Sketch 2 for a Time-Slip Installation

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.202024 | Issue 5 | October 2020

John Cussans

University of Worcester



Abstract

Sketch 2 for a Time-Slip Installation was created for a multi-modal artistic research project called BC Time-Slip (The Empire Never Ended) which began as a residency at Dynamo Arts Association (DAA), Vancouver in August 2016. BC Time-Slip is the first phase of a larger artistic research project exploring the discourse of decolonization in British Columbia from ethnographic, Indigenous and science fictional perspectives called The Skullcracker Suite. During the residency the DAA gallery was converted into a Special Investigations Room researching Philip K. Dick’s visit to Vancouver in 1972 and his stay at an experimental rehab community called X-Kalay. During the residency I organised and documented a program of public talks, lectures and screenings, and produced a series of 360° videos depicting Dick’s time in the city, myself playing the author. Sketch 2 takes Dick’s short story Colony (1953) as a way to draw correlations between the assimilation of life-worlds by alien simulation technology in Dick’s fictions and the European colonization of what is now British Columbia. The video is the second of two sketches for an exhibition in the future.


Research Statement


Paranoid Critical Theory and Alien Authority

‘The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent’ Theodore Adorno

The critic’s dependence on the culture of which they are critical is a paradox at the core of the BC Time-Slip project. How can a European artist-researcher, working in the context of British Columbia, make work that contributes to the project of ‘the permanent decolonization of thought’ (Viveiros De Castro)? Isn’t such a project bound by an inner necessity to reproduce in symbolic form the structures of power, knowledge and privilege that enable it to operate? And wouldn’t the success of such a project ultimately amount to its own negation? In an attempt to address this paradox I have developed a working method called Paranoid Critical Theory (PCT): a schizoanalytic mode of immanent critique inspired by the Science Fiction writer Philip K. Dick that combines artistic, ethnographic and psychogeographical methods with Frankfurt School Critical Theory. PCT does not distinguish methodologically between art making, art theory and arts research and is closely aligned with the kindred-practices of hyperstition (CCRU) and myth-science (Burrows/O’Sullivan).

BC Time-Slip took its name from Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip which tells the story of a doomed Mars colonization project from the perspectives of a schizophrenic repairman (Jack Bohlen) and a severely autistic child (Manfred Steiner). Central to the narrative is the creation of a time-distortion chamber that would enable Jack to communicate with Manfred and see into the future. The BC Time-Slip ‘research installation’ created at Dynamo Arts Association (DAA) in Vancouver in August 2016 was designed to generate a sense of temporal and historical dislocation, with Vancouver re-imagined as the off-world (British) colony it was a century before Dick began writing (and which it continues to be for would-be émigrés).

The research strategy of BC Time-Slip reveals how science fiction is implicated in the perpetuation of colonial myths about technological progress and cultural superiority while simultaneously exposing and criticizing their catastrophic psychological and environmental consequences. In Sketch 2 for a Time-Slip Installation the special investigations room doubles for the research laboratory in Dick’s 1953 Colony, the story of an expedition to the super-fertile, earth-like Planet Blue which is being surveyed for potential human colonization. The mirroring of a contemporary art exhibition made by a British artist, attempting to critically engage the cultural politics of decolonization in British Columbia, and a colonial research laboratory imagined by an Anglo-American science-fiction writer who had visited Vancouver in 1972, is intended to stage the trans-historical continuity of the former in the latter, an ambivalent, deliberately provocative assertion that ‘the empire never ended’.

“A New Life Awaits You on the Off-World Colony”

Dick visited Vancouver in March 1972 to speak at an SF conference. Shortly after delivering his talk he had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide and spent three weeks in a rehab clinic called X-Kalay, where he participated in daily group therapy sessions called The Game. The story of Dick’s visit to Vancouver formed the basis for a research residency that responded to the location and architecture of the gallery space. The installation took the form of a Special Investigations Bureau that was open to the public: desks, bookshelves, an office couch, two-presentation tables and a blackboard painted onto one of the walls which was used for public presentations of the research-in-process. Myself, Stephanie Moran and Grégoire Dupond acted as a special investigation team, mapping Dick’s time in the city and drawing correlations between his space colonization narratives, the history of Vancouver and the discourse of decolonization. During the residency we filmed a series of 360∞ videos depicting Dick’s movements in the city, myself playing the author, which were projected in the gallery. I organised a program of film screenings and public discussions addressing local decolonial politics.

As many historians of the genre have noted, Science Fiction recapitulates in fantastical form the Modern Era of European colonialism, imperialism and ‘world domination’. Its roots can be traced back to literary responses to the discovery America at the end of the 15th century and the economic, social and philosophical issues its authors have their protagonists grapple with were contemporaneously being worked out on the ground in New England, New France and New Spain. From his earliest short stories for the SF pulps in the 1950’s Dick’s fictions used the New World theme to explore the moral contradictions and psychological costs of planetary imperialism. Living and writing in Cold War America, Dick’s fictions, known for their distinctly paranoiac perspective, projected the ideological struggle for global domination by competing world powers, and his central protagonists often find themselves caught between a drudgingly impoverished life in one world and the promise of a rich, meaningful one in another. At the time of his visit to Vancouver, British Columbia seemed to fulfil Dick’s idea of an utopian paradise where he could start his life afresh. But as in many of his fictions, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

Alien Authorities and Simulation Machines


The first of Dick’s short stories to be made into a radio play was Colony (1953), a recording of which forms the basis for the first section of Sketch 2. The narrative voice tells of an expedition to the super-fertile, earth-like Planet Blue which is being surveyed for potential human colonization. In the video Vancouver is cast in the role of a recently discovered planet with picnickers enjoying its mountainous beauty. As the narrative unfolds we discover that, despite a promising initial survey showing no danger for human settlement, the ship’s biologist discovers an alien life form that can simulate human artefacts and machines, attack their users and, ultimately, consume them. The alien or technological simulation of natural beings and their life-worlds, and their ultimate replacement by the former, is a defining characteristic of Dick’s fiction, and the inability to distinguish between the authentic and simulated is a source of profound existential dread for his characters. The crucial question for BC Time-Slip is the extent to which this particular form of psychopathology is itself an artefact of late techno-capitalist society and the retrospectively glaring, moral contradictions of colonial settlement?

The second part is built upon selections from an audio interview with Dick from 1979 in which he explains that SF was a means for him to write about the invasion of one person’s world by another’s and the extension of this power into politics and society. To draw analogies between the psycho-dynamics of subjective domination, the colonization of British Columbia and the complicity of contemporary art institutions in this process, the video pans over historical maps of the area upon which DAA is located and shows time-lapse surveillance footage of the research installation durng the resdiency. The video ends with Dick discussing his experiences of group de-personalization at X-Kalay in terms of an authoritarian alien invasion, as a time-lapse animation of a mycetozoa (slime mould) consuming another organism is superimposed upon a scene from the film Synanon (1965), a fictionalized account of the group therapy commune in California that X-Kalay used as its model.


Footnotes


[1] The theme of inter-species predation and kinship is central to The Skullcracker Suite which has been significantly shaped by Eduardo Viveiros De Castro’s book Cannibal Metaphysics (2014) in which he proposes that the contemporary task of anthropology is to advance the ‘permanent decolonization of thought’ (p.40)

[2] The term paranoid-critical is derived from Salvador Dali ‘paranoiac critical method’. PCT assumes a de-pathologizing of paranoia in the service of immanent psycho-political critique.

[3] The City of Vancouver, named after the British Naval Officer George Vancouver, who explored the Pacific Northwest coast in the late 18th century, was founded in 1886. The area was first settled by European’s a decade earlier during the Frazer Gold Rush. It was at that time inhabited by the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples of the Coast Salish group whose unceded territories it was built upon. Vancouver continues to be a city held up as a destination for would-be settlers and has witnessed a period of rapid development since the 1980’s. It is often listed in the travel sections of international newspapers as one of the best places to live in the world. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/north-america/canada/vancouver/articles/vancouver-what-to-see-and-do-why-you-should-go/

[4] X- Kalay (which means Unknown Path) was originally set up as a half-way house for First Nations ex-cons in the late 1960’s and gradually became a centre for treating addiction (See the interview with its founder David Berner on the BC Time-Slip website). It was the model for the New-Path clinic in Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly.

[5] The choice to inhabit the persona of PKD was away to introduce a schizoid dimension into the project in keeping with the PCT approach. It can also be understood in terms of what Jean Baudrillard called an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’: a subtle withdrawal/reversal of agency or voluntary self-deception (or ‘deception of the self’), true to Dick’s “own” auto-delusional thinking. This should not however be associated with a relinquishing a responsibility. Rather it stages an identity-based auto-critique of the project-as-a-whole in response to contemporary debates about decolonization and its research methods (see Tuhiwai Smith).

[6] Aldis (1986), Amis (1960), Disch (1998), Reider (2008), Kerslake (2007)

Bibliography

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