Monsters (not) vs. aliens: on Philippe Parreno’s Serpentine Gallery exhibit, Elizabeth Grosz, animals, aliens, architecture, emigrants, immigrants, orifices, utopias.

(Yeah, I just wanted to use all the vowels in that title.)

Recently the artist Philippe Parreno has been haunting me (this story again). It started because I was planning on writing something about the film he co-directed with Douglas Gordon, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Then I happened to start reading Veronica Gonzalez’s twin time: or, how death befell me—and on the back cover: a blurb from Philippe Parreno. The next day, someone asked me about the Serpentine Gallery in London, so I looked it up, and saw that Philippe Parreno is having an exhibition there. I get it, Philippe Parreno. I took the train to London.

I’m not gifted with summaries. From the Serpentine Gallery website:

 

Parreno’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery has been conceived as a scripted space in which a series of events unfolds. The visitor is guided through the galleries by the orchestration of sound and image, which heightens their sensory experience. Noise from Kensington Gardens and from the surrounding streets can be heard inside the Gallery, as though the outside is leaking in. The blinds come up to reveal a sudden change of weather. Taking the exhibition as a medium, Parreno has sought to redefine the exhibition experience by exploring its possibilities as a coherent ‘object’ rather than a collection of individual works.

The show features the UK premiere of Parreno’s latest film, Invisibleboy (2010), the story of an illegal Chinese immigrant boy who sees imaginary monsters that are scratched onto the film stock. In this filmic portrait, fantasy and social realism, fiction and documentary overlap. June 8, 1968 (2009) recalls the train voyage that transported the corpse of assassinated senator Robert Kennedy from New York to Washington D.C. Kennedy’s invisible body and the Invisibleboy are characters that float between several layers of reality.

Set in Asia, The Boy from Mars (2003) follows dimming points of light and reflections of the sun, before lingering on buffalo tied to a purpose-built structure containing an electricity-generating machine that provides the power required to make the film.

Whether through the cinematic image or the exhibition itself, Parreno explores and manipulates contemporary signs in all of their hallucinatory reality.

 

*

 

I came in the middle of the June 8, 1968 screening. You look out from within, or just above, a train. People in 60s period costume stand by the tracks, watch you, watch the train, go by. (Are you the train?) Some of them have binoculars. Some of them have removed their hats out of respect. Some of them have made a picnic, just to watch you. They are all silent, near motionless. You approach them, pass them. Sometimes you look longer at a person. Sometimes you can see them arranged in a row on a hill next to a giant and gnarled tree. They are all looking at you. At where they think you are.

The film is based on Paul Fusco’s photographs of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train. “Fusco’s photos really unsettled me,” Parreno says in a Guardian interview. “It was the point of view of the dead. People are looking at you. And you are dead and invisible to their gaze.”

 

Photograph by Paul Fusco.

 

Parreno's JUNE 8, 1986.

 

Photograph by Paul Fusco.

 

Parreno, JUNE 8, 1968

 

What holds me, watching this film, is the way the you of it trembles and dissolves. This is not just the perspective of dead Bobby Kennedy on his funeral train, or even the perspective of Bobby Kennedy’s ghost, observing its own mourners—but you as Bobby Kennedy, and you inside Bobby Kennedy. The spectator as a foreign ghost who possesses, then peers out from within, a dead man’s body.

Did Bobby Kennedy know that one day he would be possessed by a brown girl, with rain-damp hair, in a museum in London?

(Serves him right, anyway.)

Elizabeth Grosz, “Lived Spatiality (The Spaces of Corporeal Desire)”:

 

Psychasthenia is a response to the lure posed by space for subjectivity. The subject can take up a position only by being able to situate its body in a position in space, a position from which it relates to other objects. This anchoring of subjectivity in its body is the condition of a coherent identity and, moreover, the condition under which the subject has a perspective on the world, becomes a source of perception, a point from which vision emanates. In psychasthenia, this meshing of subject and body fails to occur. The psychotic is unable to locate himself or herself where he or she should be: such subjects may look at themselves from the outside, as others would; they may hear the voices of others inside their own heads.

I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I’m at the spot where I find myself. To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them. . . . It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is the ‘convulsive possession.’

This is why haunted people are considered psychotic. What did Bobby Kennedy think, when I was inside of him? Bobby Kennedy must have felt like he was going crazy. Where Bobby Kennedy should be, there I was. I was dead in the place of Bobby Kennedy. I was Bobby Kennedy’s ghost. Or my own naughty ghost, having occupied Bobby Kennedy’s body on a whim. For fun. “Being Bobby Kennedy.” An actor playing Bobby Kennedy. Playing dead.

For a long time now, I have been obsessed with squatting as a literary or philosophical mode. There is a sense in which nearly all of my writing has always been about squatting in (squatting over) well-known, usually “canonical” and “Western” texts and characters, though not strictly limited to those. Still: Sappho, Achilles, Dante, Voltaire. I’ve pitched a smelly tent in all of these things.

Another way of thinking about this is a kind of radical fanfiction. (That is probably redundant; I like to think of fanfiction as a degraded radical genre in and of itself.) The strategies of appropriation are near to it, but the practice of fanfiction goes further than appropriation. Possession. Bodies inside bodies. Doll play.

In fact, Parreno’s Zidane feels intimately acquainted with fanfiction, with its fetishistic ficto-documentary style (Agnes Varda, “documenteur”?); the convergence of a celebrity personality’s hyper-knownness, and the point at which such a personality exceeds knownness and can only be—imagined, fantasized, obsessed over.

Speaking of fanfiction and dollplay: in 1999, Parreno and fellow artist Pierre Huyghe began a work called No Ghost, Just a Shell, about which I am eager to write more in the future here at Big Other. Parreno and Huyghe bought the rights to a girl avatar called Annlee, from a Japanese company Kworks, which specializes in developing figures for cartoons, manga, advertising and video games. The idea was to invite other artists to “use” Annlee as they saw fit, free of charge, for their own work. At the end of the last exhibitions in 2002, Annlee received a contract that transferred all copyright and exploitation rights back to her, barring further use of her person, image, identity. There was an IKEA coffin.

 

 

Annlee was also called an “actor.”

In an interview with Philippe Parreno, in a book I flipped through at the gift shop but did not buy because I had no money, Hans Ulrich Obrist asked if Annlee’s death was a suicide. Parreno seemed to agree.

(Too much, too much here, to talk about Asian mail order brides and prostitutes who kill themselves. Who are dismembered [Brillante Mendoza, Kinatay] and dispersed. Women who are given away. Women who get everything back too late.)

 

*

 

Something else Parreno explores is the alien; the point of view of the alien. Also in the same book I did not buy (which I think was called Alien Seasons, or Alien Affection), Parreno had an essay talking about imagining what would happen if an alien camera crew came down to earth to record things. What would they see, how would they see us. Alien observation, in the form of a documentary film.

Both Zidane and June 8, 1968 can be read in this way, too. The way the camera looks at Bobby Kennedy’s mourners in June 8, 1968 is not unlike the way we look at Zidane’s body in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. As if Zidane were being closely observed by fascinated, half-in-love aliens. As if an alien had climbed inside Bobby Kennedy’s body to observe human practices of public grief. In both cases, the alien is you.

(Though personally, I am much more than half in love with Zidane.)

That this all occurs on/in a train brings us even closer to the psychotic, the boundary-melting. A train’s space and time is always undoing space and time. I often suffer from terrible motion-sickness. To sit still and to move at the same time, to be in one place and to also pass through a million places, to be transported in all your blood—these are some of the things that can dissolve a body. So I had bad motion-sickness on the train that day, going to London to see this exhibition. I went from the train in King’s Cross station, directly to Bobby Kennedy’s train, in fake 1968. I was still feeling nauseated when I arrived at the museum. Me, sloshing around in my sick alien plasma, inside Bobby Kennedy’s body. At some point I thought I might throw up. I didn’t.

 

*

 

(The membrane separating the inside and outside of a train. You are inside of an outside. There’s an area on the way to London where the fields smell profoundly of cow shit. From where I live, there is no way to get to London without having the smell of cow shit in your nose for at least ten minutes. Now, having been a sick person and the daughter of medical professionals, I’m already relatively intimate with shit and its variety of smells, but this only confirmed for me how carnally floral shit can be. Rotting, excrement, mold, waste: they all contain this alarming sweetness. This is not coprophilic, by the way—though neither is it coprophobic, I suppose. In any case, most of the time I find sweetness intimate with the revolting.

Or, if not with the revolting, at least: with the sick, the dead. In the places where my skin—which has always been the sickest and weakest organ of my body—was broken and sick, it often smelled sweet. Recently it has been smelling sweeter and sweeter. Yesterday I wondered if I was turning into one of those incorruptible saints, dead body redolent with perfume.

But I am neither incorruptible, nor dead. Just the opposite, I am both deeply corrupted and still alive. And yet I smell like Lancelot in his death. Like Benedicta, like Clare. Fragrance of holy non-rotting. But I am rotting. We all are, I suppose. But I’m a little advanced in mine.

When my mother was literally hours away from dying, when I was thirteen years old, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Well, first she had a vision of her own funeral. She was within her own dead body, in the coffin. She saw me looking down at her body in the coffin, weeping and weeping. After that, she had the vision.

What she remembers most of all is Mary’s smell. The entire room was filled with the sweetest smell of flowers—I want to say roses, but I’m not certain anymore. Later, some of the nurses who had been working that evening asked her where that strong floral smell had come from. They had smelled it, too.

In the morning, when the doctors came to do a scan on the diseased part of her, their last effort before they would have given up on her entirely, it was revealed that the diseased part had healed overnight.

My mother’s still alive. It’s her birthday today. Happy birthday, Mom. I’m sorry I argued with you about R. two days ago. Have fun in Vegas.)

 

*

 

(Skin separating the inside from the outside. Someone asked me how I had managed to catch chicken pox a year ago, despite having already had it when I was a child, aren’t you supposed to get it once and then build immunity to it for the rest of your life, etc., what’s wrong with you?

