We are the captive guests of everything we have created, yet we endowed none of it with the mercy to let us go free.—Max Bense, Technical Existence
Errors, ever unpredictable, surface the unnameable, point toward a wild unknown. To become an error is to surrender to becoming unknown, unrecognizable, unnamed. New names are created to describe errors, capturing them and pinning down their edges for examination. All of this is done in an attempt to keep things running; this is the conceit of language, where people assume if they can find a word to describe something, that this is the beginning of controlling it. But errors are fantastic in this way, as often they skirt control, being difficult to replicate and therefore difficult to reproduce for the sake of troubleshooting them out of existence….What is a body without a name? An error…This state of opacity is a ripe error to reach, an urgent and necessary glitch.—Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto
I am writing this essay from within Lux Aeterna during the last week of the exhibition. As I write I can hear the mechanical flutter of Lynne Siefert’s 16mm film …—…, the respiration of the overhead projector from Rafael Soldi’s Erroneously Handled Object, and the solemn, uncanny tone of Neil Armstrong’s synthesized voice mouthed by the luminous, aquamarine specter of Annlee traversing a desolate landscape in Pierre Huyghe’s One Million Kingdoms. The air carries the faintest hint of dry dirt from Ariel René Jackson & Michael J. Love’s installation The Future Is A Constant Wake, which has quietly permeated the gallery.
Lux Aeterna was an exhibition that began in 2019 with a broadly systemic and specific premise: to trace and trouble the currents of technical migration and image circulation in our present-day media ecology, exploring the ways media production and presentation platforms shape our values and perception through an exhibition of commissioned artwork. The project began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of conversations with artists around commissioning new work for so-called obsolete media platforms, with an exhibition originally planned for August of 2020. As an exhibition on media production, Lux Aeterna was, of course, deeply affected by a period of the most pervasive systemic transformation witnessed in a lifetime. After the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Lux Aeterna shifted not only in its timing (moving from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021) but also in its structure and focus. An exhibition consisting of primarily as-of-yet unseen work already contains a high degree of indeterminacy; the COVID-19 pandemic acted upon the structure of the exhibition to accentuate this sense of diving into the unknown with a group of artists. The delay of the exhibition provided an occasion to conduct a research platform and series of events over the course of a year in which many cultural activities were forced to move online. As most of the works in Lux Aeterna were commissions, many of the artists’ projects continued to shift throughout the year.
Over the course of the year-long research platform, three additional artworks were created. Studio for Propositional Cinema’s Ancient Knowledge Survivalist Manifesto and Stephanie Simek’s A Singular Post1 were both sent through the mail to individuals while lockdowns were still in practice in many regions. In the spring, James Allister Sprang’s sound piece Aquifer of the Hum, co-commissioned with On the Boards, was presented alongside Aquifer of the Ducts as an in-person event at On the Boards’ Merrill Theater on May 15 and 16, 2021, in conjunction with Seattle Murmurations, a coalition of six Seattle-based arts organizations creating joint programming during the pandemic. What emerged from this year-long conversation was larger than the sum of its parts, entangled in the many ways that our relationship to media—and to extractive systems that drive those industries—was shifting over the course of the pandemic.2 It became far more incisive in its indictment of the bias implicit with particular platforms, and reflected the understanding of media in the midst of multiple crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, systems of racial oppression, and global climate change. In an event titled Speculative Value: Between the Institution and the NFT hosted by Rhizome, Shumon Basar stated the pandemic introduced the neologism of procelleration— the acceleration of acceleration—and argued that “the pandemic has been procellerating the future into the present. What this means is that phenomena that would have been either 10 or 20 years or 30 years ahead on the horizon have all been telescoped into the current moment, all at once, change piled on top of change.”3 This sense of procelleration was felt throughout the research platform and final exhibition that took place that summer.
