Digital Seance, Capturable Loss

We are participating in a digital seance. The screen you are looking at to read this article is your medium, connecting you to the streaming afterlife of the writer’s thoughts and memories. Magnetically attracted to the medium, we have formed a close relationship, seeking contact with the digitized spirit. In this desire to come in contact with that which is far and distant in time and space, our cognitive experiences with screens become wrapped up in modes of displaced intimacy. We are in love with the act of processing moments and memories that are lost or absent. We are in mourning.

Technological mobility allows us to get places—to get busy. Light-emitting devices have the capacity to represent our memories: memories from many millennia ago to memories from a few milliseconds ago with the proximity of a selfie. When these devices malfunction and glitch, it is a reminder that the emotional scale of our memories are limited by the technology we use. We desire contact, so we experience intimacy with the memories that are passing and that have passed, which in turn are all contained in a series of rectangular screens.

There is a large canvas photo of my grandmother at my cousin’s house in Peru. I remember this image from my childhood and when I visited last summer I made it a goal to capture a picture of the picture. I wanted to contain it in my device so that I could take a look at it later when I got back to California. I worried that I would forget this image of her or that I would lose visual access to it once we were far apart from each other. The photo gained a new immortality. I can now call upon it at any given time. I come in contact with the memory of my grandmother via digital seance. Although the pixelated version can be resurrected with the closeness of my device, it is also a reminder of how far away she is—and was—in time and place. Through the process of capturing, digitizing and displaying, we download, upload and live-stream memories that spiritually and cognitively displace us from the previous moment.

Diana Li, Pass Away/Long Distance, 2017, Video Installation. Video courtesy of the artist.

“We can’t seem to be able to resolve the problem of the end, or what we see as Death’s untimeliness, with our eyes wide open.”[1]

With our eyes wide open, we participate in a constant mode of what I call “passing.” Passing is the moment we are able to see ourselves blink when we are video chatting or live-streaming. We more often notice this in what we diagnose as a glitch or a lag, but it is visible in even the fastest technological speed. The seemingly short delay of turning the signal of a subject on camera to a pixelated image on screen demonstrates that these devices are not as “live” as we would like them to be. Time passes before the screen represents us. We see ourselves pass when our image, our past-self, moves into digital space before our eyes. As light passes between signals, similarly “passing” is the process of uploaded phenomena becoming past. With the overproliferation of streaming information, the materiality of the device is often forgotten through our automatic relationship with it. Glitch not only disrupts this automatism, it reminds us that this relationship is constantly changing, experienced in passing. In the active form of passing away, we are constantly witnessing the death of the previous moment.[2]

While one may argue the mirroring of our memories is heavily involved with the narcissism of the ego, through a different lens this constant passing also adheres to a constant state of mourning and unresolved closure. Song Dong’s Touching My Father (1997 and 2002) is a poignant series of work involving affect, intimacy, and mourning through the use of screens.

Song Dong,  Touching My Father , 1997, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive. .

Song Dong, Touching My Father, 1997, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.

Before his father passed, Dong photographed his father’s reaction when he projected an image of his hand onto his father’s face and heart. At first, with the light of the projected hand touching his face, his father appears to be uninterested as he smokes his cigarette. In the second photo, when the hand has moved toward his father’s heart, he puts his cigarette down and his head turns toward the projected hand, its light shining with intensity on his chest. In another pair of photos, his father has taken off his shirt. His torso faces more toward the camera’s direction and toward the direction of his son’s presence. He is photographed sitting and contemplating his son’s hand that both touches and doesn’t touch his skin through the use of the projected light.

Song Dong,  Touching My Father , 1997, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.

Song Dong, Touching My Father, 1997, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.

Considered a taboo in China for a father and son to show affection toward each other, let alone touch, this first part of the series displays an intimacy that Dong was able to acquire through the use of a screen. Dong and his father gathered in a moment of simultaneous distance and intimacy through the power of light and projection, opening up a relationship of consent and affection previously not experienced. In an era of rapid digital communication across global distances, these photographs attest to the liminal yet immense capacity for us to transmit love across invisible and performative boundaries. The power of light to record a disembodied hand and to be projected onto another body is a moment of intimacy empowered via technological means.

After his father passed, however, the medium gains new affective significance. Dong records himself actually touching his father’s cold body on tape. This private and intimate moment is so packed with grief that Dong is emotionally incapacitated and cannot play the tape back to watch it. He encloses the tape in its plastic box and glues it shut. We must not only rely on the memory of the artist who recorded it, but also trust with extreme empathy his affective account. This is something that is difficult to achieve in a digital era where we are inundated with images and copies of images.

Song Dong,  Touching My Father , 2002, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.  

Song Dong, Touching My Father, 2002, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.  

In the last part of the series, he projects an image of his father onto water. When he attempts to touch the image of his father, the image is disrupted by the shadow of his hand and the water’s ripples. The memory of his father is erased through the fluidity of the water’s surface. As he mourns the passing of his father, he points to a fragile glitch in nature, in light and in memory.

