ambiguous loss

bfa sculpture thesis exhibition
isabel percy west gallery / cca oakland
april 7-12, 2014

"Ambiguous Loss"
500 bricks harvested from U.S. demolition sites

Recorded phone call between mother and
daughter (1:24), copper, leather, wood, burlap

Postcard (front and back)

"Confusion of the Tongues"
Chronological list of Pakistanis killed by U.S. drone strikes
(2004-2014) printed on cotton, wood, burlap

"These Streets Weren't Paved For Us"

* image quality is wonky via internet tubes


the brutalization of the body in life and death / full mourning dress in 2014

who is collateral damage? who is acceptable loss? who is exempt from death? who decides?

how does one grapple with the value of life if all of our cues for what a ‘life’ means become obsolete? if eating, breathing, walking, talking, and sex are remedied by technologies that declare such living activities as inconveniences, where does that leave the rest of us? how do we reconcile with our bodies in a world that designates the body as a barrier? how does this mindset manifest on the individual, relational, and architectural scales? science fiction often positions itself in a place of shrewd suspicion, drawing attention not only to the psychological consequences of innovation, but to bodily alienation as a whole.

one of the early appearances of this question in science fiction can be found in mary shelley’s frankenstein, the now-classic tale of victor frankenstein and his creation of a monster composited entirely from reanimated dead tissue. victor is written not as an evil scientist but as a human being with obsessive dedication to his work. his past traumas in dealing with the deaths of his loved ones seem to propel a genuine – albeit naive and cowardly – drive to rebuild life that has been lost. congruently, frankenstein’s monster is not a ‘monster’ in the blockbuster sense but a maturing and sensitive being with a guilty conscience and full spectrum of human emotion. (of course, for everyone the monster encounters, his grotesque appearance trumps any innate gentleness that he might possess, much to his dismay.)

shelley’s portrayal of victor is a telling one: a subtext in the novel hints that the desire to play god is not exclusively psychopathic behavior. victor’s actions could be deemed tragically misguided at best; however, he is driven by loss, not by malice, and this distinction is important. depicting the monster’s creator with such complexity serves to examine his fundamental inability to grapple with death. the monster is, in some sense, an externalization of victor’s self-destructive grieving process. the fact that he is unable to face what he has created practically eats him alive. this is not to mention that the monster himself is a character teeming with complexities: ashamed and disgusted by his own existence, he desperately craves companionship and love but is doomed by his frightful appearance and status as a fabricated being. victor’s initial quest to reanimate dead tissue – a quest for immortality, and what would now be tagged ‘artificial intelligence’ – are barricades to a kind of inveterate mourning process. victor mourns and re-mourns the death of his loved ones with every monster debacle, and the monster mourns his own non-existence. coming to grips with grief is something that neither frankenstein nor his monster are ever able to do. both die in agony.

it should be noted that frankenstein was written in 1816, during the global aftermath of the eruption of mount tambora in indonesia. a worldwide volcanic winter followed the colossal eruption, and due to the limited communications of the era, millions were left for months with no information as to the reason for the sudden gloom. the “year without a summer” was a time of widespread crop failure, famine, food riots, and biting cold temperatures. shelley, just 18 years old, was residing in landlocked switzerland at the time, where famine and violence were so severe that the swiss government declared a state of national emergency. these were the conditions under which frankenstein was conceived: a time when light was scarce, temperatures were freezing, plant life was wilting, and death was widespread.

art historians have conjectured that a number of j.m.w. turner's
landscapes were influenced by the smoggy aftermath of the eruption
the year without a summer is a plain historical instance of a ubiquitous societal shift that led artists, writers, scientists, and countless other cultural contributors to face powerful questions about the value of life. frankenstein is often cited as one of the first science fiction novels, and it is no coincidence that such penetrative thinking about what it means to possess a body and spirit emerged during a time when both were being so fiercely tested on a day-to-day basis. however, the brutalization of everyday life is not a phenomenon specific to any one time. rather, it has manifested in different forms over the span of human history.

much has been written on the sensory confusion of the 21st century digital age; the exponential growth of the mechanized in the everyday has provided bountiful fodder for modern science fiction authors and cultural critics to feed from. frustratingly, popular dialogues that could potentially tackle real questions around bodily estrangement often fall back on a binary: either the technology helps or it harms. these lateral debates skirt over the much larger philosophical issue of the orientation (or disorientation) of the body within a world market that increasingly denies the spiritual need for human contact, whether it be with oneself, one another, or the built environment as a whole.

the trickle-down effects of this shift cannot be overstated: the billions that still struggle with poverty and violence today are publicly shamed and privately exploited by those with an interest in keeping the cogs turning. this is to say that the effects of the ‘digital age’ are not felt exclusively by those with access to the latest technologies, but by the massive web of bodies involved in the conception, production, consumption, and perpetuation of technological worship. mechanized distancing of humans from their bodies implicitly devalues the body as a spiritual unit. this creates space for the justification of the mass exploitation of bodies that must occur for that technology to be in the hands of the elite in the first place.

an extreme instance of this phenomenon can be seen in the field of cryonics: the low-temperature suspension of the body in liquid nitrogen with the hopes that sometime in the future, medicine will advance to the point that reanimation of dead flesh will become possible. it sounds ridiculous, and according to the vast majority of scientific community, it is. however, cryonics has a steady band of support. arizona-based company alcor life extension foundation is the leading developer and advocate of cryonics technology: as of february 28, 2014 there are 121 ‘patients’ (dubbed ‘cryonicists’) currently in cryptopreservation and 973 members in total. of the 121 patients at alcor, 79 are undergoing neuropreservation, in which only the head is preserved. it is believed among neuropatients that by the time resuscitation is possible, medicine will have advanced enough that rebuilding the rest of the body will be not only viable, but preferable.

“until cryonics do us part,” a 2010 article in the new york times, investigated the world of cryonics and its ramifications on the loved ones of cryonicists. spousal disagreement is so common in the cryonics community that it has a name (‘hostile-wife phenomenon’) as well as an online support group (cryonet). robert ettinger, cited as the father of cryonics and author of its formative text the prospect of immortality, ennobled cryonics as “the struggle for survival. drive a used car if the cost of a new one interferes. divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.” in the times article, interviews with cryonicists and their spouses reveal a fundamental disparity in their views on death.

the air of hurt confusion stems, in part, from the intuition among believers that cryonics is a harmless attempt at preserving data, little different from stowing a box of photos. of the nonreligious white males who predominate in the ranks of cryonicists, many are software engineers, a calling that puts great faith in the primacy of information. “if you have a hard drive on a computer with a lot of information that is important to you, you save it,” says j.s., a 39-year-old cryonicist and software engineer who lives in oregon and who will not allow his full name to be used out of fear that his wife would divorce him. “you wouldn’t just throw it into a fire. it’s clear to me that memories are stored as molecular arrangements. i’m just trying to preserve the memories.”

the disposability of the body in lieu of the mind is a philosophical question dating back to platonic times and beyond – and a favorite topic of science fiction depicting the possibilities of cloning and cyborg culture – but the field of cryonics touches on this issue in a definitively transhumanist manner. distress on part of cryonicists’ loved ones is largely rooted in the belief that cryptopreservation stunts the grieving process. humans are actually equipped to deal with death, however painful. the tragic irony of frankenstein is that the reanimation of dead tissue proves so traumatic both for victor and his monster that death becomes their only solace.

though it is still far-fetched to seriously consider the possibility of frankensteinian monsters roaming among us in the future, a movement like cryonics unearths all kinds of vital questions about the role of the body in a culture of globalized tech worship. after all, considering the scope of modern medicine and vilification from the larger scientific community, patients of cryonics must have enormous faith in this technology in which they have invested their ‘immortal’ lives. clearly cryonicists represent a minute sector of elitist society, for they have the resources to take their ambitions to ludicrous extremes. however, a company like alcor is in many ways a symptom of a larger societal shift: one at war with the physical limitations of the body. if hands and lungs and feet are mere obstructions to achieving some greater ideal, what is the value of all that we touch, breathe, and walk upon?



what remains of a lookout room in the elaborate winchester family mansion,
bearing damage from the 1901 san francisco earthquake.

in what is now san jose, a short woman stood in the windowed nook of her vacant mansion for thirty-six years. she spied on the workers that clipped, trimmed, hammered, nailed, and plastered her family home. as a widow and heiress to the troubled winchester rifle legacy, she heeded the word of her well-paid boston medium, keeping the ghosts of the “the gun that won the west” at bay with a constant flow of noisy construction. after her death, construction ceased, and what remains is a monument of winchester angst. you can stand where she stood and hunch beneath her tiny showerhead and shuffle up her shallow staircases and get dizzy from her vast maze of little doors to nowhere and unrest is a taste that you can’t rinse with water.

these indwelling exchanges between life and living structure are universal phenomena, present in all built constructions from the humble to the extravagant. on the large scale, said exchanges are typically quelled in the name of capitalist regulation. over time, the principles of western thought wedged a chasm between human and house, between the sensory and the logical. even long before the enlightenment of the 17th century, the seeds of this development were planted by plato, hurdling the obstacles to human happiness with the theory of forms. how can the world appear to be both fixed and in flux? he asked. how can a person find contentment in such a world, when all to which he attaches himself can be taken away? if the non-material (accessed via thought) is x but the material (accessed via the senses) is y, how can both be truth? which is the fundamental reality? is it my reasoned notion of a home, sturdy and unfailing? or is it the warped, drafty house i sit in now, which could burn or collapse or be seized from me at any moment?

inadvertently or not, plato’s divisive antidote to this dilemma demoted sensory experience to the status of almost-truth, something which humans depend on only in moments of intellectual weakness. moving in tandem with the scientific revolution, the enlightenment shifted collective modes of thought towards this platonic notion of truth: a singular nucleus of purely cognitive reason. division led to hierarchy, lifting abstract thought to a realm far above the petty nuances of physicality, material reality a mere echo of the ideal.

nature, historically personified as a nurturing mother with a flighty temper, was god’s “involuntary agent,” as carolyn merchant recalled many years later in her seminal ecofeminist work, the death of nature: “nature operated ‘without capacity or knowledge,’ solely on the basis of ‘her dexterity and skill,’ as the instrument of god’s expression in the mundane world.” the material world, sensory and female, bowed to the masculine, all-encompassing intellectual truth. the collective consciousness of the west was freed from the shackles of the catholic church, but its spring forward into the age of reason subsequently imprisoned the material world in its stead. the west grew away from full reliance on a sensory, ethereal relationship with nature and towards “the crucial period when our cosmos ceased to be viewed as an organism and became instead a machine.”

as nature suffered, so did architecture. coal-gray exhaust pipes of the industrial revolution littered the skylines of the new american city. sacrificed in the name of the gleaming and efficient utopian ideal, nature was conceptualized as capital with little heed paid to its physical limitations. rather than nurtured and cultivated organically, nature was atomized and objectified, thereby justifying its mass exploitation as resource. particularly in the adolescent united states, natural material was shoved clumsily onto conveyer belts and through assembly lines at unprecedented scale and speed. we conceptualized our cities and structures under the same false pretense, catalyzed by the aggressive push for cost-effectiveness-at-all-costs: build it fast, build it cheap, knock it down and build a new one. buildings are now raised at unearthly speed, only to neglected or chastised, then bulldozed twenty years later. the environmental protection agency estimates that in the united states, a total of 170 million tons of debris are produced annually construction and demolition alone.

robert moses and the battery bridge
the sensory impact of such fickle and callous urban development tends to be shunted aside, unmentioned and insignificant in the face of evident functionality. never mind the quantifiable indications that places conceived as such are in fact the epicenters of dysfunction, of illness, of crime. gray ghettos are the scaffolding for the next steroidal act of architectural heroism; theirs are the communities that are erased for the common good, time and time again. in the south bronx 600,000 people were displaced during the aggressive highway expansion of the 1940s spearheaded by robert moses. dotted around the overpass are thousands of shabby dwellings, housing tense communities that feel with most potency the effects of unaccountable, fleeting constructions. activist and south bronx local majora carter asks, “if you are told from your earliest days that nothing good is going to come from your community, that is bad and ugly, how could it not reflect on you?”

constructions assault. constructions nurture. constructions divide, bring together, silence, empower, oppress, liberate. they do everything that humans can do to and with one another. they are wet still lifes, evolving archives of the living systems that erected them, that cared for them, destroyed them, neglected them.

the aggressive itemization of “the natural” into commodified units – in tandem with a fetishization for regulation – results in a conception of architecture that belittles the significance, or denies the existence, of the human-building relationship. in part, this mindset justified righteous colonization and its modern cousin, gentrification. the perversely heroic ideas of “urban renewal” so pervasive in architecture today deem the displacement of communities to be acceptable loss, or deny it altogether. these ideas nobly eject communities from their hearth, then try to resell them a bastardization their material memories. they deny the visceral despair of gentrified communities, creating places “not worth caring about,” as articulated by suburban critic james howard kunstler.

gentrified architecture is fleeting in nature to maximize capital gains. it is designed to be demolished. it is the domestic form of planned obsolescence, and such mercurial urban development has a tragic sensory impact. to be ripped from spaces into which we pour our histories, or to be shunted into spaces that aren’t built to house the soul – both can spin a person off-balance, creating a kind of ambiguous loss in place of hearth. perhaps this is what plato was trying to address when he conceived his theory of forms, for what drives its principles is a dissatisfaction with the unreliability of the material world. but rather than perpetuate a matter-spirit division that, as we have seen, inevitably leads to hierarchy, attuning ourselves to the intuitive exchanges we have with our constructions can lay a moral framework for urban development. if our built environment is in fact at the crux of human embodiment, what responsibilities do we have to sustain, nurture, and care for this habitat, as we do our kin? and what of the darker side of human exchange, seen so blatantly in the ubiquitous exploits of gentrification?



the conception of anthropolis:
a brick-sized hand and a man-sized hole



23 APRIL 2005

CLIP_1          CLIP_2          CLIP_3          FULL

a curtain of thick gray smoke, swelling from the wreckage; locals standing by, faces inscrutable, masked anonymous by ash and soot; two soldiers donning dusty camouflage, charcoal-black machine guns strapped to their shoulders; a pool of sludgy debris; a father clutching his daughter, back against the wreckage, her head pressed hard to his chest; the son trailing behind, eyes blackened with the palls of savage truth; a young man sporting a jersey, number five, zidane, rushing toward the scene with resolute calm; it is another game, a sharp, deliberate one-two-three-four-five, no during and no between, only action and replay, action, replay.

he lives in game-sized increments of forty-five and ninety minutes. there is sound, the sound of noise, but he can decide for himself what he wants to hear. he can hear the sound of a child shifting around on his seat. he can hear somebody whisper in the ear of the person next to them. he can hear the yells, jeers, the serenade of the crowd, the ticking of a watch, the static of a sweater, the patter of hurried footsteps, the rumbling of a few peckish stomachs and the sighs of those gorged and satisfied.

with a furrowed brow he weaves through the dance of the game, scanning the scene with grim resolve. collisions with neighboring bodies ignite the embers of sound overhead; he remains utterly impassive. he trots on. the surrounding players leap and crumple with the peaks and valleys of noise, but in the face of unbridled emotion, of tragedy and triumph, he does nothing. then out of thin air, he detonates: a turn, a glance, a sharp change in course, a scuffle of fists and yells. a pair of hands pulls him from the wreckage. the referee flashes red. it is over.


there are papers about the man but he sprang into being just as he is. gray with callouses, his hands creak audibly with every twitch. his favorite pot lies crooked on the warped stovetop, its surface rough with knots that cling to droplets of creamy broth. the side held aloft grows thicker and redder as the agitated stew sloshes stubbornly back to equilibrium. he tends the steaming stew, warming the folds of his face against the kindling pot, the vapor blurring his eyes.

much of the house is warped like the stove, dimples dotting the floorboards and the walls swelling with rain and residue. where logs join logs they splinter, and through the cracks peek other men whose boots meet the ground with a noisy crunch. within, the spine of the place has slackened and curved with age. the man must duck beneath mossy rafters to crawl under the covers of his brass-frame bunk. the musty shelter muffles his breath. his sleep is deepest blue and dreamless.

the flame is doused black, the bubbling stew ladled into four copper bowls, equal parts. as they are set on the counter they resound with a thunk, thunkthunk thunk, but the air is thick and the sounds die at once. as the man drinks atop the hearth, cast with ashen brick and frothing yellow, his soiled hands trace the lines of ancient mortar, staining the cracks with dusky red broth.


all around us always

all around us always is a book conceived & assembled by the very special larisa minerva, emily tareila, rosalie wild, and denali schmidt. local artpersons contributed writing, drawings, photographs, crafts, etc as part of a larger conversation regarding the blurred lines between art & life practices. in light of denali's sudden passing, last night's book launch became a time to honor his life, and the book itself a token of appreciation for him and for one another. though i am / we are still heavy with grief, completing this book and sharing it with the community has been a truly healing process.

i contributed some thoughts about the brick library.
it will be available shortly through colpa press for $14

we really love how it turned out, and hope you enjoy <3


for denali

let us take a moment to acknowledge the passing of sweet denali.
he was a dear friend and mentor, a great cook, a thoughtful artist,
a talented mountaineer, always curious, always kind,
a real treasure of a human being.

thank you for everything dearest denali,
you are sorely missed.

denali and his father marty died in an avalanche, attempting to summit K2.
they were likely sleeping at base camp when the avalanche hit.