Diary of a disaster?

By David Walsh

My nearly-nine-year-old daughter was leaving a high-rise apartment building in Sydney with her mum, Jemma, when she was struck on the back of the head with a rock, apparently dropped by some witless miscreant from a high floor.

As far as I can calculate, at the precise time of this incident I was inside a James Turrell installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Ganzfeld machine, which overloads senses with colour and sound, a human creation capable of inducing euphoric states not accessible through nature. This great artist will soon be represented at Mona. He also has plans to do a residency at the school Grace attends. A pleasant coincidence induced by the fact that James Turrell is a Quaker and Grace’s school is the largest Quaker school in the world.

The heightened sensibilities induced by one man were displaced by a sense of powerlessness induced by another (I think it reasonable to assume Grace’s assailant was male).

I desperately scrambled onto the next flight to Sydney and that is where I am right now, twelve hours into a fourteen-hour flight. I’ve therefore had no news for half a day.

The last information, reported to me by Jemma just before boarding, was that Grace’s frequent vomiting had been curtailed, and her obs had improved. Earlier news was that she had a fractured skull, contusions, amnesia and confusion, and some vision deficit. But also that she reminded her mum to cancel a dentist appointment she had later in the day, and that she apologised to the hospital staff for the trouble she was causing each of the many times she vomited.

I will see her soon. Of course I hope everything will be all right, the human body is resilient by design, and I have faith in western medicine. The neurosurgeon I spoke to inspired confidence, particularly when she asserted that observation, rather than intervention, was appropriate.

The chance of hitting someone with a stone from above is minuscule. The thoughtless fool who dropped the stone was extremely unlucky. But Grace was much more unlucky than he. A question I know is important, but that I can’t fully explore at this point is: should the consequences for him depend on the consequences for her? My superficial response is that they should not, he should be punished and remediated for his astonishingly negligent action, not the appalling outcome. And yet it would be hard not to squeeze if my hands were around his throat. That’s why we can’t take the law into our own hands, my most personal experience of this important principle.

Even if she weren’t a good girl she would still be my girl, and still be loved by those who raised her. But she is a good girl, a wonderful girl, and as a result many more suffer as she suffers, because many more love her. I’m racked with worry. So I’m writing these words to crystalise my thoughts, to pass the time, and to keep me sane.

Interval: focusing my thinking on the frivolous.

After reading this excerpt from my autobiography, wherein my twenty-year-old self is expressing his opinion on the relative importance of culture and biology,

I contend that beauty itself is biologically sourced. Symmetry reflects good gene expression and therefore desirability as a mate, red is a warning flag suggesting toxity, green means photosynthesis and thus nutrient content, mimicry generates visual acuity because it generates a need to tell the real from the fake. Bitter versus sweet defines nutritious versus potentially poisonous, aversion to the smell of shit, scatole in shit to stop us eating bacterial contaminants. The list goes on and on.

my friend Anthony asked the following questions:

Why doesn’t snot contain scatole or another foul-smelling chemical to generate an aversion to eating it? Does the absence of any such chemical imply it is ok to eat snot?

At the time (a few days ago) I didn’t have a satisfactory answer but on the plane, with nothing else to do but worry, I figured it out, I think. So Anthony, here’s what I think Darwin would have thought:

Snot forms and resides in the nose. Any such noxious compound (like scatole) in the nose would affect our capacity to detect foul/friendly odours in the environment. We therefore would evolve in the direction of not detecting odours emanating from our nose, and the production of such compounds would be a waste of energy. And if the compound employed was scatole we would lose our capacity to detect it in faeces.

Since fetid snot could not evolve, the fact that we don’t have it has no direct bearing on whether we can eat snot. However, because we can’t prevent ourselves, using chemical markers, from eating it, selection pressure would, most likely, render it as harmless as chemistry would allow. Simply put: we couldn’t avoid it if it were harmful so it has to be harmless.

Interval ends. One hour and four minutes until we land. I had eggs for breakfast. Can Grace eat?

A few hours later. First, Grace can eat, sort of. She is consuming, with vigour, her second icy pole of the last day and a bit, the only thing she has been able to keep down.

Two bits of good news. She will be ok, most likely. The cut is appalling, the fracture pretty scary since there is some depression, but she will recover. She could be stuck in Sydney for at least two weeks, which might be a small silver lining for her mum.

Also, the police believe that the stone fell from the roof, after being placed near the edge by crows. My little darling was stoned by crows. It’s something of a relief that all this suffering wasn’t the outcome of an belligerent gesture by a broken man.

Just now Grace vomits. Apparently even lemonade icy poles are beyond her fragile disposition. Nobody deserves what she is going through. But an accident mediated by inadvertently murderous crows isn’t something anyone deserves. My mother would have disagreed. She believed that God dispensed only justice, but it was beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend his mysterious ways. Other concepts of remedial justice have emerged that are employed to justify bad luck, such as reincarnation. Those who subscribe to such beliefs would presumably believe that the crow and the laws of physics were collaborating to inflict punishment for a crime Grace committed in a previous life (perhaps in that previous life she was a crow). But bad luck is just bad luck. Laws of nature do not have the same characteristics as laws of man. Laws of nature do not attempt to perpetuate justice. And although laws of nature can accommodate appalling outcomes, they do so without malice or forethought.

A long day. Vomiting everything from painkillers to a bite of a banana. Enduring the pain, which is concomitant with a blow to the brain and throwing up painkillers. Drifting in and out of sleep but waking periodically to make a joke. High-level care, but all the hospital staff asking the same questions: what’s your name, age, address? Testing peripheral vision. So many lovely, caring people making Grace’s life a little bit tougher to maximize their chance of detecting a hematoma early enough to intervene. She’s asleep now. But they’ll wake her up all night.

Just when I thought everyone at this impressive hospital is lovely I met the paediatrician assigned to Grace. She told us off in no uncertain terms for the over-stimulating environment surrounding Grace (too many people) even while acknowledging that no one had told us that a low-stimulation environment was called for. She also contradicted the advice of other doctors, and when Jemma gently pointed that out, she retorted, ‘We all are in agreement, we just express it differently’. Her bedside manner brings to mind Basil Fawlty, if he had chosen a medical career. I can only hope that she is a pretending to be a paediatrician and will soon be exposed, like Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can.

Two days later. Steady progress punctuated by one four-hour calvacade of calamities, wherein the IV line went troppo, she vomited many times, and her headache escalated. Just now, possibly against the advice of the toxic child doctor, I’ve allowed Grace to watch a Barbie movie on the iPad. The doctor demanded a low-stimulation environment. I personally think a Barbie movie she has seen many times is less demanding than staring through a window at a brick wall, and that is the other high-stress option Grace has available. And now the nurses are here to take the IV lines out. As I said, steady progress.

Quantum multiverse.

In most folds of the quantum multiverse I’d be driving Grace to school right now.

According to those who invoke the quantum multiverse to simplify the behaviour of quantum mechanical systems, every time the universe has options all of them are explored. This is one possible solution to the problem of assigning a probability to a unique event (another: Quantum Bayes, but you’ll have to read my forthcoming memoir if that makes you curious, or better yet, type it into Google).

The stone that hit Grace on the head was instantiating a very improbable event. Therefore, in the multiverse, it mostly didn’t happen. She doesn’t have a sore head, isn’t constipated, doesn’t have a shaved patch in the back of her head. She is on her way to school. So should I consider her very unlucky?

Of course, it’s easy to riff off an event that happened, and consider the chance that it didn’t happen, or consider the chance that it happened and the consequences were more severe (if it had hit her on top of her head, rather than merely dealing a glancing blow as it followed its vertical path, she could not have survived). But, of course, in the multiverse many unlikely things happen an enormous number of times. And the ghosts of the things that didn’t happen are ignored. It’s the nature of ‘survivor’ bias. In many worlds, but a low percentage of worlds, I just crashed the car. And there is a minuscule probability, but in many worlds it still happened, that the blow to the back of Grace’s head and the consequent bleeding flushed out an incipient astrocytoma, and thus prevented death. And maybe, just maybe, one of those worlds was this one.

We can control only the things that we are aware of, and then only to a limited extent. Good parenting only looks like good parenting if we avoid misfortune. And it is always worth reserving judgment when assigning culpability, because in this vast multiverse it can be hard to differentiate between malice, negligence and misfortune. The idea is to manage your deeds so that they are most likely to achieve the desirable and avoid the undesirable, while appraising the deeds of others in the knowledge that in most universes they might have achieved a better, or worse, outcome. If this sounds like sentimental bullshit forgive me, mostly I wouldn’t have written it, because the stone would have struck me, or Jemma, or someone I don’t know or, with a probability very close to one, no one at all.

Later. Our negotiations to secure permission for Grace to leave have fallen at the paediatrician hurdle. Although the neurosurgeon and the nurses thought it was fine for Grace to go home without a bowel movement (I faltered here, not knowing whether to use my argot, or Grace’s, or theirs) since she has to come back tomorrow to have stitches removed, the paediatrician demurred (although she is far from demure). She gave Grace a laxative which, it seems, will take some time to work, thus ensuring Grace is here until tomorrow.

Now the waiting game begins. The superb hospital staff make the waiting at least bearable (always excepting our nemesis paediatrician). The physiotherapist took Grace to the gym to test out her balance and decided she was secure. Just in the last half an hour we have had a teacher and a play therapist visit and offer resources. Even so the waiting is boring, but this boring has an uncharacteristic aura, following on from the terror, angst and stress. While I’m writing Grace is interrupting with questions about prisms and cylinders, good questions that were precipitated by the school pack the teacher gave her. I love this terrible place (a few nights ago a nurse told me that they love Grace because ‘she is one of the good ones’. Here the ‘good ones’ are those who will leave via the front door).

An odd thing. One of the delightful nurses just walked in and said, ‘You can go now’. Apparently the team had decided Grace had served her sentence. A little victory, since the neurosurgeon must have overruled the prickly paediatrician.

Grace is now excitedly shaving the head of Jemma’s boyfriend, Matt (who is agreeing to be shorn out of solidarity, since Grace has had some hair removed). Thus the world revolves. And as I already knew but now my knowing is renewed, my world revolves around my children. Through Grace’s misfortune, and through her fortune, I feel pain and I feel joy. And I feel her travails and triumphs more bitterly, and more exultantly, than I feel my own. That’s what love is.

