The Image as unit of contagion

A response to the work of Mer Roberts by Delphi Carstens. 2011.

Since founding the art-collective 0rphan Drift in 1994, Mer Roberts has been deeply immersed in exploring the uncanny shadows of the globalised world. As a digital shamaness who straddles the Atlantic in all directions, Mer has direct feeds into voudoun, African sorcery, continental philosophy, fashion and experimental techno-culture. Articulating what can be termed driftwork, Mer describes a passage through membranes, filters and barriers into unbounded electromagnetic spaces where things oscillate and collide. This is a passage beyond the singularity into dimensions where the ordinary rules of temporality and spaciality no longer apply. Interpenetrating her work is a Zen aesthetic – a direct pointing at reality; a serene yet violent penetration of the neo-cortex by a powerful new meme. Her collages, ethereal watercolours and oils, digital images and short films emphasise the incursion of what Freud called the uncanny – the somehow familiar yet disturbing intrusion of the unconscious dream into waking life. Spectral winds blow softly across her images, announcing the arrival of a tectonic paradigm-shift.

While with 0rphan Drift, Mer collaborated in the production of video and AV performance, collage, text and print work (with Warwick university’s CCRU), published a cyberpunk novel and released several digital recordings (produced by Ocosi). When the collective dispersed in 2002, Mer followed the Atlantic underwater currents to South Africa to rediscover voudoun frequencies in a different postcolonial context. Here, based in a tiny seaside village on the Cape Peninsula, her work began exploring new types of fluid becoming. Xhosa seamonsters, Bushmen cosmology and sangoma rituals have woven their frequencies into her high-tech narratives, revealing a world where spirit possession leaks into mutant evolution. These tropes are avatars and messengers of a hybrid apocalyptic future; post-surrealist and science-fictionally prophetic, they signal a powerful hyperstition at work in contemporary culture.

In our emerging globalised networks our bodies are “intertwined as never before with increasingly dynamic flows of capital, goods, immigrants, pollution, software, refugees, pop culture, viruses, weapons, ideas, and drugs,” writes techno-philosopher Erik Davis (1998: 301). This dissolution of boundaries, between primitive and modern, organism and machine, past and future, fictive and factual is the crossroads inhabited by Mer’s artworks. Her images of strange amphibious mutants express what Donna Harraway in the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ refers to as the sudden appearance of “seriously mutated worlds that never existed on this planet before.” This is not just about ideas but the manifestation of the new flesh (Haraway 1997:3). Mer’s combination of digital and ‘analog’ media describe evolutionary fever-dreams; hybrid amalgams that complicate distinctions between material and immaterial phenomena and dimensions.

The liminal spaces and nomad subjectivity that Mer engages with are areas where the imagination can re-invent the body as an arbitrary or morphing vessel for shape, texture, light and navigation. Using stylised formats reminescent of indian miniatures, and sheen-like surfaces that evoke screens, Mer’s collages fuse tantric ectoplasmic emanations, mayan blood scroll imagery and African witchcraft into the prophetic excesses of haute couture. Both trajectories navigate the liminal dimension of fantasy and ephemeral matter. Mutants with osmotic fish skins, dimension crossing abilities, tentacles, and virtual bands of flexing matter manifest new nomadic autonomous zones. Exotic monsters clothed in smart fabrics and aquatic time travellers pilot crystalline, nanotech ‘spaceships’ through virtual bands of flexing matter.

As they fuse into new combinations, Mer’s image components discard and slip away from their initial context. Retaining all of the hauntings, spectacle, glamour, trauma, disconnection, dereliction and explorative qualities inherent in global high-end fashion, these images invoke a sense of ‘ostranie’ or making strange. Around her high-tech mutants float the flotsam and jetsam of the South African coastline and invocations of global warming aftermaths. Nanotech and quantum distortion meld with references to African nomadism- urban squatter camps, ghettotech, Bushmen tents, migrations of peoples dispossessed by upflares of xenophobia and, on a more positive note, instances of enmeshed African spirituality.

No word exists in African languages for the ‘symbolic’ – things simply are; and this is how they appear in Mer’s work. The trickster, that most potent of African science-fictions is frequently invoked to signal this direct engagement. Inhabiting interzones and thresholds where perceptions of the real are made up of a mixture of the virtual and actual, the Trickster signals the incursion of novelty as Africa is changed through its engagement with hypermodernity. Hatchings of radical possibility, tricksters inhabit the vast empty spaces Mer invokes; zones of elsewhere/when, of loss and desire. Signaling apocalypse, mutation and change, her trickster narratives express a global culture of acceleration, intensification and revelation that is deeply engaged in the actualisation of apocalypse.

Tricksters are helpful in navigating our way through a world completely compromised by human activity. As the biosphere is increasingly degraded, humans are compelled to augment themselves – both physically and mentally – in order to survive poisoned environments. Mer’s trickster mutants articulate an emergent sensibility of survivalism. The recurring references to trickster designers such as Alexander McQueen, whose transitory dramatic confabulations were unreproducable and often unwearable, point the way toward (and beyond) the excessiveness of a global culture in decline. Such imagery both mask and reveal the failure of environmental politics and global protest and the urgency of new vision. Trickster figures offer a way out of this impasse by pointing towards a new synergy of fiction, physical consciousness and futurism.

This same alchemy informs an emerging new paradigm evident in the neo-romantic narratives of Speculative Realism, the theory-fictions of writers like Reza Negarestani and the sonic-fictions of musicians such as Kode9 that are beginning to emerge from the ashes of postmodernism. Evolved from the memes conceptualised by 0rphan Drift and the CCRU, these narratives reveal the presence of a powerful contagion. 0rphan Drift’s uncanny short films and installations marked the beginning of a synaesthetic, haptic and immersive zone. This zone – the one perpetuated by Mer Roberts – drifts on the winds and ocean currents and flickers through the cavernous abstract spaces of the electromagnetic spectrum, settling here and there to grow into strange new flowers. It’s frequency, subtle yet potent, promises nothing less that a wholesale transmogrification of the flesh.

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