[Monographs 2023] So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth

By Luca E Lum

Weigh me down, oh, love […]
So heavy I fell through the Earth
Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

 

Image still from The Neon Hieroglyph (2021, Tai Shani)

British artist Tai Shani’s Singaporean staging of Neon Hieroglyph at the former Pasir Panjang Power Station dreams up a recuperative vision for new life amid ongoing collapse. The premise of the work is an exploration of a feminised history of Ergotism — ergot poisoning by ingesting fungal ergot alkaloids through contaminated rye grains — on Alicudi, a remote Italian island off the Sicilian coast. This history of Ergotism is entwined with the history of witchcraft on the island, its accounts of flying women, supernatural powers, and otherworldly visions.[1]

In this work, Shani leans into the unruly and disorderly grammars of Ergotism to speculate upon a liberatory form of existence, focusing on bodily decimation and hallucination as a breach into a more expansive, deindividuated alter-life. The central characters are catatonic women (who are presumably also witches), fungal spores, and more subtly, artificial intelligence. Stitched from scraps of history, personal feelings around cosmic, communal love, and a jumble of visual and linguistic devices, this envisioned world spins through time, space and categories of life. Loose chapters are depicted through an interlacing of narrative voiceover, CGI animation, live capture, and theatrical elements. Its visual sequences tend toward the non-narrative quality of a screensaver or GIF — relaying information in slow-moving, almost-still video loops. The alter-life that the work proposes is framed as aerial, feminised, dispersed, sickened, liberated, biophilic, communal and cosmic: “This bread is a starmaker of collective stardust”, the narrative voiceover intones near the beginning of the piece, “We are … Green communists … eternally communing.”

Eco-fictions such as Shani’s aim to relocate authorship and focus away from the human as the mechanism through which things gain their existence and are made meaningful, turning instead to non/post/trans-human subjects – the ecological and the artificial. Through reorientating scales, these become world-building acts that attempt to shunt the interpellations of subjects and objects by human systems and global capital. These acts question the values, borders, and connective tissue between nature and culture, man and animal, environment and self, the sovereign individual and the collective swarm. By interrogating those borders and values, they embed viewers into otherwise illegible or previously unimagined realities. Redrawing a point of view simultaneously redraws the subject – and redraws its world. Through this, one hopes, possibility in a depleted world is recuperated, its potential unleashed.

*

It’s said that within mediaeval Europe, when a large majority of the population was illiterate, people would flood the churches: not just to admire the light-washed stained-glass windows, or marvel at the cosmic curvature of the navel, but to listen to the Mass sermon – delivered in Latin – of which they couldn’t understand a word. The sound of scripture was ecstatic, hallucinogenic – the language of the gods holy enough to get high in a cloud of unknowing.[2]

 

Ergot, the ascomycete fungus Claviceps purpurea, infects a range of wild and domesticated grasses. Rye is particularly susceptible to the fungus as it can withstand colder temperatures and poor soils. It is planted in autumn to grow slowly over winter, coinciding with the growth cycle of C. purpurea spread, making ergot infections more likely. The dampness of Spring brings an efflorescence of rye, the required insect pollination patterns, and rains which facilitate increased grain contamination.[3] Recorded episodes of Ergotism or ergot poisoning through the making and ingestion of contaminated rye bread span as far as the middle ages in Europe, occurring simultaneously with the bubonic plague, or Black Death. It is characterised by severe muscular contractions, seizures, hallucinations, gangrene, and can cause death. Historically, it has been linked to the presence of witches on the island of Alicudi, as well as thousands of kilometres away in Salem, Massachusetts.[4]

The narrative thrust and material qualities of Neon Hieroglyph purvey a kind of aerosol desire. It is the desire for the human subject, its perspective, and world  to expand, disperse, and vacate gravity. To attain the kind of weightlessness exemplified by the etheric glow of a divinely lit cathedral window and the flow of otherworldly Latin, Shani’s work surges forth in language and voice. From the outset, the opening title sequence highlights the work’s overarching aesthetics and thesis: a delimited human condition transcended through what we might consider sickness, madness, and death. On screen, a kind of juddering, catatonic motion characterises the bodies and the visual perspective of those bodies at first. The lower jaw of a CGI-rendered, red-haired woman slackens with a stiffness similar to a marionette; instead of language, gushy froth is expelled, as ochre green spores ascend on her cheeks and fumes from ergot poisoning rise around her. This gushing forth of elemental matter is a visual metaphor for Shani’s own uses of language and its effects. She conveys language’s excesses, through guttural hallucinatory association as poetic speech and as pure substance, languages of the body more eloquent than everyday speech.

The narrative situates itself ambiguously in space and time, the murmuring voiceover waxing a stream-of-conscious babble about an experience of Ergotism in the community over the animated still of the back of a redheaded woman, drowned face down in water, before shooting off to focus on a blue eye, and then an old cavern. For the most part the body is frozen on the spot, catatonic, while the voiceover—synecdoche for a ranging consciousness—drones on. The voice switches between planes of experience and being. Image and word are sometimes loosely associated, other times quite literally.

As the voice-over describes the effects of ergot poisoning or meanders through a recitation of bodily transformations, the visuals focus on digital renderings of the woman’s body parts (eye, mouth) in truncated close up. To index this linguistically, the narrative voiceover slides into a hallucinatory babble consisting of an associated rhizome of objects, its “poetry” recalling the silly chanciness of a google autocomplete search and the penetrating will and eye of a god who sees the quantum entanglement between things. It is a fungal chain of being, sporing through its mediaeval provenance into digital conveyance. Thus the normative and sovereign body disintegrates, and what arises is a body interchangeable with water, ash, machine, larvae:

 

Disassociated, terrible reality did not feel real at all, all the rose emojis at the end of each message were making us cry. The impermanence became marked phenotypically across our faces, our eyes continuously pooled, our odd gaping mouths fell almost silent apart from a creepy note of parasitic panic humming subtly beneath death tolls and under ambient noise.  

[…]

I came sexually and asexually, and when I came, I was a brain eating alien, I was a snapped stalagmite, I was a quivering shadow, I was a roundworm larvae…my unbreachable distance from my name…culture…history…

 

The figure on screen recalls its past and future lives. It comes into one form and then another, with others and auto-poetically/erotically. As with any threshold experience, this loss of a sense of delimitable self is a condition of both dread and ecstasy.[5]   These bodies are thus not just sick and catatonic—they are self-generating, erotic and euphoric. Shani engenders a “continuity of the inorganic into the organic […] where natural substances and artificial creations are no longer any different.”[6] While the CGI renderings remain frozen, they are overlaid with the recorded motion-capture of the actresses animating and ventriloquising the rendered skins. The splintering of bodily cohesion into more fluid, multiple forms enables a sight and speech that exceeds a more superficial death and present reality. The voiceover ascends and descends in an almost boundaryless flow, describing its passage from the chthonic to the celestial, the microbial to the planetary – a biophilic angel casually tinkling the piano scales of realities. As the churches did with Latin, Shani now dizzies with English as the democratised vulgate, made slippery through sheer volume and pace. With this fast-flowing associational stream evoked through jumps between disconnected items and themes,  Shani is angling at creating a kind of linguistic and visual poetry as body-without-organs. This conceit is meant to eject us from the tyrannies of language, our former bodies and its world. She considers this ability a feminine quality. “I associate femininity with excess, or a project of overflow. There is too much material in femininity to be contained, too much material to be fixed in a universal or a historical category.”[7]  (The future is female!) Sickness bears little gravity where catatonia and hallucination from ergot poisoning disorders the biopolitical management of life and actively reconfigures subjectivity into one of boundlessness. 

 

Screenshot from the FOLD / Futur.Shock and Parrheisades stream available on Youtube

 

Breezing through the categories of “animal, vegetable, mineral”  her alien, worm, stalagmite, shadow—Shani chooses not to interrogate the condition of each specific embodiment before casting a relentless connective vector onwards. Rather, each form seems to quite literally matter less than contours of their coasting and trajectory. What rises to the fore is the rate and speed of change. Perhaps Shani’s main gambit is less about interrogating embodiment than it is about enabling an experience of flight and weightlessness: the human sliding into the transhuman potentiality of the smooth, engulfing, rapidly devouring machine, the fungus, and the aerially suspended witch of Alicudi, undoing its gravitational holds and becoming pure gush, a body-without-organs.

But is this a flow without intensity, and what is freedom without it? In two sequences, the voice-over narrates the scroll of text as it moves up the screen. An overly generous reading would be to regard it as a technique of over-speaking and over-elaborating to designate excess. The repetition of the image of language and narrated word in this instance brokers no tension or surprise. Like a priest reading without inspiration or insight from the Bible, this deadens the relation between screen image and voice. These inexplicable redundancies cause the work to feel both overwrought and turgid; excess and potential for their own sake are not by default subversive acts. In other parts of the work where overt description and directives eclipse form and disposition, I greet this discomfort once again.

*

As a direct reference to the folk anecdotes of the witches on Alicudi, Shani’s bodies and their realities attain supernatural qualities. We watch as bodily perspective drifts up a domestic staircase before flying out above rolling trees. In the final scene of the film, this floating perspective zooms out into space, transporting us into an imaginative dimension where laws of physics are even more demonstratively loosened. Objects, like an ice cream sundae, a gnarled and amputated monster’s hand, and a miniature stained glass window of a cathedral, change and appear at will. This seems to follow the work’s thesis, that Ergotism places existence between life and death, between the worlds, where something else can arise, frustrating hierarchies and material gravity.  Body and language alike are supposedly uplifted by their derangements. You only die as much as you concede to this one physical, human form, Shani aims to evangelise. Let there be death, let there be lightness, let there be an exceeding of scales.

*

In the preface to Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, exmilitary cautions: “If late capitalist society breeds fictions of simulation, then its realities of paranoid specular traumatic interactions are soaked in social fantasies of the outside and exit.”[8] The story of an aerosol spore that induces mass hallucination, one might argue, is far and away from a billionaire’s aspirational spaceflight fantasy to escape earth’s limits. On the surface, Shani’s work upends its world through its focus on the marginal and the already-here. It revivifies the female witch, the scapegoat for capitalism, as examined in Silvia Federici’s analysis on primitive accumulation and witch hunts from mediaeval Europe to settler-colonial America; it’s a story about a fungus, something small yet impactful that can world another way of being; it’s a story that reaches into the cosmos through food and domesticity and the microbial.[9] Through its form and content, one might argue that Shani’s work suggests that new and other life can come out of a rescaling of perception, not just the terraforming of another planet.

 

The narrative mirrors the transformations the audience supposedly receives in return: a transportive vision that carries us above our fixities and locations. Our bodily schema, like that of the bodies on screen, become unmapped and undone, no longer weighed down by the turgid morass of mundane mattering, but lofted by the speed of an unceasing flow – her images and her words forming a boundary-blighting benediction. As our temporal, microbial, connective, bodily, spiritual scales expand, we are infected with a renewed sense necessary as a portal to another world: delirium, the gift of unknowing. Ignis sacer.[10]

 

*

[…] this concept of AIs as embodied was a liberating tool for me to talk about power, sex and sexuality, and all these things that are exposed to be consumed by power in the historical values of representation through image […] I was imagining AIs as the absence of that power. To have a body that would not be instantiated by the master’s body. A thought-body, an apparition, a flaking body that could be transported to another kind of space.[11]

 

In the rendition staged in Singapore, the narrative voice comes from Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas, who plays the role of conduit and localising avatar. Her solemn face illuminates a portrait screen next to the larger screen where the main video is being projected. She narrates, guides, affects, gives hope, pursues grief. Amid the cement cathedral of the old power station her voice strikes out, dark and plaintive, wavering dramatically. It is a planetary mournfulness, a voice that seems to grieve from an omniscient  “I” (god, machine, spore consciousness) that sees and experiences all.

In previous iterations, this narration is taken on by other actresses, such as Irish actress Molly Moody. In that particular iteration: “[…]the actor Molly Moody became an organic algorithm filter that snubbed out bits of her natural accent.” Nature is co-extensive with the cybernetic. Other accents, such as American and Scottish, are amalgamated to become a “completely untraceable voice—a kind of futuristic speech, an amalgamation of different tongues, existing in this threshold space that’s both alienating and arresting.”[12] In the case of Moody’s, or at least on the version exhibited by FOLD / Futur.Shock and Parrhesiades[13], her speaking head, which closely resembles that of the digitally rendered human, makes appearances in the main video at times as a live layer speaking underneath a catatonic CGI-ed female, animating it  as a shadow moves behind a scrim. In the Singaporean rendition, Kukathas’ head floats to  the side of the main screen; the CGI-ed female avatar on the screen remains a white woman with red hair, layered with Kukathas’ vocal animations. Where Moody’s accent notably shifts in the other rendition of the work, dipping and glitching Kukathas’ shifts are less detectable. I wonder if this has anything to do with the way English language theatre in Southeast Asia is shaped and received by my ear, itself perhaps already an amalgamated voice littered with linguistic palimpsests and erasures.

For Shani, the interfacing of human and digital elements constructs an expansive body that exceeds this world. With a techno-utopian attitude, she states, “What I like about AI is to escape from what’s historically co-produced with humans and human forms of power. […]”[14]  In speaking about her previous work, DC Semanaris, she regards the artificial intelligence body as possessing a “gigantic potentiality”—a black-boxed thirdness that human coders are unable to fully understand or account for through their programming. Because of this assumed thirdness, artificial intelligence and the digital realm becomes a form of ultimate-other not contiguous with human structures of power. Shani additionally suggests a “broken relationship with our body” as the reason for the disconnection we have with a different set of realities or expanded embodiments. To her, perhaps the unaccountable effects artificial intelligence could engender, opens up possibilities of embodied difference as well. Shani codes femininity and artificial intelligence with this divine, absolved potentiality. But these conceptions of femininity, witchcraft, and the cybernetic, at times feel wielded like a smokescreen to enchant us with an idea of what we are watching.

 

Image still from The Neon Hieroglyph (2021, Tai Shani)

 

The eagerness to cast aside any earthly shape also suspends a deeper kind of reckoning in favour of a fantasy of freedom imagined in the absence of power and politics. Shani’s work is at times waterlogged by its own fantasies of transcendence. In the Atlas of AI, Kate Crawford writes, “The term “artificial intelligence” may invoke ideas of algorithms, data, and cloud architectures, but none of that can function without the minerals and resources that build computing’s core components.”[15] Even in charting new paradigms, artificial intelligence is not materially exempt from the muck and the mire. It is entangled with mining and mineral extraction, labour exploitation, and trained very often on non-consenting subjects. A world is as much its soil as its angels, its gravity as its atmosphere.

When I watched Neon Hieroglyph in person, the images of Kukathas and the white avatar floated side by side, the circuitry between them curiously unalive, their relationship neither fully explored nor ironicised. Kukathas seemed included as a way to signal some kind of localised address Moody is unable to do. What does it mean for a Malaysian actress of Indian heritage to ventriloquise a white digital avatar in a revitalised power station in Singapore? Perhaps not much discernibly, if Shani’s realm of the cybernetic is as removed from power structures as she imagines it to be, a post-race post-power post-earth ecumenical. In this instance, the cybernetic and biophilic, post-human body she proposes becomes an inert fetish-object of potential. Shani’s imagined accumulated body, this golem-like, “wet clay”, “a light”, and “fire that can be consumed” – a body that can “hold everyone and everything” – is so isomorphic and featureless that everything slides right off.[16]

Kukathas is gifted with strange burdens as the module that sutures the Singaporean rendition together. Some of this oddness comes from how the voiceover in the contemporary artist film has taken on comically central dimensions. As the main go-to feature that sutures sense into images, it has become a torpid and ubiquitous device for the conferment of meaning, so much so that the toil and import of its labours often also vanish unless cannily wielded. Kukathas’ narrativising work becomes simultaneously too much and not enough—a gimmick in effect —the site of effortful, offloaded work in order for the weightlessness Shani seeks.[17] Under the overtly capacious conception of a cybernetic posthumanist body that can contain and bloom multitudes, Kukathas’ presence, and her repetition of the same script, has implied import, but seems unable to do its work. Mere inclusion of difference does not automatically fold in subversion, especially when the terms of potentiality are regarded as immaterial.

Image still from The Neon Hieroglyph (2021, Tai Shani)

 

*

The seductions and lures of a recuperative and reparative address in eco-fictional works are multiple: it confers justice and reversals, transcendence and re-enchantment, the brokering of an exit, choosing life. It can feel morally exquisite to be the one who gives a roadmap to alterity in a scarce economy of malnourished hope.

*

In Shani’s baptism of words and images, I search for moments of indigestion, for the work to fold and burst its seams. I watch the recorded live-stream of Neon Hieroglyph for  FOLD / Futur.Shock and Parrheisades on Youtube again. The work’s containment as a audio-visual piece that starts and ends relatively the same, albeit with a narrative head swapped out for another. There is a dead air about it. I wait for a feeling of shattering, I wait for a feeling of worlding, but all I feel is being strenuously guided along a spelt-out map of becoming. The work feels less like a crack in the world, “the birth [and] the death of cinema”, as Shani describes, than a fantasy of an alterity that is suggestively liberatory but otherwise noncommittal. Perhaps it also betrays our cruel and strained fantasies of address and our desires for what aesthetic experiences are sometimes expected to do. In cramped times of saturated crises, the aesthetic realm clamours to be commensurate with ethics and politics, thus reassuring its viability of address.

 

In one instance, in Neon Hieroglyphs the onscreen visual of green fungal astral spores teem to red, resembling blood corpuscles, and the work suddenly  reaches across time to address the then-present of “June 2020”, around the time of the Black Lives Matter Protests and early infection peaks of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This outlier temporal sequence highlights an anxiety around the uses of speculation and the need for art to in some ways contain discernible relevance. Was this intended to ground the work in some kind of historical continuity? There is a general biopolitical resonance, of course, However, in speaking too much to the obvious ticker-tape now and its discernible Events, the other worlds of deeper time and nuance slip away.:

 

Open your pink playdough face for an anthropo-romantic divination of your cryptic future and you’re spilling carmine which was once your necropolitical, necropolitical, necropolitical face, and a thousand police cars set ablaze on the streets of our beloved paradisiac hellhouse.

 

A recuperative address like Shani’s makes claims in the positive—it can create a new body, it can contain and make an address. Its speculative thrust might be seen as one that coaxes possibility, a prime ingredient for worlding. There is an optimism about it not entirely dissimilar to the dreams of futures bandied about by government digital integration master plans and big tech alike, albeit in green, earth-witch guise.

To what extent can we programme a crack in the world?  The old power station where Shani’s work was staged is located in a relatively inaccessible and inconvenient site, suggesting a spatial diversion from usual circuits of movement in the city. The erection of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, a temporary reprogramming of attention in a city, is a kind of détournement, breaking regimes of the everyday. But within these diversions converge certain straight lines. In Singapore, the planned obsolescence and preservation of select spaces is one such straight line. The intentional, planned détournement is another. The watching of a work like this, so explicit in its teleology and didacticism, and in deriving a calculus of freedom, is another. The scripting of space where the push towards a simulation of recuperation and transformation forms a key point indicator, entails a kind of foreclosure of meaning and possibility. Where is the chance for surprise that does not seek to justify its values and meaningfulness? Where are the leaks that no programme can contain?

Contrary to Shani’s desires in creating a form that could hold everyone and everything, I wonder about an address that spills beyond everyone and everything, one beyond holding, that defies a pat teleology of transformation and worlding. To be beyond holding because it can only augur an unpredictable horizon, where the frame of the screen, the language of cinema, the cybernetic body, and the uses (or ruses) of narrative voice, and the site of exhibition disengage with naif utopianism and pick apart its fantasies. To be beyond holding—a project of overflow that enacts its excesses and breaks its own frames. Instead, an eco-fictional imaginary springs its own traps.

 

Postscript:

At the time of the commissioning and writing of this text, Tai Shani’s monograph The Neon Hieroglyph had not yet been released for reference.


Footnotes

[1]Marchetti, Silvia, “Alicudi: Italy’s LSD Island”. CNN, 2017: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/alicudi-italy-lsd-island/index.html Accessed 8 September 2022

[2] “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph,” New Mystics, accessed September 15, 2022, https://www.newmystics.xyz/2021/05/26/tai-shani/.

[3] Ada Hagan, “From Poisoning to Pharmacy: A Tale of Two Ergots,” American Society for Microbiology, November 2, 2018, https://asm.org/Articles/2018/November/From-Poisoning-to-Pharmacy-A-Tale-of-Two-Ergots.

[4] Bob Harveson, “Has Ergot Altered Events in World History?” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, August 17, 2017, https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2017/has-ergot-altered-events-world-history.

[5] Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction” (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018), 14

[6]  Mark Fisher,Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction” (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018), 28.

[7]“Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.”https://www.newmystics.xyz/2021/05/26/tai-shani/

[8] exmilitary, preface to Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, by Mark Fisher (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018), vii.

[9] Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Penguin Modern Classics, 2021

[10] “Holy Fire”, or St Anthony’s Fire, is the name for Ergotism, or the effects of Ergot poisoning.

[11]  “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.” https://www.newmystics.xyz/2021/05/26/tai-shani/

[12]  “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.”

[13] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0bn90NRqH8&t=2052s

[14]  “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.”

[15] Crawford, Kate. The Atlas of AI. Yale University Press, 2021, 48

[16] “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.”https://www.newmystics.xyz/2021/05/26/tai-shani/

[17] Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020).

 

Bibliography

Crawford, Kate. The Atlas of AI. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.

Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Penguin Modern Classics, 2021

Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018.

FOLD. 14 October 2021. THE NEON HIEROGLYPH REDUX ALIVE [Video]. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0bn90NRqH8

Hagan, Ada. “From Poisoning to Pharmacy: A Tale of Two Ergots.” American Society for Microbiology, November 2, 2018.

https://asm.org/Articles/2018/November/From-Poisoning-to-Pharmacy-A-Tale-of-Two-Ergots.

Harveson, Bob. “Has Ergot Altered Events in World History?” Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, August 17, 2017. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2017/has-ergot-altered-events-world-history.

Marchetti, Silvia, “Alicudi: Italy’s LSD Island”. CNN, 2017: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/alicudi-italy-lsd-island/index.html Accessed 8 September 2022

New Mystics. “Tai Shani: The Neon Hieroglyph.” Accessed September 15, 2022. https://www.newmystics.xyz/2021/05/26/tai-shani/.

Ngai, Sianne. Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.


About the Writer

Luca E Lum is an artist and writer attuned to arrhythmias of time, memory, body, and affect, where the technological, semiotic and informational recur as material, relation, and predicament. She was co-founder of the artist-run collaborative project and space, soft/WALL/studs (2016-2021), which experimented with renewed situations of knowledge, agency, autonomy, and communion. She is currently pursuing graduate studies at MIT.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

 

About the Writer