The Death of Death: Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis

T.J. Demos

Tags: Contexts, Journal

Contexts / 03.10.2016
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Oreet Ashery, Revisiting Genesis (digital still), 2016 © Oreet Ashery. Courtesy the artist and Stanley Picker Gallery

At a time when death is no longer what we thought it was, Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis (2016–ongoing) mobilises documentary fiction to question the meaning of existence. Not that Ashery’s piece, an open-access web-based video series in twelve episodes, assumes any stable identities for this ‘we’ – or, for that matter, any universal meaning for death, especially at the time of its capitalist colonisation.1 But when viewers are invited to reconsider the significance of life’s end as no end at all, then living – for anyone – can no longer be the same.

What drives the often humorous, frequently bizarre and at times emotionally poignant interviews and performances in Ashery’s project is an investigation into the contemporary death industry, wherein digital and web-based technologies are being exploited by corporations and their medical sales reps. Paradoxically, it is an industry that aims to help the dying and their survivors come to terms with life’s final transition, even as it contests the very finitude associated with life’s end. Ashery’s inquiry unfolds through short vignettes, each between six and twelve minutes in length, which follow two nurses, both named Jackie – one played by the actress Akiya Henri, the other by practicing GP Vanda Playford, both characters loosely inspired by the contemporary American television series Nurse Jackie – as they discuss the construction of digital legacies and biographical slideshows with people actually preparing for death. The slideshows, constituting a photographic and narrative synopsis of one’s life, might be activated by scanning a gravestone with an iPad, or accessing it online through one’s posthumously managed website. In other scenes, a group of friends request treatment for a dying artist named Genesis, who never really appears in the piece except as a seated mannequin in a huge blue blanket, and exists as a kind of multivalent spectre around which the video is organised. Seeking assistance via a mobile device with poor reception, the group dramatise the distanced and disturbing mediatised bureaucracy of contemporary medicine, even as they attempt, with yet more technology, to bring Genesis back to life, through a slideshow.

Ashery’s documentary dramatisation involves both actual subjects talking about real life and death situations – including a number of interviewees discussing their ongoing life-limiting illnesses – as well as fictional characters, such as Genesis, whose imaginary identities nonetheless correlate with real historical figures and experiences. As such, the fictional, in Ashery’s case, is not a matter of make-believe, but rather, in Rancière’s sense, a mode of forging the real to better approximate historical and contemporary experience.2 It’s also a way of critically exploring the philosophical implications of a system – death in advanced capitalism – that is only now just emerging. In this regard, Revisiting Genesis expands the approach of the artist’s earlier audiovisual and performative project, Party for Freedom (2013), which interrogated the oftentimes perverse and scatological psychosocial underpinnings of libertarian political discourse, explored through historical research, social collaboration and experimental theatre.3 If that earlier work focused on right-wing biopolitics, Revisiting Genesis considers neoliberal necropolitics, in the setting of multiracial and postindustrial England.

Genesis means ‘generation’, ‘origin’ and ‘creation’ in the original Greek. In proposing that we revisit it, Ashery’s video rethinks the process of generating identity, its origins and creation, in the present moment. It also entails revisiting Genesis as a character that exists in this drama – really, a story of stories – as an allegory of the female-identified modernist artist, who, underrepresented owing to institutional discrimination, and subjectively tragic, harbours the desire to withdraw from professional and even physical existence. The video’s characters connect her to both the historical persona of Russian sculptor Dora Gordine, in whose London-based Dorich House studio the video was partially shot, and the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, in a present when critical avant-garde and consumerist pop have converged. The problematics of feminist disappearance have their own lineage – see, for example Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece, begun in 1970 – and the figure of Genesis is also a troubling reminder that the contemporary ‘rediscovery’ of women artists and their archives is so often posthumous – indeed, in many cases, posthumously financialised. Genesis also signifies a political economy, specifically the time before the onslaughts of neoliberalism – the birthplace of the present – when small businesses were typically independently owned, such as R&K Wise, a now defunct cake factory in Swindon that once supplied Marks & Spencer, rather than the franchises of transnational corporations; and when colleges served local, diverse and immigrant communities and supported experimental arts education, as with Charles Keene College in Leicester, before they transformed into multi-campus universities allied to privatisation and profit. Photographs of those locations, drawn from Ashery’s personal archive, are included as elements of Genesis’s own slideshow, indicating the autobiographical origins of the piece and evoking a time when the division between life and death was unambiguous, even if never quite simple. Owing to the recent technological revolution underwritten by entrepreneurial capitalism, these ambiguities have only multiplied – just as we no longer are in control of our own subjectivities, whether in death or in life. Thus, the time of Revisiting Genesis has come.

