Start From Where You Are

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In Among the Machines, 6 July – 3 November 2013, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Start From Where You Are uses the now-venerable technology of VR. CT images of the interior of a living skull form an echoing virtual cavern in which six narratives play out – six overlapping stories of birth and death and memory through which the viewer pans and tilts.

With thanks to the Su Ballard and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery


1. Start From Where You Are
Here we are inside this skull – this memory palace, the seat of reason. Admire the bony architecture, the puckers and processes, the sutures encasing the folds of the brain. Whose brain? Yours, mine, an unknown stranger’s? Impossible to tell from in here. Welcome to cinema in the round, the Cartesian theatre of the mind watching the body. Somewhere in the very centre of this ivory igloo a tiny man is clicking buttons – commanding an eye-blink here, a leg twitch there – a homunculus in our heads, watching the world swirl past.

But I don’t believe this story of conciousness, who is pulling that little man’s strings, for a start? The bodymind cannot be teased apart, who can separate the wisdom in your fingers from the lizard at the base of your skull?

Close your eyes and see where that takes you… somewhere inside these wet electrics. After a while in here, your back hurts, you are bored; but where are you? What was your first thought? What will be your last? Are there voices in your head or just a vague sighing chorus?

Parent mind, child mind, universal mind, we are all in this prison, this refuge, this church of bone.

2. Oh Baby
I have seen life come and go. Cells failing to cohere. A little body tracked from its first moment, the spectral light of the microscope giving every cell a rainbow halo. A grub, a frog, a wet kitten.

A face I only recognised afterward, unable to really see through the greyscale gloom of the ultrasound, or the spooky tan of its three dimensional reconstruction. You with your round
toe in your mouth. What I remember from those hospital trips are the beams of soundlight shining through the slats of your ribs, like bright sun through the grating of your chest. But I am only able to recognise you backwards, from here, the who you are now, and see these things as presentiments of something slow blooming.

Coming home from the hospital, in a body that didn’t feel like mine any more, I stared at the people we drove past, astounded that they all, that we all started from this great vulnerability, had survived the accidents of our birth, and before.

We waited so long, and still were not ready for the implacable screaming, for the endless nights of televised disasters at 2am. Footage of torn scraps of fuselage and cups of tea shored up some kind of normalcy; a soothing overlay of someone else’s trauma.

I remember your milky smell, like the sweaty smell of a tiny bird, and how it gave me the fear of its attendant failure, remembering all those little fragile corpses in the hot water cupboard shoebox come morning.

Thin afternoon sun shone through the windows the first day back from hospital, and now in the second year of your life, the low sun again catches the rain in the vines, in your birth month of sudden downpours and clear bright light.

So now you have teeth, and words, and have already lost people who loved you, whom you will never remember.

3. Skin and Dust
The anamorphic skull floats in front of the sleek ambassadors in Holbein’s painting – a smear of mortality, visible from the edges of the picture. Death haunts all those Dutch still lives, the grapes on laden tables, the summer flowers dropping petals, the cool interiors filled with softly gleaming furniture . Comfortable, bourgeois rooms furnished by malarial colonies, by death in far-off places. By sugar and pepper and coffee and cloth.

Death is swirling around us. No, that is not right. We must make visits to it, though it is embedded in every one of our cells. We must distract it, host it, entertain it.

There is a rusty running down. Small tasks are now too much to ask; little jobs, undone, lead to larger crumblings. Revealed: the vast labour of a household, of bills and meals and getting your feet on the floor every morning, of eating and breathing.

I feel Death near me, and I don’t know what to say to it, still. I can’t do anything but hold its hand and make small talk. I had hoped that something would have changed, but we are still the same people, greyer, slower, kinder, more encumbered.

4.The Outer Brain
I take photographs I am almost sure you will never see as reminders of yourself, saved for later. Shivering pixels, twitches of magnetism entrusted with the faint electricity of bodies, these streams of images are lodged in machines that are even more time-bound than us. Now we have cameras in our pockets all the time, how do we choose which moments might be the ones to record? How do we keep what is important without being crushed by gigabytes of emphemera that will grind into halting obsolescence if not churned, recopied, repeated. I try to cram everything into my hard drive and copy, copy, copy and and leave it in cupboards all over town.

This mania for permanence, for victory over death, I know it is pointless, but it is all I have. I need technology because I can no longer remember.

Well, my memory was always bad.

5. Precious Bones
The skull has been in a box on the top shelf for a long time. And before that, in another box on another shelf. It is a kind of embarrassment. Precious, irreplaceable, but a burden. Time was when every doctor graduated with a box of bones, Third World bones now replaced by plastic models glossing over detail and variation.

We look to technology to solve this problem between worlds, the living and the dead, tapu and noa. A realm that technology itself has made ever dimmer and more confusing. I handle it carefully, wash my hands before and after. Were I a Romantic poet I could put it on my desk and ruminate on cannibal cups and turquoise-encrusted aztec skulls with gleaming teeth.

But I don’t need props to think on Death. I have seen the flesh sagging off the bone, the calf droop off the shin, the skull emerge from under the shifting flesh. I have seen the bones rising up, clouded eyes that will not close, a library burning down. Plastic tubes carry necessities of life in and out: oxygen, food, urine and shit. So much of the body’s business can be sub-contracted.

We are machines for making dirty water.

6. A Book of Forgetting
A faint shadow in your brain, a cluster of cells, misaligned, sparks and pops and drops you in the street. Suddenly helpless as an infant, you are thrown on the mercy of strangers. The famous patient’s surgery scooped out great chunks of of his medial temporal lobes, his hippocampus and most of his amygdala. His epilepsy was cured, but he awoke unable to form new memories.

He spent his next 50 years in an eternal present, a now of the last 30 seconds. Always surprised by his aging face in the mirror, expecting to see the young man he was, before. So much we know now gleaned from what he lost then, by experimenters whom he cheerfully assisted and then promptly forgot.

After death, his brain is teased from his skull, picked and frozen and sliced. The cold robotic knife cuts leaves thinner than paper. Furled slices of the thinking, forgetting part of him are lifted, one by one, from the cold block. Swept up with a artist’s brush, the translucent slices are painted onto glass. His brain is now a book of four thousand pages.

He is a dictionary of himself.