electricity arcs both ways from heaven


Still Life with Guitar (1996)
Paul DeMarinis

Dead Air (1994)
Ian Pollock and Janet Silk

Cerebral Sonata (1995)
Gail Wight

Hush I (1998)
E.G. Crighton

Perilune Moon (1999)
Mary Tsiongas

Over the last ten years information about a rare form of optical phenomena that flashes upward over thunderstorm clouds to an altitude of nearly 100 kilometers has gradually been gathered by upper atmosphere meteorologists. Known either as Red Sprites or Blue Jets depending on their height and coloration, these lightning-like events last only ten milliseconds at most, making them all but impossible to see with the naked eye. Though reports of this kind of lightning go back more than a century, it is only recently that the development of high-speed photometer and video imaging techniques have allowed us to move these events from the realm of anecdote to the arena of science, where their more mysterious qualities can be slowly explained away.

 

Given that much is still not known about them, it is no surprise that they have been given such descriptive names, though here they are somewhat whimsical ones which suggest excessively nimble street gangs rather than powerful electrical fields. The shaping of the unknown to familiar forms is an old practice - the construction of constellations to order the heavens and the legend of Hermes to explain the movement of the sun are just two of the older celestially-related examples - and the use of the radio telescope to enlarge and detail the known universe seems only to compliment rather than eviscerate those familiar stories.

 

Perhaps the fact that the Sprites and Jets emanate upward and away from the earth and our frail electrochemical housings allows a friendly mythology to be built around them. It stands quite apart from Franklin's instant of bodily connection between electrical impulse and ground that continues to define our cautious physical relationship to electricity and its twin embodiments of the living universe and its attendant natural danger. The legacy of that moment gives us both the defribulator on one side and the electric chair on the other; human nature inevitably requires that Mary Shelley create her monster to span the large gap between the two. In the wake of these figures the rest of us fill in the space between arc and discharge (the distance between growling sky and earth) with machines to channel the impulse and stories to go with and sometimes before them.

 

Given that this transitory life force descends from above and has scant material form, the early narratives of electricity often included references to magical medical or religious properties and connections with the dead. Even as the electronic machines are brought into existence that let us sense a world beyond the one proscribed by our senses and the limitations of linear time and physical space (the scanning electron microscopes, magnetic resonance imaging systems, radio telescopes, personal biofeedback devices, satellite communications networks, but to name a few), the rationalist impulses that permit the development of these technologies scarcely interrupts the human proclivity for inscribing meaning onto whatever is at hand. While we build and rebuild the world around us, the electrical narrative is always present, permitting us to remake the aether and jolt it - and ourselves - to life.

 

In Corporeal Sky, six San Francisco Bay Area artists investigate the desire for a technologically mediated bodily connection with something beyond the purely physical world. Though none of the artists specifically reference the culture or activities of Silicon Valley, its geographic proximity to them has an influence that shows up less in the circuit boards of these pieces than it does in their contained notions of real world space and electronic myth that the Valley tries to simultaneously enhance and eliminate. The current California culture of rapidly shifting digital aether and its clearly marked distinction between the worlds inside and outside of the screen has remapped the topology of the physical world with the expectations of the electronic one. As is has done so, the physical space of the Bay Area has become more tactile by virtue of its relation to its electronic space and by its overpopulation of people servicing that space. While the myths of a new tomorrow are rewritten every day in the Valley, those myths are essentially the same ones that Edison was pursuing in his labs in Palo Alto a century earlier. Countless technical innovators have followed Edison to California in the intervening time and the (mostly forgotten) history of those people and technologies floats just under the surface of the new economy. The presence of that history of literal and metaphorical re-invention is embodied in Corporeal Sky through the simulation of real space in an electronic age and through the exploration of narratives inscribed into technological systems whose history has been abbreviated by happenstance or unsuitable match with the times.

