Constant Death

Shelby Shaw
MFA DM 2022

In winter 1930, a 23-year-old hired to locate the ninth planet of our solar system for Lowell Observatory’s ambitious Project X succeeded in piecing together images of a moving disc in the sky, proving that he had, in fact, located a new planet in our solar system. The planet would be graced with a name chosen by Lowell Observatory (an honor due by the rights and privileges of the scientific community), which received over a thousand suggestions from eager romantics around the world hoping to make history. It was an 11-year-old girl in Oxford, England, whose fancy for classical mythology gave her the idea to name this sneaky planet Pluto, after the receiving god of the afterlife, whose Greek root derived from Plouton, formerly known as Hades, a notoriously dark and stormy figure in the underworld. The ghoulish name seemed to fit a planet that took more than a year of dedicated sky-searching to suddenly come into being through a few shadowy photo developments in a dark room.

Lowell Observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell, had died before he could see his dreams for Project X come true, so his widow, Constance, had contributed three name suggestions on their behalf, including Percival and Constance. Her third suggestion, Zeus, was appropriately rejected as well, considering this tiny, barely there speck was hardly a king relative to the other citizens in our solar system. But neither persistence nor consistency nor grand scale ultimately mattered with the Project X discovery. Pluto was a thing that lived beneath the virtual surface, that you might encounter in another realm, that you knew about but could not say you’d really seen before. Pluto was little more than hearsay from the start.

And then it was dead. In 2006, after a floating mass larger than Pluto was detected by astronomers, the scientific community officially disowned Pluto from the lineup of proper, “real” planets. Science teachers everywhere rewrote their lessons while current students and those who remembered being taught about the ninth planet turned the has-been orb into a meme for irrelevance and mistakes, jokes about authenticity dripping in sarcastic nostalgia. Pluto’s downfall demonstrated two things: even science is not always grounded in fact; and even the afterlife, whether for objects or lifeforms or concepts, is not guaranteed to be whatever it is you expect it will be.

In spring 2019, another set of scientific truths was rendered false: the precise measures of the kilogram (weight), kelvin (temperature), ampere (electric currents), and the mole (material substance) shifted from being arbitrary amounts based on men doing experiments to being numerical constants. The kilogram’s material and mathematical amount, for example, is no longer measured by comparing a subject’s weight to the only true kilogram in existence—a cylinder that has been housed outside of Paris since the French Revolution, guarded by several key-holders who must all be present in order for access to be granted. This original kilogram (or Le Grand K, as it is affectionately known) has a very precise weight, a weight that informed the newly official, fixed weight of the kilogram. By creating a constant for the unit, the kilogram now exists as a fixed fact instead of as a thing, a thing that in fact was not fixed: it could be microscopically altered, weighing less from scratches to its surface, or weighing more by dust that settles during a lifetime of being observed in a vault (under multiple glass bell jars). Indeed, scientific concepts, unlike their tangible counterparts, do not risk the natural degradation associated with materialism.

The sciences have not changed with Pluto’s loss of planetary status. Mathematics has not changed with the newly decided indeterminacy of Le Grand K, which now sits in the basement of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, where it can gather all the dust it wants without causing severe repercussions in physics and engineering. But history is being rewritten by being exacted into indisputable facts—a natural trend of both science and history that remains constant as humanity becomes older, wiser, more prolific in our research, and more precise in our measurements. By revising their definitions, scientists are preserving a working harmony between variable and control and revoking the very danger of mortality: what is accurate cannot be disputed and cannot die.

The kilogram will live on in perpetuity due to history’s alchemy of thing into fact. But if Le Grand K will be immortalized for what it had been (exactly one kilogram) and for what it had not been (anything less or more than one kilogram), it holds up a troubling mirror for the rest of us, we non-scientific units of measurement, i.e., people. Even in the afterlife, most cultures believe you enter still being the person whose life has just ended, and judgment may then pass over you for what you did in that lifetime. To most, the afterlife is not an immediate rebirth; it is a recap and perhaps a reward or a reprimanding for what has transpired, the experience of which you hold onto with pride or with suffering, for eternity, or until the next life begins.

Consider ancient Egypt. The god Anubis, it was believed, would lead the newly dead to the Hall of Truth, where Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld, would judge one’s heart from the accumulation of its life left behind: Was the heart’s soul pure as an empty vessel, or had it been weighted down with sins? In order to make a proper evaluation, Osiris would place the heart on one scale and a single feather of truth on another, watching how the balance leveled out while the deceased was interrogated about their life.1 Consider that a single chicken feather weighs 0.8 grams, or 0.000008 kilograms, on average.2 A heart lighter than a feather was allowed to pass into paradise, but a heart that sank lower was devoured by the conglomerate animal known as Amut, a consequence considered to be the absolute worst misfortune, for it confirmed that you no longer existed. For the Egyptians, the only Hell was that of not being. For Osiris and his scale, there was no such thing as a kilogram to take into consideration.

