JUMP IN THE URINAL AND STAND ON YOUR HEAD.
I’M THE ONE THAT’S ALIVE. YOU’RE ALL DEAD.
“Is it Runciter’s writing?” Al asked. “Do you recognize it?” “Yes,” Joe said, nodding. “It’s Runciter’s writing.” “So now we know the truth,” Al said. “Is it the truth?”
– from Philip K. Dick’s Ubik
HALFLIFERS are from the future. The traditional retrospective format in which the honored artist is publicly commended before being entombed alive into the sarcophagus of history would be improper.1 It’s relieving then that Gallery 400’s recent exhibition I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE examined the work of Torsten Zenas Burns and Anthony Discenza’s collaborative duo HALFLIFERS not only as a static moment in the present looking backwards, but also as a re-interpretation unto the future of their vast body of work that has spanned more than two decades. HALFLIFERS’ actual work is almost entirely absent from the gallery, the exceptions being a re-edit of the duo’s entire video history and a new book entitled THE LAST KNOWN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE HALFLIFERS cataloging their vast array of source material. This cleverly assembled “retrospective” primarily exists as a bricolage of other artists’ reinterpreting HALFLIFERS’ multimedia oeuvre.
The etymology of the name is also from the future.2 Under usual circumstances, we would understand the term half-life as it is used in physics. There it describes the decay of radioactive material, an exponential reduction in the vein of Zeno’s paradox. Here however, we encounter half-‐life as it exists in Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, as something that generates and extends beyond a terminal state. Half-‐life from the future is a state of suspended animation in which the deceased are able to communicate with the living via technology that transmits thoughts from the severely limited and detached consciousness of the dead. It has been supposed that in the final moments before death, we see our life cinematically flash before our eyes. In the technologically enhanced half-life state, this retrospective on living becomes a halcyon reality. It turns into a perverse lucid dream in which the dead dreamer is not entirely aware that their new world is an artificial reality built by the misfiring of their dying mind. This half-‐life suits the broad spectrum of work in the oeuvre of HALFLIFERS, and in particular the retrospective remixes of I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE. Themes of technology, paranoia, and the liminal run through the exhibition, particularly in the lecture Zombies, identified presented by George Pfau and the performance The White Feathered Octopus Tarot Deck by Jason Robert Bell.
The content of Pfau’s lecture was eclectic to say the least. Moving freely between the films of George Romero, ethnobotanist Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin, Pfau’s lecture at first came off as somewhat unfocused. Soon however it became quite clear that this expansive assemblage of research was underscored by a novel hypothesis. Pfau probes the horrific zombie narratives propagated through cinematic and literary pop culture to ask the question of what exactly is a zombie but furthermore, what can be learned from these drive‐in monsters? The answer he presents defies the cult niche in pop culture that zombie narratives have staked out; it seems, actually, that a wide multitude of scholarly and practical inquiries can be enriched through an investigation of the undead being and the apocalyptic visions that almost always accompany zombies in the mainstream. Pfau locates the zombie as a metaphor for lines of inquiry ranging from gender issues, nomadic living, prejudice against the homeless, humanism, the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS, ontology, postcolonialism, and many others.
One might notice that many of these vectors of analysis are tangential to the logic of binary opposition that permeates an extraordinary amount of philosophical thought.3 For the last half-century or so, these dichotomies have been split and endlessly rearranged into homogenous systems by the analytic methodology of deconstruction. Pfau’s academics are refreshing in that they bypass the frequently messy rationale of such a postmodern approach in favor of a more focused method of analysis. In Pfau’s deeper methodology, the zombie acts as a dialectical synthesis of two binary poles. Traditionally, this synthesis would act as a zone of agreement that discards the original poles to move above and beyond a dichotomous situation. Pfau’s zombie, however, stops short of transcending the binary it started in. Instead, the zombie serves as a kind of virtual object of analysis that may enhance speculation on either intact side of the binary that produced it.
To demonstrate this philosophical device, let’s take the example of the cyborg, a technologically modified being and area of consideration raised by the audience in relation to the zombie during the question and answer session of Pfau’s lecture. The cyborg exists as a being modified, or perhaps infected, by technology. Hovering somewhere between a human and a machine, this synthesized life form becomes a case study in defining subjectivity and the presence of free will across humanity and technical instruments. The cyborg is not a deconstruction of the binary between human and artificial intelligences, it does not lead to a plateau in which the animal and machine homogenously coexist. But the cyborg is also still an assemblage, it always hovers between rather than transcends the poles of human and apparatus. In so doing, our cyborg exists as a fluctuating site of examination that gives insight into what it means to be human in comparison to what it means to be a machine.
The results that can be procured from using Pfau’s methodology are interesting in that they maintain observable levels of difference. The output of this philosophical contraption avoids deconstruction’s tendency to turn the binary into indistinguishable material but also refrains from converging the binary into a unity that excludes an exterior object from which variation can be established. Jason Robert Bell’s performance The White Feathered Octopus Tarot Deck operates on the other side of this theme by presenting a self-‐concocted ritual based on a system in which all signifying material is undifferentiated. Bell begins by having twelve participants, twelve surrogates of zodiac signs, join hands in a circle. The lights of the gallery dim and electronic music plays loudly from speakers around the space. At this point, the artist is sticking esoteric cards to the foreheads of his participants with spit while crossing his eyes in what convincingly appears to be divine epilepsy. Once finished, he flings cards sporting iconography from a variety of decks onto the floor and begins feverishly vocalizing thoughts regarding the purpose of this ritual. Included in this schizophrenic oration is mention of human beings existing as living embodiments of the information in hard drives, as well as several quick references to the mysticism of the Kabbalah.
Bell’s performance is the realization of a paranoid condition that emerges when multiple structures of signification are blended into one another. A univocal purpose of this ritual itself is almost impossible to arrive to on the part of the viewer. Yet the hysterical speech of the artist seems determined to announce a solid meaning for the actions performed. Bell is convinced of the mystical relevance of his own paranoiac accumulation of symbols. This sincerity in the face of complete madness is what distinguishes The White Feathered Octopus Tarot Deck from a bloated canon of performance art built around personalized ritual. In the past, a number of artists have devised ritualistic performances as a way of formulating an analysis for the act of ritual itself, ultimately creating artworks that defer genuineness in favor of critical leverage. Bell’s piece at Gallery 400 is a step beyond this apathetic practice; while the audience may never sincerely believe in the “divine” meaning Bell taps into, Bell himself does and convinces us well of his faith.
Time is hard to pin down in I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE. The exhibition begins with a string of cultural substance that is distinctly from the 1990s: deconstruction, psychosis, cult fiction, ceremony, a renewed interest in Philip K. Dick, and HALFLIFERS themselves. This string is then remixed and illuminated, all in the vein of a “retrospective”, into a new command line of tropes highly indicative of 2013 and beyond: post-‐deconstruction, candor, faith, advanced cybernetics, George Pfau, Jason Robert Bell. The rather unique exhibition format used in I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE is to be commended for facilitating such a progression. The show is ultimately an archive of something from the future, retrieved years before in such a way that pays homage to HALFLIFERS while simultaneously pushing their oeuvre in novel directions. Time and the retrospective are experienced as critically innovative here, a way of looking in two temporal directions at once. The audience gazes longingly and in respect at a career spanning decades while also peering into an invigoration of that career, a stimulation that brings forth a new way to conduct philosophy, honesty in performance art, and the opportunity to reevaluate literal and metaphorical states of life and death.
I THINK WE’RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE: THE LEGACY OF HALFLIFERS was on view at Gallery 400, 400 S Peoria St, May 6 – June 22, 2013. All images courtesy Gallery 400.
- At this point in time, we often see the prevalence of the mid-career retrospective in museums. It seems bizarre that artists still living and making are having their careers sectioned off into temporal fragments rather than allowing the creative output of cultural producers to be exhibited as the organic flow that it truly is. In addition to this phenomenon, galleries will represent the estates of deceased artists alongside the living. Works from the official repositories of perished makers are curated into group shows with pieces made by animate artists.
- The North American Confederation of 1992.
- To name just a few: mind/body, subject/object, noumena/phenomena.