Archive for February, 2023

A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife

February 24, 2023

In January, I flew to New Zealand, where Myles Sutherland, the CEO of GeoCam, and I rendezvoused with Luke Reid, the Chief Technology Officer, at their office in Dunedin for in-depth conversations about the basic science of their work (now and in the future) and my various practice ideas, as well as the opportunity to observe their 3D cameras being invented, machined, assembled, and repaired. We also discussed the logistics of an artwork I would later title A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife.

Its premise: that I would be buried alive in a suit of elf armor from The Lord of the Rings, and then 3D visualized using ground penetrating radar. I wanted to work, deliberately, in a xenophenomenological medium for the first time – and had decided to make it easier for the radar to see me by wrapping my water-filled body with a more reflective material that had the additional benefit of making it easier to breathe with the equivalent weight of four or five large men made of dirt stacked on top of me, while also playing with the idea of place sensitivity, insofar as New Zealand has become conflated (uncomfortably so, to some) in the popular imagination with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And while radar has been previously used for archaeological surveys of grave sites, to find illegal burials, even to try to locate people buried alive, I would almost certainly be the first person to have ever laid still belowground for a portrait done with it.

Luke helped me to make a DIY chicken-wire haubergeon as a radar-reflective fallback, but through his personal connections, Sir Richard Taylor – the founder of the Wētā Workshop, which did the special effects, props, and costumes for the Lord of the Rings films – became aware of the project and authorized my use of a suit of plate mail belonging to him personally. A few days later, Myles and I flew to Wellington to meet the CEO of Reveal, Sam Wiffen, en route to collecting the armor.  

Before I travelled to New Zealand, Sam had offered me temporary use of a push-cart ground penetrating radar for the piece, as well as resources afterward to help interpret and visualize the data. After I arrived, he generously also arranged for the use of a property under development in the vicinity of Ōtaki, a full-size digger operated by J.P. Pritchard (one of the developers, who also piloted a quadrotor drone to help document the work), the services of an expert radar surveyor named Alex Fersterer who works for Reveal, and volunteered himself as a safety officer. 

While J.P. dug the grave and Myles got the GeoCam camera ready for the first of multiple ground-level 3D surveys he would conduct, Alex and Sam, acting as squires, helped me get into the armor. Rather than fiddle with all of the tiny leather ties, we used gaffer tape – figuring it would be a lot more efficient to get on and off, wasn’t going to show up on the radar, and wouldn’t even be visible in photographs after wrapping the armor in black garbage bags to protect it from dirt and moisture. 

Because elements of it didn’t fit properly, didn’t articulate the way they would have historically, and/or were attached with tape, the armor was challenging to walk in. And it was pretty much impossible to do anything else. I couldn’t sit down, or lean over, or even bend my knees. Actually, I couldn’t even walk so much as rigidly Frankenstein forward. As I awkwardly crested the lip of the hole shouting, “I’m an all-terrain knight!”, I was lucky not to have toppled over backward. Myles filmed my 4WD moment, barking with laughter, believing it was a real, and potentially hilarious, possibility. 

Inside the hole, Sam and Alex lowered me onto my back like a trust exercise. I was then inhumed – first, with the digger dropping dirt on me from a height; then, having paused briefly to reflect on the wisdom of that approach, by hand, with shovels, as the digger helped push dirt into the void from all around. 

We did two radar scans. Initially – out of consideration for my well-being, and that of the borrowed armor – they buried me in too shallow a grave. Alex got his push-cart stuck in the V-shaped fill repeatedly. I could feel him pressing down on top of me, even when he wasn’t rolling the wheels back and forth across my face. In the end, Sam declared that the radargram would probably “look like dogs’ balls” (a term of art, presumably).

I said I could handle more weight, so they doubled the overburden – to a depth of roughly half a meter. Sam thought this would be necessary to get an image that wasn’t completely “blown out” – i.e., rendered illegible by too much reflectivity. It was definitely heavier. Pieces of the armor gouged into me. The compression around my ribs was increased and made breathing more laborious. Eventually, they shoveled in enough dirt to flatten the grave, and spray painted a proper set of gridded survey lines on it. I was hardly able to feel them walking on top of me. The dirt was now piled too high for them to roll the cart over my face, however. We considered burying my head inside the helmet, but it would have required more care than we had time for (and probably a snorkel). So they left my face partially exposed, put the helmet on top, and crimped a dirt piecrust around it.  

