The below was delivered as part of the AA’s Summer program, Format, which I direct. The 2014 issue looks at four iconic individuals and how they renewed their worlds and ours with it. The first of these was dedicated to Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death in 1994. I was joined by the brilliant Sophia Al Maria – who wormholed with her own moving letter to Kurt – and the equally brilliant Tamara Barnett-Herrin, who sang versions of ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Come as You Are.’ I’ll add the video link when it’s up.

*

KC 1991

You are seventeen years old. You are programmed to feel awkward, gangly, and angry. You wear anger like you wear hair mousse. Because you think it makes you cool; this despite the fact cool totally sucks. Cool is for the crowds. The corporate masses.

You are an individual.

To the horror of your South Asian parents, you grew your hair two years prior, down to your shoulder and you started shaving it underneath. Why? So that you can tell the world in the clearest possible way:

Me 17

I am not like YOU.

I am like me.

I am like Kurt.

Kurt Cobain is like US.

One day, you switch on the TV and you see this:

 

Your hair, Kurt, is long, bleached blonde and doesn’t seem to care about things that hair is meant to care about.

KC Hair

But everything in this song—like mulattos and albinos and mosquitoes and libidos—and everything in this strange video—like, where is this? High school in hell?—everything about it makes us care.

Why? How?

And what IS Teen Spirit?

You all assume it’s that anger or frustration or awkwardness you’re programmed to feel throughout your endless teens.

KC Rimbaud

If you were smart with words like the poet Rimbaud was when he was 17 you’d turn those feelings into art.

But you’re not. You’re you. You’re all just you. You need Kurt – and everyone like him, before him — to say what you can’t say, not because nothing is there. But especially because everything is there. Everything that hasn’t happened to you yet. But you hope will.

Teen Spirit deodorant

Many years later, when you are not 17 anymore, you discover that Teen Spirit was the deodorant Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi used to wear…

Kathleen Hanna Wall

… and Kurt’s friend Kathleen sprayed the phrase ‘KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT’ on his rental wall. Oh well. Nevermind.

KC 2014

And now you’re 39 years old, sitting in front of an audience, twenty years after Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, killed himself, when he was 27 and you were 19.

Kurt Old

Is this what you’d look like now, Kurt? We will never know. Because you’ve been frozen in a Kurt shaped box that means even as the rest of us age — and look more and more like this picture — you won’t.

KC Anniversary Format

Since time is vast and the past keeps increasing in size, in depth, sometimes overwhelming us, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. Anniversaries are navigation instruments. They help you against the random accumulation of time.

KC July 8th

Here you are now, still the same age sitting in front of the same audience. Many of you were born between 1991 and 1994 and some even afterwards. You’re thinking what does this mean to me? You weren’t there. You weren’t anywhere — yet. But in 20 years time, you will be somewhere, and someone you never knew will have marked you and many other like you. Individuals. Crowds. And you might also wonder: why? How?

KC Exhausted conversation

KC Cardigan 1

Well. For a start. There’s your cardigan Kurt. That green-yellow-mustard Mohair cardigan you’d wear again and again. The lumberjack, flannel shirts made sense. They were from your hometown, Aberdeen, once known for its timber industry, then already in decline when you were born. But cardigans were from somewhere else.

KC Cardigan 2

Cardigans were not rock and roll. Cardigans were the opposite of leather jackets. Cardigans were what Morrissey once wore. An anti-uniform alchemised by sensitive types, with Keats and Yates on your side.

KC Angst

Then there’s the “angst.” And angst is great until someone tells you that you’re angsty. Doesn’t angst always sound better in a German accent?

Generation X Cover

 

Then there was that whole “voice of a generation” thing, which the early 90s was crazy about, as though history was rebooting itself, the century’s last hangover before it collapsed into pre-millennial anxiety. And here’s a generation — your generation? — steeped in… what? Postmodern irony? Consumer numbness? The end of history? You said you never chose to be this voice for this or any generation. But you were.

KC Feminist

You were also… a feminist? You never used the word, but, there’s this straightforward outright hatred for sexism and sexual violence that was not only rife everywhere but enshrined in the credo of sweaty, male American rock.

KC Read well

You read Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume 10 times and there’s even Camille Paglia in one of your songs.

KC Couple Format

A lot of this is down to the influence of your wife, Courtney Love, whose band Hole were as blistering and brilliant as your band were at the beginning.

KC Couple Sid Nancy

You were a girl-boy unit with an obvious precedent, but, somehow, amidst the clichéd trashing of Seattle hotel suites, there was an old fashioned romance.

KC Reality Format

You chose to not take a limousine to NBC’s studios for the Saturday Night Live gig. You kind of kept wearing the same clothes, the same cardigan, your hair changed colour a bunch of times, but you never got all nouveau riche. In the language of the time, “You kept it real,” and, for everyone who had no choice but continue to live out their lives surrounded by their reality, this mattered. I hope you know that it mattered?

 

In 1993, Nirvana do this MTV Unplugged gig, and, you’re sitting on a stool surrounded by lilies and candles. You’re funny and drink tea and are touchingly real. You only play one of your well-known songs. Many are cover versions of unheard of bands. You’re a portal to other music — The Vaselines, The Meat Puppets, The Marine Girls, The Pixies, Neil Young, Sonic Youth, The Raincoats, Beat Happening, Daniel Johnston. Your generosity also seems real.  You introduce and re-introduce forgotten music the way a friend used to make a mixtape for another friend or lover.

