On Decay

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Image: detail from a kusōzu painting (c. 1700) in the Wellcome Collection

This is the full text of an essay I wrote to be featured in the Babycastles X Arcade Review exhibition, which is on now in their NYC gallery! Much like in kittyhorrorshow’s ANATOMY, the essay is presented in the space on a series of tapes visitors have to find and listen to. There’s also three other installations that creatively integrate a game with a critical essay written about it. I think the exhibition is a fabulous way of demonstrating the importance of the interplay between art and criticism, in a time where both run the risk of being increasingly devalued. Enjoy!

Kittyhorrorshow’s ANATOMY, Or: What does it mean to represent decay in 2016?

Fusae Kanda writes: “One of the most provocative images in Japanese art is the kusōzu, a graphic depiction of a corpse in the process of decay and decomposition. The kusōzu was executed in Japan from approximately the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries in various formats… …The subject itself is derived from a traditional Buddhist doctrine that urges contemplation on the nine stages of a decaying corpse. The teaching dates to the early fifth century and promotes a systematic meditation on the impurity of a decaying corpse as an aid to ardent devotees who wish to liberate themselves from sensual desires and affections.” [1]

Decay, abundant in the life cycle of recording, replay, copying and eventual deterioration into unrecognizability inherent to analog media like magnetic tape, has almost disappeared from the day-to-day digital landscape. Programs or files either work or they don’t, they’re perfect copies or fatally corrupted, winking in and out of existence when accidentally deleted like the binary 1/0 that makes them. This all-or-nothingness, extreme instability, has been identified as one of the primary issues unique to preserving digital objects. [2]  While analog media can decay over decades or even centuries yet remain somewhat legible, digital objects implode in on themselves, opting for annihilation, little between perfection and total inaccessibility.

Kusōzu images typically appear in series of nine, and begin with a freshly deceased corpse, still recognizable, “paled” but “as if sleeping.” The series continues through forms of deformation, which can vary between iterations, but typically include discoloration, putrefaction, consumption by animals, dismemberment, skeletal remains, and finally, nothing but dust. These images, then and now, are provocative and startling, often pairing the image of a beautiful and fashionably dressed aristocratic woman with realistic, even observed-from-life depictions of a decaying body, which served to make their cathartic function even more powerful.[3]

In Kittyhorrorshow’s ANATOMY, another icon of femininity and domesticity, the house, is made to decay for a similar unsettling effect. Opening with the familiar mechanical clunk and whirr of a tape being inserted into a VCR and playing, you are greeted with the title and a date, then placed in a model of a house, mediated by some static and scanlines. Rather than appearing inhabited and welcoming, though, the home depicted is dark and stripped bare. Gathering cassette tapes from each room the first time you run the program lays out a topography of the house as human body, until you are trapped by the house, capable of locking, unlocking, and vanishing its own doors, in its master bedroom, which ‘bites down,’ ‘like a mouth.’

Unsettling enough on its own, when the game is opened a second time, the tape’s quality has noticeably deteriorated, the letters and numbers on the title screen deformed, slashed through. Similarly unusual things start happening to the house itself, and the tapes you play, repeating the steps of the first playthrough. The house is no longer simply empty, but somehow corrupted. Polygons clip through walls, framed photographs flicker, textual and audio prompts are warped, decaying into indecipherable static and screeches. Then, another voice breaks through the familiar, though garbled, narration.  The house describes how it murdered a violator who intruded and defaced its halls, luring him into the basement before the house’s mouth snaps shut again.

The third time the game is run, the subtle structural glitches have now advanced to dominate the space, cast in an ominous, primal red. Pulsing, pink flesh presses through the architecture, beds levitate, and when you are finally forced into the basement the house speaks to you, stating what has become obvious, that your presence has been felt all along, as teeth begin to press through the floor. A house left to decay for too long, empty of residents, hungers, and longs to entrap permanent guests.

What ANATOMY has in common with kusōzu is its focus on painstakingly replicating a form of decay, albeit very different ones. What’s truly effective about the horror created within the house is not the way it describes the dark red blood oozing forth from the crushing and shredding of its victims, but how this scenario arises through the inevitable passage of time, ‘what happens to a house when it is left alone.’ Similarly, kusōzu are much less about death as an unfortunate event than they are about the transience of the body, how despite its admirable exterior in life it quickly becomes grotesque and defiled in death. In ANATOMY‘s house, this process is represented by the structural glitches that alter the house around the player, but also the increase in static, warping, and deformation of the audio and simulated screen the house is being viewed through.

ANATOMY is part of a larger tendency in videogames that has a sort of nostalgia for the visual and audio trappings of analog decay. Many of these games also fall into the horror genre. But what is so upsetting about the painstaking reconstruction of scanlines, static and warped audio? Weren’t these simply the shortcomings of the banal technology of twenty years ago?

What does it mean to represent  this form of decay in 2016? The days of worrying over magnets coming into contact with the tape that housed our most precious data are, for the most part, over. Digital technology means that a program or hard drive is whole, accessible, one minute and corrupted, failed, flashed out of sight, the next. We are protected from the horror of the mortality of our documents, photos, music, our memories, spared seeing them degrade. Edible produce with a single blemish or imperfection are thrown out by supersized grocery store chains. Violence increasingly invades our day to day spaces as more and bigger screens inescapably bombard us with a ticker of the latest disasters and conflicts, but what comes after any of these events is erased by the rapidity with which we are flung into the next story. Bodies are no longer left exposed in cemeteries, as they were in Japan until the 14th century. [4]  Outside of a few specific career paths, (forensic entomologists, for example,) access to visible decay is being vanished from the world, and where it can’t be masked we are told it is polite to look away. ANATOMY instead forces you to look, and listen, unflinchingly.


NOTES:

  1. Fusae Kanda, “Behind the Sensationalism: Images of a Decaying Corpse in Japanese Buddhist Art,” The Art Bulletin 87, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 24. JSTOR LINK
  2. Jon Ippolito, “Death by Wall Label,” in Christiane Paul, ed., New Media in the White Cube and beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 124. ONLINE HERE
  3. Kanda, 26.
  4. Ibid., 25.

You can purchase ANATOMY at Kittyhorrorshow’s Itch.io HERE

The Babycastles X Arcade Review exhibition will run at the Babycastles Gallery in New York through December 8th.

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