From his father’s live reactions to his father’s passing and existence as an image, the sequence of the recorded and projected subject informs the affective power of technology to display what remains in passing. At the same time, Dong’s touch on the water implies the precarity of understanding the screen as a surface. He can touch his father (in the format of augmented reality), but the screen replaces and displaces the live and interactive intimacy. This work shows the paradox between the desire to capture and represent a distant person, a past moment or memory on screen, and the liminal capacity to come into contact with that passing subject due to the interference of the screen’s surface. In an era of pixelated preservation, Song Dong’s performance  is a feedback loop, keeping the on-screen immortal and mourning the passing and receding distance of the subject.

Song Dong,  Touching My Father , 2002, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.

Song Dong, Touching My Father, 2002, Videotape, performance. Image accessed via Asia Art Archive.

“Por favor, cierra los ojos…el insomnio viene de la incapacidad de concluir.”[3]

In Touching My Father, Song Dong did not use the handheld devices we keep in our pockets. He was able to embalm a tape-recording of an unusually intimate moment with his father, while intending to never watch it as it would bring too much heartache. Through this gesture, he was able to close his eyes. He was able to come to terms with his father’s death. Although we may have the technical means to do the same to smart devices, we do not have that same emotional closure with our contemporary screens. Dong’s use of touch also speaks to the ways we become absorbed within the haptic interactions of these intimate, light-emitting objects.

So how can we close our eyes? How can we reach for a conclusion? Is there even a conclusion and, if so, why do we need one? We can shut our screens off by pressing the power button, but we can always turn them back on with that same button. It is impossible to attempt a conclusion at the level of looking at or deleting content contained within the screen. The contemporary screen mobilizes us to record and immortalize images and information because it represents remote moments that have passed. Though mourning is commonly known to be a melancholic state of sorrow, grieving and lamentation, mourning also involves a deep process of reconciling absence and loss.

The process of reconciling passing moments can be seen in Dieter Kiessling’s Two Cameras (1998). Two Cameras is a closed-circuit installation involving two cameras closely pointed at each other on auto-focus. The two cameras are each connected to their respective monitor and the sound of their moving lenses is amplified through the monitor’s speakers. As one camera moves its lens to focus on the other camera, the second moves its lens to then reconcile the altered movement in the first camera. As their lenses keep moving in the attempt to focus on each other, both cameras are stuck in a perpetual loop, trying to catch up with the previous moment. They are in flux, in a fluid attempt to understand each other’s live-fed information.

Dieter Kiessling,  Two Cameras , 1998, Video Installation. Image accessed via Media Art Net. .

Dieter Kiessling, Two Cameras, 1998, Video Installation. Image accessed via Media Art Net.

While Kiessling successfully demonstrates both the mechanical achievement and inherent glitch of the auto-focus function, the two cameras are also caught in an intimate dialogue with each other as new yet repetitive image information is exchanged. Meanwhile, the live-fed images on the monitors are of the camera lenses, aiming directly at the viewer. The cameras almost function as eyes returning the gaze upon the viewer who attempts to focus on the piece itself. In this sense, glitch reminds us of our own eyes.

Contemplating the errors and faults of a device helps us work through the trauma of forgetting what is experienced in passing. As a closed-circuit installation, Two Cameras is a technologically minimalistic piece, yet it involves an analysis of power relationships between bodies that are both technological and organic. These particular relationships are loaded with having to deal with the constant change and loss of information.

It is arguable that through the containment and immortalization of pixelated images, we are afraid of forgetting or experiencing loss and mourning. However, this fear actually points to a constant state of mourning through our automatic need for digital seances. Through technological modes of displaced intimacy, the way we process information is directed at what has and will become lost or forgotten. In a digital seance, our attempt to communicate with the spiritual afterlife of language, images and memories is part of the process of reconciling what we know is and will be far away.

“The question that remains however, is whether our bodies will be resuscitated with our old defective eye, though it leads us, makers, to fear to create anything that no one can see, just as it limits what we create to everything that everyone can see.”[4]

Diana Li,  Forget Myself , 2017, Video Installation, Diego Rivera Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.

Diana Li, Forget Myself, 2017, Video Installation, Diego Rivera Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.

Dealing with displacement, passing, and absence, the broken screen emphasizes the loss of what is already representatively lost, even if it is lost by the time it takes to transmit a single camera frame. Out of our control, the broken screen with its distorted vision, closes its own eyes. Through the interference of glitches, we can come to terms with the intimacy we have toward the object’s capabilities and accept that the afterlife of a streamed moment is gone, lost and can no longer be captured.

  1. Trinh T. Minh-ha, D-Passage: The Digital Way (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013),15.  ↩

  2. Passing is also the passage of information from generation to generation. The change and fissures in each iteration of intergenerational info-mobility is attuned to how we think about diasporic memory. With this lens, we can start to reconcile the traditions or memories that are caught between the simultaneous loss and reclamation of each passing moment.  ↩

  3. Byung-Chul Han, Por favor cierra los ojos (Barcelona: Herder Editorial S.L., 2016)  ↩

  4. Minh-ha,15.  ↩

Diana Li works with tele-nomadic multimedia and experiments with technology as a means to disOrient diasporic transmissions of memory and knowledge. Born and raised in the United States to Chinese-Peruvian parents, she focuses on the intergenerational overloading and passage of information. She served as a fellow under the Asian American Women Artists Association’s Emerging Curators Program in 2016, participated in Kearny Street Workshop's APAture: HERE and recently received her MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute.