The ghosts of our former selves haunt the canyons of our cities, our interactions reduced to passing flickers of illuminated faces, swallowed by glowing hand-held tractor beams.
You are already afflicted with HALFLIFE. Soon, the glow will infect and engulf us all, until we are but light trails, spawning a contagion of iridescent disaffection.
I am Patient Zero, and you will all become my willing, glowing minions.
We are infected and infectious. Our ever-present electronic pathogen was once a prescription for connection, but has instead become a pestilence of coercion. We think we are engaged, but we are estranged. We believe we are emancipated, but we are enslaved. The viral divides us until we are conquered and left glowing alone.
On October 6th, 2014, one hundred glowing “carriers,” dressed in fluorescent hazmat suits, wearing fluorescent LED-wired helmets in the dodecahedral geometric shape of the adenovirus , disperse throughout the City of Toronto during its annual Nuit Blanche overnight public art event, “infecting” festivalgoers by marking their faces and hands with “spots” “legions” and “rashes” using invisible UV-reactive ink, and distribute to them invisible UV lamps with built in reactive ink markers to go “infect” others.We distribute ten thousand of these UV invisible ink markers to the public, and instruct them to use to touch, test, infect, decorate and engage with each other, as well as film, spread and scribble their viral messages of presence, connection and warning all over the walls and pavement of Nathan Phillips Square. This is the one time in Toronto’s history that graffiti is encouraged, and all evidence of our infection disappears with the dawn. On a stage in Nathan Phillips Square, framed by a fluorescent “portal” in the shape of a icosahedron (the geometric shape of the HIV virus), Aided by my loyal glowing attendants, I am costumed in an explosion of fluorescence, resembling nothing so much as a mad scientist/apocalyptic pathogen/interdimensional goddess/Heat Miser. At 1 AM, the hazmat-suited carriers converge on Nathan Phillips Square, and begin to harmonize a loud spooky zombie-like intonation (hopefully getting the public to join in) that signals the contagion’s triumph. The reality of the new media is that we are all engaging in a sort of tribal dowsing, plumbing the depths of an ever-expanding matrix in a frantic search for Our People. With the advent of freely-available platforms through which to expose ourselves and observe others, we become one another’s entertainment, allowing each of us, no matter how eccentric, unusual or alone, the opportunity to find an audience and connect directly with them. Given this, it is inevitable that the existing mass media purveyors of the prosaic crumble in the face of such overwhelming self-segregation. We experience something akin to a cultural temperature inversion, wherein the consumers become the producers. We are all both performer and patron.The individualism that this process has nurtured and strengthened has come at a great cost: as a civilization, we seem to have lost the threads that bind us. Age-old civic constructs, responsibilities and the inducement to sacrifice for one another have evaporated in the heat of self-expression and indulgence.
I began with a title.
half-life | ˈhaf ˌlīf | noun
the time taken for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to fall to half its original value: iodine-131 has a half-life of 8.1 days. • the time required for any specified property (e.g. the concentration of a substance in the body) to decrease by half.
The specified property definition intrigued me. Time spent in close proximity to social media resulted in life corrosion, i.e., an erosion of personhood, empathy, agency. The viral nature of this particular vector yielded a signularly powerful form of contamination. The idea of contagious corrosion then became the lynchpin for the work.
Research into the startling corrollaries between the hybrid dodecahedral and icosahedral lens structure necessary to create the spherical implosion wave of nuclear weapons  and the various polyhedral structures of viruses[1:1] informed the design for the helmet worn by the performers. That these formal and visual corrollaries not only existed, but have in fact echoed repeatedly through time, reaching thousands of years into human history, created a formidable theoretical infrastructure onto which to hang the performance.
The first sketch, created late winter, 2013
The second sketch, created late winter, 2013
First Autocad cut file, March 2014
First carboard protoypes, March 2014
First metal protoype, March 2014
The prescience sometimes accorded artists finds itself traditionally restricted to authors of speculative and science fiction, but for practitioners of performance or the more traditional fine art disciplines, the question of what it means to be “before one’s time?” is seldom asked by the artists themselves. The term avante garde is liberally applied to the standouts of art history, but generally has a retrospective tilt, a retroactive label distinguishing those with whom the world has finally caught up. As of this writing, women and people of color are rarely included in these distinctions.
Maya Jaggi, in her essay The Art of Prescience,  addresses issues of exclusion and colonialism in art, and describes the artistic prescience of her subjects Frank Bowling, Horace Ové, Caryl Phillips and Kamala Markandaya as being predicated on their ability to “hold up a mirror to a ‘host’ society,” an act which she observes is “not always welcome. Such art may not even be recognised for what it is.” Most interesting, Jaggi closes her essay with idea that “unfailing, unflattering honesty is the gift an artist bestows.” Marginalized creators have the power to “scrutinize with love.”