Lux Aeterna culminated in an exhibition that took place at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design from July 29 to September 7, 2021, featuring 10 newly commissioned artworks by Zack Davis, Dan Paz, Aurora San Miguel, Norie Sato, Lynne Siefert, Stephanie Simek, Rafael Soldi, Charles Stobbs III, and Studio for Propositional Cinema, alongside four pre-existing installations by Pierre Huyghe + Philippe Parreno, Ariel René Jackson + Michael J. Love, Afroditi Psarra + Audrey Briot, and Evan Roth. Lux Aeterna became an exploded, time-based exhibition structure – a constellation of artworks and events that took place of the course of the year, including the exhibition at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery and this publication. This volume of MONDAY reflects the intricate themes raised throughout Lux Aeterna, bringing together landmark texts that formed the foundation for this exhibition, such as Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image,” alongside new scholarship by Vic Brooks and Astria Suparak. It also attends to the rarely accounted for history of media art in the Pacific Northwest through Robin Oppenheimer’s “50 Years of Art & Technology in Seattle” and an interview with Norie Sato, who began working in Seattle in 1973. Both Oppenheimer and Sato are key stakeholders in this history through their involvement with institutions such as and/or and 911 Media. This volume holds contributions by University of Washington scholars, including a manifesto by Radio Amatrices, a collective that includes Afroditi Psarra, Assistant Professor of Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), related to the project Listening Space in Lux Aeterna, and a conversation between Lauren S. Berliner, Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, and Berette S Macaulay, artist, writer, and curator about the themes and topics raised by Lux Aeterna. Charles Stobbs III, 2019 MFA alumni from the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design, has also contributed to this volume.
Embodying Media and Perception
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the title of Lux Aeterna referred to the “everlasting light” and perseverance of so-called obsolete media in the face of late-stage capitalism. The COVID-19 pandemic made humanity’s lasting and interdependent relationship with media all the more visible. The exhibition at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery did not include an introductory wall text. This absence reflected a curatorial effort to dismantle the disembodied voice of authority that conditions the viewers’ experience of work so profoundly. Instead, the exhibition began with a threshold in which visitors were invited to walk between two Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors – a 1950s Philco Predicta and a 1990s SONY Trinitron — that simultaneously presented Norie Sato’s Horizon from 1973, providing an occasion for the viewer to weigh the differences between the two CRT monitors, and between the CRTs and the flat screen monitors in the distance.4 Wall text did not appear until the viewer was already deep in the exhibition, where two panels with loose thematic groupings of artworks were offered: Media Reclamation and Future Ruins.
Lux Aeterna offered an embodied experience of digital and analog devices over long stretches of time, considering how works are shaped by the devices that produce them, how forced obsolescence conditions our aesthetic experience and, consequently, our values. The exhibition questioned how artworks are shaped by the networks through which they are circulated and consumed, raising questions about origination, copyright, and ownership under platform capitalism. Dynamics like these have profound implications on the interplay between our aesthetic preferences and how we understand our sensory experiences. In Ghostly Apparitions, Stefan Andriopoulos argues that the history of media art is intimately tied to key philosophical accounts of perception and knowing, demonstrating how magic lantern phantasmagoria conditioned Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of nature and spirit, as well Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: “Kant’s doctrine of transcendental illusion transforms the material apparatus of the magic lantern and its use in the visual medium of phantasmagoria into an epistemological figure…the analogy between speculative reason and the visual instrument of the magic lantern are thus inherent to and constitutive of Kant’s critical philosophy.”5 The magic lantern was leveraged as a metaphor in key philosophical accounts of knowledge within the tradition of German idealism, influencing future generations of philosophers such as Marx who built upon this tradition, carrying the trace of media apparatuses in their genealogy. Our understanding of human perception has been conditioned by the history of media production, the two interlinked in an imprecise feedback loop.
In Lux Aeterna, these themes are addressed most directly by Norie Sato’s video installation Dis/Connect which synthesizes a deep historical relationship between human perception and philosophy. Dis/Connect is made up of two perforated titanium cylinders: a large one rests on the ground, while a narrower cylinder is suspended from the ceiling, creating a gap through which the viewer can look in to see a complex and layered set of video images. As the viewer approaches the piece from a distance, the superimposition of the perforated metal cylinders produces the optical effect of a moiré pattern – an emergent perceptual phenomenon in which the viewer’s eyes create the pattern. This uncanny visual illusion sets the stage for what the viewer will encounter when they reach the piece—a palimpsest of video images in which there is a disconnect between what the viewer sees, and what they are able to make sense of. Originally made for an exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum in 1993, the piece was recreated for Lux Aeterna using new video footage. In its 1993 version, Dis/Connect presented video images of abandoned spaces, including those at Fort Worden, that continued to hold a trace of a human presence. In the 2021 version of the piece, ephemeral images of water and sand point to the theme of the image’s ephemeral constitution. Seen through dis-orienting layers of mirror and glass, the piece brought together the moving images from two sources, above and below. As such, Dis/Connect again raises the long-standing question of the origin of images, wending back through the history of the philosophy of perception.
Throughout Lux Aeterna artists offered strategies for resistance to homogenizing pressures of consumerist media platforms, the opaqueness of our present-day media landscape, and predatory image economies, while advocating for individual empowerment. Dan Paz, Afroditi Psarra & Audrey Briot, and Evan Roth seek to make media more humane, transparent, and accessible to individuals. The atmosphere is constantly filled with electromagnetic radiation in the form of visible light, infrared radiation, and radio waves. These frequencies are addressed in three artworks grouped under Media Reclamation: visible light in Dan Paz’s work, radio waves in Afroditi Psarra & Audrey Briot’s Listening Space, infrared radiation in Evan Roth’s Landscapes.
In Dan Paz’s commission, “In 2020 I purchased and downloaded one of my father’s mugshots from a third-party criminal-search website for $29.99. My father died in 2009.” (2021), Paz takes the found image of their father’s mugshot, downloaded from a predatory web-site, and converts the digital mugshot to the historic technique of the photogravure, a technique chosen to invoke photography’s historic relationship to criminology. The conversion of their father’s mugshot into analog material, Paz says, “is an effort to disrupt the mugshot’s permanence and reproducibility in the digital landscape. Formerly incarcerated individuals are subjected to after-life sentences through images produced and perpetuated online. The impression-making of both the photogravure and the title’s embossed text reverse the moment where analog image practice translates to digital by making
a finite negative and copy.”
Listening Space is an ongoing artistic research project between Afroditi Psarra & Audrey Briot that uses satellite data as a material for exploration and citizen science. Intercepting NOAA (National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration) weather satellite data using wearable hand-crafted antennas, the artists created knitted textiles from the intercepted data signals as a means of enhancing our awareness of the dialogue between Earth and its satellites. Reflecting on the development of early computers from weaving technologies, the artists created each tapestry as a physical record of the intercepted and decoded data that will survive much longer than many storage media for data, and advocate for a feminist media archaeology. Psarra & Briot attempt to give individuals access to the data that permeates the air through radio waves, empowering individuals to access and intervene into it, much as Evan Roth reminds us that the internet is tied to a physical infrastructure of cables and servers through his ongoing series Landscapes.
Through Landscapes, Evan Roth seeks to reconnect with the physicality of the internet by documenting the sites where transatlantic internet cables emerge from the ocean. The footage is filmed with a modified infrared camera, referring to the wavelength used to transmit information through fiber-optic cables. Roth’s powerful videos, with their monitors rotated 90 degrees clockwise and their images tinged with a red hue that bore an uncanny semblance to the skies outside the gallery as the California wildfires blanketed the West Coast in smoke, also anticipate the ecological themes raised in the following section of Lux Aeterna.
Three works invoke films to raise questions about unrealized forms. Stephanie Simek’s Untitled (2021) speculates about the seashell as a potential form of communication, by casting gallium, a metal with semi-conductor properties, into a shell. This form rests upon a record sleeve of The Visitor, a fictional record that appears in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Aurora San Miguel’s etched glass piece Corporate Logo: Mnemonic Encryption Key appropriates three images from the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic (dir. Robert Longo) that act as a memory device for the protagonist to access the information stored in his mind. Charles Stobbs III proposed three different projects that could not be realized because of the conditions of the pandemic. The pandemic also caused Cinefex, a magazine of special effects in Hollywood film, to cease production in February 2021. Reflecting on projects that went unproduced during the pandemic, Stobbs imagined covers for the three volumes of Cinefex that would have come out since the magazine folded.
The architecture of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery is divided into two galleries based on their relationship to light: a large gallery adjacent to the entrance flooded with natural light from a bay of 14-foot windows, and a second gallery which is lit artificially. The exhibition design of Lux Aeterna worked with this dichotomy in its grouping of artworks, with the more empowered narratives embedded in the Media Reclamation section presented in the first gallery and the second grouping of dystopic narratives, Future Ruins, presented in the darkened space.
In the second section of Lux Aeterna, artworks by Zack Davis, Rafael Soldi, Lynne Siefert, Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno, Studio for Propositional Cinema, and Ariel René Jackson & Michael J. Love offered images of tentative and unstable landscapes that point to the ecological impact of capitalism’s unchecked drive toward innovation. In his video Jump, Zack Davis indicts the exorbitant waste of short-lived bike-share companies such as JUMP, whose ownership changed hands several times over the course of the pandemic. Davis says:
“By the middle of 2018, transportation startups had flooded Seattle with rentable bikes. Red JUMP bikes, green Lime bikes, and yellow Ofo bikes could be seen on every block, in every roadside thicket, in every body of water. The incongruously placed bike became a meme, standing awkwardly on its kickstand someplace that it could not have been ridden, from which it could barely be retrieved. Behind their public custodianship, the ownership of these bikes was fluid. In 2018, JUMP was already owned by Uber. When Uber sold the bike-sharing portion of their business to Lime during the coronavirus pandemic, they scrapped a large por-tion of the fleet. Bike transportation advocates, who had long admired the durable design of JUMP bikes, considered this a particularly awful waste, and they successfully pressured Uber to transfer the remainder of the fleet to Lime.
Just as economic fluidity warps and distorts a culture of start-ups and venture capitalism, Davis’s JUMP bike sits at the bottom of a body of water, its frame optically bent and disfigured by passing waves. This distortion is further accentuated by image compression, in which Davis has intensely compressed the video image just to the point of the image tearing. The effect of the compression is a sculptural treatment of the image, as if it is a lump of clay being actively molded by unseen hands. The poetics of compression weave throughout Lux Aeterna. In Zack Davis’s work, the molding of images by compression is directly addressed. In others it is present through an implied storyline, such as Aurora San Miguel’s reference to Johnny Mnemonic. Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image,” reproduced in this volume, has had a lasting impact on many of the artists in this exhibition.
For Lux Aeterna, Lynne Siefert created a new 16mm flicker film, titled …—…, or SOS in Morse code. Beginning with urgent speeches by the leaders from the Pacific Island nation states – existentially threatened by rising sea levels – Siefert transcoded these speeches into Morse code. She then selected two images from each locale through Google Earth, and further translated the Morse code into a Morse code of images. The result is a film broken down into six chapters that conveys the urgency of these situations in the visceral language of visual and audible flicker. The images that make up the film contain a ghostly outline of the Google logo, pointing to the image’s source. The film was accompanied by a brochure that provided the original speeches that the pieces were based on.
Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno’s landmark project No Ghost Just a Shell began in 1999 when Huyghe & Parreno acquired the rights for an 11-year-old anime character who cost just $428, and gave it the name Annlee. As a blank sign, Annlee was a character “industrially developed for merchandising and other commercial purposes [and therefore] can be understood as a sign, an adorable yet blank signifier—indeed a perfect vehicle for the global circulation of cultural meanings, whether or not mediated by narrative form.”6 The artists then released her copyright to 13 artists who were allowed to make artwork using her image for one year, producing 28 different artworks, and at the end of that year the copy-right was returned to a trust in the name of the character herself. Lux Aeterna included three of these projects: Pierre Huyghe, One Million Kingdoms (2001), Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno’s poster No Ghost Just a Shell (2000), and the wallpaper created by M/M Paris (2000). The colors in M/M Paris’s wallpaper, Wallpaper Poster 1. 1 (Annlee colors anywhere out of the world), served as a source for the wall colors throughout the exhibition, and the colors in this publication.
Pierre Huyghe’s video One Million Kingdoms follows Annlee through a foreboding terrain as she recites excerpts of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Jules Verne’s The Journey to the Center of the Earth with Neil Armstrong’s synthesized voice. The artwork begins with a text that explains that “The Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne begins in Iceland, in the Snœffels Jokull crater at the north of the island. The conquest of space starts there on that same desert of lava. The first images of Neil Armstrong hopping in his space suit in the middle of a desolated landscape were first shot there. This is an expedition through territories topologically similar.”7 This interwoven text ranges from famously recognizable phrases to fantastical passages from The Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As Annlee begins to speak, we hear the character intone in Neil Armstrong’s voice:
“It’s a lie. It’s there at the foot of the volcano that the moon landing tests were filmed. Before anyone walked on the moon, these pictures foreshadowed to us what we would discover later on. They pre-pare us for the spectacle of desolation. On the moon there is nothing besides dust. The conquest of space which was a dream until now had become an illusion. We want to enter the unknown when the greatest mysteries are right here. We are on the threshold of another world. Just one small step….”
These words held a weight and resonance with current events during the summer of 2021. On July 20, Jeff Bezos traveled to the edge of space in a rocket owned by his private space flight company Blue Origin, fulfilling some of science-fiction’s long anticipated story arcs in which the wealthiest humans seek to escape the planet that they destroyed through their unchecked drive towards wealth. Studio for Propositional Cinema’s commission for Lux Aeterna acts as a warning against such a future. Ancient Knowledge Survivalist Manifesto is a letterpress print produced as part of a project called Ancient Knowledge Survival Kit, which imagines a world in which humans themselves have become obsolete. The project as a whole is meant to act as an “archive and diagram of what and how we have built and a mechanism to decipher it; a guide to make our future ruins articulate so our ruination may sound a foghorn guiding the future away from repeating our catastrophe, towards a future that we could have had and still, if we want it, may find.” 8 Similarly, Ariel René Jackson & Michael J. Love in their installation The Future Is A Constant Wake conjure a future in which our networks are “tied back into the land nondestructive, aware, and forever relenting through touch, empathy, and respect.” The installation consists of a 10-foot-by-10-foot room of red-hued loam with a video featuring the movement of Michael J. Love, a cow bone, and the voice of Ariel René Jackson reading a text composed after reading Christina Sharpe’s seminal text In the Wake.
This volume would not have been possible without the thought, time, and effort of many. I am so grateful to the authors who contributed new and adapted texts to this volume: Lauren S. Berliner, Vic Brooks, Radio Amatrices (Audrey Briot, Sasha Engelmann, Adriana Knouf & Afroditi Psarra), Berette S Macaulay, Robin Oppenheimer, Norie Sato, Charles Stobbs III, and Astria Suparak. Taylor Miles Hopkins is the talented graphic designer who translated the complex exhibition that was Lux Aeterna into this bound volume you hold in your hands, and Raziah Ahmad created the original visual identity for the exhibition. Julia Powers, the managing editor for MONDAY, sourced the reprinted texts and proofread the whole volume with a balance of thoughtfulness and precision. E-flux kindly offered permission to reprint Hito Steyerl’s “In Defense of the Poor Image,” and Verso Books provided the rights to reprint “Chasm” from James Bridle’s New Dark Age. I am grateful to the University of Washington Special Collections for the rights to reproduce the photographs from the and/or archives contained in this volume.
Being in conversation with the artists—Norie Sato, Dan Paz, Rafael Soldi, Stephanie Simek, Ariel René Jackson, Aurora San Miguel, Charles Stobbs III, Afroditi Psarra & Audrey Briot, Evan Roth, Lynne Siefert, Zack Davis, Studio for Propositional Cinema, and Philippe Parreno & Pierre Huyghe—was the gift of a lifetime. Lux Aeterna would not have been possible without the generous support and loans of Marian Goodman Gallery, Tanya Leighton Gallery, and the Van Abbe Museum. I am deeply indebted to the Northwest Film Forum for their partnership on Lux Aeterna, and in particular Christopher Day, who worked to support many of the artists as they created new pieces and lent many of the historic media devices that appeared in the exhibition. On the Boards graciously supported the commission of James Allister Sprang’s Aquifer of the Hum and the presentation of Aquifer of the Ducts in the Merrill Theater. Michael Van Horn & Nick Strobelt from the PhotoMedia department lent many of the flatscreens that made up Evan Roth’s installation. Webster Crowell, Quin McNichol, and Nate Clark installed the intricate and multifaceted exhibition, persevering through even the most difficult of challenges with good humor and wit. Canyon Cinema lent films for the opening night screening, John Martin built a beautiful screen for the outdoor screening, and Aurora San Miguel projected the films with extraordinary care. There are so many others that contributed to the exhibition, including Leah Baltus, Elizabeth Calvillo, Caean Couto, Rachel Cook, Jueqian Fang, Rebecca Friedman, Jessamyn Gilbert, Amelia Ketzel, Marc Lawrence, Anh Nguyen, Emily Pothast, Bill Ritchie, and Marisa Williamson, and my heartfelt gratitude is extended to each. Finally, I am grateful for the support of the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design in making this project possible.
- Video documentation for Stephanie Simek’s A Singular Post is available at: https://luxaeternaexhibition.com/projects/stephanie-simek/.
- Jacob Lawrence Gallery, “Lux Aeterna Exhibition Walkthrough,” Vimeo, August 31, 2021, video, 6:34, https://vimeo.com/595431445.
- He opens the talk by saying “time has become untimed, and our news feeds read more distopianly than most historic science fiction does even now.” Speculative Values: Between the Institution and the NFT, Rhizome, November 4, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3UriT1onxM.
- Wikipedia reminds us that CRT “is a glass envelope which is deep, heavy, and fragile.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathode-ray_tube.
- Stefan Andriopoulos. Ghostly Apparitions: German Idealism, the Gothic Novel, and Optical Media. New York: Zone Books (2013) p. 48.
- Jiwon Ahn, Animated Subjects: Globalization, Media, and East Asian Cultural Imaginaries 145–47 (2007) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California). Quoted in Steven Wilf, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Fictional Characters (and Copyright)” Critical Analysis of Law 7:1(2020), p. 57.
- Pierre Huyghe, One Million Kingdoms (2001). Video (PAL, co-lour, sound), duration 6:45 min. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery & Van Abbe Museum.
- Project description Studio for Propositional Cinema’s Ancient Knowledge Survivalist Manifesto, accessed on October 10, 2021, https://luxaeternaexhibition.com/projects/studio-for-a-propositional-cinema/.