Existentialism observes that man is condemned to live, and in order to live one must also expect to die.3 You did not choose to live, but you also cannot choose not to die.4 There is no formula for being alive, there are just facts: if you are, then one day you will not be. The difference between man and thing is that man is able to bestow life (“A planet; we’ll call it Pluto”) and then change his mind with a sterile and bloodless social death, ending the thing’s validity while sweeping it under the rug in one fell swoop (“Nevermind, carry on”). But it is precisely this removal from any risk of variation, which is necessitated by ongoingness and perpetuated by simply being alive, that preserves what was once something by protecting it from becoming no thing. You are what you are, until you are no longer. Then you become a fact of history, not science. But as we have seen, the fact of one thing’s ontology is not always so truthful; so a fact is until it is proven as other, which can include not being.

Here's how I know: when I woke up to a phone call at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning, my life had existed exactly the same as when I had fallen asleep around midnight the night before. But that’s only because of what I did not yet know, what had not yet been recorded to my memory. If Schrödinger calls, you can choose to answer or you can choose to not change what you know by not answering. But sending a call to voicemail does not nullify what the call is trying to tell you. At 7:00 am on a Sunday morning I woke up to a phone call,  and by 7:05 am my father was dead. The message was delivered to me, the change was recorded, and my father was permanently relegated to the archives of my memory within those first five minutes of waking. Nothing can mean you have everything until the truth arrives to correct your assumptions.

Like Le Grand K, my father was once an existing thing to consult as a metric of who I was compared to him, and he has transformed into a constant that cannot change: he is dead. Anything of his legacy, of his image, or memories of him remain fixed as whatever it is that exists in tangible objects or intangible recall. There will be no new conversations, shared experiences, or watching him grow older. His past is all that is about him, and who he is now and forever will be. Consequently, he has become (transformed, metastasized, metamorphosed, past tense of verb for “to change”) a static entity. My life, as it continues (advances, endures, sustains, present tense of verb for “to persist”), progresses kinetically. Iam right now, therefore I still am at the time of typing this.

For my purposes, a performance can be a candid video recorded by my father, or a photograph of a flower that he shot and developed. These artifacts archive a single viewpoint of his truth, his subjects’ truths, and my own beliefs as a new-party viewer by presenting me with whatever facts have been captured. But despite being his daughter, I do not automatically inherit the truth of the moment whenever he is captured on video or by a photograph. I was not there, I was not him. I am just a spectator after the record is already made and sealed. As Peggy Phelan famously argued for performance studies in 1993, “Performance’s only life is in the present.”5 A performance is its immediacy of experience, and has no connective life-tissue with any documentation of the event. To Phelan, nothing is the performance except being there during its original occurrence; all written reviews, photographs, and video recordings are copies of the performance itself, and as is the result of translating a medium into another medium, they are also new originals derived from the performance, as documents. But they are not the performance.

In which case the death of a living person is the death of their entire catalogue of performance media: of appearance, cognition, speech, talent, idiosyncrasies, preferences, bodily functions. Every form a person takes is terminal during their lifetime and wholly ceases upon their death. Every format of their life must become a new medium in memoriam.

Having an archive of over 75 hours of video shot by my late father, I digitized the footage from Video8, MiniDV, and VHS tapes to scan for clips that featured his own presence on-screen. Moving to photogrammetry, I built 3D models from what the computer detected was the subject in the image, which was not always a perfect outline of my father. Instead of creating any semblance of recognizably life-like representations of my father's face, head, or body, the computer generated objects impossible to architecturally understand, draw, or print into the real world. With 388 models created from 53 individual video clips spanning from 1987 to 2004, I endeavored to have a way in which I could have a better view of the models than looking at static, inert screenshots, since translating the files into material objects (birthing them into the world as tangible things) was not possible.

As my research has convinced me, what is born digital should remain digital if fidelity to the form's inherent essence and construction is important, and ripping out a file from the computer to materialize it in "the real world" is an alchemy across dimensions that cannot translate without loss. Considering how death is an evolution of matter, from living organic material to a debatable variety of soul, spirit, energy, or historical fact, I approached the 3D models of my father's images as if approaching his own deceased body: the dead are to remain dead, and are not meant to be brought back to life. My 3D models were born digitally into an existence consisting of pixels, RGB, and bytes. They are not of “this” world, of clay or plastic or resin or celluloid. Trying to reincarnate my models as objects on Earth would be a mistake, guaranteed to misrepresent the perfect impossibilities of my models when viewed in their native digital world on-screen.

In order to enhance viewing my models while keeping fidelity to their computational genome, I created holograms to virtually project the models into space, retaining their digital existence without trying to reincarnate the file into an organic material physicality. There is still loss—of data, smoothness, the details of a close-up on a computer monitor—but I have successfully animated my 3D models on Earth without creating them in an Earthly form. This is a triumph, from my perspective. The computer code I wrote to project the holograms has become the medium for the models; the plexiglass display I fabricated has become the medium for reflecting the models’ actuality as holographic objects. Each hologram is titled for the amount of data (in bytes) lost between the size of its particular video clip's frames (as .TIF files) and the 3D models (as .OBJ files) that resulted. The exhibited holograms compose The Quantum Album, an ongoing series of virtual memento mori artifacts of my father's existence as it has been translated, metamorphosed, or reincarnated as digital pixels and bytes.

While Phelan’s position would mean that my father is over as a live event, Philip Auslander’s position6 is that the residual documentation is itself an indexical performance of my father that I engage with simply by perceiving it. Auslander proposes two categories for these artifacts of a performance, being either “documentary” or “theatrical.” He suggests “that performance documents are not analogous to constatives, but to performatives: in other words, the act of documenting an event as a performance is what constitutes it as such.” A documentation of a performance requires labeling or referring to it as such, which in turn creates two facts with one term: that the artifact is a document of a performance, and that a performance is what has been recorded by the document. It is performance’s equivalent of putting an object on a pedestal to literally elevate it as Art, or science's naming of a designated mass to redefine it as a planet.

Along these lines, I question whether the performance of my father's life has been indexed by the 3D objects generated by the computer's vision of what my father's life-form looked like, as seen in SD video footage and 2D photographs, as seen in documentation that I am trying to reverse-document into the 3D subject originally captured in the image. Are my holograms an index that point back to a life-form as it performed its daily existence? Or has the hologram as documentation become an index of the computational process, the errors in translation from organic to digital?

Auslander is echoing Amelia Jones when she posited her original idea of body art captured in photographs as a necessary two-way “anchor” for the art and the photograph to confirm each other's existence.7 But Jones also held the position that “while the experience of viewing a photograph and reading a text is clearly different from that of sitting in a small room watching an artist perform, neither has a privileged relationship to the historical ‘truth’ of the performance.” The performances that I witness—or read about—or remember later—are only ever true for me, in all the permutations of recollection, reading comprehension, or visual interpretation that I may engage with, at the time of the live event or after its first (true) occurrence. And if I choose to refer to my father’s life as a performance, then the “historical ‘truth’ of the performance” is still limited to my viewpoint, regardless of whether I was there, or whether I am his daughter. Revisiting her essay in 2010 for the anthology Archaeologies of Presence, Jones asks, “Is there a way to retain a sense of ‘liveness’ when writing about one’s experience of durational art works?”8

Is there a way to feel alive when regarding, reading, or remembering the past? And is that feeling possible to be translated as a fact: can it become constant without first having to die? In my work, my 3D models are the results of capturing time, preserving isolated video segments as constants that can be replayed and examined repeatedly without change, much as a photograph of a performance is a documentation of that particular instance from the performance, and does not change between each time you look at it. Perhaps my hologram displays are far from any historical truths of the shape and look of my father as he was in life, but the hologram’s very format as a façade of substance, material, or liveliness retains a truth of the computational, inhuman realm to which my father's existence has been relegated forever: to pixels and digital data.

In the way that Lowell Observatory’s Project X proved the existence of another planet by piecing together its repeated images from the night sky, I am turning towards the document to prove my father’s existence, performed as the person he was, by piecing together the repeated images of his life and dissecting them for the very being that each pixel represents. In pitting Phelan against Auslander and considering Jones in the middle, I am looking for the argument of mortality through objecthood: does an image archive the past, or manifest the present tense, of an existence? I have become an archaeological archivist, sifting through a realm of digitization to uncover how life exists when it has been fossilized into metadata, bytes, and pixels.

What images do is not wholly truthful to their subjects, even the photographed: every documentary is a biased account, piecing together the cut-up fragments that best fit into the story one is trying to personally tell, which may be the story that is all that is available (when working with a limited set of data), or is the story that they think will reap the most money (which inherently plays to the whims of producers and studios and audience expectations, rather than an unbiased perspective). The story I tell about myself is not the story my mother would tell about me, or the story that my partner would tell about me, or the story the person I dated before would tell about me. I have more info than anyone else about the subject Me—but even that does not make me the most truthful person about myself, as I only know of what I am aware and of what I have taken notice when I have been consciously present. Pluto was a planet until we discovered it’s just a rock in comparison to something larger that exists; Le Grand K was a perfect kilogram until its material mortality deemed it imperfect compared to a static number; and a person like my father was an active and kinetic happening until it ceased and resettled into a new body, that of an archive, the documentation of its finite performance. Whether the archive is fact, fiction, or even still alive, is a matter of what is still left to know.

Shelby Shaw is a multidisciplinary artist and writer whose research examines whether an image archives or manifests existence through both analogue and digital interfaces. She is based in Brooklyn, NY and Providence, RI and is not on social media.