A Language Losing Consciousness
When we see, in a video by Edith Dekyndt, two hands enclosing a rapidly shifting iridescent field, it is not entirely clear what we encounter. Is it real? Was the video digitally ‘enhanced’? The unpredictable colour flashes are mesmerizing, and one feels open to them, like a child. We are compelled to consider a simultaneity that may or not be contiguous, and in so doing, we question ‘reality’. For the video, Provisory Object 01 (1997), Dekyndt employed a simple membrane of soap: and this is a crucial point. Her work, which often invokes a kind of ‘dematerialization’, always begins with modest material means. Frequently making observations about existing processes or subjecting something to a basic transformation, Dekyndt’s strategy is to implicate mundane objects in surprising epistemological debates. In another video, a hand is pictured interacting with an elastic band in what seems to be in an atmosphere of zero gravity. When one finds out that the video was shot in an aquarium, the fascination remains, while our perception of the image, and our sense of what is real, has shifted; possibly expanded.
A number of Dekyndt’s videos portray hands that interact with the physical world in various ways. By doing so, she depicts a sense of human interaction and evokes ‘first-hand knowledge’. Unlike a magician, whose smooth and seemingly straight-forward hand movements are always a camouflage, Dekyndt’s hands reveal mysterious phenomenon directly, and yet the contrast between the recognizable and the astonishing is just as enigmatic. Dekyndt’s work appears to reveal alternate worlds, but this is absolutely not the case: her concern is one of investigation and not of escape, exploring the often overlooked processes of the everyday.
I am reminded of a statement by Jean Baudrillard, who, in describing the literature of Philip K. Dick, writes, “It is not a question of parallel universes, or double universes, or even of possible universes: not possible nor impossible, nor real nor unreal. It is hyperreal.”(1) While Dick’s stories are generally considered science-fiction, he characteristically places his narratives in contexts lifted from his own time, while introducing a few technological twists that provoke his characters to question the nature of reality. His work is unlike ‘hard’ science fiction, ripe with gratuitous technology, instead concentrating on subjective experience and disturbed social interaction in the wake of technological change.
For example, A Scanner Darkly (1977) takes place in a milieu very similar to Dick’s own at the time of writing, in southern California, and follows an undercover narcotics agent who becomes so thoroughly trashed by the psychoactive drug he is investigating that he doesn’t realize he is conducting surveillance on himself. His personality gradually splits, he regularly hallucinates and he loses touch with a sense of reality and his own identity. In his descriptions, Dick merges reality and hallucination, emphasizing the deteriorated state of the protagonist in the novel’s opening lines:
“ Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.” (Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly, 1977)
The insect hallucinations immediately create an aura of psychological disturbance linked to repulsion, decay, and possibly redemption, while the same time suggesting a sensation of invisible surveillance. In the book, we are never exactly sure where reality ends and fantasy begins, a technique that is used to fuse identity and alterity, thereby emphasizing the basic contingency of perception and the indeterminacy of subject-hood. Surveillance and control are inverted in this work by Dick. Using these processes as epistemological tools, he questions the possibility of personal knowledge.
Stanislaw Lem, once described as the most widely read science-fiction author in the world, praises Philip K. Dick’s work for precisely this reason, describing it as experimental prose that probes the “neglected, latent, untouched, as-yet-realized potentialities of human existence, mainly in the psychological sphere,”(2) This ‘neglected’ realm described by Lem is clearly sympathetic with the work of Edith Dekyndt, who creates visual analogies for quotidian events that are largely ignored. In so doing Dekyndt conceives the terms for an unusual apprehension, not only of our environment but of perceptual experience itself. Her work focuses our attention on various mundane yet fascinating occurrences such as dust, humidity, the heat waves of a candle, as well as magnetic particles. In Somnium (1997), named after a book of fantasy by Johannes Kepler which is considered the first scientific treatise on lunar astronomy, empty slides are projected for a period of time that allows condensation to form random and temporary shapes.
Dekyndt often focuses on anomalies associated with the process of seeing. Myodesopsies (Before Life) (2001, ongoing) is a work that uses various media to evoke its eponymous phenomenon: particles of dust that float in the eyes. Due to this occurrence, it is practically impossible to see a clear surface. This concern with the process of observation, and the myth of scientific objectivity, continually surfaces in the work of Dekyndt. This is a favourite preoccupation of Stanislaw Lem, who has composed possibly the most articulate account of the scientific dilemma regarding the nature of observation. In his novel, Solaris (1961), he presents the age-old epistemological problem: how can humans understand the world outside of us without ‘anthropomorphizing’ it? Measurement itself translates phenomenon into a language for our own understanding and scientists have long believed that even measurement affects the observable. Solaris concerns an encounter between scientists and something that is effectively unknowable. The book reads almost as a satire targeting the perennial sci-fi theme of contact with extra-terrestrial life. Lem avoids the ubiquitous personification of the alien being and the typical theme of relation through warfare. Moreover, contact is not interpersonal nor does it take place through any kind of language that it would be possible to translate.
