Reading Science Fiction

By David Velasco
Published in Ann Lislegaard_2062 Catalogue for The Henry Gallery, 2009

A single white vertical line appears, drawn stiffly to the left of the frame’s midpoint; at first a mere adumbration, it grows brighter as it glides effortlessly across the screen. A golden block follows, soon transected by a thick red line and chased by another block of yellow; color fields with edges too hard for human hands, they coast by at an eerily serene pace.

Very quickly the blocks break up, forming strange divagations until something recognizable—a door handle—manifests, followed by a glowing white globe-lamp strung simply from the ceiling. The perspective—one is tempted, by virtue of the animation’s cinematic quality, to call it a camera, but of course it is no such thing—pans down, giving a view of the play of light and shadow dividing the floor, a series of rectangles racing each other, striking in their luminescence, as soothing as they are unreal.

So goes the ostensible “beginning” to Ann Lislegaard’s 2005 piece Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany), the first of a trilogy of varying responses to science fiction novels. (The others are Crystal World (After J.G. Ballard), 2006, and Left Hand of Darkness (After Ursula K. Le Guin), 2008.) The beginning is ostensible because it is also arbitrary; the work, once set in motion, repeats ad infinitum, and the claustrophobic architecture and the disembodied character of the animation suggest that it is not so much a movie to be played as a world to be glimpsed and then filled and inhabited with projections—much like the exotic places delineated in Delany, Ballard, and Le Guin’s visionary stories.

The sites touched on here—Delany’s city of Bellona, from his 1974 novel Dhalgren; Ballard’s crystalline Gabonese jungle, of which he wrote in 1966; Le Guin’s wintry planet Gethen, born in 1969—are hostile ones, dystopic or antagonistic. They are places of physical and psychological danger, arenas for adventure. (As Emmanuel Levinas notes in Totalité et infini Totality and Infinity, 1961, there is no ethics without danger, without adventure.) Lislegaard strips these works of any semblance of plot—the adventure-element, as it were—leaving us with a bare, cryptic mise-en-scène. What she ultimately takes from these ethnographies, these books-that-are-also-places, is an almost perverse preoccupation with architectonics—a different way of looking at, and sometimes listening to, the original works.

Stylistically, Crystal World (After J.G. Ballard) resembles Bellona; there is a similar scopophilic urgency, the same eerie pans, reflections and refractions through windows, noirish and ominous quarters. Bellona contains a residue of life (a blinking radio; lights that flicker on and off, revealing and then concealing the walls); the strange domicile sketched out in Crystal World is surrounded by a dense, unfamiliar verdure. Significantly, perhaps, both of the novels are set in contemporaneous times, in areas closed off by inexplicable catastrophe. But where Bellona is colored, Crystal World is achromatic. Renditions of the latter’s landscape are more complex, and there are two visual channels instead of one.

Both are hermetic semiotic systems anchored to their source-worlds by the use of text—cut-ups from the original novels. “Sometimes it seems as if these walls on pivots are controlled by subterranean machines, so that, after one passes, they might suddenly swing to face another direction,” the narrator twice intones in Bellona. “Parting at this corner, joining at that one, like a great maze—forever adjustable, therefore unlearnable.” Lifted from Dhalgren, these lines announce the substructure of the work, harkening to the recondite architecture that forms the backdrop—and sometimes the very catalyst—for the characters’ musings in Delany’s novel. Then there are lines such as these, culled from Ballard’s book and printed as subtitles at the bottom of a screen:

“indeed, the rest of the world seems drab and inert by contrast
a faded reflection of this bright image
forming a grey penumbral zone
like some half-abandoned purgatory”

It is a lonely place indeed, this purgatory. The protagonist, the reader’s escort, traverses the novelistic landscape, operating as the lone compass in an endlessly shifting semiotic sea. Lislegaard’s “lens” serves a similar function; the nameless hero of these stories tracks the unfamiliar landscape, revealing nothing but secrets as he proceeds.

* * *

It is cold here—very cold. Winter is a hostile planet. There are no flying birds, no large land animals on which to feed, the land is perpetually coated in a sheet of ice. Its people, the androgynous Gethenians, are accustomed to the weather’s discomfort. It is all they know, for they haven’t yet reached for the moons and galaxies beyond them. When the envoy Genly Ai arrives, bearing tidings from a larger universe, he comes to a world filled with strange names: nations called Karhide, Orgoreyn, Sith; unfamiliar customs and practices, such as dothe (a spiritual summoning of strength), kemmer (the form of sexual coupling unique to the androgynous Gethenians), and shifgrethor (an untranslatable code of honor).

“Alone, I cannot change your world,” Ai observes. “But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.”

Thrown into this world, the envoy functions as both anthropologist and ambassador—and in the end, in his phrasing recalling Martin Buber’s 1923 existentialist keystone Ich und Du (I and Thou), also a philosopher. Ai is both a vehicle for entering the text and the cipher for an artificial or contrived mode of understanding. (The homonym of I, but also the abbreviation AI.) This world and its culture trips him up, its logic is incoherent, ultimately too deeply alien, and thus untranslatable. His figuring-out, the stumbling calibrations of the stranger, set the deep context for Lislegaard’s own explorations—in this case not a guiding lens but a shingled arrangement of intensities.

Three imbricated projections, the space in Left Hand of Darkness (After Ursula K. Le Guin) is less clearly articulated than the other works in the trilogy; it sketches a very different architecture. Schematics of items—skis, poles, backpacks, sleds, and other equipment evocative of the epic cross-country journey taken by Ai and his companion Therem Harth rem ir Estraven that consumes the latter part of the book—float in a haze. The items and their drifting arrangements resemble a literal map of the unconscious—a metonymic nonspace that also seems resonant with the unique form of telepathic “mindspeach” Le Guin lays out in Left Hand. Juxtaposed alongside the items are overlapping pages from two chapters of Le Guin’s book (“To the Ice” and “On the Ice”), diagrams of male and female genitalia, and dizzying flashes of astringent Op-Art illusions, evocations of Bridget Riley and Marina Apollonio and Duchamp’s hypnotic Rotary Demisphere.

Projected amid these incongruous images are high-contrast videos of martial arts–like gestures performed by an androgynous being (played, significantly, by two women and one man, the differences among each actor being largely indiscernible). The fluid choreography recalls Maya Deren’s 1948 film Meditation on Violence, which featured Chao-Li Chi alone in a room executing a similar set of gestures. Throughout the work a wash of white noise surrounds us.

The experience is vertiginous. This is hardly an accident. Deren once proposed a “vertical structure” for imagery as an alternative to film’s more traditional linear (or “horizontal”) narrative form. Lislegaard takes up Deren’s premise but pushes it beyond the planar realms of linearity and verticality; the work develops its own, rather different non-filmic grammar, one whose touchstone is no longer back-forth or up-down, but depth-surface. It is a structure organized according to density and scarcity of images.

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin is suspicious of those who label science fiction “predictive” or “extrapolative.” “If you like,” she suggests in contradistinction, “you can read Left Hand, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment.” Fans of these thought-experiments don’t simply read books from the genre of course: They are absorbed by them. Lislegaard transposes this absorption into a theater of her own making – a hermetic event horizon imagined and projected, both figuratively and literally, onto a surface.

As vivid as they are unreal, Lislegaard’s enigmatic, formalist opuses are odd incantations, more poetry than analysis, metaphoric encapsulation instead of exposition. Tethered to the text, yet not decipherable according to it, these landscapes conjured in the mind’s eye bear a tenuous relationship to their narratives; they are thought-experiments, eidetic reductions of sorts, in their own right. She elides the vestiges of linear plot and literary syntax, distilling the books’ fundamental precepts into recondite, suggestive animations.

In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt rues that nobody has yet paid the “highly non-respectable literature of science fiction… the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” This is no longer true, and indeed it now seems that everyone looks to science fiction for its “predictive” or “extrapolative” functions. Which is to say they are not reading science fiction so much as skimming it for its utilitarian insights. What Lislegaard does is read science fiction, parlaying that reading-experience into something else—something both recognizable and irreconcilable—something that the private reader can engage with on his or her own terms. I called it eidetic reduction, but it is not precisely reductive—it is simply true to an ultimately unthematizable experience with the work. Whereas a director may make an “adaptation” of a science fiction piece, overwhelming our own imaginative projections with his or her own, an artist like Lislegaard brings to us an experiment of her experience, for us to recognize in our own.

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