A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife

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. 

2 Responses to “A Dress Rehearsal for the Afterlife”

  1. Complimentary Webzine? | Weeknotes 284 - thejaymo Says:

    […] recently flew to New Zealand and buried himself alive in a suit of armour owned by Richard Taylor – the founder of the Wētā Workshop – and wrote about it. Why? You’ll have to read […]

  2. The Swipe Volume 1 Chapter 11 – EXCUSES AND HALF TRUTHS Says:

    […] A Dress Rehearsal For The Afterlife […]

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