I said something like: “My immune system is like lace.”

Skin separating the inside from the outside. A porous membrane. Skin like lace. I don’t have a permanent outside. I’m always getting invaded, invading other things. Things squat in me, I squat back.

But, wait, wait, wait. I’m just a not-particularly-healthy-but-still-getting-better-I-think girl. I’m not a saint. Well, not yet, anyway.)

 

*

 

For the first time I realize, I use parentheses like skin.

 

*

 

Maybe what I enjoy in June 8, 1968 is what I already said earlier: being a brown girl squatting in Bobby Kennedy’s body and living a perverse and kitschy first-person fanfiction of his death: occupying his body, living his funeral, receiving his mourning. An amateur alien period drama (everyone in period dress—though sometimes the landscape looks inescapably and blatantly contemporary, making for a shudder of disconnect). A first-person video game of Bobby Kennedy’s death. Bobby Kennedy as Annlee. How we live, and live in, the past.

Elizabeth Grosz, “The Future of Space: Toward an Architecture of Invention”

 

The only access we have to the past is through a leap into virtuality, through a move into the past itself, through seeing that the past is outside us and that we are in it rather than it in us. the past exists, but it is in a state of latency or virtuality. We must place ourselves in it if we are to have recollections, memory images… We move from one set of memories to another through a leap into a virtual time. We must jump into the milieu of the past in general in order to access any particular memories. The present can be understood as an infinitely contracted moment of the past, the point where the past intersects most directly with the body. It is for this reason that the present is able to pass (my emphasis).

This helps me because I have almost no sense of the pastness of the past. In almost everything I write and live, time collapses in on itself, characters are totally unable to live singularly in what is supposed to be “their own time.”
There’s also something to be said about dating these two works. June 8, 1968. And in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: MADRID SATURDAY APRIL 23 2005.

Derrida has things to tell us about the date, and the practice of dating in the poetry of Paul Celan: about the date, the cut of the date, the date as signature, the date as effacing, the date as ashes, the madness of dating, the code of the date, how dates wound, the unreadable wound of the date.

Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan”:

 

“How can such an other date, irreplaceable and singular, the date of the other, the date for the other, be deciphered, transcribed, or translated? How can I appropriate it for myself? Or, better, how can I transcribe myself into it? And how can the memory of such a date still dispose of a to-come [avenir]? What dates to come [à venir] do we prepare in such a transcription? … despite the date, in spite of its memory rooted in the singularity of an event, the poem speaks: to all and in general, and first of all to the other… seems to carry the poem’s utterance beyond its date: if the poem recalls a date, calls itself back to its date, to the date on which it writes or of which it writes, as of which it writes (to) itself [il s’écrit], yet it speaks! to all, to the other, to whoever does not partake in [partage] the experience or the knowledge of the singularity thus dated, as of or from a particular place, day, month, year… To which date do we ascribe ourselves, which dates do we appropriate, now, but also, in more ambiguous fashion, turned toward which dates to come do we write ourselves, do we transcribe ourselves? As if writing at a certain date meant not only writing on a particular day, at a particular hour, on a particular date, but also writing to the date, addressing oneself to it, destining oneself to the date as to the other, the date past as well as the date promised. “

“A date discerns and concerns a place, it is a situation. It can give place to calculations. But in the final account, it ceases to be calculable… the voice of the poem carries beyond the singular cut. I mean by this that the cut becomes readable for certain of those who have no part in the event or the constellation of events consigned to it, for those excluded from partaking, yet who may thus partake and impart.”

June 8, 1968 and April 25, 2005: promised to January 28, 2010. Or: cut open by January 28, 2010. The cut of those past dates. An aperture for strangers. Exposed to me: the foreign bacteria of me. I slipped inside them.

I think of the band name N.E.R.D., acronym for No One Ever Really Dies. (Shout out to Chad Hugo.) The name sounds naïve, but its naiveté is its terror. No one ever really dies. The date is the cut (then the wound, then the scar), but what it dates is what continues to cut. The past is always piercing me. Bobby Kennedy’s life and death like an arrow in my body. But let’s say, the arrow is magical so it transfers my consciousness to his, or something like that. Like in a fantasy movie. So now we are connected. Now I see. I pass.

 

Each moment carries a virtual past: each present must, as it were, pass through the whole of the past.

 

*

 

However, the exhibition I really came to see was Invisibleboy. All I needed to read was that it was about an illegal Chinese immigrant boy in New York who could see monsters, and I was there.

Scenes in New York’s Chinatown. Seamstresses, barber shops, catfish in tanks, messy apartments, streets, a young Chinese boy in bed. So far it looks like a Wong Kar-wai film. Histrionic atmospheric rock music in the background.

(Somewhere I read that for this film Parreno had been planning on using an orchestra to make the sound of a human voice—something human coming out of something inhuman: artificial intelligence, ghost made by the shell—but from what I remember, the music just sounded like one of the more epic Mogwai records, not unlike their compositions for the Zidane soundtrack. I don’t know who the Invisibleboy soundtrack is by, though.)

The “monsters” in the film were created by scratches and etchings made directly onto the film stock; they pulsate, flicker, like live electricity, like static.

 

 

 

 

Along with his preoccupations with the alien and the virtual, Parreno has a way with bringing out the life of inanimate objects. There is a way, in all of his work here, of sensing the alien and animal life in everything, and moreover, to see the liveness of unlife. Once again, in that book I didn’t buy, Hans Ulrich Obrist wondered to Parreno what it would be like if we stopped believing in the difference between life and matter (and thereby the superiority of life over dead matter). People say if you do that, you lose the sacrality of life, etc., Obrist said (I’m paraphrasing, or maybe this is felicitous imagination), but that misses the point entirely. What happens to our way of thinking and ordering the world when life and matter are equivalent?

Obrist and Parreno were probably talking about Annlee; about artificial intelligence and forms of life beyond organic life, but the suggestion also opens up more possibilities of intersection between the animal, the alien, the artificial, the absent. The monsters are traces, erasures, constant writing as constant effacement, not there, and yet it is their not there-ness that glimmers, excites the screen, excites the one who can see them. We see the monsters as they shimmer like static on a television screen. Then we see an actual television screen, showing some Chinese television, in a cramped and messy room. It, too, is flickering. Overlap. There is a shot of an ad stuck to a pole, its little tear-off tabs fluttering upwards like tentacles. Where matter becomes an animal, where static becomes a ghost.

 

 

(Parreno said in that book that he had an obsession with giant cuttlefish; they were featured in his Alien Seasons exhibit. From a description of the exhibit: “The Giant Cuttlefish has a special image-generating lobe in its brain that can actually project what it is imagining on the surface of its body. These remarkably intelligent animals have evolved to use a language of animation in order to communicate with one another. One might say that they are the closest things we humans can compare to aliens.”

So the paper ad and its tabs become the cuttlefish. I don’t know if any of that science is true, but I like it. I used to be a little obsessed—read: slightly terrorized, slightly mesmerized—by the idea of giant squid.

Shots of catfish in a tank, lit by the fluorescent light, making them look as alien as the cuttlefish. Catfish—that’s already a weird intersection of animals. I seem to remember they taste pretty good, though. There a Vietnamese catfish claypot dish I used to really like when I was a kid, what was it called? Recently I saw something called Vietnamese cobbler in a supermarket in London. Not knowing what it was, I looked it up. I found loads of forum discussions about how this fish made you sick, nauseated, people were throwing up all night, don’t buy it, it’s dangerous, they’re teeming with bacteria, they’re farmed in contaminated water, they’re fed artificial things, it’s like mad cow disease but for fish, they have no regulations “over there,” etc. The fish are raised in China, fed food from Peru, fed hormones from China. They’re foreign monsters. They’re suspicious.)

 

 

*

 

The alien animal. The invisible immigrant. The inanimate object. Comparing Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait to Invisibleboy, Parreno made the distinction between Zidane’s super-visible celebrity-heroic (and raced; like Parreno, with Algerian immigrant parents) body, and the figure of a illegal Chinese immigrant boy, totally invisible, “at least on paper.” But perhaps, just as much as thinking about Zidane and the immigrant boy in terms of how they are seen, what interests to me is how they see, or how they are shown to see. In Zidane, Zidane almost never takes his eye off the ball. So much of his genius on the field comes from his uncanny ability to see the game as if from above, so that every time he receives the ball, he has already seems to have imagined the next five moves—and positioned himself accordingly. What does Zidane see, that others don’t see? The boy sees the monsters. But the monsters don’t materialize out of nowhere; in almost all of their appearances, they come out from some foundational, but near-invisible fixture: the line that delineates street lanes turns into a monster, a pipe under the sink turns into the monster, a monster slides out from within a hanging coat.

 

 

What is the film saying about the erased, and hiding (the monsters often seem skittish at being seen), presences contained within the things that facilitate life. Scenes from inside a factory. The boy’s parents make clothes. My clothes and yours. Erased presences can be seen here, too.

I’ve already said before that immigrants and their children often know how to see monsters.

I think I read somewhere that Parreno’s father was a factory worker; in his youth in France he grew up in one of the notorious housing projects for imported laborers at the time. I remember, years ago, seeing harrowing photographs of the places where Renault or Citroën workers—almost always from Southern Europe, the Caribbean, and North Africa—lived. “Lived.” Ground like mud, sludge. Many of which have now been razed and replaced by parks.

(I’m probably going to apply to become a French citizen soon. By the way, I hate France. Don’t read this, citizenship officials.)

(Thinking about France and Algeria. And the Parisian police massacre of October 17, 1961. When I look at the Seine, it’s always red.)

What can we say here about surface, depth, and erasures that are also etchings? Where the trace left by an erased presence—vibrates, menaces, glimmers, haunts. Where an erasure is an engraving. Its wounded skin.

Static electricity. Static means to not move, right? (Help me, words, I lose you often.) But then when you see static on television, it’s often represented by this kind of frantic ceaseless movement, no? (Though now I suppose they do the blue screen.)

The life of a thing without life. Static electricity: how the surface of objects can be charged.

I often hear people say that when you get cheap clothes made in China (this phrase going together in people’s mouths, whether the clothes were made there or not), they have a lot of static electricity, it’s the poor quality of the materials, it’s the way they’re made, they’re synthetic, etc. As opposed to natural (animal) materials like wool and cashmere.

The monsters in Invisibleboy as objects that have never lost their charge. The only way to live with a charged object is to let yourself be shocked by it, every time. Shocked, still shocked, by the life in it.

 

*

 

(Speaking of the intersection between the animal and the object: that static on the screen is referred to as insects in some countries.)

 

*

 

After the Invisibleboy film ended, electronically-powered window curtains, which had lowered just before the viewing, were raised again. Outside the gallery it was suddenly snowing. But it wasn’t snowing. When you stepped closer to the window, you could see the snow was actually made out of soap, like foam. When they landed on the ground, they didn’t disappear straight away, like snow would. They stuck.

Organic and inorganic. Outside and inside.

 

*

 

The last film I saw at the exhibit, which is actually the first one you’re supposed to see, is the No More Reality, la manifestation / The Boy From Mars installation. Actually, I didn’t see No More Reality; it was confusing to figure out where to go, so I went into the room for The Boy From Mars too early. But the sound of the No More Reality film, which only lasted two minutes, was meant to filter into every room in the gallery. So as I was standing in the empty, not-yet-prepared-for-viewing room for The Boy From Mars, French children’s voices came piping in from everywhere, there was no distance, they were totally invasive. You couldn’t tell if they were inside the gallery, if they were outside the gallery, if they were just about to enter the room. They were shouting, with quite heavy French accents, “NO MORE RE-A-LI-TY, NO MORE RE-A-LI-TY.” Again and again, for two minutes.

On the video I didn’t see, because I was in the wrong room, there were children with banners and slogans. I suppose if you were watching, you would have been able to see the body of this chanting. But I’m glad I missed the video. Because then I would have been able to locate them, in a single place, on that screen. I would have fixed them (fixer, to stare at). I would have been looking at them, rather than them, coming to me, speaking to me. This way they were everywhere. The whole time, there was a possibility that these voices were not recordings. I really wasn’t sure. They could have come into the room at any moment.

Am I going to analyze what “No More Reality,” shouted by protesting children, means here? I don’t really want to.

 

*

 

June 8, 1968 also falls upon the final dates of the massive protests and strikes in France at the time, of course.

As I write this:

 

 

*

 

It ended up being good to watch The Boy From Mars last, because I think it was a place where all the things I had thought about, in terms of the animal, the alien, the edifice, the object, came together in really explicit ways. I guess if you watched The Boy From Mars from the first, you would have started with an originary body of signs, which you would then have seen dispersed throughout the subsequent films. This way, I saw all those dispersed things come together in a sort of monstrous remade wholeness.

(I’m obsessed with vengeful monstrous wholeness, but this is not that essay.)

“Set in Asia, The Boy from Mars (2003) follows dimming points of light and reflections of the sun, before lingering on buffalo tied to a purpose-built structure containing an electricity-generating machine that provides the power required to make the film.”

(A quite grainy video of the film is available online; I have embedded it at the bottom of the post.)

 

 

What happens in The Boy From Mars. You see a massive translucent edifice in a rural landscape, towards evening. The edifice gradually begins to light up from within. You see water buffalo next to it. From behind the edifice, in the sky, mysterious illuminated moving objects, moving upwards, upwards. A water buffalo, the way I have always seen water buffalos: working. Pulling. A human foot in muddy water. Close-up shots of the water buffalo’s face, the water buffalo’s milky eye. The edifice again. In daylight. In wind. We see the paper walls of the edifice flapping. They look tattered.

The entire edifice is literally powered by the buffalo’s labor; the buffalo is harnessed to a power generator. The buffalo as power generator that generates power.

Elizabeth Grosz, from the introduction to Architecture and the Outside:

 

“Bodies are absent in architecture, but they remain architecture’s unspoken condition. This is of course not only a problem for architecture but for every discipline.”

But Parreno makes this body present and spoken. Thinking again about fathers who are factory workers. The name of the edifice itself, built by R&Sie, is Hybrid Muscle.

The structure is translucent, fragile, glowing; it serves no immediately decipherable purpose and indeed it looks so delicate as to make any purpose impossible. Built on a Chiang Mai land reserve of fellow artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (who is probably best known for the exhibitions in which he builds a temporary kitchen and cooks dinner for all museum visitors; or builds a replica of his apartment and then invites “guests” over to his “place”), the edifice is usually described as strange, or alien by the reviews that I’ve read. Alien structure, exotic-natural landscape, incongruity. But I actually thought the structure was an example of how the alien, the artificial, the animal, and the natural intersect, mimic each other, reproduce each other:

 

 

According to the R&Sie website, describing the requirements of the structure:

“1) Construction of an animal ‘engine’ driven by the muscle power of a pachyderm. Storage of the mechanical energy through the lifting of a two-tonne steel counterweight. Transformation of the mechanical energy into electrical energy. To power ten light bulbs, laptop, cell phones.

2) Natural ventilation through the quivering of the façade leafs (sic) made of sheets of elastomer that work in the same way as temporary shelters made of teak leaves.

Postscript: An albino Buffalo replaced the Elephant.”

An animal that is an engine. Converted labor. We still use horsepower as a unit of power measurement.

I like also that this “weird” structure, this massive built thing in a natural landscape, is in fact some kind of cyborg: elastomer materials that are imitating teak leaves, like the plastic/fabric leaves of those fake trees you often see in office buildings. (Easier to maintain: you don’t have to water them.)

Seen from close-up, the structure doesn’t look “alien-modern,” that futurist Jetsons imagining, science fiction, minimalism, clean-lines. It looks ragged, handmade, “naturally”-colored. An alien in camouflage. An alien parodying nature. But also—gradually becoming nature, its life made possible by an animal. Beaten by rain, wind. Being blown open. Letting things into it. Exposed to the “elements.” To the outside.

Grosz, “Lived Spatiality (The Spaces of Corporeal Desire)”:

 

The question remains: How to disturb architecture, given the tendency of some architectural theorists to take in whatever seems outrageous without it seeming to have any effect or make any difference? How to infect architecture with its outside? In other words, how to force an encounter, to effect a transformation or becoming, in which the series that is architecture can be intercut with an element (or several) from its outside, from that series which is philosophy, in which the two series are thereby transformed through their encounter: the becoming-philosophy of architecture can only be effected through the becoming-architecture of philosophy… How to keep architecture open to its outside, how to force architecture to think?”

The encounter between a built structure, a rural landscape, synthetic materials, vegetal materials, animal bodies, alien bodies.

Those flying lights in the beginning of the film were actually candle-powered floating lanterns. I know them as “flying Chinese lanterns.” The UFO is a foreigner; the foreigner is a UFO.

In this article, we are warned about the dangers of flying Chinese lanterns. Coastguards mistake them for distress flares. The last line of the article: : “However, in addition to being mistaken for distress flares, the lanterns have also led to a spate of reports of UFO sightings.”

But these are distress flares. It’s the alien who is sending them. Or maybe it’s the buffalo who is sending them. What the buffalo has to do to light this structure, to make this world, would distress anyone.

Grosz, “Lived Spatiality (The Spaces of Corporeal Desire)”:

 

“Bodies are the debt that culture owes to nature, the matter, attributes, energies, the forces it must make and make over as its own.”

 

*

 

What elastomer owes to the teak leaf. What architecture owes to the animal. Sometimes the alien is a European colonialist, building on seized land. I cannot help but think of that, too, looking at this structure. The ways architecture still gives pain.

Colonialism, architecture, and utopia. And the tropical. A while ago I had been thinking about how to write the tropical. How to write the tropical without falling into the risky area of the exotic, the fetish, the paradisical. (Long descriptions of exotic foods, practices: rhapsody of the tamarind, the mango, the palm, etc., etc.)

Then I thought: what am I doing, why not let the exotic be exotic, or make of exoticism something monstrous and alive, something that speaks back to, that takes over, that re-invades its would-be exoticizer, so to speak. No way to write about the jungle without the jungle, durian without the durian. So how can I try to not tame it, while at the same time understanding that by virtue of my writing I am already taming—what are the ways I can circumvent this inevitable taming.

Being undisciplined is one, I think. Thinking about how the tropical is always near to rampant proliferation, excessive life forms, moisture, epidemics, hyper-fertility. I don’t want to lose all those aspects in favor of hygiene, or a making-normal, an avoiding-exotic.

The tropical and the utopic are intertwined, at least in colonialist imaginations. And there is, I think, an encounter with the utopic in the Hybrid Muscle structure—not least, of course, because it was built upon a tropical landscape—but with the utopic as a time or an interval, rather than a space.

Grosz, “Eight Embodied Utopias: The Time of Architecture”:

 

…Utopia. In More’s neologism, the term is linguistically ambiguous, the result of two different fusions from Greek roots: the adverb ou—“not”—and the noun topos—“place”: no-place. But More is also punning on another Greek composite, eutopia, “happy,” “fortunate,” or “good” place. Many commentators have suggested that this pun signals the ideal, or fictional status of accounts of the perfect society: the happy or fortunate place, the good place, is no place—no place, that is, except in imagination. I would like to suggest a different reading of this pun: not the good place is no place, but rather no place is the good place….

The utopic is beyond a conception of space or place because the utopic, ironically, cannot be regarded as topological at all. It does not conform to a logic of spatiality. It is thus conceivable, and perhaps even arguable, that the utopic is beyond the architectural…

What could a utopic architecture be, if architecture remains grounded in the spatial alone? How, in other words, is architecture, as theory and as practice, able to find its own place in politics, and above all, its own place in the unpredictable becoming of the movement of time and duration? How can architecture, as the art or science of spatial organization, open itself up to the temporal movements that are somehow still beyond its domain?

