Susan Hiller’s Channels at Matt’s Gallery is an audio-visual conglomeration of near death experience (NDE) narrations told through a full-scale installation of television monitors. Whether these monitors simply house these personal stories or act as a portal through which they emerge isn’t clear. It doesn’t need to be. Bathed in the glowing light of these numerous screens, numerous voices come forth with one eventually becoming the clearest. Hours of recantations are housed here, in these screens, in this room. It’s the near-ghost in the machine.
Channels is a mixture of static, noise, and voices. Sometimes you wait a while for the static to clear and the stories to begin as if we’re all there using the televisions are our conductor to those who have experienced death. Told are tales of sensations of leaving the body, the past flashing before them, feelings of humor and regret, and, naturally, the tunnel of shining light. We also learn that there are qualifiers of what makes an NDE. They seem elastic. Significantly, these people are not dead. They are not the ghosts using white noise as a communication tool with the living. These voices are alive and they have conquered death.
Not dissimilar to Mike Nelson’s installation More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) next door, Channels deals with the unknown. Not strictly in the sense of questioning the ultimate unknowable (what happens when we die?) but in the very fundamental aspects of being: how do we hear? how do we recognize? how do we experience things? And like the film Poltergeist, these provocations occur through the mediation we are all familiar with – television (or if we want to think more broadly, media). Technology controls are interactions with each other and, as new technologies emerge, our relationships with one another evolve according to these new networks. Channels explores such a network of people with shared experiences, traumatic or peaceful, and uses the object of the television to shared these stories with us.
Hiller has made reference to dreams in previous works and the question of dreams and the way in which our mind constructs dreams while unconscious and how we process them while awake is significant here. In her book The Dream and the World Hiller writes, “If you start to think about dreaming, you may well find yourself in a vortex of philosophical paradoxes, enigmas and conundrums that liquefy any fixed notion of ‘self’ and ‘reality’.” And isn’t that what Channels produces? Is it possible that Near Death Experiences are simply an individual mind coping with the inevitability of death; a unique experience for each person with enough generalities of the human mind? Or is it more frightening to suggest that there’s something external producing these similar sensations?
The voices heard, whether alive or dead or even the real people who had a NDE, produce a series of hauntings within the space of the gallery. Here, these moments of the unknown are continuously re-lived and re-counted, processed and questions by those who hear them. Us.
Image by Peter White courtesy the artist, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Matt’s Gallery, London.