IMITATION OF MOTH
This notebook grew out of my experiences while in residency at Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen in Innsbruck, Austria. Nested beneath an alpine range, the Künstlerhaus is located in the east wing of a 17th century schloss, and they were kind enough to put me in an atelier on the top floor—significant— because it was the space itself and the singularity of my circumstance that conspired to produce this piece:
For starters—at the start of the summer, at night my loft would populate with strangely buzzing bees. It was ironic; my last sound piece was thematically linked to bees, angelic presence and epileptic seizures, so I do have an affinity for these insects. What I found curious though—was the fact that they were active at night. I have always thought of bees, especially honeybees as solar citizens—and very sensible ones at that. They are equipped with precise directional bio-gadgetry, so it seemed very odd indeed that they might have strayed far enough from the hive to be lost. They’d buzz around for an hour (or till I tuned them out), and then in the morning I was left with the task of sweeping up their corpses.
As the summer waned, bee season seemed to be over, giving rise to the much more user-friendly moths and butterflies. I started to notice ‘pale beauties’ as they are called, gently gracing the woodwork, or playing invisible on the walls. There were monarch butterflies too—a few inquisitive ones, in search of sustenance, would land on my skin and tickle me with their probes. It gave me a chance to witness the not-so-fearful symmetry (but impressive all the same) of their wings. Their tour of duty was much longer than the bees, but after a few days, the rigor mortis set in. This crew wasn’t swept up and out—rather a small line up of Lepidoptera began to mount on my table. What were these markings for? Was it merely an advanced architecture of seduction—or—in fact a genetic code compression? It had occurred to me when I played host to live Monarchs, that the flapping of the wings activated the code sequences embedded in their wings—someone was able to decipher it—but I could only speculate. The repetition, the doubling, the symmetry all made a profound impression on me.
Much of this tied in with the work I had come to do at Büchsenhausen. Machine Fragments and the mechanae had to do with machine intelligence and parsing gender issues located in artificial intelligence culture. The idea of doubling, encoding—ones and zeroes— I find entrenched in the butterfly/moth wing formation. Since I am not of a ‘naturalist bent’ and had no interest in photographing my winged friends, I had to set upon other means of rendering their complexity.
At some point in the summer I was riddled with a flurry of deadlines. Time became of the essence and soon it was inconvenient to sleep. Whenever I reached my waking limits—I would go up to my atelier, put on dancing shoes and blare the music. Happily, for the most part, the premises were emptied out of anyone who might have dampened my fun. It was usually an hour or so of imagined discotheque or faux-kickboxing, depending on my mood. These activities were usually terminated by the bells announcing that it was 5 or 6 a.m. Then I’d get back to work.
I had installed a video camera in my room for the express purposes of audio recording. During one of my dancing fits it occurred to me to videotape myself. At the time, I had no idea what I’d do with the footage. The impulse was also counter to habit, I generally hate to be photographed or recorded in any manner. What I discovered was that it was alright as long as no one else was around watching…
Not unlike children who silently cease activity at the first sign of an adult.
All I had to do was press <<play>>.
Eventually there were rules:
1) Use only available lighting.
2) Costume changes allowed, but not encouraged. Nothing outside off what I would usually do, i.e., the outfit I had been wearing all day (plus heels or platforms).
3) Poverty of set encouraged. Semblance and not the “thing itself” much preferred.
I did bend the rules from time to time, but it was a general attempt to keep my activities within the province of juvenile role-play.
Rummaging through the initial footage, I decided I was more interested in particular gestures caught in the stills. I found myself replicating the idea of moth wing formation: the doubling, the repetition, the compressed encoding, and then later, the flapping, for the express purposes of activating the code. I hit upon a process of culling stills from the video footage, and then re-animating them in Flash. So the moving footage is not video in the real sense of the word, rather mechanicals. I began to think of them as experiments in understanding the cultural layering of machine intelligence, sort of how Eadward Muybridge used stills to explore movement.
Thus for a moment, my life became an imitation of moth.
“We ask that there be no more references to India as a place to die…”
—El Aficionado, Robert Ashley
One evening at Büchsenhausen, we had gathered in the courtyard around a barbecue or something other social format—I told the other residents about the curious circumstance of the bees that flew into my room at night, only to die in the morning. “It’s a bit like Varanesi, I figured…”. The Sacred city of Varanesi, on the banks of the Ganges is where you go to break your cycle of being—if you subscribe to such schemes. For centuries pilgrims have journeyed there as a final resting place. They believe they will have ended the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
“More like breaking their cycle of ‘bee-ing’” quipped one of the Planktonites. *
The actual start date of my residency had been delayed because I had to have unexpected surgery earlier in the year. Then there were complications from that, and I found myself in the hospital, again. All my life, I had managed to avoid the melodrama of doctors, hospitals and life-threatening health issues— this year I managed to spend the first half of it in and out of them. Two days after I arrived in Innsbruck, I found myself back in the hospital again—more complications and then another bout of surgery.
Over the phone a friend said “Why did you have to go to Austria for that? You could have done that in New York.”
But could I? I wondered, watching the bees drop from the ceiling in my atelier and gradually die… I felt like they seemed to know what they were doing— secretly deserting the hive at night, tired of their serfdom, knowing death to be the only renewal— they had found their Varanesi in the altitude of my atelier.
It would be a second death, after all, most insects undergo a pupal transformation, most notably Lepidoptera— the cocoon stage, I believe this to be the actual model for the ancient Egyptian mummy. They weren’t trying to preserve the mortal body, rather they swaddled it, cocoon-like, knowing that at some point the outer casing would decay and free the immortal soul to go into it’s afterlife.
I had been returned from the hospital to Büchsenhausen, my stomach reprised with 11 inches of surgical tape and staples. The Egyptians often removed the heart and intestines of the dead, replacing them with frankincense, myrrh and spikenard. The Austrian surgeons had done the same, I thought, as I contemplated the Alps outside my loft window in the days to come.
Hatshepsut (and her Hat Trick)
I turned 40 in Innsbruck. Thankfully the event was eclipsed by the World Cup Finals. I took a long walk, the streets were deserted, everyone else was in places with TV sets or massive screens— save the odd parent here and there, with kids with no attention span for soccer. I wondered if I was still planning to have any? Is reproduction in the same bag as replication and extension?
Back in the studio, phone messages from New York, one of them was my friend Grisha—she was off to see the Hatshepsut exhibit at the Met, in my honour.
How nice I thought, Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh of Egypt, claimed to have a male Ka—or spirit double. This sort of propaganda helped her assert her rights to the throne. I like her equation, it seems to me she had hit on binary sequence to power: male/female, yin/yang, one/zero. She managed to rule Egypt for 22 years—so her magical formula worked it seemed: doubling herself, then switching the gender of the clone. On/Off. More recent Hebrew parsing of biblical texts reveal that when Adam was put into a deep sleep—it was not so much a rib that was removed from him—but a cell. Eve apparently was a clone.
(Speaking of Adam’s deep coma, after having surgery, it strikes me as distinctly pupal. You go under, and there’s doctors standing over you, you emerge from darkness and there’s still doctors standing over you. But the whole world’s different—because you’ve been rearranged. Or doubled, even…)
Isn’t the mirror the very first of all magicks? You replicate yourself—or your function. And then what? I’m thinking of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, what is the first thing he does? Get someone else to do the housework, just like Eve was meant to be a “help meet”, an extension. A double who is like/but not like. Someone else to do the work. A machine.
In Hatshepsut’s case, her Ka/Android/double was political device, a phantasmic fetish object, able to imbue her with powers to rule. Not unlike Greek goddess Athena, who incorporated the Medusa’s chthonic gaze into her Aegis. This was a contradiction in terms—Medusa Gorgon belonged to the ancestral camp of the Furies and the more progressive Athena was a civilizing force and literally the “brain child” of her father, Zeus. A deeper excavation of Greek mythology reveals Medusa Gorgon and Pallas Athena as having the same Libyan roots. Mythic fact points to one and the same person, before a certain schism divides them into opposing forces. Another case of opposing doubles incorporated, a very fine trick indeed.
I wonder if Oscar Wilde had reversed the terms of Portrait of Dorian Gray—would he have survived and ‘Bosie’ died in penury instead?
The double. The opposite. The union of opposites. All in all It’s not a bad thing to repeat one’s self.
According to my tarot numerology, the year is a ‘Lover’s Year’ for me. The Lover’s card in the tarot being ruled by Gemini, the twins. Extraordinarily apropos, since my recent work has evolved from the question of mirroring, repetition and doubling…
What I find more intriguing about that particular card, is the traditional representation: an Adam and Eve combo presided over by an angel with flaming hair. Which calls to mind the couple’s expulsion from Eden, and the “cherubim with a flaming sword” guarding the entrance—and also the “Angel of the Covenant” or “Angel of Covering” in the old testament, today represented by the Chuppah in traditional Jewish weddings. In biblical texts, wherever a covenant is set up, an Angel is “invoked” to carry out or perform all the terms of the agreement.
One of those evenings at Büchsenhausen, a group of us sat out in the garden, drinking, talking—for no reason, a lull fell upon our gaiety. Suddenly all was hushed, save for the summer sounds of crackling coals (of the barbecue) and distant chirping…
“An Angel is passing”, I pronounced. No one there had heard that expression before. “It think it derives from the practice of the Angelus—the idea that every three hours, an Angel passes, perhaps to take messages to God, or to dispense blessings—”
What I actually wanted to explain was that I thought it was one of those instances in which an Angel had been birthed. A collective contract, (a harmonious one) was in effect.
A while back, I had concluded that Angels exist in the context of instant messaging. In code syntax, such machinic equations exist: a function is set up and named—and every time that particular name is invoked—so is its function. It occurred to me that the Angel in the Lovers card, existed as a result of the union of the twain, in the event of fallout, the angelic device would dissolve. The power of two, as opposed to one. If one mirrored oneself, could such a device be created? I had noticed how on the moth wings in my room, the repetition of very simple motifs, made for heady complexity—the sum of the parts trumped all.
On another summer evening, we sat around the barbecue, while the cistern steadily filled up an enormous kiddies’ pool—once more in the midst of festivities, there was a silence. This time I said nothing, for about a minute, we heard nothing save the incessant jet stream of the pool being filled up. Then one of the planktonites said: “I think an Angel is pissing.”
La Belle Epoque: The Truth About Dandyism
In various West African traditions, biological twins have a sacred/profane mystique. In Yorubaland in particular, they are considered magical and given special names, possessing a specific social function akin to the ‘alchemical union of opposites’ in Western Hermetic traditions (and also the assignation given the Lover’s card in the tarot. It was these varying facets of twin-ship that I pored over while laying down the groundwork for the mechanae.
This tropes surrounding twin-ship and doubling struck me as a precursor to our current digital discourse. One of the more sinister beliefs is the cult of the abiku or the ogbanje—the evil (or merely capricious) child spirit who returns over and over again… that is, the child is born, lives until the age of two or even three and then decides to return to the delights of the spirit world, and then decides to come back to earthly realm—via the same mother. In this cultural trope I perceive the beginnings of a game loop. A numbers game. A related superstition has to do with protecting the boundaries of a home by sprinkling salt around the perimeter. The idea is that maleficient spirits are stopped in their tracks—because of a compulsion to count the grains of salt. Unfortunately, they are unable to count past ten or a hundred in some cases—so they are stuck in a decimal loop —and thus neutralized.
The Middle Passage gave rise to even more syncretic forms of these pre-digital tropes:
Haitian Vodoun gives us the very stylish and tricksterish clan of Politicians and legislators, the Guédés, The ultimate socialites, the Guédés tend towards dandyism, often given to wearing black, dark glasses, and a fair amount of couture. While the Guédés appear to be marauding socialites, their real function is to reinstitute the balance of things. In Haiti, the Guédé’s have the reputation of appearing out of nowhere in a crowd and switching the current—a funeral becomes a wedding; a wedding becomes a riot; a riot becomes a massive dance party… They come out of nowhere, change the scenery and then disappear into it. Pixelated behaviour, if you ask me.
The most popular of all the Guédés is Baron Samedi, aristocratic, elegant, saturnine in aspect—the Baron is full of hat tricks. He is usually invoked in civil suits to provide a just outcome. ‘Lord of the Crossroads’ and gatekeeper to the cemeteries, aesthetically, there is something of an Edwardian nuance to him. To my thinking the Vodoun religion which developed as a syncretic blend of West African religion and Catholicism by the slave populations in Haiti—crystallized it’s identity in the late late 19th century. aesthetic—the period best known as the Edwardian Era or La Belle Epoque. In particular, the dandyism of the Guédés’ emerges from the same socio-political roots that produced Brummel’s affect, Whistler’s fashion composition and the Wildean epigram—all prefiguring the headrush of decadence to follow the death of Queen Victoria. This same decadence is refracted in the domestic tragedies of the Hapsburgs, which amplified in larger political contexts, lead to the eve of the first world war…
For me this La Belle Epoque—crumbling empires, failing institutions, slave revolts—the Guédé’s inhabit the glee of the oppressor’s yoke falling off—except in their case, this clan much prefers an elaborately wrought cravat to a tightened noose…
Most importantly, they seem to have hit upon that ancient formula of compressing time, by expanding space through repetition.
Appropriate Disco Conditions
In Cinderella, the fairy godmother waves her magic wand and the faerie sparkle transforms a pumpkin into a souped up carriage, mice into footmen, rags into riches… Of course the enchantment is time-sensitive and wears off after a few hours. Not unlike a mind altering drug… The important thing to keep in mind is that faerie sparkle can be found in the most mundane quotidian of circumstances: disco elements exist in nature—dew drops, lake sparkle, neon reflecting puddles, bubble gossamer, fireflies… It can also be extracted from its exaggeration in tacky and gaudy. When we cave into the seduction of glittery things, our world alters too.
In developing the mechanae an interactive game— I had the idea emotional and aesthetic resonances were what would propel the interaction. An object that resonated for the user would act as an agent to transform the environment—the tension would lay in recognizing fragments of the world that was being created, or recouped in the overlay of the present landscape. All molecules seek rest— this requires them to recreate the circumstances of their genesis.
A friend once brought me some red rocks from Arizona. They were from a natural vortex where all the natural vegetation grew in a twisted clockwise direction. I put them on my bookcase and after a few days I noticed that the books kept falling down. This had never been the case—slowly after a while, it occurred to me that the rocks were attempting to recreate their home scenario and this is what their force field would effect.
My theory is that Cinderella’s glass slippers belonged to a parallel universe where she was a glamorous aristocrat. When she put them on, they transformed this world into the next. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz had the same luck; her glitzy ruby slippers served as talismanic transport through Oz and back to Kansas.
I own a pair of improbable heels: a gold lame and wood confection, murder to walk in—but that’s not what they’re for. During my deadline crunch at Büchsenhausen, I would slip them on, turn up the speakers and voilà the entire world became disco—at least for an hour. A short vacation from reality, and then I was ready to take on the world.
It is always important to have a parallel universe available—and the appropriate disco conditions.
*Plankton Labs was an Austrian art+tech collective in residence at Kunstlerhaus Buchsenhausen in the 2000s