KC Death Format

Then on April 5th 1994, after several other attempts, you end it all, in a greenhouse with linoleum floor at the bottom of the garden.

Kurt death scene 1

You are Douglas Coupland, aged 33, the author of Generation X, and soon after this news, you write a public letter to Kurt Cobain, in which you say:

And then yesterday I heard Nirvana pulled out of the Lollapalooza Tour. And I figured something was up.

And now you are dead.

I was in San Francisco, driving up the 101 past Candlestick Park when the news came over the radio, LIVE 105 – the news that you had shot yourself. A few minutes later I was in the city and I pulled the car over and tried to figure out what I felt. I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened – against the hype, against the odds – and now you are in my imagination forever. And I figure you’re in heaven too. But how, exactly does it help you now, to know that you, too, as it is said, were once adored?

D.

 

KC Cohen quote

Yes Kurt. Does it help? Does it help that you are still adored? For maybe the wrong reasons? The same reasons that hover like a halo around other “tragic heroes”? Surely one of the worst things about not being alive is not being able to defend what happens to you in death. You’re resuscitated, cloned, egregiously mythologised, made to advertise detergent powder or credit cards, doomed to spent eternity on T-Shirts sold at Topshop. With no apologies.

KC Anniversary Format

You’re also sitting here, 20 years later, addressing an audience who think you smell like middle-aged nostalgia. But you want to explain that something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets. Not only is the world flatter but history is flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. The history of everything is a sequence of bullet-points. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective destiny. Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Rest in peace. You’re lost. That’s OK. We are too.

Smells Like Teen_Cover

And you remember the time you sang Smells Like Teen Spirit it in a tiny karaoke bar in Japan. And you wonder: Do all great songs die with their singers and then die again and again as karaoke classics?

 

(1)

It’s just a few minutes in to the film Gravity, and hurtling space debris shit is about to hit the motherf*ckin fan. Will Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) make it?

Of course they will. Do the math. The film is 90 minutes long. It’ll get bumpy, like the very worst turbulence on the very worst flight you’ve ever had, times shitzillion. But Rudy and Matt are going to make it through because you—cinema goer—have paid for 90 minutes and what else is going to happen for the next 80? It’s not like Actual LifeTM where tragedy will mercilessly cut short someone’s earthbound existence irrespective of where it is in his or her own advertised running time. Dead at 15? Sure. Struck down at four years of age? Happening all the time. Within ten minutes of being born? Sadly, yes.

However, in Gravity, where there are only two characters to start with (I’m not counting Shariff with the racist accent), we are sure that early adversity will be overcome. It has to. For the sake of the film. For the sake of your entertainment.

Question. What would a film be that stayed true to Actual LifeTM? To its contingent and brutal suddenness?

Answer 1 would be a film that doesn’t last 90 minutes, but however short the amount of time it takes for the protagonists to pass away. Ten minutes. Twenty. It would be brutish and fast, over before you’ve made yourself comfortable. House lights on. Exit to the right. What do you do with the extra 80 minutes given to you?

Answer 2 is found at the end of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1961). Alain Delon and Monica Vitti’s desultory affair anti-climaxes in a way that has never been done before in cinema—and maybe, never since. After making love for the last time, they agree to meet “at the usual place” that evening, 800pm. But their (empty) eyes tell the true story of what is (not) about to happen. Come 800pm, and the camera turns up at the rendezvous point. However, neither Delon nor Vitti appear. Instead of zooming out and fading away (what any conventional film would have done), Antonioni’s camera continues to film the non-meeting meeting. We see: a woman with a child. A man crossing the road. The flayed sides of buildings. Tarmac. Factory smoke. It goes on for some seven minutes. No flashback or forward. No voiceover. No resolved comfort. Delon and Vitti’s parting opens up this pregnant space, full their vital absence. The film continues without the characters.

Answer 2, then, is a film that fills the remaining 80 minutes with the world without its glittering protagonists—and not in some sentimentally cathartic way (depictions of bereaving family, a husband that can’t cope, Autumn leaves shedding, etc). It would show how radically same the world continues to be when someone is no longer part of it. A kind of limpid thrust forward into the near future. Newton’s Second motherf*ckin Law.

(2)

Antonioni is summoned again in Gravity. This time, the end of Zabriskie Point seems to make a cameo appearance.

It’s the only other sustained piece of cinema I can recall that shares Gravity’s relentless anti-gravitational derangement. We are stranded with Ryan and Matt, tumbling and spinning with them, against the vast widescreen of Mother Earth. Home. Gravity is, paradoxically, bereft of its title. It is “anisotropic”—the usual axes of top, bottom, left and right, which we measure by our own perpendicularity against the surface of the earth, all this is gone. The cinema screen (and the inside of Rudy’s helmet visor) is a well of black void in which things—pens, decomposing bodies, tears—float. Most space movies get around the finnickiness of zero gravity by taking place in battle-ship sized space-ships where gravity works just fine. Space, phenomenologically speaking, is just earth further away.