 

The trail of the Franklin Moment is most prominently embodied here in Paul DeMarinis' work. Part of a series of pieces which recall the work of inventor Elisha Gray, the man who, among other things, lost out to Alexander Graham Bell by five hours in filing the patent for the telephone, "Still Life with Guitar" makes use of a strange phenomenon by which skin contact with a slightly electrified surface will cause mechanical vibrations to arise, resulting in audible sounds wedded to mild electric shocks. DeMarinis notes that this effect creates "a world in which touch and hearing are for a moment unified"; it's also a world in which body, aether, and the technological myth are joined. In applying a touch to draw forth sounds from the otherwise inanimate object, the viewer at once throws Dr. Frankenstein's switch and serves as a hopeful receptor for the electrical unknown, thus allowing themselves to channel a bit of voltage to hear the song of the charged sky.

 

Ian Pollock and Janet Silk also reference the early days of electrical control as articulated by Edison's "Spirit Catcher" as a medium for communication with the dead. As crackly radio-abetted sound appeared to be pulled from the aether, the hope that the hovering spirits of deceased loved ones could be similarly tuned in was given an electronic form. Here Pollock and Silk revive that hope with a twist: the ostensible desire to communicate with the dead is reformulated to reveal our wish that the masses of electricity and wire that we wrap ourselves in could somehow order the world and in so doing make sense of ourselves.

 

By using a copy of the first human electroencephalogram ever recorded to generate tuneful data, Gail Wight plays off a notion of the music of the spheres as she investigates a history of illuminating inner space by way of scientific inquiry. The wave patterns recorded here contain the same demand for understanding that send Franklin's kite aloft, and the image of electricity jumping from head to paper presents an optimistically reduced and simplified version of the unknown world. Embodied here is the hope that the musical order found in the planets could also be found in the chemical composition of the brain, once again bringing sky to ground, and in that hope Wight shows how closely the practices of storytelling and science parallel one another, even and especially when the distinction between knowledge and noise remains unclear.

 

E.G. Crichton uses the technology of voyeurism (the keyhole) to reveal in sound notions of bodily presence and absence. As voices identify internal organs, their conceptual presence but physical absence serves to offer terrain of uneasy relations to the body as recorded and distended by technological means of inscription. The view through that keyhole also has a history that reaches back far beyond the glimpse of the bolt-necked creature awaiting its charge: the desire to know what is on the other side of the door or the sky is one that can only be enhanced, not eliminated, by technological advance.

 

Much of Mary Tsiongas' work in the last few years has focused on divination and other possible methods of ordering the world as a parallel to scientific rationalism. In "Perilune Moon" this parallel is drawn into clear relief by referencing the extrasensory perception experiments performed by Edgar D. Mitchell while aboard NASA's Apollo 14 flight to the moon. By mentally projecting series of numbers to earthbound receivers from space, Mitchell brings full circle the implications of the Franklin Moment and the desires that caused it to happen. Here Mitchell makes a Zeus-like substitution of himself in the role of the lightning bolt and in doing so he becomes the human embodiment of knowledge being cast from the sky. That this was done in secret from the confines of NASA's highly rationalist universe only underscores the ways that even highly reinforced systems of understanding will always fail to address the complete range of desires to know the world around and beyond us. In Tsiongas' piece the viewer literally sheds light on this situation, but what is illuminated is the slippery track between the gathering of information, the construction of knowledge, and the effect that the latter has on the former.

 

The narratives that inform the works in Corporeal Sky have long, pre-electrical histories. But somewhere between Ben Franklin and the Blue Jets those narratives were reshaped to fit the world them as much as that world was shaped by them. When that key-tethered kite went up it was to harvest a bit of the uncontrolled world, to make it a more understandable and possibly useful place; that targeted sky was even then as much of an idea as it was a physical thing, one that required us to explain and re-explain it. No wonder, then, that even as science reshapes the Red Sprites to their own ends, their brief arcs up and away from the earth draw familiar stories in their wakes - especially the one about reaching out to touch something beyond the edge of our known world.

 

Ed Osborn
October, 1999

 

Corporeal Sky is an exhibition curated by Ed Osborn exploring the use of technology as a bridge between bodily experience and the aether that features several Bay Area artists. It was installed at the Physics Room in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, 1999 with the work of Ian Pollock & Janet Silk, Gail Wight, and E.G. Crichton. The show was expanded to include work from Paul DeMarinis and Mary Tsiongas for an exhibition at Artspace in Sydney, Australia from October 28 to November 20, 1999. This is the catalog essay for the Artspace exhibition.