Friday, August 13, 2010

"On a Phantom Limb" by Nancy Andrews

Nancy Andrews- Ghosts- drawing, 2008

Here is an essay entitled Contemplating One's Own Skeleton, which I wrote for the DVD release of On a Phantom Limb, a 2009 film by Nancy Andrews; the film will have its New York City premiere on September 23 at Anthology Film Archives, along with her just-completed film, Behind the Eyes Are the Ears and Dave Fleischer's Snow White. This is a don't-miss program- I hope to see you all there.

* * * * * * * * * *

There were things I could draw pictures of,
and there were things that couldn’t be drawn;
more and more I was attracted to the second category.
There were things I wanted to describe, but I didn’t know how.
There were things that I wanted to show, but there was no way to show them.

from The Haunted Camera by Nancy Andrews

Let’s begin with these words, voiced by one Ima Plume, and zero in on a key tension at play within the films of Nancy Andrews. For now, we’ll ignore the failure those words imply and turn instead to her pursuit of the unknown, the invisible, the what-lies-beyond, qualities that impel her larger creative project.

Her most recent film, On a Phantom Limb, looks far beyond the visible. But what might this mean, given the extensions available to our senses by way of technology? Viewing the contents of a sealed handbag at a security checkpoint, remote locales mapped by hi-res aerial photos, or an exploding star via radio telescope, we are shadowed by an omniscience once linked to God and the novel, blasé toward a shrinking frontier.

Long drawn to the unfathomable and the unaccounted-for, Andrews considers what our technological apparatus hasn’t mastered and cannot access. In her film entitled The Dreamless Sleep, she paid tribute to Else Bostelmann, a forgotten illustrator who drew—sight unseen—the sea creatures described via telephone connection by the early underwater explorer William Beebe during his pioneering descents in a bathysphere. Surely her interest in Bostelmann stemmed as much from the excitement of Beebe’s discoveries as from the fact that these images weren’t photographed, but imaginatively interpreted by way of drawing, under circumstances much like a stenographer receiving dictation.

Late in 2005, illness brought Andrews face-to-face with the what-lies-beyond; On a Phantom Limb depicts that moment with the simple shock of black paper ripped away to reveal the words, I thought I’d died scrawled beneath, a gesture recalling a pain that signaled something was dreadfully wrong. Flown by helicopter for emergency surgery some 200 miles away, she was held while doctors waited for her condition to stabilize before operating; it never did. Her body temperature was then lowered precipitously, inducing temporary cessation of heartbeat, breathing, and brain function so the surgery on which her life depended could then be performed. Several days later, another operation was necessary to address complications that arose with the first; following that, her slow recovery began. Under heavy sedation, suffering intense hallucinations and delirious for weeks on end, the shock of such extensive bodily and emotional trauma left its lasting mark.

Nancy Andrews- Hospital Bed- drawing, 2008

Andre Bazin once asserted that, “If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. ...[P]roviding a defense against the passage of time...satisfied a basic psychological need in snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” For Bazin, this impulse to preserve—traceable at least as far back as the mummies of ancient Egypt—reached its zenith with the development of photography (and by extension, cinema); further on, he likened the medium’s indexical nature to that of a death mask. Andrews, having spent weeks perilously close to death, essentially assigned herself the task of evoking the fear and vivid sensations forever inscribed in both muscle and mind. To report one’s subjective state by way of a medium whose objectivity is its strength: how might Bazin’s formulation apply to a film that represents life prevailing—albeit temporarily—over death itself?

Midway into On a Phantom Limb, a series of closeups follow the trail left from the surgeon’s scalpel across the filmmaker’s body: a scar running from the shoulder blade, down and around the rib cage, and extending below the navel. In the words of her internist, “...this gets you about as deep into a human body as you can get”, offering not just visceral evidence of trauma, but an affirmation too of the power of cinematic realism as claimed by Bazin.

The scar, though, has a dual nature: we follow its serpentine course, yet it indicates nothing of the drifting twilight of days in intensive care or the emotional suffering and paranoia that colored them, much less a framework to help make sense of all that happened; it is both explicit narrative and shut-up secret. To the extent that those secrets are revealed, it must occur by other means.

The sequence which follows inverts what precedes it: using WWII-era archival footage of a workshop for prosthetic limbs, the contours of new body parts are traced out on flat sheets of plastic, echoing the line of the scar traversing her trunk much in the way that a flat map projection relates to a globe. But there’s something more here, beyond a simple rhyming of forms; we’re asked too to consider the nature of prosthetic augmentation- of inert, foreign materials joined to the living continuum of one’s body. Along with that, there is material that Andrews herself created: a woman plotting out the contours of a large head of a bird and beginning its construction, shot to match the archival scenes. The critic Gilberto Perez once described the crosscutting of D.W. Griffith as “a rupture looking forward to its mending”; these words recall both the bodily repair depicted within On a Phantom Limb and the grafting together of seemingly incongruous discourses, cinematic and cosmological.

On a Phantom Limb has little to do with the laws of narrative gravity as defined by Griffith and others. The film as a whole is (as with her previous work) a stylistic and discursive hybrid, a montage of attractions; live action, archival material, puppets, and various types of drawn animation are combined in sometimes tenuous ways, summoned by outright necessity. But what, for our purposes, lies beyond the visible, and how can it be accessed?

Nancy Andrews- Study for Future Film Birds and Hands- drawing

For Andrews, Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism was crucial in the film’s conception and in bringing us closer to a sense of emotional truth. Surveying shamanic initiation rituals the world over, Eliade identified several of its aspects common from one culture to the next: sickness and delirium; symbolic death of the neophyte; ritual dismemberment of the body; renewal of the organs; resurrection. Within these recurring threads, the filmmaker recognized uncanny parallels to her own encounter with death, as well as an imaginative framework for reconsidering that experience through the medium of film.

On a Phantom Limb hovers in an indeterminate zone, less a place than a state of consciousness. The avian imagery seen throughout is part of this- even more than in her previous films, where birds are quite prominent. In shamanic lore, birds often act as go-betweens moving from Earth to heavens to underworld; the film itself functions in much the same manner.

A biform creature—part bird, part woman—appears as both drawing and in live action - posing heroically, flying a kite (modeled after herself), and rocking out with guitar and drums in a giddy musical interlude. The costume from the workshop sequence—much like the shaman’s costumes described by Eliade—is donned by the filmmaker herself, complete with a superhero’s cape. Elsewhere, that body is reassembled limb by limb by a large raptor, itself augmented with mechanical parts- a tutelary spirit perhaps, and clearly an allusion to lived experience.

Reading Eliade and the varying accounts of shamanic practices, one can’t help but wonder what to make of the dissonance in recall between initiate and profane witness. On a Phantom Limb recasts this dissonance, turning the mortal encounter of another inside out, and creating a means through which to imagine what we will inevitably face ourselves.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rammellzee 1960 - 2010

Evolution Griller the Master Killer, Gothic Futurist, #1 Stain On The Train: these and other monikers belonged to Rammellzee, whose passing on June 27 marked a rupture in the Afro-futuristic continuum joining the likes of Sun Ra, Drexciya, and Anthony Braxton. Too little known outside the circles of graffiti and Hip Hop cognoscenti, I first learned of his existence back in 1983 when he was invited by Francesco Clemente to Skowhegan (of all places) to speak about his work. Far beyond my ability to summarize, let’s just say he blew many minds that day, and confirmed the sneaking suspicion that my provincial, Bauhaus-derived art schooling was leaving me ill-equipped for the slippery but very real issues at stake; what follows is a modest attempt to come to grips with that unforgettable summer afternoon.

For me and the legions of MFAs saddled with student loan payments to last their lifetimes, it was galling to encounter the kind of effortless originality that Rammellzee embodied; in 1997 he told Peter Shapiro that he believed himself to be a “real monk from the 14th century. I know too much, put it this way. There’s no possible way that, if I didn’t go to school, I’m going to know all this shit, since I don’t read and I only look at that [he points to a dictionary], and that’s not a book you read.”

Rammellzee won early notoriety in the late 70s as a scourge of New York City law enforcement, trespassing through MTA train yards, tagging trains from top to bottom- in color, courtesy of Krylon. He saw that activity as a form of warfare, a pitched competition in which fellow bombers decided the victors. As the art world briefly tapped that talent pool (hoping to interject some “street authenticity” amidst the faux primitivism and flailing gestures of Baselitz, Chia, Basquiat, and company), Ramm was critical of old friends who succumbed to the endless flow of cash, squandering credibility with tossed-off works that paled under the track lighting of Soho and East Village galleries.

During these years he devised what he called Ikonoklast Panzerism (or alternately, Gothic Futurism). In the spirit of Sequoyah, inventor of a system of writing for his Cherokee kin extracted from shards of the English alphabet, his aim was to “armor the letter”, mounting a symbolic defense against co-optation by the art market and, in a broader sense, the culture’s tendency to deploy language as a weapon against those less powerful: “...there was another type of war, a political war of languages, where – let me say I’m not a racist, but I am racing - certain people had used language in a dominating effort to take over other languages or pictograms, and now there is a problem in schools where African languages are not allowed...”

Sequoyah- lithograph from a painting by Charles Bird King

Ramm was Kabbalistic in his belief that the alphabet itself was encoded with layers of significance all but obscured through the debasement of its everyday use. The ideas contained in that subway handiwork (now long gone, as are the trains it covered) were later laid out in his Ionic Treatise Gothic Futurism Assassin Knowledges of Remanipulated Square Point’s, as grammatically freewheeling as the title suggests. Its language is not so much written as sculpted, an accretion of science, mysticism, neologisms, and puns; its voice is oracular, and not a little paranoid. Here’s what he said about the letter A:

Capitol energy houser constructor (finance) formation high bar strategy middle lane missile launcher uppercase falls once. Second case, second case second lane missile launcher falls twice, third lane vortex complete, all lanes hold complete. Full knowledge complete ∆ (Pyramid) formation final beginning knowledge of the O (cipher and square).

Rammellzee- illustration from Ionic Treatise Gothic Futurism Assassin Knowledges of Remanipulated Square Point’s

Last year I introduced the Ionic Treatise to my Writing and Practice class at Brooklyn College alongside Henri Michaux’s Stroke by Stroke, fitting by virtue of a shared distrust of language, and through the ways their drawing and writing worked in relay with one another. A passage toward the end of Michaux’s book—from a piece entitled Of Languages and Writing: Why the Urge to Turn from Them—would surely have met with Ramm’s approval:

Applied languages, directed languages, organizational tools.

A business enterprise now, language, unbeknownst to anybody, takes the place of murmurs, laments (faint or clear), calls. Commanding, commandeering.

Destined to become an ADMINISTRATION into which every conscience must enter.

Master of the situation, language will answer every need (!). Like tyrannies.

The handcuffs of words are on for good.

Henri Michaux- Untitled (Mouvements) 1950 -51

Aligned as their attitudes might have been, key differences in the conclusions they drew came through in how they handled their materials. Through the fluidity of ink and brush, Michaux’s hand fought the letter and all it signified. Drawing back toward a liquid state, to the letter’s prehistory as pictogram- this was passive resistance in graphic form. Rammellzee played the warrior, ready to reclaim and defend; his letters appeared as a bulwark, impermeable hardness rendered with a mist of aerosol.

The militarized imagery ran through Ramm’s later work as well- in the Letter Racers (a personalized variant of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Monster Model Kits), in the samurai-inspired body armor fashioned from neighborhood detritus, and in Alpha’s Bet, the dystopian screenplay for a never-realized film (though a short animated version was produced by Celia Bulwinkel.)

Sadly, this work has been ignored by New York museums (save for a couple of group show appearances); will some city institution—the New Museum, the Whitney, the Studio Museum, MoMA—at last wake up to one of its own?