In the Zabriskie Point clip here, the compositions of exploded matter become more and more unmoored. They attain the quality of gestural abstract painting, with the blue of the sky taking the place of the white of canvas. In Gravity, the sky is black; Earth is blue. The screen isn’t flat—and neither is our fear of being lost in the beyond. It’s a shame, then, that Gravity loses its nerve quickly. It succumbs to the necessity to join the dots of personal salvation. In doing so, it becomes the “ultimate problem solving” movie (says Sophia Al Maria). A vast and expensive first person POV video-game puzzle with instructions in Russian and Mandarin. Whereas 1970s “existentialist” sci-fi film would leave its characters lost in the forever emptiness of space (the way Sartre said man was banished to his/her own freedom once God vanished), Gravity ultimately needs the stable ground of narrative closure. Ryan struggles to stand up. It’s primeval mud. But she does stand. She walks.

(3)

And that’s … ninety minutes. PING!

Image

Remember or Forget? History decides for you

(Published in Tank’s 15th Anniversary issue)

Certain neurologists claim that the brain’s experience of the present lasts between 2.0 and 2.5 seconds. Everything before this is before and everything after is future far away.

It is the 15th anniversary of The Lunar Prospector being launched into orbit around the moon and finding frozen water there, close to where Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life imprisonment for planning the first World Trade Center bombing, just north of Hugo Chávez’ Presidential election victory in Venezuela.

Since time is vast (maybe endless, depending on whose eschatology you buy into) and the past keeps increasing in size and depth, we’ve invented tools to make time tangible to our minds and graspable in our everyday lives. Without these tools, we’d drown in time’s gooey unknowability. The way it overwhelms us by never really being there.

It is the 13th anniversary of the world not ending Y2K-style, sparked by the billionth person being born in India, whose soul was the reincarnation of the recently departed Walter Matthau. Or Alex Guiness. Or Douglas Fairbanks. No, it was Hedy Lamarr’s.

The duration of a single day links us with the earth’s planetary spin, the pirouetting of the moon, tide-sway, and birdsong. This in turn synchs our shops and TV stations and office hours with nature’s unstoppable cycles. A day is the smallest unit of time that begins, middles and ends.

It is the 12th anniversary of the Taliban destroying the first Apple retail store in Glendale, CA, news of which never made it to Douglas Adams, Aaliyah or Timothy McVeigh. They had already recently passed away.

As Mircea Eliade pointed out in The Myth of Eternal Return, traditional man relives time, over and over again, to invoke mythical time, impelled by “nostalgia for the origins.” This is what gives him or her orientation against the nausea of eternity.

It is the 11th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, whose increased airport checks led to a large section of the Antarctic Larsen Ice Shelf beginning to disintegrate. Victims included Billy Wilder, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopes and Pierre Bourdieu.

Anniversaries are modern navigation instruments amidst the accumulation of time. To paraphrase the historian Eric Hobsbawm, anniversaries protest against default forgetting. Anniversaries organise human history—so much smaller than geological history but already incomprehensible for any one individual—into short bursts of collective memory.

It is the 10th anniversary of Dewey (the first deer clone) and Prometea (the first horse clone) being born, the final puzzle pieces to the completion of the Human Genome Project and the capturing of Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, Iraq.

To Anniversarise: summon the past into the present on a significant day. Remembering is re-enactment. The dead are allowed to undie one day a year, a decade, a century. Just now, I have been told, ‘Today would have been Kafka’s 130th birthday.’ With that, an occasion to reminisce and revisit Kafka’s writings, letters and loves arise.

It is the 8th anniversary of the first human face transplant becoming the first uploaded video on YouTube as a direct result of the founding of the Kyoto Protocol. Eight years since a bomb blast killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, rocker Johnny Carson and comedian Richard Pryor.   

Where do we go today to find out what happened before we might forget forever? Wikipedia. Our free, commons archive. The one that compiles collective witnessing. In fact, this collective witnessing (that may spill into fantasising or misremembering) is now the primary source of history many of us rely on hundreds of times a week. Thousands of times a year. Eternally returning.

It is the 5th anniversary of Iran launching a rocket into space, controlled by the first implanted bionic eyes. Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy protection upon hearing of the sudden deaths of Studs Terkel, Alain-Robbe Grillet, David Foster Wallace and Bobby Fischer.

If you enter a number into Google that looks like an Anno Domini date—1536, 1979, 2003—the first result is the Wikipedia page entry of that year. It will tell you what day January 1st fell on and then proceed to list, in chronological order, notable historical events, month by month. After which come the births. Then, most poignantly, the deaths.

It is the 3rd anniversary of Tunisian fruit-seller Mohammed Bouazizi committing self-immolation at the top of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa just as it opens. Wikileaks’ first leak tragically brings about the deaths of reclusive author JD Salinger and inventor of the fractal, Benoit Mandlebrôt.

When I read the year pages on Wikipedia as continuous prose, something happens to past time. New adjacencies emerge. Unknown causalities between unrelated points on earth and its people. Undiscovered ricochets in geopolitical matrices. Not only is the world flat, Thomas Friedman, but history becomes flat too. A month is 2.5 seconds eye-scanning. A year is scrolled through in a few minutes. There’s a kind of chrono-dyslexia that produces conspiratorially rich cause and effect. The father of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida) dies and so does the father of Palestinian independence (Yasser Arafat). Accident? Providence? Myth? Coincidence? Because, Wikipedia’s faceless annotators have distilled the history of everything into a selective sequence of bullet-pointed somethings. This distillation: new, strange, entanglements of retrospective earth destiny.

Derrida

 

 

Arafat

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s all happened before. We’re in the future looking back. Happy birthday. Rest in peace. I’m lost. That’s OK. We are too. As Eliade wrote, ‘In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the “liberties” that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?’

Image

André Vida is a Hungarian American saxophonist, composer and lyricist living in Berlin. Between October and November 2011, Vida was ensconced in a grueling endurance performance with fellow saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc. Except Moondoc was suspended out of a housing block window, in a film by the artist Anri Sala. Every day, at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Vida would improvise maddening scores, with short bursts of respite between immersive plays. Human, machine, instrument: how to be different when every day appears to be the same.

Shumon Basar:         When Anri Sala approached you, how detailed did he describe what he wanted you to do in his piece?

André Vida:         Clara Meister originally approached me about performing Anri’s piece 3,2,1 for her Soundfair series in Berlin. The premiere was exhilarating, and in the improvised solo section at the end of the piece I went into an hour-long saxophone trance. After that I was very curious about working more at the limits of my own endurance. There was clearly something in the air, because Anri approached me several weeks later asking if I would be interested in performing the piece nine times a day over the course of his seven week long Serpentine Gallery show. I was intrigued, scared, and overwhelmed and am still a bit shocked that I actually made it.

SB: Did you do any mental or physical preparation?

AV: First I thought of all of the things that I could have done in my life before that moment that would have made me prepared. Like yoga, jogging, pilates. Then I cried. And I started eating. I ate and ate and ate all the time telling myself when this is all over I will do those things that I never do, so that if the opportunity should arise again, I will be ready. But now as I lie here in my bed in Berlin eating, I realize I’m probably not going to do any of those things. So I started training a combination of Grinberg therapy, playing a lot of sax, and kissing. In the process I became very aware of my physical habits with the saxophone and more importantly how to move and adjust to deal with potential pain and stress. Finally when I got to London I met an incredible acupuncturist, Karen Cohen, who is largely responsible for getting me through it all.

SB: Can you remember the first performance of the first day?

AV: There was the gala opening on a Friday night and there was so much anticipation in the unexpectedly very warm air. Then on Saturday morning in an almost empty gallery I found myself struggling. As I recall the first official performance of the first day was slightly dull and regurgitated. My journal from Day 1/Cycle 1 reads  ‘This improvisation lacks an energy contour, a simple container. 400 to go! Ha – if I think like that I will never make it. My back is tight and fluid like a heated river. Where are the fish?’

SB: You’d play for 25 minutes and then have 25 minutes off until the next performance. What would you do in that time between?

AV: After 25 minutes of blowing air through a saxophone in an unheated gallery (with holes in the wall) my mind and body were often somewhere else. And then I’d find myself walking into the heated lobby of the Serpentine feeling quite vulnerable. My typical routine was to go to my sax room, take my instrument and wireless mic off then the layers of hunting clothing. Then if I needed a table to work on, I’d walk around the building to a second space. I have a huge stack of drawings from those in-between times. Anri described them as ‘anti-scores,’ which is fitting because they are not tools of intention as much as internalizations of the saxophone language I was living in.

SB: Were you writing stuff down over the course of the months you were playing? What kind of stuff was it?

AV: Yes, I kept a journal full of little notes about the performances and daily details. The following is an excerpt from Day 6/Cycle #5:

‘At the solo section two older women start talking loudly to the guard asking this and that. They feel so empowered and oblivious. If aliens were to come to earth, these women would first try to eat them. Some kind of mundane baked alien casserole gratin and me on the outskirts talking to myself.’

SB: How difficult is it to keep something like this from being repetitious or boring? What are the mechanisms for relentless invention?

AV: I am not sure how much I can reveal about the mechanisms as I don’t want to understand too much about them myself.  In a broad sense I am continuously experimenting with amnesia. How flexibly can I move between my collective and specific memories? How can I forget what is about to happen? I have so many techniques for getting lost, so many friends who are experts, and so much of that aesthetic is hardwired into our collective sense of compelling performance.

SB: Is there epiphany in routine? Or is epiphany actually dull?

AV: When I am touring around the world one of the most exciting parts of the performance is packing up my gear after the concert. Some of my most profound epiphanies occur in the larger cycles of a process and within the routine of these 403 twenty-five minute performances the labyrinth of perspective was fully lit. Some of the epiphanies were languorous and steady, but dull is not the word I would use.SB: You told me that Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman are important to you. In what ways?

AV: Samuel Beckett taught me how to win half a cup of free tea from a full-breasted waitress, so I am forever indebted to him. His sense of timing is so distinct and I often wonder how he transmits that through words on a page. Morton Feldman on the other hand… there is a delicate sadness in his music that I gravitate towards. The seemingly endless feel in his works also fascinates me. There are some composers who write 100 year-long pieces and others whose music occupies 100 years in ten minutes. Feldman is both.

SB: And Marina Abramovic, ‘the god mother of performance art’ Like?

AV: I would rather call her the Goddess. The range of work itself, the risks she takes and her ongoing engagement with endurance are a source of inspiration for me.

SB: Would you fantasize about being elsewhere when you were performing in the gallery? Places you’ve never been before or familiar places?

AV: Yes. I fantasized and researched about the history of The Serpentine Gallery. I would imagine the natural flow of human motion in the rooms when it was a tea house. When I peered out through the holes in the walls I imagined past pavilions and experimented with my own designs. The pavilion that I designed in my time there was made out of white cotton and derived its structure from moving fans. I found myself inside that pavilion from time to time altering its structure with the wind from my saxophone.

