C.O.T.I.S. Movie



Catalogue: C.O.T.I.S. Movie
Catalogue text: ill Communication by Dominic Pettman  



Catalogue: C.O.T.I.S. Movie
Published by Experimenta Media Arts, Melbourne, Australia, 1999



Catalogue Text: ill Communication by Dominic Pettman
From C.O.T.I.S. Movie catalogue
Published by Experimenta Media Arts, Melbourne, Australia, 1999

Ever since we were children we were taught to cover our mouths. It seemed that the chance of contagion was a form of magic -- it became clear that we were part of a human continuum and could infect others (or become infected by others) if we weren't careful. This could also be a form of power. The common cold and chicken pox were early encounters with a mysterious process of exposure to an invisible element with painful consequences: the virus. In these millennial years the mystique of the virus is ironically increased by the scientific scrutiny which diagnoses and typologizes the bug. In medieval times the plague was a scourge interpreted as the vengeful hand of god, and in the early days of AIDS it was common to hear similar sentiments. From Wells' deus ex biologia in War of the Worlds to the 'invisible bullets' of colonialist sneezes, the virus is the evil trickster which delineates the unstable cultural category of 'illness' (and consequently, 'health'). Ebola, Marburg, Sabia, etc. are all semi-sacred names which elicit dread and respect.

But why the fascination with the virus? Jean Baudrillard suggests that it represents a kind of metaphysical safeguard against pure circulation -- an existential abomination equivalent to the vacuum. He thus offers the controversial assertion that AIDS was a quasi-poetic response to the promiscuity of the 1960s, an 'emergence' which has its analogues in any network, including the media. The virus, in its microscopic, transmissable capacity, exposes the individual to the group, thereby undermining any humanistic legacy based on autonomy or sovereignty of self. Blanchot tells us that 'the basis of communication is not necessarily speech, or even the silence that is its foundation and punctuation, but the exposure to death.' Beneath this morbid statement is the delirious understanding that in the age of electronic communication, contagion is a parallel mode of connection. The globalist planetary shrinkage which accompanies the information age is thus a trojan vector for viral vengeance, simultaneously creating its own blockages in a system designed for maximum circulation. According to this logic, for every new fax machine there is a new computer virus, and for every new antibiotic there is a new super-bug strain -- and so it goes in a mutant Darwinian spiral.

And yet it is the ghostly, doppleganger character of the virus which enthralls and horrifies. The virus traces an absence, not only of the 'patient' in Foucault's sense of control and surveillance, but of itself. The detection of HIV for instance, is not through positive identification of the virus, but via the presence of its antagonist, antibodies. Much of today's technologically informed art is acutely aware of the uncanny parodoxes of viral tropes -- finitude, exposure, communication, contagion, presence, absence, death and life (for if a virus is too virulent, it too shall die). 1998's Viruses and Mutations exhibition was a collective meditation on the fin-de-siecle fascination of the virus. As in Neal Stephenson's symptomatic science-fiction novel, Snow Crash, the computer virus is seen as yet another mode of transmission between self and other, subject and object, human and hardware, so that the millennium bug is potentially a threat to the software of the flesh.

Appropriately enough this exhibition was held in one of Melbourne's major hospitals, St Vincents. Indeed many of the exhibits began with the premise that The Hospital is not a building as such, but an unconscious vortex; its tenticular circumference covering the globe, while the building itself becomes merely the emanating centre of 'hospitalness.' In such a scenario the healthy hiker enjoying the view from the top of a mountain is still treading on the periphery of the hospital. One installation dominated the show in terms of location, size, noise and sheer perverse nastiness. Sitting in the middle of the room and spitting out Dantesque shrieks was the new work by KIT called C.O.T.I.S. MOVIE (Cult Of The Inserter Seat Mechanism Of Virus Infection Entry). Resembling Darth Vader's banana-lounge-cum-home-entertainment-centre, this intimidating installation beckoned the unsuspecting gallery patron to sit in an aeroplane seat (scavenged by the artist from a crashed plane found in an aviator's wrecking yard). Pressure pads beneath the seat initiate a computer program on the terminal in front of them, and the screen announced the fact that they are about to be scanned. After a series of ominous sounds -- a combination of technical airport devices and authentic black-box recordings -- stir the patron into a state of anxiety and anticipation, the screen flashes a set of temporal and geographical co-ordinates. These represent the place and moment of death.

While especially disturbing for the superstitious, this work highlights the thin line between medical prognosis and old-fashioned premonition. Prediction and prolepsis merge in a work which highlights the affinity between doctor and prophet, both undertaking (and the pun is intended) of interpreting signs of 'the end.' What makes the C.O.T.I.S. machine even more perplexing, is the sinister punch-line, 'you have been implanted.' The suggestion here is that the machine has found an immunity weakness and uploaded the co-ordinates of your own death into your system, rather than merely guessing it. The patron's/patient's final hour has thus been coded into their DNA, and their demise has changed status from being inevitable to pre-programmed: a subtle but decisive shift. As with William Gibson's Case, time suddenly acquires a keener edge, prompted by a rude reminder of time-bound mortality.

While it has been decades since Warhol's work on car-crashes, and Burroughs' assertion concerning the viral properties of language, the convergence between the two modes of fatal communication have perhaps finally broken out of their asymptotic trajectory and crossed the line into our everyday lives. The macro-spectacular moment of the crash in the twentieth century is giving way to the micro-millennial meltdown of the snow crash. And people, unfortunately, don't come equipped with their own boot-disc in case of systems failure. In the age of catscans and ultrasound, KIT have exposed the paranoid subtext of the scanner as one particular site of anxieties concerning diagnostic surveillance and penetration: the biopolitical legacy of the X-ray. This installation both celebrates and deconstructs the clinical probing of the social body, underscoring the irony that we have internalized technology the very moment that these technologies have questioned the notion of inside and outside. In this highly mediated sense, human physiognomy has evolved past the stage of epidermal integrity into the cyborgian moebius strip.

Whether you laugh it off or not, KIT have zoomed in on the hysterical symptoms of the postmodern condition -- less the apocalyptic crash, than the intolerable suspension of that crash. In an age where even fluffy Euro-pop bands such as The Cardigans have a video-clip climaxing with a pornographic car crash, it is quite an achievement to restore the symbolic shock of the virus. Namely, the creeping knowledge of an accelerated mortality, the flip-side of a culture with the longest life-span in history.