The Hybrid Muscle structure knows that it is not separate from the history of architecture, of building. And yet its openness to external forces means that this is not a White House, not a colonial mansion, but the possibility of another kind of architecture. A utopic architecture? One with no finished “purpose,” but which is always in-process, becoming, made to be opened up to movements “beyond its domain.” One that exposes and is exposed by, the energies that make any architecture possible. The animal that powers it, the wind that goes through it. Edifice that is an orifice. Where the outside and the inside meet.

Grosz, “Architectures of Excess”:

 

Communities, which make language, culture, and thus architecture their modes of existence and expression, come into being not through the recognition, generation, or establishment of common interests, values, and needs, and the establishment of universal, neutral laws and conventions that bind and enforce them (as social contractarians proclaim), but through the remainders they cast out, the figures they reject, the terms that they consider unassimilable, that they attempt to sacrifice, revile, and expel. There are many names for this unassimilable residue: the other, the abject, the scapegoat, the marginalized, the destitute, the refugee, the dying, etc. I will call this residue ‘more’ or ‘excess,’ but this ‘more’ is not simply super-added but also undermines and problematizes.

What is “more” or “excessive” is that which has no function, purpose, or other use than the expenditure of resurces and energy, is that which undermines, transgresses, and countermands the logic of functionality. The ornament, the detail, the redundant, and the unnecessary: these may prove provisional elements of any architectures of excess.

Architecture is not simply the colonization or territorialization of space, though it has commonly functioned in this way, as Bataille intuited; it is also, at its best, the anticipation and welcoming of a future in which the present can no longer recognize itself. In this sense, architecture may provide some of the necessary conditions for experiments in future living, experiments in which those excluded, marginalized, and rendered outside or placeless will also find themselves.

 

*

 

Those outside or placeless.

Yesterday I received my passport from the UK authorities, after not having had it for over a year.

From “General Group Managed Migration Directorate”:

 

Re: Ms Elaine Castillo United States of America 28 August 1984

I am returning your document which features an endorsement confirming your status.

At present your only claim to remain in the United Kingdom is as the family member of a European Economic Area (EEA) national who is exercising Treaty rights here. If your family member decides to leave the United Kingdom, or ceases to exercise Treaty rights, or if you cease to be a family member, you would have to qualify to remain in the United Kingdom in your own right.

This Directorate should be notified immediately if your family member decides to leave the United Kingdom, or ceases to exercise a Treaty right here, or if you cease to be a family member.

 

*

 

Do you often skip over blockquotes and quoted text in essays? I almost always do, even though it’s probably important, what people are quoting. Important to the body of the text. Imported into the body of the text. Thinking of all the other things that are imported for their work.

But when you’re reading, it’s good to have holes, sometimes. (Didn’t Barthes talk about skipping parts in Proust, always skipping different parts?) Usually when I quote it’s about opening the body up.

 

*

 

At the very, very end of the The Boy From Mars, a voice starts to sing. The voice is slightly warbled, possibly synthesized, subject to sound effects: so it sounds, well, alien. Otherworldly, ghostly. Human-inhuman. (Later I found out it was the voice of Devendra Banhart.) The song itself is somewhere between a folk song, a torch song, and a spiritual. I read that some of the words are: “Darkness dies and dawn will come, the day is short, the night is long.”

But at the time I couldn’t understand the words. I could only hear this disembodied voice, as it entered my body. Into my body. Into my lace body. Ballad of a slave alien. I started to cry. Alien, I’m blown open, too. I’m exposed.

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Monsters (not) vs. aliens: on Philippe Parreno’s Serpentine Gallery exhibit, Elizabeth Grosz, animals, aliens, architecture, emigrants, immigrants, orifices, utopias.

  1. Hi Elaine,

    I can’t help thinking, especially in the context of your essay, that it’s no coincidence that Annlee sounds like a diminutive of Annabel Lee, and that the engagement with this “avatar” might have been an engagement with and perhaps even an homage to “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s poem exploring the trope of the death of a beautiful woman.

    After reading your thoughts on “[r]otting, excrement, mold, waste,” on “the sick, the dead,” I wondered what your thoughts were on this passage from Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection:

    The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come to a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, reach, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without a border? That elsewhere that I imagine beyond the present, or that I hallucinate so that I might, in a present time, speak to you, conceive of you—it is now here, jetted, abjected, into “my” world. Deprived of world, therefore, I fall in a faint. In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue’s full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life, Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as if from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

    Reading Grosz’s thoughts about how “architecture may provide some of the necessary conditions for experiments in future living, experiments in which those excluded, marginalized, and rendered outside or placeless will also find themselves,” I thought about Mike Reynolds’s Earthships, sustainable homes using a blend of indigenous and recycled materials, and natural energy sources, homes that, wonderfully enough, an average person could create.

    There are some remarkable images of earthship exteriors and interiors here:

    Re: your question regarding whether I “skip over blockquotes and quoted text in essays?”: In the context of an essay I’m unlikely to skip anything that’s written. If I’m reading an essay online, however, I will, most likely skip embedded videos and will disregard most links. I want what I’m reading to draw me in vertically, rather than distract and move me away horizontally, toward something outside of the text within which I’m engaged. Horizontality need not be superficial, as any good hypertext thing, whatever form it might take, demonstrates. It’s rare for me, though, to find videos even adequately contextualized within the body of an essay, which makes me usually regard them as tacked on justifications, placed there by the author, presumably, under the misguided notion that the reader will draw all the necessary conclusions.

    • Hi John,

      Good call, it’s likely that Poe’s poem has some echoes with Parreno and Huyghe, since Poe probably remains popular in France, or at least remains in the base consciousness, due to the Baudelaire translations. I’m planning on writing more about Annlee here at BO in the context of another French author’s work, but seeing as I’m going to be away from home until April, with Internet acccess of yet-to-be-determined regularity, I’m holding off on it until then. So for the next two months BO will be the lucky repository for only manga porn, film stills, and quotes, haha.

      Great Kristeva quote; I probably read her less than I used to, though this passage is excellent motivation to revisit. Earthships sounds like a great meeting of the human and the alien, I’ll take a closer look at those, thanks!

      I am really interested by what you’ve said about skipping over videos, lately I’ve been thinking about the horizontal-vertical axis of reading. Back when I used to have a website in high school, I really liked making horizontal-scrolling pages. (If only I could figure out how to do that on a Tumblr theme.) So maybe I’ve always been partial to horizontal drawing-away? I think I do think of the possibilities available to writing on the Internet in terms of depth and surface, and with the ways in which text, image and video approach and disturb flatness, and even superficiality. It’s true that the horizontal need not be superficial, but I’m quite interested in the superficial, in what is scattered or dispersed across a surface; or that relationship between the link/video and the writing, with the link or video drawing away, to the outside, while at the same time remaining inside (“linked,” “embedded”, surface/depth/puncturing), and maybe even more inside than the writing itself? All part of that skin/membrane, outside/inside thing that holds me.

      With videos, I agree, I also find that they’re often awkwardly placed and inadequately contextualized within the body of an essay (have always liked this phrase too, the “body” of an essay, considering my interest in corruptible and punctured bodies), though I kind of like that about an embedded video, how it interrupts and often leaves a gap. It’s funny that context also means to weave together, so lacking adequate context would literally damage the integrity of the fabric, put holes in the weave of a writing. (“Opening up holes in a body.”) I’ve definitely encountered videos the way you’ve described it, as a kind of evacuation of responsibility on the part of the author to provide necessary conclusions, though sometimes that appeals to me, too… Although I guess I’m not really being honest with my own use of video, since I tend towards responsibility: only embedding things after having probably over-described them, and even then I usually like to only embed a few videos at a time, so that they work sort of the way evocative fragments in an aphoristic text might. The way when you watch a video in a text, it can open up a hole you fall into. Though this impression may only come specifically from the Weerasethakul and Parreno films I’ve posted at BO, since they’re both so dark, visually, that watching them can literally feel like falling into a well at night.

      But I have definitely skipped over tons of videos, too, typically when viewing the video/s is actually supposed to provide answers and general understanding, rather than specifically opening up the writing to what the writing can’t or doesn’t do. (Hm, the way I’m describing my reading practices, I’m starting to wonder what I DO read.)

      Oh, yeah, links: I usually open almost all of them as a reflex, only to realize half an hour later that I have twenty tabs open on my browser, and those twenty tabs have opened twenty more, and now I’m reading about a lost penguin in Peru, or something. “What’s happened here.”

  2. Very nice essay, Elaine. I don’t know much about Parreno but will definitely seek out more work. Being a post-rock fan, I do have the Zidane soundtrack.

    It’s always nice to see engagements with Liz Grosz. She’s a brilliant theorist and a really clear and articulate writer. I had the pleasure of meeting her a few times–very lovely and down to earth woman.

    I like your almost baroque apprehension of contact and contagion: “My immune system is like lace.” And I like your idea of “squatting as a literary or philosophical mode.” Do you read any Michel de Certeau? I was reminded of his notion of textual poaching.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for the comment. I love the Zidane soundtrack and am unabashedly obsessed with the film itself (and its subject). Agreed about the reading pleasure of Elizabeth Grosz’s clarity. Yes, baroque contagion! For a while I was thinking about eczema as the immunobaroque, or something. That is not a developed thought. And the whole Deleuze/Leibniz thing of the baroque fold complicating notions of outside/inside, etc. As for de Certeau, I’ve read some in the past though am not super-refreshed on his work, but yes, I think my idea of squatting can definitely be thought of as cousinly with tactics like poaching, or the perruque… maybe a slight difference I would make is that the poaching/perruque tactics seem more dynamic in their interventions (stealing time/text/goods), more related to the guerilla, whereas with squatting I think I’m concerned with something like occupation, possession, persistence, presence, even visibility. Thinking of a text (or character) as a place to live in, rather than take from, maybe? Which is not to say that I don’t do both. I’m also a tad obsessed with fungus, that may have something to do with it as well–the fungal mode of presence, compared to maybe the parasitic/viral/pirate mode. Though I like parasites, too, hmm. And pirates.

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