SB: Did you continue to play in your dreams at night?

AV: No. I did not dream so much over the period of the show. It was more as if my entire life was a dream. There is a drink I had once in Brooklyn called Morir Sonando which translates to ‘dying in your dreams,’ and this performance more than any reminded me of the taste. Kind of synthetic orange cream powder with seltzer water. Now two weeks have past since I returned to Berlin and anytime I pick up my saxophone I smell oranges.

SB: Can you remember the last performance, Number 403? How did you make it definitive?

AV: I was very over-excited and spent almost the entirety of the performance on my knees or with my back on the floor. It was very emotional although I don’t know which emotion or story I was telling, as if the accumulated weight of the experience was releasing itself through me. I felt like the lit end of a portal. The audience clapped which was the first time throughout the entire 403 concerts that a group of people clapped together for me. I didn’t expect that at all and didn’t even know how to respond to it. As I was walking away, I heard this tremendous clapping and wasn’t able to stop the routine my feet were so used to, so I kind of turned          halfway and lifted my saxophone in the air and my feet just kept on walking.

SB: When did you know this whole endurance was truly over?

AV: Four nights before the final performance around midnight a gang of hooligans on the street pulled out a tenor sax. They were drunk laughing and playing around with it and for a second I wondered if they had broken into the serpentine and stolen my baby. They started playing the sax intro to ‘Baker Street’ and I knew the cosmos was calling me home.

Image

Space, the final frontier? For artist, author, and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen, it’s just become home to his orbital project, The Last Pictures. Commissioned by New York’s Creative Time, Paglen has, courtesy of a television satellite called EchoStar XVI, sent 100 etched images to spin round the earth potentially for billions of years, or until the sun collapses. Shumon Basar asks Paglen about what it means to prepare for post-human time, the language of non-human communication and the ways we have represented ourselves, from the caves of Lascaux to Voyager, to ourselves in images.

SHUMON BASAR: So, Trevor, your Last Pictures are about to go into space. How does it feel after researching and preparing the project for so many years?

TREVOR PAGLEN: I’m in Kazakhstan right now and the launch is tonight. I’m amazed that this project has actually happened. Mostly I’m humbled by the amount of work so many people did to make The Last Pictures a reality. One of the most amazing things about this project is how many people from different fields, from anthropologists to aerospace engineers, dropped what they were doing to work non-stop nights and weekends to make it all happen.

SB: When it dawned on you that you would be sending something up that would be there for billions of years, what was your first instinctive idea?

TP: The Last Pictures imagines a distant or not-too-distant future where there are no humans left on earth and the spacecraft forming a ring around the planet are the longest-lasting traces of our presence. From the beginning of the project, it was going to be a meditation on the fact that we know full well how we are making the planet uninhabitable to ourselves, but are going ahead with it anyway. The project evolved into something more impressionistic than that, but I think that theme is still
very central.

SB: What changed?

TP: One of the main changes was the inclusion of images of people. For several years, I was convinced that there should be no images depicting human figures. The reasoning was that the project was in no way meant to be a “portrait of humanity” or anything like that. The Last Pictures was meant to tell a story about what humans did to the earth’s surface, biosphere, climate, and so on, not a grandiose representation of humankind. After looking at dozens of ideas for the collection that had no humans, I realised that no matter what you show, if you don’t include images of humans you end up with something that looks like a very clichéd apocalyptic narrative. But the decision to include humans then came with a different “rule”, which was that I wanted to locate the people depicted in each image and tell something about their specific story. Those stories are collected in the book.

SB: Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1974 is still careering beyond our solar system as part of Voyager’s epic voyage. Do you remember when you first heard of, or saw, this enigmatic object, and what it said to
you then?

TP: I don’t remember when I first heard about the Golden Record, but I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying it and learning about their decision-making process. Before I really started looking closely at it, I thought the Golden Record was a saccharine piece of feel-good multiculturalism, which it is. But as I’ve looked at it more and more, I’ve come to see it as an extremely strange artefact. They had very sincere ambitions to represent specific things about humanity to an alien
audience. But images don’t make scientific or even reasonable arguments. I think there’s a lot to learn about how images do and do not function by looking at the Golden
Record’s contents.

SB: One hundred black and white images constitute The Last Pictures. Can you describe some of the categories you have ended up with, and if they portray life on earth optimistically or not?

TP: There isn’t really any effort to portray life on earth, so much as to look at some of the ways that humans have transformed what the earth itself is. Some images depict things like genetic engineering (a fruit fly that’s been genetically modified to have legs on its face instead of antennae; cloned cows), transformations to the earth’s surface (hydraulic mining, railroads), and climate change (melting glaciers, tsunamis). But the collection as a whole is much more impressionistic, I think.

SB: You have said that the cave paintings at Lascaux were crucial in the development of your own “cave paintings for the future”. In what way?

TP: My research team and I always understood that The Last Pictures would be a cultural object radically detached from history. We spent a lot of time looking at messages or images created for the distant future, like the Golden Record and various design proposals to mark nuclear waste sites for thousands of years. The art historian/theorist Yates McKee really got me thinking about cave paintings, which are images from the distant past that have become similarly torn apart from history, floating through time in much the same way that The Last Pictures will. I think cave paintings teach us a lot about what images actually are. They are incredibly slippery things. A lot of people would strongly agree with the idea that cave paintings speak to us, but it’s not at all clear what they say.