Jaggi’s notion of exclusion as a necessary ingredient of affectionate observance and foresight could well be stretched to include queer artists as well, one of the few categories into which I fit.
Before the advent of artificial intelligence and preference algorithms, underground culture was promulgated almost entirely through a viral vector of direct contact and exchange: long, branching daisy chains of knowing nudges, codes and recommendations that would begin with fortuitous stumbling through record stores and book stores, risking our meager earnings on heretofore unknown artists. The deliberate transmission of mixtapes and dog-eared paperbacks functioned as inoculation against the insatiable suction of mass-media indoctrination and created a buoying feeling of exceptionalism. We shared our trophies carefully, conscious of their value as social capital, as if our tastes compensated for our loneliness.
However one experiences alienation, its consequential manisfestations do not spare many. The eerie sensation of dissociation that can sometimes envelop those who think of ourselves as ‘outsiders’ carries with it a cold sort of appraisal and analysis, a sensation of being able to see just a bit beyond the event horizon. When observing the phenomena of interpersonal connection, a thing which often eludes us due to social constraints, inner turmoil or both, we engage in a sort of penetrative looking, a heightened sensitivity to ritual and behavior, with an extrapolative bent. Anticipating the future is central to the survival of liminal peoples. We train our minds to perceive what is coming by attuning ourselves to the imminent splits in circumstance that can yeild mutually exclusive outcomes.
Sometimes, this is akin to finding ourselves tied to the tracks of developing histories. Helpless awareness of oncoming freight trains is a frustrating affliction, as we are powerless to stop the tides wrought by multitudes to which we do not belong. The irony may be that belonging itself may in fact be an impediment to prescience.
Performance art may be uniquely suited to addressing issues of belonging and liminality, as well as providing an avenue for the exploration of interpersonal consequence. The contagion of ideas is a storied labrynth adorned with the histories of art and knowledge production. When the artistic and inventive muses congregate around figures brave, crazy or confident enough to make use of both of them simultaneously, they are individuals who seldom shy away from the burdens of living before their time and often seem to relish the friction.
The novel in which William S. Burroughs proclaimed “language is a virus”  was a oracular tale of mind control, featuring his usual obsessions: sex, psychic powers, subliminal messaging, electronics and pharmaceuticals, all thematic territories often mined by queer artists during their sojourns through normative lands. When Laurie Anderson ably took up the metaphor on her album Home of the Brave  in 1986, she carried forth the weight of non-belonging in a media-saturated world, and foretold its consequences:
Well, I dreamed there was an island
That rose up from the sea
And everybody on the island
Was somebody from TV
And there was a beautiful view
But nobody could see
'Cause everybody on the island was saying:
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me!
That I carry the entirety of Anderson’s exhortations around on my iphone, playing her songs as I sit in the dark, illuminated by the thousands of selfies I flick past on Instagram is a bruising bit of irony I suspect she would appreciate.
In Wim Wenders’ 1991 magnum opus, Until the End of the World,  an epic 228-minute long allegorical meditation on the postmodern affliction, Wenders tasked the film’s various music contributors, visionaries all, (Nick Cave, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, R. E. M. and U2 among them) to compose songs that they might write twenty years hence, in effect asking them to crib from their future selves in an effort to adequately accompany the narrative’s futurist arc. Winder’s glimpse of an apocalypse spent indulging an addiction to hand-held media players initially struck reviewers as a ridiculous conceit when the film was first released. Its re-release almost thirty years later revealed how extraordinarily prophetic his vision really was.
Looking back, Solveig Dommartin’s somnabulent submersion in the recorded self-referential dreams that lie at the heart of Wender’s sprawling plot was a fate that haunted me for years. I vividly remember the disorienting hiss of pressure in my ears upon emerging from the screening at the Angelika Film Center out onto Houston Street in New York City, feeling as if I had been abruptly deposited back into the past with a head full of elegantly bleak visions and an impending sense of doom that I haven’t shaken since.
In January of this year, I received a note from a friend who’d participated in the HALFLIFE performance, commenting on the developments in Wuhan, a little freaked out by my ‘premonitions.’ She asked me if I’d ‘seen’ anything about what was going to happen. I told her that I’d just bought a few extra rolls of toilet paper.
Untimately, the prescient are not spared the blistering fallout that the inevitable inflicts, they are only inoculated against suprise.
Jaggi, Maya. 2019. The Art of Prescience, Wasafiri, 34:4, 3-7, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2019.1635732 ↩︎
Burroughs, William S. 1962. The Ticket That Exploded, Olympia Press, NY ↩︎
Anderson, Laurie. 1986. Home of the Brave, Warner Brothers, NY ↩︎
Anderson, Laurie. 1986. Language is a Virus, Warner Brothers, NY ↩︎
Wenders, Wim. 1991. Until the End of the World. Film. Warner Brothers, Germany. ↩︎