THE PROBLEM ISN’T APEHOOD
conversation with Karl Erickson, Ish Klein and Greg Purcell
on the OCCASION of his exhibition We Could Be Transcendent Apes
Ish Klein: Is transcendence digital?
Karl Erickson: Are friends electric? No, I don’t think it is digital, 1s and 0s. Technology is part of it though. So many creative and problem solving tools, so many ways to repurpose technology for different uses. It makes me think of John Whitney, one of the first abstract computer video artists, using an old anti-aircraft missile analog computing machine to plot his animations.
Greg Purcell: In her excellent novel, Duplex, Kathryn Davis writes, "Apes or human – we all made the same mistake, tempted by shifting leaves or the smell of sex, by music or a ripe banana.” So our question is this: why transcend apehood? It's kind of fun being an ape.
KE: What a nice quote. The problem isn’t apehood, necessarily. It is that we are just in this untenable middle state in which we cannibalize all that is around us. We have to move past the read/react, need/satisfaction stage we inherited from our ape predecessors. Swinging from the trees, scratching, eating when we want is all good until you have to take care of the trees and grow the food and deal with others.
GP: It’s funny, though. Science Fiction seems often to repeat the theme that such transcendence is an inherent evil. The Ro-man figure appearing in your videos is adopted from the 1951 film, Robot Monster, and the only thing that stays the hand of the genocidally intelligent Ro-man is his primitive love for a human woman. Which is weird, but par for the course, particularly for 50’s era SF.
KE: Sure, but isn’t that ability to feel empathy a sign for hope? Or do we assume that aliens will be of such a different intellect from ours that we won’t be able to recognize one another?
IK: What is next for the ape, in your opinion?
KE: For us as ape-descendents, it doesn’t look good in the short and medium terms. We will probably continue to gobble up all we can as quick as we can and deal with the consequences only when we are staring into the shrieking, gibbering, drooling maw of our own destruction. Or more likely, we won’t recognize it in the mirror in the morning as we get ready to go to work.
GP: Who’s we, pal? I place the threat of the so-called anthropocene directly at the feet of the dudes who purchased the environment. In other words, there’s an argument to be made (by smarter folks than me, see this recent essay by Chris Nealon: http://www.mediationsjournal.org/articles/infinity-for-marxists) that problems of Capitalism are answerable by the people who own the capital.
KE: It might be their fault, but it is our problem. Over the course of the very long term, it might not matter. [In] William Gibson’s Peripheral, he has the concept of “the jackpot,” when all of the world’s multiple problems coalesced, radically altering the environment, taking out 75% of the population. The remainders further developed technology to remake the world, both in good, stabilizing the environment, and negative, a return feudalism and what not. Science fixes everything! Anyway, it is interesting to entertain the idea that “we” might be able to punch through and evolve.
IK: How important is it to you that the viewer knows the story of Robot Monster? Do you continue his story or is the rewrite total?
KE: Total rewrite. I don’t think people need to know the film, it is one of those things that just kind of exists in the back of our memory closets. The monster has been ridiculed for so long, that it is almost just a simulacra rather than an actual referent. I can’t remember when I first saw the movie, maybe on Channel 20 Double Creature Feature on a Saturday afternoon. But maybe I just want to think that and I really hadn’t seen it until I was in my 30s.
GP: Robot Monster is like the SF version of Edgar Ulmer's Detour. Can you talk about this not-quite-classic film?
KE: Ha! How is Robot Monster like Detour?!
GP: Oh I wouldn’t make a one-to-one analogy. It’s rather the sense of something having been created quickly and cheaply, which then messes with the sense of cinematic pacing we’re accustomed to. For all their economy, both of these films have a slow, almost poky, meditative quality.
KE: The pacing is leaden, it seems like 65% of the film is just Ro-Man walking from place to place. Which is something I touched on in my videos: there is a lot of walking, just moving through a landscape. It is good to experience narratives outside of the standard three act structure. It reminds us that there are other stories.
