longer tied to one warranting body in physical space become interminable. Personas and worlds replicated by machine and multiplied ad infinitum have the shimmering quality of indefinite boundaries and the quivering opalescence of the ontologically insecure. As a result, culturally speaking, we live immersed in an uncanny world of images and sounds, undecidably living or dead, human or electronic. Can we still rely on death to make a decisive and dramatic contribution to the sense of an ending or to provide the moral of a story?

     Yet, it is "the gift of death" that produces "my irreplaceability" that is, "my singularity" and that calls us to responsability. "In this sense only a mortal can be responsible." It is this death that "cannot be anticipated," or, rather, that is "anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unforeseeble, unpredictable, approached as unapproachable." (Derrida, 41) We live in an age that seems to be a turning point in many ways that will be remembered as a time of plague, genocide and global social transformation. Is it artificial life or the singular and unreproducable death that will permit us to become an empathic and responsible culture that will hold the key to the future? It is the task of the artists in this exhibition to invoke both the uncanny and undecidable realm animated by machines and the death that is singular and mysterious, at which we tremble.

     The exhibition includes post-mortem images produced by the first popular photographic process, the daguerrotype. Each unique image on silver-plate has an elusive, shimmering quality and the realistic, fine-grained detail of several minutes of exposure sometime between 1840 and 1860. All other work in the exhibition has been assisted at some stage by contemporary digital technology.

On the Video Exhibition

     This selection of film and video on mortality moves through various stages of confrontation with death and ultimately with technologically supported "life." Beginning with a clap of thunder and a New York of imploding buildings, Gregg Bordowitz's Fast Trip Long Drop reflects on his own afflication with AIDS in the context of family, friendship and the passing of generations. Edifices collapse as well in Leslie Thornton's The Last Time I Saw Ron, an audio-visual memorial to the actor who died in 1994 from AIDS. The wounded and suffering body is placed literally in the cosmos and alongside a woman pregnant with the next generation. In the allegory of AIDS, This is a Dead Boy, Michael J. Collins uses a mask, a puppet professor and a variety of props to tell the story, perhaps a parable, of The Boy, the victim of the terrible and arbitrary King of Bad News. Sickness and death are given distanced expression in simple objects, while the elevated and lyrical language of the verbal and written narration provide a moving elegy. The piece leaves the loneliest eye stranded on the banks of a stream as the video- maker skates off on (thin) ice.

     Linda Montano's video litany forMitchell's Death "was an attempt to make sense of the death, to repeat the death over and over, to concentrate on it using my work." Montano explains that "the death started a whole series of internal processes that were like a bomb had gone off in side of me. I ran to art. I immediately ran to art for comfort. I made audio tapes telling the story. Somehow along the way I heard that, if you verbally repeat things over and over, they diffuse. I knew that the internal combustion would begin to lessen if I talked about it." The piece began as writing, "Then, eventually, I transcribed the writing into an audio tape, singing, chanting the story, echoing, putting that on a delay system, echoing that, and adding a video image of myself with acupuncture needles in my face." [cited from Linda Montano: Profile (Video Data Bank). The audio effects create the effect of chanting in an electronic medieval cathedral, while the image of Montano's starkly lit, suffering face produces the face of a saint. When Mitchell's Death was done as a performance was a catharsis for Montano, audience and friends and the end of her mourning period, if not Montano's ongoing concern with death. Montano's Profile opens with her comment (in 1983): "Because I wanted so badly to be a saint I took on romantic concepts of death as ways to achiveve sainthood. Death has always been in my work. As I get older, it looks like there's more detachment, and more humor."