In the novel, the scientists encounter a planet/being that exhibits entirely unfamiliar activity. The Ocean of Solaris is a colossal creature, a giant organism, whose surface forms strange constructions - almost like shifting cities, mutating and labyrinthine - that can only be described mathematically. Once aware of the astronauts, the Ocean penetrates their minds and produces creatures dredged up from within their own psyches. The Ocean reveals what is deeply hidden in each of them: “a reprehensible guilt, a tragic event from the past suppressed by the memory, a secret and shameful desire.”(3) The scientists are then forced to deal with this shameful incarnation of the past on the Solaris Station. The initial emotional stress culminates in a variety of behaviour such as suicide, isolating madness and the repeated murder of the embodied secret. In this way, the book concentrates on the subjective nature of reality and the fact that reality is constructed by perception (a fact confirmed by both contemporary psychology and quantum theory).
The inevitable projection of the observer onto the subject of observation is central to Dekyndt’s sound installation, Voyager Golden Record (2007). From the interior of a wall, a CD plays sounds selected from a 1977 NASA recording that were intended to represent “life on earth”, and that was included in the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes. Here, terrestrial life is constructed for a potential extraterrestrial being (in case they had a hi-fi handy!) in the hopes of “contact”. The issue of the encounter was re-interpreted by Andrei Tarkovsky in the film version of Solaris in 1972. He added a prelude on earth that gave some clues as to the history and motivation of the main character, Chris Kelvin. The film focuses less on the limitations of science and more on the existential problematic of faith and human relations. Instead of the final unresolved dialectic of the novel, where Kelvin contemplates the mysterious surface of the ocean, Tarkovsky presents a superimposition of the Ocean with its impenetrable otherness surrounding the object of Kelvin’s longing, his childhood home to which he longs to return. In Tarkovsky’s version, the subject/object split is in some way overcome by the love and faith in the Other. In analyzing Tarkovsky’s Solaris in Lacanian terms, Slovoj Zizek interprets this conclusion as a collapse of the symbolic order of language into the Real. Otherness, a characteristic of the symbolic order that constructs the subject and enables language, comes to exist as a Real Thing.
Dekyndt’s work breaks down the categories of subject and object in another way that is perhaps in-between Tarkovsky’s ‘love’ and Lem’s ‘dialectic’; in a manner more related to ancient alchemical practice. While her work demonstrates a profound empathy in its careful depiction of earthly phenomenon, it frames it in such a way as to almost construct elements of an enigmatic language. The primary dictum of alchemy in Latin is solve et coagula – separate, and join together. Similarly, Dekyndt’s works isolate existing processes and present them as figures for contemplation. They command an enraptured attention by drawing you into another sense of time and existence. She finds ways to make tangible the worlds we co-inhabit but that are rarely expressed. In the work, Any Resemblance to Persons, Living or Dead, Is Purely Coincidental (2004), a voice lists a sequence of surprising physical anomalies. These include descriptions of natural occurrences such as spontaneous combustion, the physical effects of high altitude, as well as of people able to survive for long periods without food or water. The work is similar to a virtual reality headset, complete with synchronized audio-visuals, except that the virtual world is conjured by language; we are immersed in a trance-like atmosphere that has as its visual component only a hovering ring which distorts in response to the smooth cadence of the voice.
A recent work by Dekyndt demonstrates this cognitive estrangement in a rather astonishing way. In Ground Control (2008), we encounter a distinct figure in the gallery, unconnected to any means of support. A balloon like object hovers above the floor, balanced by a mix of helium and oxygen. Here we behold a radically contingent expression, evoking a dream-like autonomy, and providing an alien presence that profoundly demands and denies subjective engagement.1. Baudrillard, Jean, Two Essays, Science Fiction Studies #55, Volume 18, Part 3, November 1991, published by SF-TH Inc., DePauw University
2. Lem, Stanislaw, Microworlds, Harvest Books, 1986.
3. Lem, Stanislaw, December 2002