2015 New York University Abu Dhabi Thesis paper
The computer screen glowed in the black void that was the room and the text of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony tinged the light a soft grey. I was alone, delirious from thefever and lack of sleep. Perhaps in a roundabout way I was not completely alone, I had begun to feel this the past few weeks.
“He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he was asking the Traveler for a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.”
A rotten crucifix of text, it hung over my head threatening to pry open my skin. And yet the moment was strangely arresting like discovering a word that suddenly explains and expands an emotion you never knew you felt - Kafka taught me the words with which to speak of what I have in front of me. Robert Smithson, Roland Barthes, Gaston Bachelard, Susan Sontag, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd - they made sense to me but they hadn’t taught me a language. Their objects were removed, their gaze had an outside where what I built had no outside or inside. I was in the machine as much as the machine was inside me, and I needed it as much as it needed me to function, to give it the first order.
The machine lives in an empty room in a relatively empty building. The room is black so no light from outside taints the light that the machine secretes. I boarded up the only window with black cardboard and smothered the last glowing beads with black masking tape. Air does not circulate, I turned it off before I built the machine. When I close the door, and before I slide into the machine, I can hear nothing, feel nothing, and see nothing. There is a complete deprivation of the senses in the room, which I hope you realize is necessary as the functioning of the machine becomes clearer.
The room used to be full of things. In it were three small tables, two chairs, and an obscene assortment of loose pages, books, tools and materials. Bolted onto the rear wall were two sculptures, both titled “Papá”, made of unfired clay, nails, and recycled wood. On the longest wall I had mounted dozens of small ikea frames and in these, pictures of Kozaki cavalry. A photograph of my grandmother during her first communion stared back from the opposite wall. Documents, artist’s papers, and pictures of my father before I met him littered the space. I often felt when walking into the room that the walls would collapse under the weight of that which had been placed on them. Back then people often got lost when leaving the room after spending some time there. This is perhaps because the room sits in a tolerably empty building, which in turn sits in a barely inhabited campus, on a desert island next to an artificial city. Artificial in the sense that everything is imported, even culture at times. I don’t blame it for the country this city belongs to is only 40 years old. But that’s a different story though it bears some weight in explaining why I placed this machine here and not in Chile.
What came before the machine had looked (from the outside) like random and forced insertions into an otherwise pristine and empty space. But the making, accruing, and dismantling was a way of thinking. When I began what I now call the Amnesia ProjectI realized one of the first things I had to do was develop a new framework of thinking about modes of expression. I was interested in memory and the gaps in memory and how these gaps are inherited and can be rearranged to create artificial but continuous narratives into the present. So the first impulse was to mythologize this memory. A few years ago I was given an extremely detailed horoscope that had been written by a Swiss doctor when I was born. In it, it said over time I would begin to deify my father and my mother - I think this is what I wanted to do with my mythology, which I had called Abaddon. Abaddon was and maybe still is the pagan son of the devil. This personal mythology had come together during a summer I had spent in Chiapas studying the Zapatista movement; I think their voices had a great deal of influence in how I wrote of myself and my father in this story. This impulse, like most things that I first think about, faded away as I realized that mythologizing history did nothing to forward questions and think critically of this history at an individual level - it served only to request awareness through my magnification of everything. It allowed me a great expanse of expressive freedom while at the same time forfeiting any thought of what was actually being expressed. And so I pinned up some pages of the story onto the room’s walls and left them there to mark that this had happened and that I could now go on without fear of forgetting.
Then in November I returned to a somber Santiago. The purpose of this visit was to produce a three day durational performance created with my father and my mother. The piece, titled 143 kg, made real an unspoken hierarchy of memory in my family,and made me understand my place in this order as the reconfiguring element in the flow of memory. Hearing my father’s voice struggle with the repetition of letters written by people he once knew and had since been cut open with knives and thrown into rivers or electrocuted while crucified onto bed frames, noticing the growing exhaustion of my mother’s hands over the course of the three days as she furiously transcribed what my father was saying - I made a note to pin these things up on the walls of the room to mark that this had happened and that I could now go on without fear of forgetting.
This soft violence opened up a problem in my rendering of the tension between memory and what thanks to Marianne Hirsch I began to describe as postmemory. In postmemory I found a language to describe the relationship between my body and the interrupted stories that are caught inside it. This structure is precise and delicate - history comes to you primarily through the embodied reactions of people you love, indexing in this way the trauma of an earlier period. Hirsch used the concept to explain the ambiguous affect the un-lived memory of the Holocaust had on her body, and I found that it helped me understand what Steve Stern sees as a Holocaust of memory in Chile where the only certainties about what happened are found in the flesh and not in the archive. And in doing so I also learned that there is a distinction to be made between forms of archive, because the archive of material and the body is as valid as the photographic archive in reconstructing or mending un-lived experience.
My duty during the performance in November was to wrap rocks with papers that had been inscribed with phrases of the disappeared. I felt that by doing this I was explicitly adding weight to words that now only existed in a digital format which had robbed them of presence and made them subject to a homogenizing medium. It was only after the performance that I realized the affective charge of these new objects was due as much to the intersection of their material as it was to the action. The rocks were from the desert of Copiapó, near the place where 33 miners had been trapped underground for 69 days. The papers had been bought at an old stationery store my father used to frequent in the 70’s when his office was still on Calle Lyon, and the typewriter used to print the phrases had been my grandfather’s.
It was also in November that I saw Alfredo Jaar’s “The Sound of Silence” for the first time. The Sound of Silence is both installation and performance - an enormous stainless steel cube placed in the center of an empty gallery inside of which is a tiny, pitch-black screening room. The viewer sits inside the cube while the story of Kevin Carter is projected onto one of the walls. The entire story is told through text - the infamous image of the vulture hovering over the starving child is shown only once towards the end, accompanied by the painful flash of strobe lights that leaves you blind except for the fading traces of the image. One of the exterior sides of the cube, lined with bright fluorescent tubes, inundates the space around it with a cold light. I returned home and strayed somewhat from the path to catch the setting sun and I couldn’t stop thinking about the weight of the light. Yes, Jaar the photojournalist was interested in the political dimension of Carter’s story in its relation to the west’s dismissal of Sudan, but Jaar the architect knew how to render the ways in which perceptually we can either extract ourselves from the scene or burnish it into our memory. Jaar’s light carried weight and structure not because its source wasparticularly well defined but because his cube operated under the same internal-external binary of the body and the photograph - the light that came from it was by definition internal, projected outwards from the image inside. And in this re-projection the image was destroyed and re-constituted by passing through a mechanical system that tied the whole machine together. I walked and I thought about this for a long time. I thought about how I had to come home to understand material as archival and how this archive could be torn apart, dismembered, and reassembled into its constituent bits and pixels and in doing so rid itself from the specificity that tied it into the past. I also thought about how curious it was that this process struck me as entirely organic, as if the machine created by Jaar was no different to a plant repurposing air.
I returned to the room ecstatic and confused - I was infected with the images of Jaar’s cube, the performance, and Barthes’ Camera Lucida. But I was also doing my best to bury a sense of dread when I thought back to our private exercise in Chile. Despite my best efforts I hadn’t been able to engage my father and my mother in a conversation about how they felt and how their bodies had changed after the performance. I knew something was different because I could sense it, I could tell the wall that stopped me from peering too far into the past had shifted slightly in what I thought was the right direction. Perhaps the failure of an open conversation on the effects of the performance was rooted in my inability to teach them the language with which to speak of these things, with which to speak of the body. I blamed this failure on time, on translation, on the Museum. What was the use of it all if I couldn’t teach them the vocabulary I was slowly learning to describe the affect of absence? This failure of dialogue, manifested in a guilt for what I felt was an opportunistic use of their bodies as markers for my own, began what in retrospect I understand as the birth of the idea behind the machine.
I knew Jaar was key but I had yet to understand the conceptual implications of thetranslation of light and medium he was playing with. I also realized that myperception of an overwhelmingly cold, calculating mechanism as being behind TheSound of Silence was due simply to the absence of the artist’s body. I re-read Barthesand Sontag and some Wodiczko and began building a vocabulary of binaries in orderto speak of images and by extension of archives and memory and bodies. Text andimage operate as a binary, some images contain unexplainable access points -nucleuses of affect resulting from uncanny coincidences. The image is ultimately amirror, suffering is diluted in its representation, and saturation is another word forhomogenization. In these texts I read the image as a proxy for the body, and throughit began to understand my relation to a physical archive that had been given to me bymy father before returning to the machine, so that I could use it as a source or as fuelfor it. But I could not shake the uneasy feeling that somehow my failure in Santiagowas also a way to begin understanding the material I now had to work through andmy relationship to the family I had left at home.
There was an understanding to be gained in re-reading these texts and sitting with the tension created by the failure of dialogue with filial bodies. I had assumed, as did many of the theorists I was basing my work on, that the immediacy of access to photographic archives (and by extension all other forms of it) was largely unquestionable seeing as this immediacy was a result of the medium itself. Be it paper or pixel, once obtained the information is spread open, allowing a filterless access (be it shallow or deep) that demanded little dialogue with the origins of the archive. The image was taken as it was - context, source, author, even technical details were informational satellites that allowed for a more focused reading of a physical entity that was powerless to remove itself from scrutiny. In the same vein, the fascinationwith the creation and subsequent access to an archive remained unquestioned to me -the gaps in this archive were only unfortunate consequences of larger political and social processes, censorship, and death. The assumption of access, so central to the reading of the post-dictatorial Chilean experience, had turned its tables on me. My unquestioned “derecho de saber” had led me to sadist exercises in the alteration of archives in order to affect filial bodies, as was the case with 143 kg. and other projects before that. This form of learning about my father and mother was a violent exercise. I had started this entire exercise and body of work assuming the failure of my parents’ generation to communicate. The derecho de saber and my fervent adhesion to it, to what I perceived as my inalienable generational right to memory, had resulted in never questioning whether or not the very structure of mnemonic discovery was viable.
Perhaps a better question would have been “Why were the voids not filled; why was their archive incomplete when it was passed to me?” If anything, this question begins to represent an impossibility of access. And yet I also realize that the answer would only exist if the question had been posed at the right time, and I feel I am far from that right time. What remains - the only thing I am left with is the questioning of the implications of my own work and its relationship to contemporary art’s imaginative ability to intervene in negotiating structures of traumatic memory. What are the ethical implications of encountering and modifying another’s archive? Is it possible to, through this modification, build an uninterrupted narrative into the present in order to understand my body and the burden of memory inscribed in it? These became my questions, and I feel they begin to acknowledge an unrecoverable, incomplete and affective archive birthed by trauma. With these questions I could begin to access the methods, practices and bodies that are called out by the structure of the archive itself. Had I realized this before I might have spared my parents the pain of accessing the trauma they chose to bury. But I was too late, and so I pinned up some pages of the story onto the room’s walls and left them there to mark that this had happened and that I could now go on without fear of forgetting.
What followed was a renouncing of the archive. Having discovered the tension I decided to begin building what would eventually become the memory machine. The questions I now carried had the strange side-effect of distancing my body from the material I had at hand - the pondering of an archive that had become inaccessible as a result of an ethical problematic meant that the subjective nuances of my efforts to rearrange it would be counterproductive. These questions could not be posed by my body - I had engraved the archive too deep into it and thus could no longer rearrange it. The whole process had to be external in its execution and yet affect my body brutally in order to wipe away the mistakes I had imposed on it. I had to build a machine that rearranged memory; I had to build the Sound of Silence but the source of light, the image, was to be the body and not the text.
The machine was built using a mix of pine-wood and ply-wood. In total, seventy-five square meters of wood were cut, rearranged, bolted together and sanded in order to house twelve meters of LEDs, thirty meters of cable, six screens, two video splitters, a set of five speakers, two fluorescent light racks and a hacked video cassette recorder that would drive the entire thing. I made the machine so that two bodies (in this case mine and my sister’s) could crawl into it - our faces and hands obscured by the screens and lit by the backlight of the footage being played by the VCR. Four witnesses- I call them “operators” because the functioning of the machine is left up to them - are invited to be present with the machine for fifteen minutes. Once inside, the operators pick five tapes from a total of eighteen - these tapes drive the machine, and their contents dictate the direction and experience of the performance. At no point do I or my sister have any influence on their choices and actions. The operators never see our faces, and we never see them - we encounter each other through the screens. All we the see is the soft glow of the screen’s backlight, and the witnesses see the footage they pick out projected towards them through the screens. This footage is an amalgamation of my family’s archive and a larger, more institutional collection drawn from different museums and foundations in Chile. There is no real specificity to the curation of the footage - it is chosen if it contains images I feel are already inside me.
I had no real plan when I started building it. If anything, it grew out of a series of images that kept recurring in the texts and works I was studying. Many times I imagined a conversation between Barthes and Jaar on the rearrangement of light and the excess or absence of light as points where a punctum might become more solid and evident. Nauman, Bachelard and Sontag contributed by speaking of how this lightmight be related to the body, how perhaps the inherent properties of a photograph (a medium where light is engraved through a chemical process) could be the beginnings of a proxy for understanding and affecting the body. The key to how the mechanism would operate wasn’t clear to me until sometime later, when I saw Luis Nieto performing Carlitopolis - a short piece where he uses video as a device to trick an audience into believing his arm is performing experiments on a trapped lab mouse. I recognized, in Nieto’s work, the ability to use video as a mechanism to co-opt the body and suggest impossible virtual alternatives to an otherwise largely unmodifiable and preconfigured scaffolding of the body, always bound to the present. The backlight of these screens acts in the same way that the fluorescent lights in Jaar’s Sound of Silence do - they cast a condensed light that is both the result and the source of the image they are displaying. I think too many people overlook this, perhaps because we’ve made screens so that their backs and the light that emanates from them are invisible; we consider this light a distraction from the constructed (or full, projected) image. Yet when I acknowledge this negative light, and place my body in front of it, I am deliberately choosing to experience the deconstruction of the image that is shown on the other side - my body is exposed to the origin and end of the image at the same time. It’s like peering into the fire that casts shadows on the cave wall - not by doing so do I ignore the existence of the figures that cast the shadows: if anything, it reconfigures my relationship to them, because by seeing the fire I realize what they really are. It works the same way with the screens. Seeing the backlight allows me to reconfigure the relationship of my body to the image displayed on the screen which isa process of both recognition and erasure. This is how I begin to access the trauma in my body as well as the trauma in the images so as not to fictionalize or rearrange anything, but to erase and heal at the same time.
In this way the machine activates my body and my sister’s body in the same way that Jaar activates Kevin Carter’s photograph. It is an organic mechanism that works to rearrange and understand trauma, reconfiguring its etchings on my body allowing me to create a new, cohesive narrative. The complexity of the system, the components of the machine that in the end acquired the structure of a body, complete with a nervoussystem, brain, and limbs was necessary because the trauma is complex and the affect has to be complex as well. The machine proved to me that the reconfiguration of the body through light was possible, that the body parsed through light can exist as a performative framework that goes beyond the detached and cold medium of the solitary screen. The machine allows the archive to be trackable to the body, while at the same time emanating from the artist, creating a mediated exposure to the other that is necessary to transmit the affect of the performance.
The machine lives in an empty room in a relatively empty building. The room is black so no light from outside taints the light that the machine secretes. I boarded up the only window with black cardboard and smothered the last glowing beads with black masking tape. Air does not circulate, I turned it off before I built the machine. When I close the door, and before I slide into the machine, I can hear nothing, feel nothing, and see nothing. I made this machine in order to reconfigure my memory, in order to heal the trauma in my family, in order to prove myself worthy of my birthright - the carrying on of a cohesive narrative. My machine sounded the silence, and it did so by deploying my body and my sister’s as post memory receptors. We were the source of illumination as well as what we were already - platforms of somatic recording, bodies in which an archive was inscribed: no longer static, made malleable and active by the memory machine.
Works Cited / References / Sources
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill andWang, 1981. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture afterthe Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Jaar, Alfredo, and Okwui Enwezor. Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence. Paris: KamelMennour, 2012. Print.
Jones, Mary MacAllester. Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Texts andReadings. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1991. Print.
Kafka, Franz, Willa Muir, and Edwin Muir. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony,and Other Stories. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print.
Nauman, Bruce, and Robert C. Morgan. Bruce Nauman. Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUP, 2002. Print.
Raskin, David, and Donald Judd. Donald Judd. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.
Smithson, Robert, and Jack Flam. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings.Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,2003. Print.
Stern, Steve J. Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile,1973-1988. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. Cambridge,MA: MIT, 1999. Web.v