     In contrast to Montano's ethereal face, Doris Cross's wrinkled physiognomy conveys an earthier sensibility that inspired both the video Lilith by Steina and the Computer Studies by Woody Vasulka in the gallery show. Doris Cross, now deceased, was an artist and writer in the letterist tradition, living in the Santa Fe area near the Vasulkas. Lilith was Adam's first wife, mythically linked with the earth and supernatural generative power. Here analog manipulation of sound and image (while, on the other hand, Woody Vasulka's Studies use algorithmic displacement to digitally distort Cross'es image) works against the grain of our culture's views on aging to convey a sense of power and mystery to fragile old age. This is a two-sided tape, inviting quite contrasting interpretations that on one hand, emphasize the natural world, and, on the other, the transformative power of technology. (Compare the two curatorial statements from other exhibitions of the tape below.) Actually, this and Woody Vasulka's image convey the intertwining of the body and the landscape of the face with both the technological and the natural world. Steina's tape ends with an image of geysers in her native Iceland, fissures in the earth from which water spurts with immense heat and energy. In retrospect, Doris'es voice seems to have been lent some of that power from the center of the earth.

     If the photograph is a "mummy," the digitally manipulated image is much further along on a continuum toward artificial life. Marjorie Franklin's...Her Signal..., explores the cyborg condition or rather the desire to abandon the human and mortal condition. The sound This is more literally a two-sided tape as we see Marjorie's face engaged with (by implication) a computer monitor that stands virtually in front of the monitor (or in the audience position) and then what is evidently the computer's vision of Marjorie, suggesting there is a gulf yet to be bridged between the human and the machine. The two sides of the monitor intertwine voices but do not meet...not yet. Franklin's sound installation, Mortal Slide (The BIOS) takes the logic of incorporation further, invoking an aural uncanny spirit world through incorporation within one great albeit invisible, whispering machine.

     Finally, the exhibition ends in Paula Gauthier's Stolen Story, rflections to the images and sounds of a train of a visit to an anonymous man, tiny in his sheets, evoked in bedsheets and shards of ice crashing with ocean waves against the shore. Stolen Story asks, will I reach the end of the story before I die?

On the Artist's Films and Videos (on tape):

Gregg Bordowitz, Fast Trip Long Drop 1993 16mm 54:00

    Artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz's some aspects of a shared lifestyle 22:00 1986 argued for the need to confront AIDs as an equal-opportunity threat to all members of society. Fast Trip Long Trip, made after Bordowitz was diagnosed with AIDS, is a confrontation with his own mortality. Punctuated with film documents of daredevil feats and mishaps, Bordowitz reflects on his past alone with the camera and with his family and friends and asks the big questions about pain, death and deity. The video in its entirety intersperses broadly humourous caricatures of various responses to AIDS in the media and among those afflicted with AIDS. The two excerpts included in this exhibition are the first and second sequence after the title and the segment mid-point on his friendship with Yvonne Rainer.

Leslie Thornton, The Last Time I Saw Ron1994 16mm 12:11

     During the winter of 1994, actor Ron Vawter was in Brussels working on a theater production about he mythical Greek warrior Philoktetes. Philoktetes had been abandoned by Odysseus on the uninhabited island of Lemnos after he has been bitten by a snake while on route to Troy. He was betrayed byhis friend Odysseus because his wound would not heal, provoking mournful cries and an unbearable stench that distressed the other soldiers. When Ron was diagnosed with AIDS, this story of anguish and isolation took on added poignancy, and he arranged to collaborate with Dutch director Jan Ritsema on a theatrical production inspired by the myth. An international group of artists came together to develop Philoktetes Variations under the auspices of the Kaaitheater in Belgium. Ron passed away just as the production reached fruition. The Last Time I Saw Ron is made from footage shot for the play, and includes stunning material of Ron's figure flying through the cosmic and destructive events. A pregant woman drifts alongside him as his body merges with the time and space of the universe. The tape is a moving meditation on the power of art as a life-giving force, and on oneman's extraordinary belief in that power.

From the catalogue of the Video Data Bank series of tapes on AIDS.

     Independent avant-garde filmmaker Leslie Thornton's work in the 1980's includes Adynata: Murder is Not a Story 30:00 1983, an opposition of fragments of sounds and images that compose an allegorical investigation of Western fantasies about the East in the West and There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving 60:00, a fragmentary biography of Isabelle Eberhardt; and an ongoing epic that follows two children over their childhood, beginning with Peggy and Fred in Hell 22:00 and Peggy and Fred in Kansas 11:00. Thornton teaches at Brown University.

Michael J. Collins,This is a Dead Boy 1992 14:00

    The artist lives in the Catskills. His work includes a student tape from the late 1980's, a kind of Bildungsnovelle, Everything Was Nice, on the painful youth and school days of its puppet protagonist. This curator was moved enough by his animation of the object world to seek out the story of the loneliest eye. [more to come here]

Linda Montano, Mitchell's Death1978 22:00:

     See above, plus the information on Montano's three performances at UCSC on the gallery page.

Steina, Lilith 1987

Here are two different curatorial statements that interpret the video in contrasting layers:

     Marita Sturken in the catalogue of Machine Dreams (SFMOMA 1996):

    The landscape of the human face and the mythical status of earthly forms and theri spiritual shadows provides the impetus for Lilith. Here Steina treats the face of painter/poet Doris Cross as a canvas onto and through which a forest scene is realized. Lilith is amythical figure, whose many roles and meanings are evoked in cross's strange gestures and expression. Lilith is the first wife of Adam, a witch or menacing female figure with mythical powers. In Lilith, Stein is clearly paying tribute to the complexity of the aging female face, its lines and expressions indicating experience and the marked terrain of a lived body.

     At the same time, Lilith can be situated within Steina's tradition fo rethinking landscape and reconfiguring space. Steina deploys an array of analog techniques to merge Cross's face with the landscape to key it into and within its surroundings so that it too is a field onto which image elements are mapped. Cross's hauting, slowed speech, which Steina manipulates into abrupt half-sounds and gutteral utterances, evokes a primordial presence. The Lilith of this work is finally a figure of enigma: difficult to read yet commanding attention in her merging of earth and human form.

Liz Rymland's statement:

     The tape Lilith has been compared to figurines of the protocinematic culture, but looked at closely, we recognize that access to the mindfield may also be attained through topological analysis of the human face. If access may be attained through the wave signature of the voice, by planar analysis, or tracking two or more viewpoints at once, the movements of the face, and therefore the unique and private sentiments of individuals may be sent intergalactically through space using an intradermal, intergalactic Morse code.

     By preparing highly elasticized robots to read and imitate facial and gestural behaviors such as the behaviors of opera singers, deaf nutes, and mothers, we can catalouge and archive the motilty of the facial plaens and their correlation to mental and emotional states, thereby fashioning a sort of intradermal Morse code. The Lilith tape might instruct the robots in behaviors such as aerophagia, the abnormal swallowing of air, as well as the abnormal fear of air (especially drafts) called aerophobia.

Marjorie Franklin, ...Her Signal...1991, 6:00:

    The fluttering eyelids and tongue in Marjorie's video face is achieved through using the computer to animate the two fields which make up any one video frame, alternating them in rapid succession.

Paula Gauthier, Stolen Stories, 1996, 4 minutes:

    Gauthier is a graduate student in Art at the University of California at San Diego. She has exhibited her work in film and video nationally and internationally since 1991, including the 16mm films, Le Poisson D'Amour (1994), which follows the evolution of a lesbian relatinship as seen through the eyes of various commentators and Which Is Scary (1991), seven personal accounts from the lives of gays and lesbians.

Video gallery curated by Margaret Morse. Thanks to Steve Fagin, Bill Horrigan and Steve Seid for their consultation in selecting work for the gallery. Thanks to the artists who donated their work and to Mc Henry Library and the Theater Arts Board who contributed several pieces in the show from the Media Center collection.

Also thematically related to this show and recommended for viewing in the McHenry Library Media Center: George Kuchar, Video Album 5: The Thursday People 60:00 1987.


Running time: TAPE A 00:28 secs into tape _Fast Trip, Long Drop (first sequence after title, to 04:54, then a sequence with Yvonne Rainer and a film document of family to 08:59

09:30 Leslie Thorton, The Last Time I Saw Ron to 21:35

22:00 Michael J. Collins, This Is a Dead Boy to 36:35

37:00 Linda Montano, Mitchell's Death to 60:10

60:30 Steina, Lilith to 70:30

70:40 Marjorie Franklin, ...Her Signal... to 16:35

76:43 Paul Gauthier, Stolen Stories to 80:35

??More writings concernig death by Margaret Morse