Interview with ZEE artist Kurt Hentschläger

Inside ZEE Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Inside ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you surprised by the amount of people having bad reactions to ZEE?*
Kurt Hentschläger: Yes. This is a very high rate. I’m not quite sure what to think of it. Usually, the statistics for photosensitivity – you can’t apply this globally because it must be different for different genetic groupings – in the States is one in four thousand people. That’s just generally, but for ZEE it’s much more, one in five hundred or so. The epileptic seizures are triggered by the flashes. It’s a very intense input, probably the most intense it could possibly be. In the first four days [of exhibiting ZEE in Hobart] we had three cases. That’s extreme. I’ve often contemplated whether I should stop showing it because I always dread that some day something really serious might happen. To have a seizure is very dramatic, but only a temporary event. It doesn’t mean you’ll have epilepsy from this point on or anything like that, it just means you’re allergic to stroboscopic light at that intensity and at certain frequencies. All these things that you do to begin with – sign a waiver and take all the precautions – form one half of the work, and then there’s the other half, the actual piece, which is quite benign. Really it’s a beautiful piece about the experience of the sublime.
EP: So for you, the piece is more about the sublime than about being terrified?
KH: I have no intention to make a terrifying piece, that would be boring. It is an intense piece, there’s no question about that. It demands a lot from you in that you have to overcome the initial moment of – to say the least – trepidation, when you enter this strange world. But once you are in it, it can be quite elevating. I must remember that you haven’t seen it [because you’re pregnant and therefore not permitted entry].
EP: Yes. I only get to see the first half of the piece, the introductory framework. I’m sitting here watching these queues of people snaking out the door – they’re like lemmings going to their death. I have been wondering whether you are affected by the seizures, and obviously you are. So what keeps you going? Why keep showing it?
KH: That’s a good question. There’s a rationalisation of an impetus to keep going because, built deep into our concept of civilisation is an illusion of safety – the idea that we can control our environment and, at least to some extent, have stability. You question that the moment you decide to take a risk in life – to make a leap of faith to experience something unfamiliar. I could compare it to hiking in the mountains. The higher you go, the more tired you get, the less oxygen you have, the higher the risk of sudden weather changes and exposure in a spot where there’s no shelter. The reward for taking the risk is that as you walk up you get this view – beautiful in the true sense. You’re lifting yourself out of everything.
EP: Does that feeling of risk motivate you as an artist more broadly?
KH: Yes, I think so. I grew up in the original punk days, when it was all about exhausting yourself with a visceral, crazy energy. What’s interesting about overwhelming stimuli is not that you are overwhelmed per se, because this feeling you can easily have in any blockbuster movie – you get bombarded and you’re excited, but then when you leave, you’re exhausted and you forget about it. This is an empty ritual of exhilaration, just to feel something. It’s not what interests me. What interests me is an emotional process, and a romantic notion of seeking to instil something that is bigger than life and that makes you see a wider concept or longer trajectory. In ZEE, what interests me the most is the idea of infinity. I often talk about perception, but it’s more about the habits than the mechanics of perception – the way we train ourselves from the beginning. Or maybe it’s better to say we don’t even train – it’s natural. When you’re born you’re this wide-open vessel, and everything is just pouring in. But only those things close to you. You don’t learn to see past a certain distance until you get older.
EP: So it’s about a rerouting, even momentarily, those worn channels of perception?
KH: Exactly. You can only do this so much, though. When you come out you’re back in what you know and what we all agree is the world around us. But we do know there are other things to our existence, like when we dream or like deep meditation or drug experiences. I read this book [Trance: From Magic to Technology by Dennis R. Wier] that said that one way or another we are living in a state of trance throughout our lives. The author made a distinction between productive trances and destructive trances, like addiction. Or think about working on a computer – you forget about time and space and that you are hungry or need to pee or whatever. Eventually you wake up because your urges have become too great and you’re taken from your state of trance. So what I’m saying is that perception is a malleable process. We define it over time throughout our lives to again support our ideas of stability. Everything becomes a habit, a ritual; a loop that we adhere to. One of the things that I do like about ZEE is that it takes you out of that loop, just for a moment.
EP: Some of the ideas that we’ve been looking at in The Red Queen exhibition at Mona relate to that notion of a comforting narrative or illusion of security. You can take it a step further and say that our entire sense of the ‘I’, the self, is a fiction, the function of which is to create an illusion of stability and coherence. What you’re saying is that you’d like to disrupt that illusion, to open a small gap for people to think in another way.
