Join Us: Calls to Ecstasy from the Edge of Oblivion

Join Us. The invitation can be a means of inclusion or a strategy for intimidation. Join us…is it a call to revelry? To tryst? To fight? To enlist? In the space of this exhibition, it is all of these things.

US is an abbreviation and a pronoun. The artists in this exhibition are connected in their close looking at the culture of US and at our desire, as groups and individuals, to transcend whatever our current condition is in order to be somewhere else. The evidence of this desire to escape, exalt, and be rendered aloft is everywhere-from the Mars Rovers to Heaven's Gated Communities to the Benny Hinn Stampede.

In order to transcend, we must cross over from here to there, either above or below the threshold-approaching the sublime, going subliminal. "Absolute Jouissance, passing beyond, toward the heights (sub-limis), is this not what a phenomenology of the sublime describes?" 1

But the beyond isn't what it used to be. The sublime as we know it now has little to do with nature, as it did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when we looked to vistas, canyons, and falls in order to be struck dumb by a sense of the "Great Everything." 2 The sublimes of today-i.e., the brain-breaking banality of "extreme" phenomena saturating our screens, the skin-searing "shock and awe" strategies of soldiers and terrorists, the tightening of gut brought on by awareness that there is simply too much data in the world for us to begin to apprehend-are all dependent upon technology for their invocation and enactment. "Technology," writes Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, "has subsumed the idea of the sublime because it, whether to a greater extent or an equal extent than nature, is terrifying in the limitless unknowability of its potential, while being entirely a product of knowledge…." 3

If technology has indeed swallowed our sense of the beyond, then what of our dreams and fantasies? Is there room for ecstasy in a world driven by technology and dominated by the demands of capital? Under what circumstances are we empowered to challenge the infinite or, more humbly, the state? To think into oblivion? To plot our escapes?

For C-Level, E.C. Brown, Critical Art Ensemble, Paul Vanouse, and Faith Wilding, the imaginative possibilities of the utopian colony offer a fertile testing ground for such questions. CAE, Vanouse, and Wilding quote the feminist theorist Avital Ronell when she writes that "All Edenic projections of plenitude have proven dangerous." 4 Indeed, the cultivated edens of our era always seem to end in horror-but why must this be so?

To whom or what does the Edenic vision pose a threat?

The drama of the 1993 FBI/ATF siege upon David Koresh and his followers at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas is played out on the screen in C-Level's interactive computer game, Waco Resurrection (2003). In order to navigate the game, one must assume the identity (and, if desired, the skin) of Koresh as he attempts to defend the Davidian complex against physical and psychological attacks by US federal agents. A work of 'subjective documentary' and 'speculative fiction,' Waco Resurrection represents a strategic intervention into the public discourse surrounding an event whose social and political outcomes remain unfixed. 5 Within the game, however, certain outcomes are predetermined. For Koresh there is no escape, and his death is destined to be replayed in a digital rendering of supreme annihilation.

Critical Art Ensemble, Paul Vanouse, and Faith Wilding's Cult of the New Eve (1999-2000) is a modest proposal for the biotech era. Realized through performance, installations, and on the web ( the Cult is one in a series of CAE projects aimed at debunking the utopian rhetoric of "Big Science" and exposing the role of capitalism in the production of desire. By deftly turning the language of bio-engineering in on itself, CAE, Vanouse, and Wilding reveal the deep moral flaws in (already flourishing) practices which border on eugenics. In order to join the Cult of the New Eve, initiates must renounce the concept of faith, engage in rituals of DNA worship, and declare their devotion to the "New Eve": an anonymous female donor to the Human Genome Project from Buffalo, New York. 6

E.C. Brown's combined-media projects exist at the unlikely juncture between fantasy painting and expanded social practice. For Grand Arts, Brown has created a series of paintings involving characters who live alternate lives on the web. This series, entitled Astral Strike (Offline) (2004) envisions the interdependence of 3 guilds-musclewomen, mods, and temple-priestesses-who are intimately and economically tied to the production of "specialized psychotropic fabrics" used in sex-rites and ceremonial practices. 7 With this series and the accompanying website ( Brown continues an ongoing investigation into social codes, spiritual quests and artistic hierarchies. Visitors to the Astral Strike website will encounter an image-based navigation system leading in multiple directions-some rooted in violent fantasy and others based in a true-to-life gift economy.

For Sanford Biggers, Sarah Sze, Miranda July, Eddo Stern and Christoph Büchel sublimity is bound up in the everyday. In Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II (2000) Sanford Biggers' camera offers an aerial view of the whirling motion of competing break-dancers at the annual Battle of the Boroughs in the Bronx, New York. Biggers designed the dance floor for the competition in the shape of a mandala, a symbol originating in Tibetan Buddhism and conceived as a cosmic diagram and "container of religious essence" used in meditation and prayer. 8 In Biggers' video, the mandala adopts new layers of meaning as it is inscribed with the motion and gesture of the dancers, or bodhisattvas. The performance, in turn, evokes a sense of connectedness across cultures and religions which view dance as a means of access to the spiritual realm.

Sarah Sze's print diptych Night and Day (2003) is suggestive of a liminal space that could be mental, physical or both. In these works which mirror each other, so many ambiguous bits attract and align to suggest a system that is delicately hinged on the balance between order and chaos. It is as though civilization's detritus has been flung out into the cosmos, and Sze has mapped its trajectory. Like the labyrinthine installations made from everyday materials for which Sze is best known, these prints have a "Google-esque" quality, seeming to reference the sum of human thought and activity while remaining open-ended and resisting any totalizing narrative.

Miranda July's six-and-a-half minute video, Getting Stronger Every Day (2001) is a visual poem about "the experience of becoming lost and found" narrated by a character who is both, and punctuated by a series of hovering abstract shapes that stand in for the missing links between us and the "spirit realm." 9 For the narrator, Steve, memories of television movies form a delicate and elusive structure upon which to hang his own dreams and tragedies. For viewers, July's video is a slow unfolding in the direction of oblivion. Somewhere along the way, we begin to realize that if it weren't for his love affair with the screen, Steve might not exist at all.

Eddo Stern's Carnivore's Cathedral: Whose Child is This? (2003) envisions the union of religious and electronic architectures in the form of a cathedral constructed from desktop computer towers. The Cathedral is one in a series of computer-based works which borrow their title, Godseye, from the panoramic perspective popular in video games and utilized in military imaging. Bedecked with the infantilizing kitsch of a medieval-themed play set, and inset with the bar-time favorite-karaoke-the Cathedral invokes humor on its way to critique. At stake: the anointed status of technology in an increasingly militarized (medievalized?) society, and a re-negotiation of discreet experiential categories such as work, worship, and play.

Christoph Büchel's Tour of the Oval Office (2003) is a seven-minute video produced by the White House and originally posted for the public on its official informational website. Created in response to the suspension of public White House tours after Sept. 11, 2001, the video features President George W. Bush leading virtual visitors on an interpretive tour of the decoration inside the Oval Office. Decontextualized and visibly pixilated on account of its original digital format, Büchel's video highlights terror in the banal. As we watch a flat, disembodied version of the President describing rays of light in a rug designed by the First Lady, some of us may be convinced that the road to hell is carpeted.

In an essay published in 1994 concerning the imaging of the first Gulf War on television, Kevin Robins writes:

Not so long ago-though it now seems an age-we were watching the Gulf War being played out on our screens. We were spooked by devilish images of Saddam Hussein, the "new Hitler." It was an epic media event where the Good, armed with their high-tech weapons, went in to "take apart" the Evil Empire. We did not see it, but we came to know that more than 150,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians were slaughtered in that bloody kill.

And later:

Ever more, we confront moral issues through the screen, and the screen confronts us with increasing numbers of moral dilemmas. At the same time, however, it screens us from those dilemmas: it is through the screen that we disavow or deny our human implication in moral realities. 10

Ten years later, greeted with the same moral dilemmas, we are united if by nothing else in our desire to transcend this moment. The decision to implicate our technologies (e.g., weapons of mass destruction) rather than ourselves in the disavowal of both ethics and experience could mean that we will never find our way to a better place. Even so, the artists in this exhibition dare to affirm the existence and value of beyond-places, ecstatic states, and transcendent moments. They do so in full recognition of the power of technology-both as a subject invested with so much human desire, and as a tool with which to document our immersion in the "Great Everything."11

Stacy Switzer
Artistic Director
Grand Arts
Kansas City, MO

1 Jacques Henric. "The Sublime, as Love 'a la Colle,'" in Bill Beckley (ed.), Sticky Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 2001, p. 96.
2 Ibid, p.96
3 Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 1999, p. 127-128.
4 Avital Ronell, quoted by Critical Art Ensemble, Molecular Invasion, New York: Autonomedia, 2002.
5 C-level, Engames: Waco Resurrection website. <> (accessed April 20, 2004).
6 Critical Art Ensemble, Cult of the New Eve website. (accessed April 20, 2004).
7 E-mail correspondence with E.C. Brown, February 26, 2004.
8 Robert E. Fisher, Buddhist Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993, p. 82.
9 Miranda July, artist's website. <> (accessed April 20, 2004).
10 Kevin Robbins, "The Haunted Screen," in Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey (eds.), Culture on the Brink. Seattle: Bay Press, 1994, pp. 305, 309.
11 Henric, p. 96.


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