In the fifth episode, ‘Archives, Avatars’, we meet Bambi, played by artist Martin O’Brien, whose appearance in the video is tied to his condition of cystic fibrosis. Nurse Jackie introduces him to an online video of Bina 48, a humanoid robot – the latest model of Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, developed by a US corporation researching technological ways to extend life. ‘People don’t have to die’, Bina exclaims, because now ‘death is optional’. We’ve reached the point where ‘immortality is accomplished by creating consciousness and self-replicating machines that can be distributed throughout the cosmos.’ Such techno-utopianism is hardly new; in fact, it’s quite modernist. Think of Mary Shelley’s mad scientist and his desire to overcome death through reanimation – part of an epoch that believed itself capable of transcending all natural limits. Yet the current death industry’s technology is realised through advanced computer cybernetics, and its economic framework determines that ‘immortality services’ are sold to elite consumers. Today’s transcendence of death creates new IT markets rather than horrific monsters.

Ashery’s video translates these temporal and ontological confusions into a general perceptual ambiguity, with blurred visions, double exposures, and fragmenting shots; figures appear simultaneously in and out of the frame, in the frame more than once, or never quite there to begin with. Such a heterotopic space is only appropriate. When the self, including its consciousness, stands to migrate beyond the body and life’s end to persist in cyberspace, we confront a particular aesthetics of dislocation. It is an aesthetic that says a lot about our escapist relation to a world in ecological collapse, endless military conflict and economic disarray – themes that science fiction has consistently addressed (tellingly, Ashery finds resource in the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin4).

Through its subtle system of referencing, and its locating the death industry firmly within the latest ravages of privatisation – when we face the fact that ‘we’ are currently transitioning into so many corporate-managed personas, with ever greater capacities for imitating and ostensibly prolonging human ‘life’ – Revisiting Genesis shows that these technologies are far from innocent. Rather, they emerged precisely through the violent destruction of the recent past – the tail-end of the age previous to the consolidation of neoliberal globalisation. In fact, we are still shaking from the carnage, ever precarious in whatever space we (temporarily?) occupy. That’s not to say that Ashery’s video is nostalgic about the past; indeed, it’s quick to hold the modernist epoch accountable for its devastating sexist exclusions and excessive inequalities, when gradual economic consolidation precipitated subjective and cultural disappearance.

Yet Revisiting Genesis is no flat-footed takedown of the commodification of death either. The video deals a sharp critique to an industry that preys on some of the most vulnerable, the dying and the elderly, but its mode of address is predominantly questioning and contemplative, realised through often-moving and seemingly unscripted dialogues. Bambi evinces scepticism of the businesses trying to sell him a digital will to organise his online assets (his various email accounts, blog posts, websites, Twitter feeds and Instagram images), or a posthumous video-email service to send sentimental missives from the deceased’s online account to loved ones twenty-five years hence, or ecological burial options with smart-technology features – each of which, of course, comes at a price. But more than the economic cost, Bambi is concerned with the existential toll. Will the sale of his internet assets give rise to a ‘digital ghost’? Who will haunt the living of the future, that is, as long as its corporate conjurer continues to feed it by contractual agreement, motivated by profit? What’s the point of sharing grief, when it means having a company effectively own and manage your afterlife? ‘There is nothing wrong with sharing, it’s human’, nurse Jackie reassures. ‘There are very few safe public spaces to share grief without being judged. Digital environments help! It’s a fact.’ Except that such digital environments and death-industry services have fundamentally changed what it means to be human, and nothing will be as it was. Indeed, what remains of ‘us’, when our selves are no longer bounded by life’s finality, when ‘we’ become avatars without bodies managed by unstable and market-vulnerable IT startups? In leaving these questions open, Revisiting Genesis invites speculation about a subject – death – that was once profoundly private and subjective, but is now fully embedded in consumerist calculations, new media services, and class politics.

Footnotes
  1. In a forthcoming interview with Stephanie Bailey for Ocula, Ashery explains that the expanded piece, commissioned by the Stanley Picker Gallery, also includes ‘a performative lecture, a single screen feature length film, and a Death Metal concert performance by Anoxide with a gender intervention from the performance art due New Noveta, staged as part of fig 2 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. This aspect will be developed further in Lilith Performance Studio at Malmo, Sweden in a large-scale performance called Passing Through Metal.’ The complete video is available here: http://revisitinggenesis.net.

  2. See Jacques Rancière, Film Fables (2006, trans. Emiliano Battista), New York: Berg, 2006, p.18: ‘Documentary fiction invents new intrigues with historical documents, and thus it touches hands with the film fable that joins and disjoins--in the relationship between story and character, shot and sequence--the powers of the visible, of speech, and of movement.’

  3. See T.J. Demos, ‘The Unfinished Revolution: Oreet Ashery’s Party for Freedom’, in Oreet Ashery, London: Artangel, 2013, available online at: https://www.artangel.org.uk/party-for-freedom/the-unfinished-revolution/

  4. As Ashery explained in her talk ‘Revisiting Genesis: The Slideshow’, Goldsmiths, University of London, 8 October 2015.