KH: Well, just to point to it. I have no expectation of making people change in big ways. That would be preposterous. But I think the important thing is that a lot of people find a strange joy in ZEE. I feel it still, even after all this time. Often when we’re installing there’s a moment of true, deep joy for me. It must be related to the intensity of the light in a complete void – what feels to me like a space, or rather a sphere, of pure light.
EP: You’ve been exhibiting your work since 1983. Did you know at that time what you wanted to achieve?
KH: No, but I did have clear interests. I did a body of work in those days with absurd machines, like machine sculptures. Then in ’89 I got my first computer and that changed my whole idea about the process of art making. I stopped drawing, for instance. [Visiting The Red Queen exhibition] was very inspiring because I saw a lot of drawings that I really liked. The drawing machine [by Cameron Robbins] is absolutely fantastic, and I think I have to pick up drawing again. Like, a hundred years later, go back to where I started.
EP: Technology is obviously a very important part of your work. Do you feel unfettered celebration about the speed at which technology is evolving? Or do you ever feel a sense of alarm?
KH: Yeah. I’m sick of it. I will not develop software anymore. I’m not going to go into any more serious engineering efforts because they take so much time and I think it often leads to an imbalance, where the technology is only half expressed, and the content itself is also half expressed. A long time ago I thought that what is now called ‘new media art’ was very interesting and exciting. There was a challenging discourse and so many brilliant people, and the scene was very experimental. Everything was wide open. Now, with the process of institutionalisation, there’s much more of it but a lot feels quite empty. Nowadays, if I order a computer or related tool I’m already annoyed because I know when it comes I will spend all this time preparing it, setting it up, checking whether it works and so on. Of course it’s part of the craft and I do think media technology is my particular craft. There’s no question I know a lot about it.
EP: You’ve grown with it, really, from the 80s onwards.
KH: I often say when I teach – and I don’t even mean it as a joke – that I come from before time. I was eight years old when my family got its first television. I’ve seen the whole thing come in ever-faster cycles. You can spend your whole day just trying to keep up. But of course, on the positive side, it is a huge and very powerful toolset and opens aesthetic possibilities that I still find interesting to some extent.
EP: It’s reconfigured, over the space of one generation, our very consciousness, our engagement with reality – language, thought, time and space.
KH: That was a very acute sense of mine in my mid 20s, even before I got the computer – that this would change pretty much everything. I wanted to inundate myself because I thought, ‘This is going to be the world, and I must know about it if I am going to be able to make any sort of informed artistic statement about it’. My early pieces with [audio-visual art collective] Granular-Synthesis – particularly Model 5 – were these single-frame, edited, resynthesised human heads. They were very intense, very aggressive, brutally loud. Model 5 would have been completely impossible without a computer. We used a non-linear editing system that had just come out. The system was a complete game changer, allowing us to do things in a month that would have taken maybe two years. So in that regard, certain technologies really bring about aesthetic progress, or certainly accelerate aesthetic processes. I don’t know whether it’s meaningful progress, but –
EP: The question of progress is a difficult one.
KH: Yes – whatever progress is. But this interest in what these media machines and networks will do to change the world, to change our behaviour, to change everything, has formed into the question: How do we operate and perceive to begin with? As for our immediate future it’s clear what will happen. It’s going to go further, and eventually there really will be cyborgs. Currently, everybody has this blue glow in their face [from the screen of a smart phone]. At the moment this [smart phone] is state-of-the art, but it’s still awkward. You have to carry it still. There will be something that will be smarter and more merged with the person.
EP: I admire what you said before about how when you first started getting into technology you decided to completely immerse yourself in it. I’m not interested in technology. How something like that works doesn’t capture my imagination. It’s a bit disturbing that I’m using things that are fundamentally changing my life, without understanding how. It happens, magically, inside the black box.
KH: Yeah, but on the other hand there are lots of things we use that we don’t understand – I was never interested in knowing how exactly a car works. In the beginning there were these huge boxes, modems, on the telephone that made these funny noises when you connected. It was very slow and there was always something not working, so you had to know a lot in order to be able to fix things quickly. But ultimately, like I said before, it takes too much time. What I want to do now for a while is wilfully slow it down, not change. Dig in, and work on something until it becomes substantial. I think at the end of my life I’m going to be a photographer and musician. I want to learn the accordion. I’d like to do something with my hands – direct, rather than just sitting in chairs, making these minimal, almost disembodied movements with a mouse.

*Since opening on June 14, 3185 people have visited ZEE; ten have required medical attention as a result.

Entering Zee Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Entering ZEE
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin