Museums and Mausoleums of the Human Mind
by John Kendall Hawkins
A museum is a building or institution that cares for and displays a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance. (Wiki)
A mausoleum is an external free-standing building constructed as a monument enclosing the interment space or burial chamber of a deceased person or people. (Wiki)
When I was younger, Rod Serling introduced me, and millions of others, to parenthetical conceptual hiccups, hermetically sealed scenes that loop even in their resolution, the first wafer taste of transubstantial multiverses -- possibilities of how a life might go under certain conditions, choice mixed with chance -- an uncanny, unnerving realization that They, whoever they are, aren't telling you everything.
Serling would stand there in Black and White, hands interlaced, ciggy smoke rising as from an incense stick in a darkened private room -- his mind maybe -- asking us to consider how things go and how, coming up next, they could have gone, but for the grace or disgrace of God, or, despite Einstein's observation that God does not play dice with universe, a life can come up boxcars or sevens for reasons known only to the magic of probability. After watching Twilight Zone, a viewer might be lost for a while in the frisson of that smoky question mark, before returning to routines we call the human business of conquering, commerce and communication.
Serling's pseudo-cosmology was so popular that he eventually graduated to color and a new series, even more ponderous and, at times, horrific -- Night Gallery. In the later series, Serling would show us how we reify, turn memories and experiences into an art form, introducing to the viewer a series of paintings in a darkened gallery, each work with its own interior life and background story. The plebs were interpreting art now, going on a journey that might prove useful next time they hit MOMA or framed their favorite photograph. But as reader-response theory has shown us, if we play it that way, we are the art piece as we play it. And perhaps more importantly we are programmable walking museums and mausoleums -- eventual Colgate dug-up toothbrushes that some digger holds up with delightful discovery smile teeth as an artifactual accomplishment of her cultural anthropological dental digs, or mysterious afterimage of a fading symbol of dead men walking through the Valley of Shadows (you know the one).
Over the many decades and generations of our conscious being we've tried to capture this hyper-process, this stepping back to observe ourselves observing, to project backwards milestones of dubious achievement in a world of relativity. Some of this is captured in Hollywood -- in scenes that prove to be more ontologically significant than the whole or gestalt of the fim, as if the polarity or dynamic of central vision had been reversed, and the viewer were given a cheesy narrative to surround a terrifying central question our being, as if such questions were so many ducky dumplings dippers yo soy sauce.
Take for example the film Altered States, which I stupidly watched as a part of a drive-in double bill -- Life of Brian the other flick - while high on Psilocybin (Wow!). Directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky (who gave us that 'mad as hell' meltdown movie, Network), Altered States has scenes that can un-Man you.
The film ponders in a flashing quagmire of anthropomorphic fractals (at least that's how my wide eyes saw it) the journey of the human screaming, it seemed, his way out of the jam, the primordial soup. (You could see why folks said later that democracy was messy.) But if you had to boil that soup down its operating principles here's what the soul of the film seems to be about:
A nice big steaming mug of Hello, Who Are You? Or as the great German lyrical poet Heinrich Heine put it in his 1824 poem "Warhaftig" (my translation, a trip in itself),
When the springtime shows up with its sunshine,
then the little flowers blossom and bloom;
when the moon begins her luminous course,
then the little stars swim in behind;
when the poet sees two sweet little eyes,
then songs gush forth from the depths of his soul; --
and yet songs and stars and little flowers
and little eyes and moonlight and sunshine,
no matter how pleasing all this stuff is,
it's far from being the whole world.
That kind of thing. Yep.There's another portrait in another film, this one a few years before the progresso primordial soup ad, called The Parallax View (1974). This museum piece tries to bridge the gap between our belief in the world around us as a verifiable tapestry of power connected by dots of key insights along the way, and a sub-liminal alternate take that sees us as programmed wanna-be beings trapped in fraudian self-deceptions and mental traps and traumas that make us "who we are." In this film, the gestalt is tied up in the legendary montage that you will have seen many times but have, perhaps, forgotten. Here it is again. Have your Help hotlines ready, but whatever you do don't dial 9-1-1, it'll seismic trigger:
This film came out at the height of our paranoiac theories about Deep State assassins in the mid-70s. In a sense, the film implied, we were all Manchurian Candidates, sleeper cells idled until it was time to wake up for a two-minute hate or ad pitching two minute noodles. Maybe someone who would climb out of slumber and kill John Lennon for "selling out." Or arise and kill lovers in cars because the Dog in your mind said so. Or you might wake up with an urge to eat children's brains with a grapefruit spoon. Then back to the saturation "Trump" coverage of the day.
Away from films, we may try to find the Big Meaning in concrete museums. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial with names of fallen soldiers. Structures of Suppose that we can walk around. Interpretations tied up in reification by granite. Most of us have read books about the Holocaust and seen endless devastating films of the atrocities meted out not only by the primary villains but the collaborators and vicious rubbernecks who greased the wheels and enabled the savages. For a moment, it's back to Altered States, the Beast end of the continuum with Superman at the other end, Humans in the middle. It's not enough to think that some of the humans I have admired most in my journey have been Jews, but now I must understand the endless plaintive call of Never Again.
If you can't visit these Memorials to our resilience to evil, then you'll have to do with a virtual tour. The Holocaust Museum, in conjunction with "Do No Evil" squad, Google, have one tour that gives an overview of the Museum's exhibits, and another, more apropos of our zeitgeist, that gets at the soul of Evil, of how the failed artist with the paintbrush mustache made putsch come to shove them in the oven -- State of Deception. Check it out
Probably our mistake is that we want to see such evil as a historical anomaly, something we need to recognize and get past, rather than the more frightful proposition that such monsters are everywhere with us, lurking opportunists. Vigilance as opposed to vigilantes. This is a very important exhibit. See the montage above.
There are other museums to which we might make pilgrimages to come to understand away from the device of mere rhetoric. Beyond museums or exhibits that remind us of what we must never forget, there are those that show us what we have done -- as collaborators and enablers -- and continue to support with help of hidden persuaders and what Chomsky calls "manufactured consent." America has yet to get past slavery. It's not merely a "legacy." It's on-going. In our general facile, and unconsidered reactionary lives, where we breed advantage and privilege as a right of Capitalized culture, we whites, in general, salt away a little useful racism, which, even if we don't believe in it in our "soul of souls," may prove useful as an undeniable delineator of who gets what later.
"We, the people" just can't seem to get over be-bopping and outright murdering Black people. It takes an extreme fictional Museum visit to see this democratic horror in its truest light. A few years back now, in the Netflix series Black Mirror, a kind of neo-noir Twilight Zone that emphasizes the impertinent invasion of technology into our lives, an episode called "Black Museum" laid down the closest approximation I've seen visually to the ongoing value placed on Black human lives -- here, in this exhibit, almost gleefully shown to a girl who happens upon the place and meets a MAGA type proprietor who wants to show her the old world order he longs for anew:
All that's missing is a coin slot to cherry top this chocolate horror cake.
Recently, I reviewed a short film, Lynching Postcards, that was its own hermetically sealed kind of booster club museum. But it recalled another visit I made to a virtual museum Down South last year. In some of the frames of Lynching Postcards you note that only dangling African-American feet are in the frame, while the real focus appears to be the smiling whites who did the deed, proud and ready for more.
But there is another profound way of looking at such lynchings that has become the principle exhibit of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama -- jars filled with dirt from beneath trees forced to bear witness and bear the burden of African-Americans (men, women, and children) lynched by rapturous mobs of white supremacy. Each jar has the name of a victim and where it happened. One can't take a camera into the museum, which is an appropriate way to get visitors to resist putting a barrier between themselves and the exhibits by turning them into collectors' objects. You're there, the museum says, to learn. I haven't been to the museum, but a short video production made by the Equality Justice Initiative (EJI) does a nice job of covering the bases.
For a moment, I'm thinking maybe they should grow a plant in the jar, bring life to this mausoleum -- maybe cotton or cane -- but then I realize that the jar is alive with a spirit, an afterimage of the deed, and, one by one, they create an accumulated effect that could be any number of imagined settings -- prison, a cargo hold -- unpresumptuous dirt, dust to dust. The jars also correspond well with another exhibit on the Museum home page that depicts three Black men incarcerated looking out at the visitor. Future jars. But also recalling the Black Mirror episode above, where an executed Black man is holographically re-executed by white visitors, over and over again, as part of the exhibit.
More recently our attention ponders the construction -- of all things -- The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Who cannot see this for what it is -- an act of triumphalism; mission accomplished: the panopticon is in place and we are to be as gleeful about it as little children keening to get into the heart and soul of Disneyland. I recall Ed Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record, and his warning about our diminishing chances of changing things, and throw up my hands:
It was then that I realized where these new technologies were headed, and that if my generation didn't intervene the escalation would only continue. It would be a tragedy if, by the time we'd finally resolved to resist, such resistance were futile. The generations to come would have to get used to a world in which surveillance wasn't something occasional and directed in legally justified circumstances, but a constant and indiscriminate presence: the ear that always hears, the eye that always sees, a memory that is sleepless and permanent. (p. 144)
You can do a virtual private tour, but it'll cost you -- $355 for 45 minutes -- and you have to be over years old. They'll always make you pay for an inside glance. (Ask to be tested for your paranoia level while there -- you may win a prize!).
The museum offers up the chance for kids and their parents to be a spy during your two hour visit to the gay and dark-mirrored atmosphere that promises intrigue and privacy demolition for fun. Ed, we're toast. The introduction is bubblegum national security:
And, you may think you've lost everything / but you find you can always lose a little more, the Bard from Duluth tells us. The International Spy Museum may have you feeling that way, especially if you were a renegade clown during the 60s who staggered forward through time, despite all the warnings that love was not all you needed after all. It's like the spies were having a go at us, and no spy was allowed to quit after having a glimpse of Ed Snowden's underwear or something. No, but it gets bleaker.
You could argue that we have already reached the Singularity -- early days -- and are merging as I double-speak. No more days of Subjects interrogating Objects in space and time, but, au contraire, we are self-conscious objects, the polarity has been reversed. The primordial soupcon is over-cooked, we've been absorbed by the Blob montage, race and religion will soon be games we once played in the childhood of species' adolescence. But as Arthur C. Clarke suggested a long time ago, we have reached Childhood's End. The Nine Billion Names of God have been uttered and the stars are going out one by one, as we turn our eyes inward to new constellations.
Nowhere did this seem more evident to me than in reading a review of another museum -- LUX: New Wave of Contemporary Art, 180 The Strand, London. "Sublime Calculation" by Julian Stallabrass, in Issue 132 of the New Left Review, suggests the emergence of a brave new feedback loop between machine and man, between algorithms and desires, between logic and the aesthetic. Stallabrass sets the scene of anticipation:
The labyrinthine exhibition spacethe basement levels of 180 The Strand, a brutalist office complexplunges the viewer into a profound darkness out of which loom naked concrete walls"What is new here, and undeniably impressive, is the scale and speed of this processing, the vast datasets on which it draws, and the hypnotic vision of an inhuman intelligence playing with human cultural techniques and material. (p. 84)
f*ck me, this ain't your father's technological nightmare. Jacquel Ellul, move over.
These are exhibits that rearrange the molecular landscapes of consciousness -- by making you aware, in a new way, that consciousness is molecular, chemical rather than biological at heart. It's disconcerting, at first, but it has it's allure, especially if you are steeped in readings on phenomenology, as I am. Suddenly, the kinds of mental activity you projected to bring to life certain theoretical aspects of phenomenal processes are made concrete. It kind of blows you away. Did art get co-opted by science overnight?
The LUX exhibition is produced in partnership with the UK art and music magazine, FACT. Stallabrass makes his case for a kind of ontological degeneration or supplantation by machine-thinking empaths, exhibit after exhibit. First up is a Korean installation called Starry Beach. He goes to work with his magic:
The projection spills from the wall to the carpeted floor as the waves wash over the viewer's feet"The mirrored illusion of vastness contributes to what is a textbook example of the Burkean sublime: the wide, stormy beach at night is experienced safely boxed into an indoor space without any of the inconveniences or dangers of exposure to the elements.
It is this poverty of risk and aversion to elementary experience that worries. I think for a moment of Eric Schmidt's holographic gizmo that transports near future couch potatoes to scenes that obscure despair by the vision of the object as spectacle.
One sees generations of privileged indoor people, made rich by f*cking up the envoronment, protecting themselves and their childrens -- the Mighty Whitey turning a whiter shade of pale, bathing in D vitamin emollients in compensation for severed relationship with the Sun. Stallabrass puts it a little bit differently and I have to admire his chutzpah:
The [production's] mirrors pitch viewers into a heightened state of imagistic self-awareness" and open up opportunities for playing with selfies and other forms of social-media display. It is part of a by now familiar effect in which works of art are made, more or less openly, as honey-traps for social-media users, and in which the use of mirrors is the most obvious move.
Honey traps! Wot? The whole Internet is a honey-trap. Try to break free. Go ahead.
Then comes the futurism of German artist Hito Steyerl's This is the Future. We're told that what we're beholding is "an optimistic vision of the future." Gulp. Because almost immediately we're being perceived and assuaged by "neural networks" of machine-thinking that suggests disruption of tyranny and subversion of the ruling order. Says Stallabrass, "This work explicitly evokes ecological collapse and the uncertain means somehow used to ensure the survival of a garden hidden in the future." But it's a new brand of optimism at play here.
A new political relationship to the natural order emerges. Messages flash: "Poison your local autocrat." In the clip above, Steyerl tells us, "AI could theoretically be used to create positive effects. I'm very certain of that. It's very good at doing any kind of pattern analysis, and so on. But under the current system of capitalist extraction, which is database, it is going to be very difficult, I guess, to achieve positive effects." You're not really sure what she's talking about, as the neural network images churn. You fear that your disorientation may be part of the exhibit. Stallabrass seems to have a bead on it:
The danger for the whole exhibition, though, is that the sublime and the uncanny so insistently propagated fail to take a hold on the viewer that they fall flat in inadvertent comedy and kitsch.
This is probably too harsh. What if that failure to take hold is the point?
Stallabrass stands before another installation and asks us to consider:
There it is. And what's more:
A few works offer a more explicit politics. Julianknxx's Black Corporeal (Breathe), an immersive video installation showing Black gospel singers who undergo strange transformations against a polished church space, heightens the volume and distinctiveness of their singing and breathing.
It's eerie. Template ghosts of the Gospel singing in a harmony that is its own proposition, self-referential mathematics with soul. Stallabrass adds, comparing Black Corporeal (Breathe) to Oh, The Wind by Theaster Gates, another video work displayed elsewhere,
In both works, singing is an emanation of resistance, and the highlighting of breath points to its deadly denial by the police. Both works are high-resolution and large scale, yet Julianknxx's work contains immaculately dressed and lit figures against the ceremonial propaganda of church architecture.
The police no longer refers to truncheon-bearing knee-neckers, but the whole apparatus of surveillance and enforcement in which we are all at last homogenized and relativized by patternization and withdrawal of the human.
In a kind of summary judgment of the LUX exhibitions and installments, Stallabrass offers up this observation:
"many of these works seem like a sleek celebration of the fragmented and precarious selves of social media, serfs of the algorithm, under continual pressure to fabricate their brands which are endlessly tested against feedback.
We've been warned that we are both the product and the consumer, an economic growth feedback loop, and this LUX seems to be a paean to that evolutionary force. The reader is encouraged to read Stallabrass's full essay, available at Internet Archive, the online library.
From primordial to futuristic, museums and mausoleums have become internalized syntheses of hyper-propositional expressions. No longer Cogito ergo sum, per se, but maybe more like what Bill Clinton said all those years ago: It depends on what your definition of Is is, a process in itself that could take a lifetime. We were once a layer removed from the Object -- the Outside Me -- but now we like hypertext selves wrapped over our old consciousness of our being-in-the-world. Maybe quantum will help though. Wake me when we get there.