On the Desperate Edge of Now: Joachim Koester

Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition, On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here and Heather Cantrell here.

“Koester echoes in his investigations the magic at the heart of photography that fold the past into the future and the known into the imagined, a process that arrests time and captures possibilities.” – Lisa Le Feuvre

gJoachim Koester’s film and photographic work become persistent ghost stories that meld the historical with pop-cultural and fictional constructions. Seeming to gravitate towards the macabre, Koester inclusion of Charles Mason, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the occult, the opium trade, and speculative fiction writers such as Baudelaire and Dumas as well as H.P. Lovecraft result in a contextual montage that both familiarizes and complicated our understanding of the past.

Koester’s video Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes (2007) attacks the very concept of time in terms of mining the past and manipulating the present. This work processes textual fragments from the “weird fiction: of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Notes of Commonplace Book through a computer program that generates endless possibilities of speculative musings. This is a never-ending, never-repetitive, constantly morphing process is a theatrical word play visualized. Fusing new connections pulls the past into the present or as William S. Burrough’s observed, “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

Morning of the MagiciansThe video invokes the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, an early 20th century writer who would, no doubt, be delighted to reach out from beyond the grave, manipulating his own words. Unlike his predecessor Edgar Allen Poe, who was more interested in the ghostly realm, the phenomenological writings of Lovecraft detail unseen worlds parallel to our own reality, often detailing an ancient monstrous civilization that exists on the liminal boundary between the past and the present. His infamous fictional cosmic entity Cthulu appeared in a series of stories as an ancient Elder God worthy of religious worship and capable of universal destruction while others, faceless and formless beings in The Beyond, threaten the limits of scientific and philosophical reasoning.

From The Beyond: “What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects are infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, strong, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have…”

The-Beyond-Final-ImageKoester’s technologically regulated usage of this “weird realism” adds an additional layer on to the pile of memory, belief, cult structures, and an understanding of our existence being shared embedded in Lovecraft’s ouvre. Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes fragments and perpetually re-contexutalizes meaning while simultaneously releasing the ghost of Lovecraft (the utilized text was published posthumously) as well as the undead characters in these narratives and the generative ghost in the machine. It verbalizes to us that we cannot trust continuity, or technology, and that variance and change are inevitable. Most importantly it presents and represents an evolving past, playing out in the now and into the foreseeable future. 

Images:
Tarantism, 2007, 16 mm film installation
The Hashish Club
, 2009, 16mm film and B/W photo installation
Morning of the Magicians, 2006, 16mm film
Final scene in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, 1981

 

Advertisements

The Black Cat: Revenge. Murder. Incest. Satanism.

An essay I wrote on Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat in relation to a dual screening I programmed at Nitehawk Cinema (in conjunction with the On the Desperate Edge of Now exhibition I’m curating)…


The-Black-CatSupernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.

The displaced American in Europe; Henry James made a literary career out of it, so did Hemingway, and filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer made one of the most brilliant conflations of the new-and-old worlds in his explosive 1934 film The Black Cat. Himself an émigré from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire working in Hollywood, Ulmer was all too familiar with cultural outsider-ness and he uses it to great effect when he features the misfortune that befalls two naïve Americans traveling through central Europe on their honeymoon.

This Black Cat is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “immortal” classic but, aside from the fearful presence of a cat that is black, it bears little resemblance to the short story. Instead, there is a complexly interwoven story with much at play: revenge, love, treason, psychological disorders, incest, Satanism, and architecture. But at the core are the eruptions caused by historical trauma caused by World War I with the film asking: what does war make men do? What is surviving or even living? Do free men make their own prisons? Who are the “good” guys? Ulmer’s film places together the past and the present, America and Europe cultures, and the traumatized with the innocent.

blackcat6The story takes place in an imposing Bauhaus-inspired architectural structure that has been built upon the graves of a battlefield by Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). The two Americans, Peter and Joan Allen, and a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Bela Lugosi) wind up at the modernist house after a deadly accident in their shared car. But whereas the couple is taken off-course and enters a world unfamiliar, Werdegast is exactly where he intended to be – at the former site of war that he fought alongside Poelzig. Home. He is there to kill Poelzig as retribution for abandoning their battalion and for stealing his wife while he, loyal until the end, was a prisoner of war for fifteen years.

Of course, the war being echoed here is World War I (the Great War) that, with no doubt, had a significant impact on European culture and on Ulmer himself. “The force of their struggle symbolizes the shattered and corrupted humanity left in the wake of World War I. Their personal desire for death, then, is a natural extension of wartime patriotism, and duty: a desire for destruction adopted and internalized.”1 This intensely rich back-story embodies the The Black Cat and forms the underlining profound sense of loss echoed throughout the film; everybody has lost something and has been the walking dead for all these years, coping in different ways with the effects of the war. As a result, both men are mad and self-destructive. As Poelzig says shiningly, “Even the phone is dead here…even the phone is dead.”

the+black+cat+1In the battle of Karloff and Lugosi (it was the first time the two huge stars of the time had been onscreen together), it’s Karloff’s Poelzig who becomes the void in which trauma has been funneled into. Deeply guilty about his treason and about surviving, Poelzig is never-the-less a calculating and evil monster. He abandoned his team, stole his friend’s wife, killed her (and other women) while she was still young to retain her beauty, married his step-daughter, and is a Satanic high priest capable of human sacrifice. Living in his Gothic mansion, albeit a modernist masterpiece, he has isolated the outside world and remained living in his own contamination. So it is with little surprise at the vehemence in which Werdegast attacks his nemesis; he destroyed his life, the world destroyed them both.

the-black-cat-boris-and-belaConsidered the original “King of the B’s”, the mysterious Edgar G. Ulmer notoriously made his films on the cheap side (mainly do to the fact that he was blacklisted in Hollywood after marrying the already married woman of a Universal Studio chief). Along with The Black Cat, his films Damage Lives (1933), Bluebeard (1944), and Detour (1945) are an incredible combination of horror, noir, and German Expressionism, near perfect in their expression of loneliness, pain, and failure. In fact Detour is rightly considered one of the best films in cinematic history. What makes Ulmer films so special is how seemingly anachronistic they are, utterly daring in narrative, cinematography, and acting they are. It’s difficult to come to grips that these films were made in the 1930s and 40s! The Black Cat is particularly bold in showing a satanic mass (something more 
culturally associated with the Anton Lavey 1960s) and Poelzig being tied up then flayed alive (who can come to terms with a shirtless Boris Karloff being skinned?!).

Brutal in its subject matter while inventive in its depiction, The Black Cat is, and should be rightly considered to be, one of the classic forefathers of horror cinema. The inclusion of two young Americans symbolizes the culture clash of the time and, as Paul A. Cantor writes in his essay The Fall of the House of Ulmer, “The Black Cat suggests that, unfortunately, Americans would not recognize a European horror story even if they wandered right into the middle of it.” But would we now? Through its self-reflexive (and explicitly meta-texual) combination of histories (personal and cultural) played out on the big screen, it is possible that as the horrors of past wars continuously haunt us through cinema, we are being forced to comes to terms and deal with these traumas still today. 

On the Desperate Edge of Now: Heather Cantrell

Artillary-Hell
Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition,
On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .

Founding-Fathers(Ivo)Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.

In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).

Yankee-Bullet-HoleHere, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).

Founding-Fathers(Sam)Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living).  Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American. 

*******

The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction. 

thelivingdeadmo5

On the Desperate Edge of Now

Auschwitz. Hiroshima. Vietnam. These are names associated with specific places and occurrences [of historical trauma] but they are also wounds in the fabric of culture and history that bleed through conventional confines of time and space. – Adam Lowenstein ‘Shocking Representation’

One of my research strands on the influence of horror cinema and contemporary artists is looking at how artists manifest historical trauma within their work. By using the structure of the horror film as a guide and in considering Deleuze and Bergson’s notion of the now as an “ever shifting amalgam of past, present, and future”, I’m exploring the idea of a haunted present and possible recuperation seen in the representation of trauma in contemporary artworks.

This particular project (which I plan on realizing in exhibition form) is being called On the Desperate Edge of Now, titled after the first episode of British filmmaker Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Living Dead. In a visual mash up of archival footage, interviews, and appropriated images Curtis describes the relationship between history and memory in the context of World War II as both an individual and political construct that is never fully resolved – a ghost always haunting the present or an omniscient zombie walking the earth. This collision of the past and the present that Curtis outlines makes for an explosively charged ever-present “now” particularly as it manifests itself into representational forms such as film and visual art.

Horror films are subversive and often entertaining social commentary reflecting the cultural and political issues relevant to the time period in which they are produced. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974) are all
reactions to the traumatic experiences, personally and culturally, of the Vietnam War. Many horror academics also view newer films like Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) as a reflection of America’s torturing of political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. On the Desperate Edge of Now looks at how artists tackle similar histories through a knowing employment of strategies and signifiers found in horror cinema: humor, the family, death in life, societal repression, spatiality, allegory, and the corporeal.

Like their filmmaking counterparts, the artists I will be writing about attempt to confront history more than compensate for it. They are: Folkert de Jong, Heather Cantrell, Sue de Beer, and Gert & Uwe Tobias.