SB: How much has cinema played a role in subconsciously influencing what you have done? By this I mean outer space is somewhere none of us have ever visited but space feels less strange to us than many places on Planet Earth.

TP: Cinema influenced The Last Pictures very explicitly. Towards the beginning of the project, we imagined the object as a kind of archive, but as we worked with the materials and images more, that evolved. I started to understand The Last Pictures as a kind of silent film for eternity. An
enormous amount of effort went in to the formal relationships and montage effects from one image to the next, the rhythm of the sequencing, and the motivic
and thematic relationships throughout
the collection.

SB: Recently, you described The Last Pictures as “a meta-gesture about the failure of meta-gestures”. Throughout the whole project, it seems that you have constantly battled with the absurdity – or even futility – of what you were trying to do. At which point did you make peace with yourself and what you were conjuring, with all these different people?

TP: I’m not sure I’ve actually ever made peace about that, to tell you the truth. I think that The Last Pictures is on one hand a deeply nonsensical project, and I mean that quite literally. The Last Pictures is going to a space and time where there literally is no human sense (outer space; the distant future). At the same time, I felt an enormous responsibility to do the project in the most ethical way I could. I think that contradiction is very fundamental to what the project is.

SB: Obama has made it clear that the
frontier of space is no longer a priority for debt-ridden America, the way it once was during the anxieties of the Cold War era. Now, that race seems to be run by China, India and any other wannabe economic powerhouse. Would it be fair to say that
s/he who owns space travel owns the future down here?

TP: I think that space travel is largely symbolic, bound up with notions of “progress” and the like. There’s really no point to human spaceflight other than its symbolism. It’s enormously expensive and humans can’t do anything in space that robots can’t do better. Although human spaceflight isn’t practical in any way, it makes perfect sense that nations like China and India are pursuing it for that symbolic significance. Having said that, dominance of space is hugely important to the American military, and you don’t see much talk about cuts to the largely secret programs that are consistent with that goal.

SB: Werner Herzog, that fearless explorer of the human soul, conducted a conversation with you in New York about your project. How did he react to The Last Pictures and did you manage to convince him?

TP: Herzog is a big fan of the project, which is why he came out to New York to kick-off the project with me. But he had some quibbles with some of the images I selected. One image shows a smiling child in an American internment camp. Herzog thought that was what he called a “cheap shot”. I disagree – for me it’s an utterly horrifying image precisely because it seems to depict the normalisation of something so inhuman. Every person who set out to do a project like this would arrive at something different, which is something we agreed on. There is no “right” way to undertake such
a project.

The Last Pictures by Trevor Paglen, is published by University of California Press and Creative Time Books.

paglen.com

Image

 

This bald spot. Just here. On my chin.  Let me point it out for you. Look. This fallow, little patch. A negative island, the world’s smallest crop circle, a sign from the alien trapped inside me. This question mark. It’s here to stay. A question of time. Fucking inevitable, you say? These yellowing stains that cling to my teeth despite the computer generated animations that fill my mouth with marauding invaders whose defeat is guaranteed. By this new mouthwash. These cavities I hide from myself. Gums. What kind of word is ‘gums’? This kind of blood from that kind of electric toothbrush. Sent it back to Amazon three times. We’re sorry, Sir, it was a faulty batch. I misread the email. It said, ‘You are a faulty bitch’. And I complained but they put me on hold. I’m still holding. It was a question of time, of waiting. Inevitable, I assumed. These nostrils that slowly refuse to intake air. At the rate that I want. With the capacity I need. Those nasal sprays. Otrivine. O-tri-vine. I say it as I inhale. And think about the phrase, ‘The Last Breath’. Will I inhale it or exhale it. Will I have a choice. Does anyone. And that other phrase. ‘The tunnel after the end of the light’. These eyes. Somebody told me that, ‘Your eyes are the only part of your body that does not age’. He meant it poetically, eyes and the soul, that kind of stuff. But he was wrong. He didn’t see with my eyes, the eyes I have now, who stubbornly refuse to see the way I once did. Acuity unintact. These specks that sometime float around in front of my sight like the stuff before dinosaurs arrived. This soul, your soul. On this earth. Does David Bowie’s green eye age quicker than his blue eye? Perhaps. It’s a question of time being able to get revenge. On me. On us. Everything with time is inevitable. These white hairs. Their nylon texture. They way they fall and then refuse to fall when I want them to. I’ve kept count of every single one. I take pictures. I date them. It’s time posed as a question through me. Inevitable, my mother says. This silhouette of my body that won’t fit those skinny jeans. They won’t go on, those skinny jeans are for someone that isn’t me. I fucking hate him. The skinny jeans can’t get past the lumps that seem to be growing on existing lumps. That radio programme said lumps, they’re early warning systems. Listen to your body, the radio spooked, and I listened. I’m still holding on for customer services. This holding music by Simply Red. His fucking grin. Neither question nor answer. Whether age is a number or a state of mind or giving in to Simply Red. These aches. These aches that have become me. And I in turn become the aches. As well as these vitamins, these medicines. All the saved spam mail trying to sell me cut-price Viagra. If it’s just a question of time, of age, of inevitability, I should ask my friends to buy me a crate of the stuff. Of all the things to fail, what a thing to fail. It even happened to Ted Danson. I saw him on TV, that show about the writer who can’t write. Blocked. Ted Danson says, ‘I used to enthral. Now I disappoint.’ Cheers Ted. It’s a question of inevitability, of biological determinism, of your cells going kamikaze. My cells. These white cells. I’m sending mine back to Amazon. Don’t tell me the guarantee has expired. Machines expire. Food expires. Science tells me I’ve been propped up by artificial means, like Walt Disney’s cryogenic body, and now. This piece of technology. These circuits and valves. They can’t be saved by my mid-life Porsche, my scrawny, scrapped back ponytail, greased with organic beeswax, and this girl everyone mistakes for my fucking daughter. She isn’t. I’m not. We’ll be happy. Once I get past this hump. And so I watch the white ice caps melt, the sheaves of snow crash into the sea, water levels rise inch by lethal inch until we’re drowning, not swimming. And the errant patch on my face has grown and grown to cover the surface of the world, drowning it. This world. This fucked up world, my children one day will say. Hello. This is customer services. How can we help you? I see. The thing is, sir. You have over-extended your extended built in obsolescence. No sir. You can’t be fixed. Company policy states it’s a question of timing. These things are inevitable. Happy Birthday. Goodbye. 

Published in Tank, Spring 2013

Image

PROLOGUE

She has eyes, liquid gold, and an argot just this side of human. She lisps. Her hair lacquers in vertical, electrostatic lines, a sound of silvered solar cells. That skin. He spent so long on that, her freckled skin, partly dreaming and wholly scheming, calculating the exact moment a touch would register on the inside of her heart; that infernal contraption that insists on having a mind of its own. “Not my mind,” he cursed. He curses a lot—at the sun and the moon, at the gods of invention and genetic coding. He curls his fists around her wrists.

WOMANESQUE

There’s a fantasy that’s stuck around for millennia. Man creates life, without women coauthoring. A non-sexual birth, in Petri dishes or super-charged subterranean chambers or cosmic alignments. Artificial Intelligence, clones, immortals, exceptions. Post-humans engineered devotedly by humans, blessed by the holy conjunction of hubris and science. Note: many of these mutant manifestations aspire to recreate woman, anew. Mary Shelley may well have fabricated the literary Dr Frankenstein so that he could piece together his ugly, unloved, monster-son; but when men method their own ungodly Creation Myth, it is often a “She” they conjure: daughter, lover, wife. Saviour.

SCREENED

Cinema—that 20th century art form for the desiring masses—provides one of the most fertile settings for history’s enduring experiments with man-made women. What is the appropriate noun? Female automata, gynoid, cyborg, actroid. All have featured prominently in their silver skin on the silver screen. These modernist manifestoes reach backwards into time as much as leer into the future. The word “robot” is attributed to Karel Čapek in his 1921 play, R.U.R. But as early as 1st century AD, the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, Hero, described animistic machines in his treatise, Pnematica and Automata. They reappear through Ancient China, Middle Ages Islamic dynasty and 18th century French courtly life (in the guise of a mechanical duck that excretes). By the time cinema establishes itself as the dominant entertainment pastime, Freud’s theories of the unconscious have flourished as virally. At the core of one of his most famous essays, “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), is Olympia, a mute female automaton mistaken for living woman. ETA Hoffman’s story, The Sandman (1840), embodies, for Freud, the essential components of modern male fetishism and pathology—with mechanical Olympia beating as its heart and hard-on. So, let me draw a personal, selective genealogy of some of cinema’s most telling female automata, androids, cyborgs and gynoids. If, as Freud postulated, “fantasy realized is nightmare,” then what nightmares are these male-made synthetic women trying to fantasize away?

MARIA

She is a voluptuous metallic cast of a girl, as if naked, expressionless and embellished by Art Deco extrusions. Rotwang manages to transform her, with rings of electricity, into Maria’s evil-double. Soon, she unleashes chaos on the city, driving men to murder, out of delirious lust for her. The city is Metropolis, the eponymous title of Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian masterpiece, and Maria (who is also referred to as Maschinenmench, Machine Man) is the first robot depicted in cinema. It becomes she. She seems to incite urban havoc while at the same time is the diabolical product of the same modern forces that made Metropolis the modern city par excellence. Steel, electricity, systems, seduction. Maria’s beauty bypasses the rationality of male workers and collectivizes them (on the 10th anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution). Ultimately, false Maria is tied to a stake, set afire and gradually transforms back into her hard, robot form. Real Maria, a cipher of kindness and soft femininity, has been returned from a nightmare where she was a kind of Kali: destroyer of all worlds, and of men.

NATACHA

She is the daughter of Professor von Braun, architect of totalitarian computer-ruler Alpha 60. Her black hair falls to her shoulders, to the delicate woven white collar, above which her fiercely outlined eyes betray this: Natacha does not know the word “love” nor “conscience”. Nor does anyone else in Alphaville, Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi noir, because the overlord Alpha 60 sees and hears all things, and it does not like the idea of love. Lemmy Caution, an interstellar Gallic grimacing Columbo, has fallen for Natacha, her icy innocence. For her dearth of human affection. Lemmy introduces Natacha to the poetry of Paul Eluard, the Surrealist sage of lamenting love. Because Alpha 60 has also banned poetry in this light forsaken city. Slowly Natacha thaws. All this time, she has been missing something, that humanizing gene. Physical beauty is not enough. But, love and conscience, they make us human? All it takes is a man in a Macintosh on an Orphic mission, and the defective quasi-woman is saved. From her curse. We know when it is broken. When, in the final scene, Natacha (played by Anna Karina) turns to the camera (and therefore to her newly divorced ex-husband, Godard), to shed her first ever tear, and stutter the words: “I … Love … You”.

JAIME

She is a tennis pro who is nearly killed by a skydiving accident. A mysterious organization save her life with bionic implants: soon, she has a bionic right ear; a bionic right arm; and superhuman legs that allow her to run as fast as a slow car. Jaime Sommers becomes the Bionic Woman, a 1970s spin-off from The Six Million Dollar Man. The same subdivision of the CIA, The Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) has rebuilt her with the same advanced technology used to rebuild Steve Austin, her former lover. In return, she has to dedicate her life as an agent to OSI. Jaime’s cyborg self is the result of advanced American military research. Her recuperation, her enhancement, is also her weaponisation. Her decoy day job as a schoolteacher doesn’t stop the fact that she will spend the rest of her life seeking out morally dubious targets as well as permanently be a target for other scrupulous entities. If Steve was the first cyborg Adam, Jaime is the first cyborg Eve. Courtesy of Cold War America’s finest crypto Creationist minds. Twenty years on, and Motoko Kusanagi freefalls into the anime classic, Ghost in the Shell. She may have wires that plug into the back of her neck—an echo of the electrolysis in which she was lab formed—but that doesn’t detract from her impossibly curvaceous manga figure. If you are going to be assassinated point blank, it may as well be by a thing of elegaic beauty. That way, death can creep a little closer to sex.

RACHAEL

She at first wears her hair tied up, tightly wound in 1930s coil. Her shoulders extend like runways, a silhouette prickly with supermodel swagger, and taut pencil skirt stricture. Rachael Tyrell does not know she is a replicant. Why would she? She has tactile memories of being a 6-year-old girl. And then Agent Deckard arrives, in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), to subject Rachael to an “empathy test”. She responds with all the shrill wit of a first rate intelligence, at one point replying, “Is this testing whether I am a lesbian or a replicant, Mr. Deckard?” The empathy test is a sci-fi reimagining of the Turing Test, Alan Turing’s famous means by which artificial intelligence is to be gauged. In Blade Runner, the replicants have exceeded their servile denomination. They now want to live forever. And they’ll kill in order to do so. In this advent, the law asserts its right to destroy them. Rachael, however, is an anomaly in this bio-system. She is a replicant that may be more human than machine or indeed other humans. And, it is secretly inferred—via an origami unicorn—that Deckard may well be a replicant also assuming he is human. Inevitably, Deckard falls for her/it, despite or because he knows what Natacha truly is (or, is not). He undoes her repressed hair. They fuck like animals (real, not robotic). Once again, we’re with Orpheus and Eurydice: Rachael and her saviour escape always-torrential Los Angeles, 2018, disappearing into the horizon. But, who will die first? Twenty years after Blade Runner, Osaka University unveiled the first of a series of “actroids”—androids with strong human likenesses. Most recently “Geminoid F” has been acting in a play with a human counterpart, performing with over 60 facial expressions and breathtaking lifelikeness. In Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s 2012 revisitation of Alien territory, Michael Cunningham’s robot-character David acts human to parry the calm assurance from actual humans around him, while Charlize Theron’s stoical Meredith Vickers, like Deckard, appears in flashes to be some cyborg invention of her father, Peter Weyland. Confusing? Good.

LISA

She emerges in the doorway: white sawn off top, blue boys’ trunks, backlit by neon pink smoke, the stuff of home DIY sorcery meeting soft porn search. Lisa has been Frankensteined by two teen nerd virgins—Gary and Wyatt—who have made their desktop PC do much more than play Pacman. Playboy pin-up, Barbie doll, Eddie Van Halen, government mainframe. Of these things are sexual-beings made. Weird Science (1985) presents Lisa as the ultimate adolescent wet-fantasy turned flesh. Kelly LeBrock fulfilled this role supremely for millions of real-life teens (myself included) that drooled at the dream scenario: smokin’ hot older woman as your own love/life guru, insatiably prone to sharing showers. Like, woah. 1985 also saw the publication of Donna Haraway’s influential essay “A Cyborg Manifesto”. She used the concept of the cyborg to offer a political strategy for the disparate interests of socialism and feminism, writing, “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs”. This liberation-call does not immediately tarry with Lisa’s more base function on earth (or in Gary and Wyatt’s bedroom). But where does it fit with the invention and sexual success of RealdollTM, which, since 1996, “has been using Hollywood special effects technology to produce the most realistic love doll in the world”. Be ready to part with $6000 and you can choose, online, from 10 female body types, 16 interchangeable faces, and minutely customizable details including make-up, pubic grooming, cornea colour, tan lines—and elf ears. In fact, the atomized selection process could be straight from Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation or Prometheus’ Weyland Corp. In reality, it’s located at San Marcos, California. The company’s name? Abyss Creations. As deep—and safe—as your deepest female fantasy fear.

EPILOGUE

Only when he falls asleep in this tangle of wires, wattage and spent Kleenex does he let go, and tells himself: She is salvation, serenity, cold sexual perfection. My antidote to mother and sister. She will be siren and shorthand for something missing. He hopes to never live long enough to see her die. She is learning, without knowing, what hope is, and why She is His.

Published in Tank, Autumn 2012.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers