Yet I, a Corpse, Drive
May 18–June 22, 2019
Opening Saturday May 18, 4–6pm
The Great Material Continuum
The first image in Brian Aldiss’ novel Earthworks is by far the book’s best. It is of a corpse suspended in an anti-gravity walking apparatus strolling over the ocean, drifting just over the surface of the waves. The wearer died of a heart attack (or similar, I don’t remember) and his automated walking gear floated him off of land entirely to wander the endless seas. This anonymous corpse covering Jesus’ two greatest hits (walking on water and rising from the dead) is uncovered by the crew of a gigantic automated boat, basically a ghost ship, piloted by a minuscule crew. From this point on Earthworks glides rudderlessly into a disappointing adventure story, the most notable thing about the book, to a wider audience, is that apparently Robert Smithson had picked up a copy while in transit and had named for the genre of mega-sculpture he was then formulating after it.
Still, the image of the automated corpse, animated, active and yet unknowing – both with and without agency – presses on the mind. The image morphs into an autonomous Tesla carrying it’s dead driver on an endless road trip, Weekend at Bernie’s written by J.G. Ballard. I can imagine the road gliding by underneath, the automation in the car bringing it to a stop at lights alongside the living. Look over from your car and see the driver’s mouth hanging open in a rictus, the eyes sunken into their sockets, a fly, untroubled and oblivious, moving between nose and dry mouth. Inside, the car stereo continues to play the same NPR podcast over and over, warning that should the Democrats move too far to the left they risk alienating a tiny pod of super-wealthy voters, that a wealth tax would go too far. The air conditioning slowly desiccates the flesh like a contemporary Chinchorro mummy, the white faux-leather interior stands in for the Atacama desert. Like Earthworks I’m not sure where this could end up.
Perhaps the real fantasy is to still consume resources even after dying? To somehow animate a shadow of our will to exceed even our own physical capacity to be greedy. Despite not being able to take it with us, we want to keep using and using the world, to fix it so the world can’t get rid of us, even in death. We gasp at the strangeness of the Inca continuing to house and consult the mummies of deceased nobility, yet no one bats an eye when mysteriously the hand of a decaying robber baron, deceased for decades, magically restores a Renaissance painting or acquires a collection of artists’ video work from the 70s. In a way, the Incan insistence on tracing the activities of the powerful dead back to their own bodies at least provides a measure of accountability. Imagine if John Paul Getty were wheeled out to survey his travertine palace on the hill? If he had to be shown the art works that his proxies had acquired for him? If every fundraising gala culminated in the veneration of his mummified corpse?
Maybe the absence of Getty himself from the proceedings of his museum and research institute can be seen as the fallout from the faulty narrative of dynamism and energy told to justify the obscene wealth that industrialists like Getty managed to amass. Nothing about the myth of a self-made capitalist conditions us to live in a world governed by the economic power of corpses. In the early years of the cold-war did Soviet citizens trudge through Lenin’s tomb and think, from this preserved corpse emanates our planned economy?
Which is to say that maybe the problem lies not at the moment when we allegedly expire but with the moment when the narrative implies that we come into being. What if the cognitive dissonance comes not from a broken understanding of death, but a failure to come to grips with birth? When we imagine mutation and hybridity, we generally position those blends as occurring in the space when the organism is being composed, in utero so to speak. We reserve our most sincere feelings of revulsion for hybridity initiated after we, as entities, are supposed to have been fully articulated: think of Human Centipede (2009), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896, 1933, 1977 & 1996) or The U-Men (the adversaries of the X-Men, not the proto-grunge Seattle band). If we embrace post-natal hybridization, if only to the extent that we engage with our becoming-corpse, then we open the door to befriending our object-selves. We are cyborgs already, the shielding shells we hide inside, our own dead cells, pounds of living and dead bacteria, all of these are part of our ongoing hybridization with the object-world around us. If we accept our selves as part of our expanded material continuum then it no longer seems paradoxical to say “Somebody hit me” when you get in a car accident. The car actually is your body.
This is why it is so funny to look at JPEGs of the MIT Media Lab wearable computing club from the early 2000s. Not because the clothing or technology is out of date, but because the effort of those pictured seems so misplaced. In the picture we see an assemblage of people wearing what, at the time, must have seemed like default clothing for computer science grad students: dad jeans, giant chunky sneakers, goth trench coats etc. but in addition to this default uniform, they’ve accessorized with fanny packs crammed with computer equipment, special gloves and rings to control the wearer’s rigs; eye taps, visor displays and notably a bold antennae protruding from a baseball hat. Most alarmingly one member grips a chording keyboard input device in his hand in the manner of a suicide bomber clutching a detonator. These pioneers of human-computer interaction worked out of a hardware hacking space at MIT called the borgLAB named after the cyborg antagonists in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Their wiki documents the travails of cyborg life in the aughts, generally negative interactions with security guards and airport metal detectors. These were people who traveled with doctor’s letters explaining that they were cyborgs and had to be allowed to wear 10 pounds of computer equipment at all times. One of their members got roughed up in a McDonald’s in Paris for refusing to comply with the restaurant’s ‘no photography’ policy by broadcasting his entire life to the internet through his glasses. Now the same restaurant is likely begging it’s clientele to take pictures of it and put them on the internet. I claim that the effort is misplaced because we were already human-object hybrids: we are hybridized with our clothes, our social infrastructure… just walking outside our clothing broadcasts information about us to others using a complex network of social threads and cues, our bodies mediate the environment through our shoes, pants, etc. The computing is already occurring all around us on an incredibly complex level. Intuitively, the security guards harassed these computer scientists not because they were cyborgs but because they were pretending to be the only cyborgs.
So while initially the focus of the JPEG was meant to be on the chunky technology, now, in a world where everyone carries a powerful computer around with them, crowds lined up to see these same clothes laconically drape the performers in Anne Imhoff’s Faust (2017) at the last Venice Biennial. In a kind of health goth Cirque du Soleil the German Pavilion morphed into the Vetements pavilion and the clothes, which had died once, were brought back to life. When the garments died for the first time their current wearers were just being born, showing that reanimated outfits always ride on the youngest flesh that will have them. The results were predictable: many people pulled out their tiny computers and took photographs and then beamed those photographs to the internet to tell their friends: “Look, I went to Venice and saw the thing.”
Preserved in a web-netherworld before Retina(tm) screens and responsive web design the images that come down to us from the earlier internet are tiny and hard to see on modern computers. Their distance from us in time reiterated by them seeming very far away in space as well, somewhere far away on the other side of our tiny hand-computers, too distant for our big fingers to reach with pinching and zooming. However, in the storage network of the larger object world, where the objects and us are in continual social elaboration, we are able to perform resurrections. But as with all revenants something changes in the journey back from death – the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. So what constitutes this supplement? What returns with the corpse when it comes back to take part in the world again? The argument is that the supplement is created by these old objects in new contexts, but I’m not so sure. To say this would be to claim to understand the complete context of the original manifestation. The supplement, if anything, is the new corpse that each reanimation leaves behind. Each transition from object to subject occasions it’s own second death, the death of that object’s object-life. Bringing running water back to the surface of Mars is not just bringing a dead area back to life, but also killing the rock-life of that planet.
This is why we hate holograms. Why the only enduring cultural application of the hologram is to appear on credit cards, so that we can be reminded of how much we loathe the companies that use our debt like dog owners use a leash. We hate holograms because the balance of death for death seems unequally distributed, the corpse too plump and lifelike, the supplement too thin. Earlier this year, the crypt above Los Angeles opened up, a bloom of sepulchral dust wafted upwards and a stray bat escaped, trailing his shroud and wrappings the mummy of John Paul Getty struggled into the light to receive a new donation to his vault: 105 holograms. The archivists, who had prepared the donation, knew the drill well and lay prostrate, face to the ground with arms extended. It is forbidden for the help to look directly at Mr. Getty. As the stone cooled their foreheads they listened for the soft scuttling sound of the Mummy’s light steps to retreat into the darkness and for the stone portal to groan shut. Standing, dusting themselves off and feeling the cool breeze from the Pacific temper the warmth of the California sun they see that the altar where the sacrifice had been placed is empty, except for a faint oily residue. The plutocrat had claimed his prize and could enjoy his holograms in total darkness.
Steve Kado is an artist, writer and musician from North York, Ontario. His visual work and performances have appeared at such venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Mercer Union, Toronto; Tate Britain; The Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art; ArtSpeak, Vancouver and 8-11. Steve’s writing has appeared in Artforum, Flash Art, C Magazine. Since 2011 he has hosted a weekly radio show on KCHUNG Radio in Los Angeles with Nicolas Miller called the Talking Show. His favorite hobby is squash.