After completing the second radar scan, everyone helped exhume me. As at other stages of the process, there was a lot of physical intimacy: in the armor, I was something between a person and an object. And the less I spoke, especially when my head was covered with the helmet, the more I was handled like material. After one of my long silences, Myles joked, “Guys, we’re presuming he’s still alive.” 

As they jawed about the upcoming Rugby World Cup, I was slowly, carefully, revealed. They dug me out with shovels first, and then by hand (as in archaeology or paleontology); then pulled me free from the dirt, limb by limb. Finally, Sam and Myles lifted me up from behind like a block, as if raising a monolith or totem pole, and Myles, not trusting my balance, held me upright until they could get the armor off. In the photos Alex snapped of us – because of a fisheye filter, the perspective, the fact that we stood at different levels, and that he is significantly taller than I am – Myles looks like a giant, and/or I a dwarf. We had accidently re-created an in-camera trick Peter Jackson used for Gimli and the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. More “place sensitivity,” I suppose.

Nothing looked scratched or dented. The tape came off without leaving any marks. I wriggled out of my carapace and got it stacked up in the crate, still wearing my indestructible Esri hoodie, black leather pants I’d bought at a secondhand women’s clothing store the day before, and a big shit-eating grin. That night, after dinner in a neighboring town, I cleaned the armor in a garage with an air compressor, CRC oil, a rough scour, and cotton rags. Then returned it to Wētā Workshop, to their complete satisfaction, the following day.

As a parting gift, Sam gave me a MALÅ Easy Locator Core ground penetrating radar. I had initially piqued his interest in a collaboration with the idea of fooling a radar into seeing something that isn’t there: a spoofed hole in the ground (e.g., a recreation of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in specific electromagnetic wavelengths, or an illusory pit of Tartarus detectable below the Campi Flegrei). This was his way of encouraging me to get after it. What we didn’t realize at the time is that – for reasons neither I nor the geophysicists at Reveal can make sense of – the radar had not seen something it should have: the armor. Our 3D radargram didn’t come out. 

Despite certain companies making irresponsible claims to the contrary, detecting living bodies underground with radar is difficult to do. Hence the idea of encasing myself in metal. It’s inexplicable to me that the armor, made as it was of steel and aluminum, and buried as I was under dry soil, wasn’t detected by a functioning radar operated by a qualified surveyor. But there it is. I am making experimental art, after all. And my practice – like all practices – involves trial, error, learning, iteration, and, occasionally, irritation. Is the radargram what A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife was actually “about”? Not exactly, no. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again. Next time, equipped with a SCUBA tank. 

Almost Auric.

February 22, 2023

Cards are starting to trickle in ahead of my 50th birthday (March 21st is the big day). The photo on this one, from my pal Jared Rogers (with whom I’ve shared countless adventures since we first met in a Portland, Oregon climbing gym, a week before our respective pre-divorce nuptials in the summer of 2009), is from the last day I was forty.

In 2014, Jared and I flew to the island of Roatán, thirty-five miles north of the Honduran coast, to meet up with a guy named Karl Stanley. Karl is basically the Han Solo of the global submariner community, and we dove with him to a depth of 616 meters (2020 feet) in a yellow submarine he’d built from scratch – figuring his incentives for survival were more or less perfectly well aligned with our own.

Dropping off the island shelf, sandbags at our feet, we huddled together in the nose cone and watched the jump to hyperspace: rings of aqueous light (and aquatic life) rushing past the glass as we plunged two thousand feet straight down into the midnight zone of the Caribbean Sea.

We prowled the dark water listening to Portishead and DJ Shadow on a small battery-powered radio Karl had in his cockpit. Flashing our lights, a whole cavern of tiny creatures, thinking we were sexually signaling them, bioluminesced back. At some point, water started dripping from the roof of the cabin. I asked Karl if it was anything to be concerned about and he laughed, saying we were at sixty atmospheres, and that if we did spring a leak I wouldn’t have time to scream before the submarine was crushed like a beer can. Thus reassured, I wiped at the condensation with my sleeve, donned a red Jacques Cousteau hat, and started munching chocolate chip cookies.

We were below the basement of photosynthesis, but there were animals – some quite ancient – that appeared to conserve the morphology of plants. If you waited long enough, some of them would stand up and walk; others, leaden with coils of symbiotic worms, were preyed upon by rangy white horrors.

Oh, yeah. A gravid, 13-foot-long tiger shark tried to kill us, twice. Once with her teeth, and once by trickery. Jared managed to pack this and a number of other visual impressions into a short video afterward (that he soundtracked to “When the Music’s Over” by The Doors, which Karl had blasted on our descent).

After a few life-altering hours down there, Karl needed to get back for a softball game (a surprisingly competitive affair played on a campo de sueños hacked out of Roatán’s jungled interior). So he adjusted the buoyancy and we slowly wound our way topside, past the remains of a diver who had committed suicide a few years prior, landed on a deep shelf, and had his face eaten away by marine life (no photos, for obvious reasons, but it looked like something from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

Before taking our leave of Karl to go drink too many Salva Vidas while watching silent Bear Grylls re-runs on a cracked TV at Booty Bar (where an Englishwoman, who appeared to be down to her last nerve, sat wearily at the head of a long wooden table of squirming, squealing children just before the bass dropped and the nightly gangsta-rap karaoke competition began), I asked him about, well, Atlantis. SEALs at Guantanamo Bay have beer lore of a sunken city – complete with pyramids – somewhere in the vicinity of Cuba. Karl got his start underwater probing around the Cuban archipelago for stuff to sell to the Smithsonian (yes, he sells sea shells by the seashore – or did). So I asked if he had caught sight of it. He very pointedly refused to answer my question.

Anyhow, I could write a book (or two) about the decade that’s passed since we did this. And maybe I should. But I’d rather face forward and race headlong into whatever comes next.

So, here’s to my fifties making my forties look like a rough draft.

Roma.

February 12, 2023

I visited Eva for a perambulation of Rome on Friday. After knocking around in the Vatican museums – giving me a chance to revisit marvels like the huge painted maps of Italy in the Galleria delle carte geografiche, Raphael’s The School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Laocoön and the Sistine Chapel (an unexpected coda to reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants last week) for the first time in sixteen years – we walked a ten-mile king rat of cobblestones that led us past the monument to (the desolation called) peace erected by Eva’s bae Caesar Augustus, multiple Egyptian obelisks, the site of the tennis court of the French ambassador to Rome (now a parking garage) where, in 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel over a welched bet and subsequently fled the city (into the arms of the Academy of Secrets in Naples), the three Caravaggios at S. Luigi dei Francesi, the two at S. Maria del Popolo (to whom I kept referring, aloud, as ‘Mary of the Poopalope’), the one at S. Agostino, and a copy of his Deposition at Santa Maria in Vallicella (for which Caravaggio painted the original, as the alter piece of a chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows; from which it was looted during the Napoleonic invasion; and to which it was not returned – going instead to the apostolic palace at the Vatican while the ‘Chiesa Nuova’ makes do with a mediocre knockoff by an obscure Dutch painter they don’t cop to on their shadow-enveloped signage), which Eva wanted to visit in order to make a direct appeal to the bones of the patron saint of her grandfather’s Campanian village for a bureaucratic easement. We got there by way of Raphael’s sibylline mural at Santa Maria della Pace and a stone Sphinx so lean its ribs were visible (needing to step up its riddle game, presumably, in a city of mama’s boys), a marble melee in Piazza Navona (started by Giacomo della Porta and finished by Bernini) so crazy that Poseidon teabags a giant octopus in the middle of it, making out in the Alley of Divine Love, and my purchasing Freya Stark’s personal copy of Alexandra David-Néel’s My Journey to Lhasa (an edition with Hopkirk’s introduction, natch) as a gift for Eva in an antiquarian bookshop where the customer ahead of us told the slightly perplexed proprietress he was the grandson of a king of Jordan and one of Saudi Arabia. And so on, unto falling asleep with the laptop on my lap, watching Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio for the umpteenth time.

A full-featured day in the Eternal City.