To me, Robot Monster is pretty great: it is a collage film in how it is assembled from parts of old movies: the dinosaurs and the space attack scenes combined with the stuff of the Robot Monster (its name is “Ro-Man”). It suggests it could be assembled in any number of other orders, or combined with other films, never quite actually done. It is kind of like a slower-paced Bruce Connor film. The fact that it has the hackneyed dream structure- but wait maybe it is not actually a dream! suggests a spiralling of realities and dimensions in accessible to us, but possible for the Robot Monster. If only he and his people could transcend, evolve beyond their conquest and exploitation driven ways, think of the wonders that could await!
And then there is the billion-bubble machine. This is Ro-Man’s communication device, because, of course, a conquering space alien communicates with its masters with a bubble machine. Their science is not our science.
IK: At one point in the movie the Ro-man must kill the last five humans on the planet one of whom he thinks he loves (Alice). He realizes he cannot follow this order and asks himself 'at what point do must and cannot meet?'; at what point do must and cannot meet for you; and at this point what do you do?
KE: That is the pivotal moment of the film and what made me love it. Here is this war machine, pleading with himself to become something different!
For me, artistically, personally and the like? Must and Cannot are in constant frisson. I suppose I most often give in to Must: going along to get along, not shrieking at passerby, clocking in and I guess I knuckle under a lot. But that is why I make videos and drawings: I can create the way things should be, or at least think about them and invite others to do so.
GP: So, the man and the animal are addressed here. I see, too, a strong engagement in your work with the natural environment. Could you speak to that?
KE: Well, about the idea of the animal: in my video, the Robot Monster, the ape suit is actually his environmental suit, his space suit as it were. It is just a remarkable coincidence that it just looks like a low-rent ape suit. So there are a couple of scenes in my video where he takes it off.
But, yeah, I am interested in the environment, how landscape and place can become characters in narrative. Obviously, place determines our moods and action, but the ongoing challenge is how can we collaborate with our surroundings to make something new and better? Currently we aren’t getting it done. And what is going to happen when we become even more immersed in virtual realities and digital lives? I could get high-horsey here or utopic or maudlin, but it might be enough to say that we need to be constantly reminded to be more aware of our surroundings. My landscape-based videos, like the ones I made in the Arctic, are lenses for me to do that.
IK: The landscape is always bigger than the figure in the shot. The ape is so clearly on top of the landscape; and this seems like part of the apes dilemma. Do you think ape transcendence, if attained, would lead to ape landscapes made of ape how would these be?
KE: Ho ho! Ape landscape made of ape? By ape? The barriers would be more permeable, one could literally move through, and better, with the landscape. Transcendent Ape landscape operates on a different time scale, not geologic, maybe geo-galactologic. Transcendent Ape Time would be like Neo’s “bullet time” in The Matrix, but instead of seeing bullets make ripples through the air, you could hear rocks grow.
GP: Can you talk about your trip to the Arctic? How did it inform your Apes series?
KE: It was amazing. It was like continuously recharged and gobsmacked. And it all seemed so pure to me as a first time visitor. It was quite sobering to meet and talk with those that live there or have visited multiple times: the spoke of the new species living in the Arctic, ones that could never have lived there before. That was the most striking, more than them talking about the receding glaciers and raising water levels: it was the knowledge that things that weren’t supposed to be able to exist in the Arctic were thriving there.
In terms of the Transcendent Ape video, to be honest, I proposed a completely different project going up there. But then I realized I had this video in mind, this Transcendent Ape I had been thinking about for twelve years or so. I realized that the Arctic landscape, or at least my imagined version of it, would be a wonderful set for the Apes explorations, it’s kind of lost wanderings as it searches for a way to become something new.
IK: I have read that your video work investigates the nature of digital light; what have you found out so far about it? Has your video work ever given anyone a seizure? Would it change your practice if it did?
KE: My videos have never given anyone seizures, that I know of. However, at one of the liquid light shows I did with Robby Herbst at Machine Project, some one went into fits. That could have been something they ingested though.
I don’t want anyone to have a seizure because of my videos, but I do want people to have a bodily response. That is why a layer so much and have fast cuts: it makes us blink, and blinking is a way of letting us have new thoughts introduced to our consciousness. As well as wetting our eyes.
Ish Klein is the author, most recently, of Consolation and Mirth, a book of poetry.
Greg Purcell is the author of The Fundaments, also poetry, as well as several science fiction stories.