ANNA KAVAN: THE LIVING END, 2017
Anna Kavan: The Living End, 2017 was first shown at The Orlando Museum as part of a solo show titled The Living End. The exhibition also included a selection of paintings and two other video installations. It is traveling to the Herbert F Johnson Museum and will open January 18, 2018. The piece was completed with funds and support provided by Cornell Tech's Backslashart grant program.
‘I am so glad to have seen Matthew Weinstein’s Anna Kavan: The Living End, 2017. It is a powerful, thoughtful exploration --the paintings and the film (also entitled The Living End) are still looping through my thoughts. There are 5 large paintings on panels, made at once pictorial and abstract by dispersing and manipulating polymer pigments over aluminum. The pictures give a sense of contradiction; They are, in fact, painted onto a surface, yet they have a look of floated detachment from the hard, reflective metal; take another look from another angle and they seem firmly attached, alloyed, rather than merely hosted, by the reflective element. The paintings are luminous treasures. The universe of "The Living End" is habitat to its own infinity and internal logic, to a unique lambent beauty, and to a particular intellectual and emotional disturbance that may be the Big Bang of the show's cosmic whirl. It seems to me that the beauty - the truly grand beauty - of the idiosyncratic creation by Matthew Weinstein depends upon the film (also called The Living End), twenty looped minutes of data, information, fact and wisdom, devolving and resolving, and puzzling; best of all, and worst of all, refusing to do your thinking for you, leaving you, the viewer of film and painting, on the painful and glorious and evanescent edge of your own consciousness, free to wander your own internal universe, or poke around in this one for a while. Isn't that just like a universe? To disrupt, to push its limits, even though limits don't exist in infinity; to crumble and reform, and crumble again at its nonexistent edge, to expand. Just like every old universe you've ever known, isn't it? I watched the film end, its narration complete. And yet it was not. Even a conclusion that could be thought hopeless implied new possibilities, other likelihoods, and the new inevitabilities should not tritely be called Hope, any more than the old impossibilities (that happened anyway) should be called Hopeless. The impossible had happened once: Why not again?"’
Of remoteness, other knowledges, prismatic beings, faltering thoughts, little fishes, waves of electricity dancing up the line when they nibble-like invisible flirtations- and care.
Anna Kavan: The Living End
Anna Kavan (1901-1968) was the assumed name of a British writer and Surrealist painter who wrote five fairly conventional novels under her original name, Helen Ferguson. In 1940, she changed her name to Anna Kavan and reinvented herself as a severely stylish woman with platinum hair. She also developed a singular and abstract literary style that overlapped with the stylized Kafkaesque Surrealism of British television shows like The Avengers and The Prisoner. Her narratives of entrapment, though fantastic and at times futuristic, are too felt, idiosyncratic and literary to be folded into popular culture. Her complex relation to authority, as cruel and at the same time erotic, pull her novels away from tales of victimization and towards an examination of the mind as contained but also free to wander in space.
I came across one of her books by accident in a used book store in Spain, one of only a few books in English available. I located copies of the rest of her work, almost all of them are not in print, and read them many times. Her voice felt familiar to me, like a found artistic avatar. So I wrote the script for this video as her, from inside her voice. I have many female avatars in my work and, like my Kavan avatar, they are uncompromisingly subjective, confident and disinterested in the viewer. They embody the historical Avant Garde’s position towards the public.
Anna Kavan: The Living End, in its single channel format, features a woman within a glowing enclosure surrounded by the imminence of negative space. She tells a story about her arrival in a town during a blizzard. The town is a place where everyone is equal, and everyone cooperates in the town’s improvement. The town begins to change her by changing her image of herself. She reflects on the absurdities of her life outside the town. Her life now has meaning and purpose. But she gets lost in the town. The town is also shrinking. Enclosing her. But she isn’t a tragic figure. She isn’t panicking. She’s like most of us. We limit our options in order to exist effectively. The limitations come from within us, and from outside of us. Her narration is matter of fact, as if she’s telling the story of someone else’s life.
The town is loosely based on the behavioral psychologist BF Skinner’s Walden II, published in 1948; contemporaneous with Kavan who was fully engaged as an analysand during this golden age of academic psychotherapy. Walden II is an imagined utopia in which the collective trains the individual through subtle communal experiences of punishment and reward. The town as asylum. Asylum piece 1940, was Kavan’s first piece under her new name. It is a series of explorations of her tumultuous inner mind, influenced by psychology and her frank and open attitude towards her addiction to heroin (she was supplied it by the National Health to avoid suicide attempts). Her writings explore the politics of mental illness from the inside, with a detachment that allows the reader to understand it and not emotionalize around it, or romanticize it. Anna Kavan: The Living End seeks to examine the totalitarian and rebellions natures of our own minds, and how this inner conflict becomes political.
I was given the opportunity to explore interactive technology around the piece. I began to think about what anti-interactivity might be; the negative space around interactivity. I wanted to avoid a power relationship between viewer and object. I wanted to offer a more democratic version of interactivity. I wanted the piece to see the viewers, respond to them, but in ways the viewers could not control. And I wanted the piece to consist of ‘she’ the character, and ‘them’ the visually interactive elements of the piece.
Remote sensors in the gallery pick up on the viewer’s heart rates, body temperatures and breathing rates. Involuntary processes. But I didn’t want the piece to react to these data points in predictable ways. So I averaged out the data, so no specific viewer is being represented. Then I re-routed the data through five different reactions that the piece could have towards the data, ranging from highly reactive to not reactive at all. And the piece randomly cycles through these rudimentary personalities. The piece sees the viewers, and the viewers know they are being seen, because the data is projected on another screen, in the double channel version. At the same time, the piece is speculating on the inner lives of the viewer. How neurotic or comfortable they are, as a group.
On the screen with my Anna Kavan avatar’s narrative, the colors and intensities of lights, as well as her skin tone, eye color and makeup colors fluctuate. Reflections and light beams vary with intensity and color. Her environment and our physiologies are merging. The permeability of the subject object membrane that happens when art is experienced intensely is, in the piece, subtly manifested. The authority of being watched is subverted by the fact that the information gathered from the viewers is instantly depersonalized. No data of a single viewer has relevance without its relationship to another, and none of the data is saved. The piece is different every time it is played. The piece is, in a sense, a phenomenological video game with no rules, goals or intentions. We enter a room. Most people will not take notice of us if they are engaged with others. Yet we change the room. They experience the change. And we are changed by them. Do they notice us or don't they notice us? What is the mood here? Maybe just by opening the door we have changed the mood. Added potential to an otherwise dull evening.
Of course there is a dark side to being observed and the piece considers the phenomenon of being observed and observing and the threat implied by it; totalitarianism. Coming out of WWII England, Kavan was able to express the fact that the surreality of our minds generates monsters that can become real. The imagination must be protected from authoritarianism, but also from its desire for authority. Right now, in this country, we are faced with the face of totalitarianism. We can’t fight it without realizing that this demon is of us.
We are a nation in love with fictions. We love to be tricked, amazed and entertained. It is our cultural madness. But we also have a highly sophisticated and self aware cultural universe. These things are symbiotic, and the madness of our greed for experience is matched by the madness of our need to prove we are reasonable creatures. Like my Kavan avatar, we are always slipping between states of mind and time. We are always creating new tools to measure reality with. And, as Kavan understood, sometimes things are beyond understanding with a classical model of reality.
A central point the piece is making is that we are being watched and trained by forces that we don't understand. Our cities train us in a thousand subtle ways from how we dress to how we pass people in the street to who and what we should and should not look at. We are watched and trained by social media. One orders a pair of socks that they saw on Instagram, and an hour later all the ads aren't for shoes or more socks, but for juicers. We know that nothing is random. There is no such thing as a random number generator. All combinations are algorithmic, and they are therefore logical. So somewhere in some calculating space, a machine has decided in a rational manner that one needs a juicer because one bought socks. And it's spooky when one’s juicer has just broken down. The eye in the sky.
How do we deal with technological inevitabilities? Certain philosophers say that just as our environment is not for us but of us, our devices are of us. And I am inclined to agree. The ‘I create’ ethos of Cartesian thought does not consider the ‘why.’ We create out of need and desire. I think that all of our technologies are already there and science and engendering uncover them when we need them so badly that we have provided the means for their creation. And for some reason we want to be watched. We want to be watched by god. We want to be watched by security cameras for safety. We want people to see us on social media for narcissistic purposes or just the very human need to exist in the eyes of others.
In the piece, the character wants safety and direction. And she gets enclosure. We receive relief from our desires in strange ways. Technology is brought forth to appease our desires, yet we never ask ‘how?’ We are sold answers and we foreground our lives with devices. Because we want to give away power. But we have to think about how much we are giving away. Especially now.
TEXT FOR ANNA KAVAN: THE LIVING END
I was never a child, but if I had been one, I would say that it is a shame that we ever have to be young, and it is a shame that we have to grow old. We should be born as statues and die as statues, looking wonderful, always. When we die, we would still stand, posed. Eons later, the earth would be a giant sculpture park, a cemetery and a living crowd at the same time.
The problem with human beings is velocity. We cannot help crashing into each other. If we were thinking trees, well then...
The thinking trees.
Incredibly stupid animals live in the thinking trees.
These stupid animals; they are born and die and fight and fall in love.
It has become impossible for these thinking trees to think their sublime thoughts with these stupid chattering animals jumping all over them.
‘If they would only go away,’ think the thinking trees. ‘If they would just go away.’
It’s freezing in here.
(The heat lamp clicks off)
Pity. That was very pleasant.
I showed up in the town.
I was hungry, and I had been walking all day.
The snow was falling.
The town, as I first perceived it, was composed of a series of communal buildings, all attached by covered walkways.
Three women came towards me. They were wearing heavy grey coats.
One of them had her head tilted sideways, a wary smile on her face. A wisp of blonde hair escaped from her hood and she brushed it aside with a clumsy gloved hand.
She welcomed me into the town’s central pavilion. It was warm, and silent, and a large group of people of all ages sat and ate. I sat and ate. Nobody talked to me. Nobody seemed to notice me. But I have always had this effect on people, or lack of, as the case may be.
Musicians were performing in an adjoining room, and this seemed to make conversation unnecessary.
I asked someone about the thinking trees. Were they near? I was trying to find them.
Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.
When dinner was over, people took their trays and washed them, dried them and stacked them back in the same place where they came from. By the time everybody left the dining hall, it was as clean as it was when we entered it.
I was shown to a small and comfortable room. I was given a towel. I was told where the showers and toilet were. I was neither wished good night, nor were my expressions of thanks acknowledged. I fell into bed and slept. The snow was so icy and the wind so strong that it sounded like pebbles against my window.
The next day I was taken to a room where alarm clocks were being assembled. I was shown to a workstation and told how to put together the housing of the clock. It was simple work, not at all unpleasant, and after four hours, when I thought it was time for a lunch break, I was told that I was done for the day.
Days passed. Gradually, I began simple conversations with the people of the town. These conversations were always brief, always terminated by the other person, and I was made to feel that the termination of the conversation was a result of my misdirection. I felt as if I was being subtly trained to keep to a certain course, using my need for human companionship as reinforcement.
As I learned to engage in conversation with the townspeople, my own absurdities began to crowd my mind, particularly my need to visit the thinking trees. I thought with shame of that first dinner; my questions, my need to please and be liked, my need to demonstrate my appreciation in effusive ways.
Brrrrr. It gets so cold in here.
(The heat lamp clicks off)
We do not need each other. We do not need our memories and we do not need to know anything about our futures. We need velocity. We need to travel at great speeds in giant cars: big, black, shiny cars.
My driver’s eyes have that distance in them that only comes from looking at the surface of the earth as it is continually sucked under the wheels of a car. His hands, gloved, have the assurance of all living things that do not move. His hands have a silent intelligence. His hands are thinking.
My driver has perfect teeth and a leather cap. My driver has a dimple in his chin. My driver has the impassive expression of the front of a car.
Strapped down beside him, I am at his mercy.
He turns to me sometimes and looks at me, for too long, too long to look away from the road at this great velocity. I squirm in my seat, and he smiles at me with his perfect teeth and his pale pink lips. My eyes become all pupil, my skin becomes white and bloodless as we fly towards the back of another car. He holds a second more, smiling at me. I cannot speak, I am so afraid. I cannot admonish my driver. That would be impossible; he is the driver. Just as a crash is imminent, he slows down, looks back at the road, and drives on, carefully, regulated, smooth.
The soothing noises of the great car calm my nerves. The blinker, the acceleration…
Brrrrr. So cold. So very very cold.
(The heat lamp clicks off)
My work continued to be enjoyable.
I received tokens for my work. Since my meals and room were provided for me, I was able to use the tokens to purchase some new clothing. My own clothing seemed eccentric in comparison to the attractive and practical clothing worn by the people of the town. I put on my new clothing and, as I walked across the town on my way to dinner, I realized that I now looked like the other members of the town. I also realized that I was receiving more smiles and nods from strangers as I passed by, and the invisibility that had been causing me a great deal of torment was diminishing.
It was as if the people of the town were a giant lens, through which I was gradually coming in to focus.
The people of the town never asked about my past or my hopes for the future. I found that I too was losing contact with my past and future, simply by not speaking about them. And my days were so busy, with my work, and my chores, and my new friendships and social activities, that my waking hours were no longer spent analyzing my past and agonizing over my future.
The people of the town would not talk about each other and they would not talk about themselves. The people of the town would only talk about the town, how to make the town better, how to educate the children more effectively, how to bring more money into the town by manufacturing things other then alarm clocks.
And I got interested solely in these things as well. And my days drifted in to one another. I fell asleep the minute I lay down in bed. I woke up with the sun. My days were so regulated that I no longer wore my wristwatch and never glanced at the few clocks that were hung in the communal rooms of the town.
I was learning how to please the town. And I was welcome there. There was no discussion of my leaving or of my having run out the course of my welcome. My anxieties in these areas were greeted with blank looks of incomprehension.
Meanwhile, the snow piled up outside the windows. Higher and higher it piled. The snow muffled all outside noises. It seemed to muffle even my curiosity of the world outside the town. In here we were warm and dry and fed. What was out there? Perhaps nothing was out there anymore.
I imagined the thinking trees, frozen inside an icy crust, the patterns of their thoughts becoming slower and more abstract until they stopped altogether.
(The heat lamp clicks off)
I had been looking at the crumbling ruins of the old castle for many weeks. It was perched on the top of a steep hill. An overgrown path led up to it.
Every day I would wake up with the intention of walking up to the ruins and having a look around, but every day, somehow, I avoided it.
The castle was one of the attractions of the area where I was spending my holiday, but visiting it became a responsibility, a chore, something I began to dread.
‘You haven’t seen the castle?’ The other guests at the small inn that I was staying at would ask me, astonished. I felt that they were forming a negative opinion about me due a perceived lack of curiosity and laziness on my part. So to save face, I began to lie. I told them that I had been to the castle. I told them that it was really quite something. I described the sun on the old stones, the dark coolness of the interior, the battlements. I based my observations on my experiences of other similar attractions.
Finally, breakfast at the small hotel became intolerable. All that was spoken of was the castle and my lies created more and more anxiety for me each morning. So I headed up the hill to the castle. Just as I expected, it was a hot and uncomfortable walk. The drone of insects and the lack of breeze made me want to turn back many times.
And of course it was a complete bore, just another ruined hulk of defensive stones.
A young man cleared his throat to get my attention. He was wearing a worn out black suit. ‘Would you like a tour of the castle?’ He asked. ‘No, Not really.’ I replied. ‘I’d much rather be at the beach, and I only came up here because the other guests at the hotel would not stop talking about the attractions up here. You must give an excellent tour. They talk about nothing but this castle.’
The young man looked a bit confused. ‘I haven’t seen anyone up here in two weeks.’ He said. ‘And I’m the only guide up here. I’ve been waiting here for two weeks, hoping that a group of tourists would come up.’
I was completely perplexed. So the other guests at my hotel had not been to the castle either? Was I the only person to come up here? I allowed the tour guide to show me about the grounds and explain the dull history of the great family that occupied the castle, until it was used for ammunitions storage during the war and was accidentally exploded from within. I tipped him generously and I returned to the hotel.
The other guests were having tea. They all stopped chatting the minute I entered, and I self-consciously helped myself to some tea and sat down. ‘Been for a walk?’ Someone asked. ‘Yes, I answered, I’ve been up to the castle.’ ‘My, you are an enthusiast.’ Someone else said. Looks were exchanged and tiny smiles were repressed. I placed my teacup down on an end table. I got up, left the room, went upstairs, packed my bags and called a taxi. As I left for the train station I thought I could hear laughter from the tea- room, I thought I heard my name. I’ll never go back there again.
(The heat lamp clicks off)
I had become accustomed to walking the covered walkways every afternoon for a bit of exercise. Since the snow had made leaving the confines of the town impossible, this helped combat my physical restlessness.
I walked towards a door that I expected to be at the end of one of the seemingly endless series of communal rooms, that led to another walk way, that led to yet another communal room. The door was not there. Just wall. I asked a woman who was sitting in the dim light entering through the snow-clogged window what happened to the door. ‘What door?’ She answered. ‘There has never been a door here.’ ‘But I always walk this way,’ I stated. ‘There has always been a door here.’ ‘Perhaps you are in the wrong room.’ She said. ‘There are so many of these rooms, and so many of them look the same.’ I tried to accept her version of my predicament. But if she was correct, then I was going a bit mad.
‘Perhaps it’s time for me to leave the town,’ I thought. ‘Perhaps it’s too confining.’ But I was stuck, due to the relentless snow, at least until the spring. But shouldn’t spring be here already? How many months have I been here? Surely it’s time for winter to be over, for the snow to stop.
I contented myself with walking in another direction. I absorbed myself yet again in the life of the town and I thought no more about it.
Then again, it happened. I took one of my usual walks and came upon a wall where there should have been a door. I knew that this time I was correct. I tried to make a mental map of the town. I couldn’t do it. The isolation of the town and the winding zigzags of its architecture made me incapable of applying normal spatial logic to it.
I began to enquire more and more to the people of the town about its layout, and about the possibility that the town was undergoing some structural changes. But the more I enquired, the more the people of the town seemed to shun me. My former isolation, loneliness and invisibility loomed largely over me. I had come to rely so heavily on the companionship of the people of the town that I couldn’t bear for it to be taken away.
So I became quiet. I worked and slept and ate and chatted. I took my walks. But more and more often I was finding walls where doors were supposed to be. The town, it seemed, was getting smaller and smaller. But nobody seemed to notice.
Then one morning I woke up. The door to my room was gone.