NOT JUST CRIMSON
by MANDY-SUZANNE WONG
As immodest as bleeding is guilt. Take this, the anguish of exposure, take it into your gut, apply a contact microphone and amplifier. And listen, hear it out, don’t pull away. And you’ll start to understand the torment of Dave Phillips.
Everywhere he writes, he writes himself dp, fusing his letters so they make an abstract moth. As dissevering as bleeding is listening to his distress. It makes me want to give you something. As he gives Video Action.
A fellow artist threw his arms around dp and wept. Twelve people in Chicago couldn’t bear it and walked out. A man in Belgium stayed and contracted insomnia. I can’t recall this artwork without a certain immobile scrambling.
Is it the pictures on the giant screen? The blood? Movies are ubiquitous and full of blood. The postures? Crushed wolf, floundering elephant, defeated whales, mice convulsing and exploding. You could find these clips with a quick google. You’d find they get lots of hits. The artist John Akomfrah slathers video screens in images of people hacking whales open, swimming in cetacean blood. His three-screen installation, Vertigo Sea, is three times as long as Video Action, and nobody walks out. No one gets tinnitus or doubles over retching.
Akomfrah had a string trio accompany his pictures with poignant music. Dave can’t do that. He feels too much trepidation, confusion, abjection adding up to something dangerous. And his body knows he’s fragile. Before Video Action starts, he worries about his stomach. His legs quiver. He almost can’t hear anything as he wonders if what he must do will prove to be too much.
Wires slither up his back. Around his head, over his ear, across his cheek to the bulbous microphone that’s almost in his mouth. Across his chest to a contact mike that grabs him by the skin like an octopus sucker. We’re in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2009. Everything tumbles into darkness. Dave breathes until he can’t anymore, and we must listen.
REALITY IS THAT
Loudspeakers swaddle the room in breath, shiver walls and chairs with his seismic heartbeats. A cramped, slant-roofed room engulfed in dark and one man’s innards beating, the real essence of his life. He is a wisp of shadow in a corner. Squinting to see him, I’ve missed what the screen did when it flashed. Now it says, white on black, REALITY IS THAT WHICH, WHEN YOU STOP BELIEVING IN IT, DOESN’T GO AWAY. Now it’s full of a white rat. Its back arches the wrong way. It flails and disappears. I hear an electronic whine. Onscreen is a gray monkey immobilized in a box. A hand flips a switch. The monkey grits its teeth and writhes. Some machine whines over the speakers; machines capture dp’s breath, replicate his breath, breath on top of breath.
Two mice round as balloons jump up on their hind legs, deflating in an instant. Vacant-eyed they move like puppets, falling against each other only to jerk upright again and fall against each other. I hear machines piling breath on breath so it’s like Dave can’t breathe in, only exhale and exhale as in nightmares when I try to scream and only gasps will come. On screen: piles of canine corpses. On speakers: piles of struggling breath, cries of little dogs and big dogs. Screen: DON’T SPEAK. And a chicken with its beak cut off. Speakers: scream of cat as onscreen fingers stuff a thing into a living cat’s cut-open head. Screen: DON’T WORRY WE’RE FINE! Someone stands on a cow’s neck and shoots her with a pistol.
It’s happening too fast, too loud I feel I’m at the bottom of a pile and can’t keep up. Crreeeeeeaaaak sets my teeth on edge, a metal thing shoved down the throat of a bird, DO YOU BELIEVE YOUR LIES? Squeeeeeeeal is a syringe sucking out my head and pinning me. I remember a brown cow on her back, everything below her throat trapped in a box. Glimpsing Dave in a corner. His hand at his throat. He gags, he starts to cough. Screen: WHO IS BUYING? Speakers: dogs are braying. dp doubles over. Speakers amplify him retching as the screen shows fins thrashing in red water, DON’T EXPECT SOMETHING YOU’RE NOT WILLING TO GIVE, but it’s too much, and he screams.
It’s the kind of scream—I realize this is no performance, no—this artwork is work but not performance as in faking, no, this—a beagle paws its cage, Dave doubles over heaving, tries again to scream, machines pile up the dogs’ screaming—but his scream won’t come—not a nightmare, this is true. An elephant charging the man who slaps her with a gate square in the face, Dave fighting his own body till the scream lets loose and people shoot the elephant. And cats wail and dogs wail and dp screams and screams. He stumbles in front of the elephant’s ghost-image as she falls, his head thrown back. Closeup on the elephant as she disappears, and he is roaring in the dark, roaring like the dogs roar with everything he is. Sound-machines capture everything and pile it on itself, a crush of noise. My eyes fill with water like I’m drowning, Dave’s hand to his head like it’s too much and he’s drowning. When he screams, his back arches the wrong way (dead piglets in a barrel, monkey with the word crap on its forehead), but I can’t hear it for the noise (a man’s foot crushes the face of a raccoon dog); he screams so hard he staggers; DON’T BE USELESS, a monkey on a table in a lab; everything stops—
Except a ticking clock. Buzzing in my head. All is dark. Someone straps the monkey down, DESPAIR OF OUR CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION SHOULD BE DEFEATED—Bang! as of a gunshot—they electrocute the monkey. The dark is absolute.
My heart. My breath. I hear buzzing. I’m too conscious. The buzzing is the damage too much noise has done to me. It’s a souvenir, an imprint of the wounding of the elephant. The monkey, the rat. And dogs, cats, fishes, birds, and Dave Phillips. My head hurts. The screen flashes in the dark:
CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE
DEFEATED BY ACTS OF TOTAL HONESTY
Applause was tentative. On the far side of a small chasm of silence. Silence of a human crowd whose excess of confused emotions stilled their breath. Confused because noise has little to do with making sense. Noise is sound on sound on sound piled upupup. And sound makes contact with our bodies, with our insides through holes in our heads. Sound makes contact like a desperate hand.
Like the electricity that made those mice stand ramrod-stiff. Like hollow-point bullets. Police use sound cannons to pulverize protest marches. Armies use sound cannons to terrorize populations into submission. “Shock and awe tactics” are displays of power meant to drive people insane, decimating their resistance. Nothing subdues a body like a sound cannon. Its invisible ammo leaps the pain threshold, wreaking permanent ear damage, rattling bones and extremities, curdling innards. Heads feel like they’re bleeding. Stomachs overturn. Terror wracks their dreams in a lifelong bombardment.
But Video Action? Should I have fled? I didn’t. Dave didn’t. He’s been doing this piece for twenty years, sometimes night after night for weeks on end. Loud-noise-as-contact contains a contradiction. Louder-than-loud is a cannon, but it also gathers people and riles them up. Think rave, soca, metal music. Sound is a force of repulsion and attraction. And so I froze and floundered in its thrall. Louder-than-loud pushed me away and made me want to flee and at the same time gripped my body with a force that wouldn’t be denied. It pummeled me and clasped me to itself. I had to fight for cohesion in each moment.
Listening is the risk of bleeding out. Listening is a physical and psychological danger because sound is contact. Sound is a thing we feel. A thing other things make, sometimes unable to help it, to touch other things. To make others pay attention.
As on the giant screen an elephant is murdered, a fish cut up with scissors in bleeding color. As the artist forsakes center stage for a corner where he’s but a shade. Silhouette here, flash of smooth head there. Tethered by black cables to machines that snatch his voice and knead it into their own and drown it.
A scream is a bruised voice, a “meat voice,” wrote media theorist Douglas Kahn. “The very moment where humans and animals take on a common voice—[is] the cry or scream . . . it is shared with other species, both in instinctual immediacy and directness and in the sonorous event . . . Screams demand urgent or empathetic responses and thereby create a concentrated social space bounded by their audibility.”
So the artist Robbie Judkins calls Video Action “shock and awe” with irony. Meaning dp upends the idea of sonic weaponry and ties it up in knots. Ruthless sonic contact perverted into anti-weaponry, rallying instead of crushing. Opening to possibility instead of shutting it down. An overflowing feeling instead of a deadening.
Video Action is a gnarl, a concentration of contacts and coincidences. Sound contacts image. Images of the dead confront living bodies. Realtime organic sounds conspire with sounds of the gone transmitted by machines. Intimate wet noises of Dave’s living body collide with inhuman sounds collide with bleeding realities of suffering strangers from distant species and locales, drilling into my head. So past and present meet up there. In me. And snatch at possible futures. Dead and tortured nonhumans mediated by Dave’s screams and image-archiving machines meet up in my head with living struggles (mine, his) mediated by barking dogs and sound-making machines. Struggles and bodies crashing together: that is sound.
AS LONG AS THE VICTIMS ARE QUIETLY BURIED
I’d never experienced anything like Video Action before. In the midst of psycho-physical signals zooming everywhichway, I felt a dire sense of wanting to do something and not wanting to. Dave hurling himself at himself in front of me—I heard suffering and did nothing. Because of course this happened in a concert-like setting, where one simply doesn’t.
Add the bombardment of pictures. Mute ghosts of other animals suffering a variety of creative torments. The pictures overwhelmed me with their plentitude. How many private agonies sustain the “high-consumption lifestyle that dominates in the west,” Dave asks. Trapped by indecision: just as I knew I shouldn’t want to disrupt a performance, I knew I shouldn’t want to stop eating or want well-meaning humans not to live in comfort. Trapped by indecision where in fact there was no decision because for everything I saw it was too late.
Video Action is never the same twice. In 2012, Dave released the audio from a San Francisco performance as a CD/mp3 album, Video Action 100901. Knowing it’s “just” a sound recording, so what I hear in no way matches what I see, confirms that it’s too late. He’s gone, the animals are gone, the chance to rescue or resist is lost already. This is my shame and sick relief. As a big gate Slams! over and over above his unsteady breath, his racing heart, dogs caterwauling, pigs screeching, and a noise like claws sliding down a wall, I see palmettos nodding in a breeze outside my window, soft sunshine, familiar Atlantic blues in a perverse backdrop to the absence of Video Action’s shrieking bodies.
Some of the nonhumans Dave recorded himself, some are other artists’ field recordings. But the human sounds are straight out of his own body live, alive in the moment, cast in with the unhuman dying squeals, electronically mangled on the spot. In Video Action without video, it sounds like everything’s falling down around him, his every breath a scream or sob like he is pummeled and it makes him sick. The clock speeds up grows louder and louder and his breath fades, fades—Gunshotbang! and it’s over.
I think I’ve just heard a shared struggle to the death. A struggle everything lost. Dogs, cats, pigs, a man struggling together; the nonhumans at war against external oppression, the human thrashing against something in himself. His struggle and their struggle have everything to do with one another. I know that because they coincide inside my ears. So they become my struggle too, and for some time I must sit still. My notions stumble over the loud wound the struggle left me. I must ask him how it feels. What is this kamikaze protest march pumped up and outraged to the point of wounding?
Dave writes from Switzerland, disdaining even grammatical capitalism. “pumped up or outraged? kind of neither. it’s more like a determination, driven by love and the willingness to at least try to do something. i think sadness mixes in too, maybe despair. it sure feels existential though.”
Existential. Meaning nothing more or less than pertaining to existence itself, existence as a question and a struggle. Sometimes I think the multispecies sharing of the struggle is easier to sense in Video Action without video. In the audio, nonhuman and human voices all dominate the foreground till they’re pulverized and buried. All suffer and succumb equally together. All are equally endangered. As am I, bombarded by fast and heavy sounds.
In the video, it’s another story. Every Video Action video is a prerecorded sequence of pictures and blasts of text. Which isn’t to say the video never changes. In the 2009 version, many of the images were taken by animal activists. All showed nonhuman animals under torture, capturing them at a point where they could no longer resist. Already strapped to the gurney. Already hanging by the ankles, bleeding from the throat. Too late. They have succumbed to us.
In the audio, some not-only-humans make their suffering felt. Howling their resistance in their meat voices.
THE QUALITY OF REFUSAL
The elephant whose low-res ghost appeared in Video Action’s 2009 video was born wild in Mozambique. Killed at the age of twenty. Gunned down by US police. They shot her eighty-seven times. When she died she had a red circle on her forehead with a yellow star in it.
Starting from babyhood, Tyke spent her life with the American circus that bought her from her kidnappers. She lived in chains. Hated performing. According to the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, Tyke’s “testosterone fueled” trainers, took “pride . . . in being able to beat up a grown elephant,” forcing her into the ring with bullhooks. And yes, they made elephants wear yellow stars.
Two decades of terror and beatings consumed her body and mind, which knew none of what an elephant needs to know. Trauma devoured her until the thought of showtime was a premonition of agony. Tyke resisted. Tried to run. Every time, they dragged her back.
Until Honolulu. 1994. After four days chained in the dark, foul belly of a ship. It wasn’t criminal for this African to be a slave. When she couldn’t bear another minute of oppression, nobody said to her, “I have a dream . . . stand up for freedom together.” Tyke took to the streets alone. Her freedom lasted half an hour.
Charges out of the big top. Some primate slams a metal gate in her face, she busts right through. Bursts into the street, heedless of traffic, killing one of her abusers, maiming another. And that is criminal.
Tyke leaps at me from Video Action’s video. Now I can’t leave her ghost alone. She does what no other animal can do in Video Action, not even the human animals onstage and in the audience. She resists. She breaks away. In 2009, where his average clip lasted seven seconds, Dave spent over a minute with her, even though what was happening to her had him dry-heaving. Fighting to dislodge something in him, he howled in pain and frustration.
It looks like she might make it for a moment. The moment she crashes through the gate. When other animal voices join Dave in protest. Those who videoed her death did not record her voice. So it’s up to an artist and the ghosts of dogs and cats to scream for her. With their voices, what’s left of Tyke mounts a total resistance, visible and audible from beyond the hail of bullets.
They’re a chimera together: undead picture with the face of a dead elephant, body of a living man, bansheeing of near and distant multispecies. Wailing with all the strength in their breakable bodies, dogs, cats, pigs, their ghosts, the man with the machines scream of each other and the murdered elephant whose image coincides with their anguish hurled into the air. A cop raises a rifle. Tyke staggers against a blue sedan. Dave cries out and doubles over in a hail of noise and cat-shrieking. Closeup on her gray face, her yellow star, as she goes down.
Sometimes I think she knew it was a suicide mission, breaking through that gate. She knew humans well enough to know they’d never let her go.
For her life to never have been life was unnecessary. For some people, it seemed necessary. The Hawthorn Corporation, who owned the circus. Whoever thought a remote island needed a circus. Who thought it’d be an unforgivable tragedy if Hawaiian kids never saw an elephant in person. The men who terrorized this lifelong prisoner. Their ambitions veiled the knowledge that lay in wait within them: trained elephants are as necessary as human trafficking. The veil is thin.
WE’RE FINE! says Video Action. Screams that we’re so not.
The images, the sounds of suffering at human hands are undeniable. Still I find them hard to reconcile with what I know. I’m not a sadist. Yet I’ve done things which have everything to do with the living cow sliding into a meat grinder. I’ve done things which have everything to do with Tyke even though I’d never heard of her before Video Action. I’ve eaten beef. I learned to love elephants from a San Diego Zoo elephant named Devi.
Such small things they seem. And they are. And they’re so not. This contradiction is in me, as if underneath my life. dp writes, “SOUND IS A MEANS TO ACTIVATE PRIMORDIAL SHARED EMOTIONS OTHERWISE STIFLED BY CIVILIZED EXPERIENCE AND RESTRICTED BY SOCIAL CONSENSUS. SOUND IS ALIVE, IS ENERGY, A CONSCIENCE AND A CONSCIOUSNESS.” I wonder if what Video Action activates and acts upon is my consciousness of this emotional contradiction which lay in me always, only I didn’t know it. Or want it. Or realize it’s sensible to feel it, not simply quarrelsome and misanthropic. To sense that I myself am doing nothing wrong, and yet I am. Every time I eat something or take antibiotics or turn on my computer or turn the key in my car. My staying alive means how many dead peas and trees? How much ocean-killing air? Who bears my costs of living? And if I were to think these things through to their conclusion, I couldn’t live. But I must think them (“PEOPLE TAKE THEIR PEACE FOR GRANTED ONLY BECAUSE THEY FAIL TO UNDERSTAND WHAT SUSTAINS IT”). And for a little longer, I think I should live.
We can’t do what we do, but we do. We mustn’t and we must. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels it pulling them apart. The contradictory sensation that comes with learning to feel what living costs. Dave Phillips screams like something’s ripping out his arms. I hear despair when his voice breaks.
DON’T EXPECT SOMETHING YOU’RE NOT WILLING TO GIVE
2016 in Dostoevsky’s city. At the front of the room sunk in darkness breathing hard, muttering in the dark, a small red light darting like a hysterical firefly.
New images. River of trash. Pelican with feathers glued together by black oil. A mushroom cloud gives us Dave’s shadow. He walks like a zombie, fingers splayed. Cables around his wrist tether him to plastic soundmakers. Dogs holler, a jam-packed highway, ANY FORM OF DEFINITION WILL EVENTUALLY WORK AGAINST ITSELF, a seagull on a pile of trash, a forest, a green lake. Familiar images: a cow slides on her back into a grinder . . . The red light jerks as everything piles up, pictures, texts, squealing, Slam!, dp gasping, wire-bound to electronic puppeteers, canine shouting and electric buzzing drowning out his screams. THIS IS ABOUT POWER. But he breaks free of the wires, throws them to the floor. Screams so the force of it bends his back all wrong, snaps him forward so he nearly falls. A man dismembers an Asian raccoon dog. Dave’s out of breath, another scream comes out a sob. We think that’s it, he can’t do any more. In the red light he walks in circles, retching to clear himself of something he can’t clear, his screams are anguish—the screen fills with snow, Slam!, done.
Lights come up. I’m exhausted. No elephant. No Tyke. We saw plants, skies, pieces of the Earth. Pain doesn’t just bleed crimson.
Dave looks close to tears. Feeling with nonhuman animals has opened him to feeling for everything. That means it’s worse for him. It’s harder now.
THE SELF SOME IMAGINE SURVIVING DEATH IS A PHANTOM EVEN IN LIFE
Dave is out of shadows. In the 2016 version he steps in front of the screen, branded scarlet. His coincidence with images of suffering Earth implicates all of us.
New ending. He walks in circles till his time runs out. No gunshot, no fadeout. The guilty human doesn’t just let himself die. As if he’s realized there’s something more that he can do. The multispecies struggle shouldn’t just be given up.
But he’s removed Tyke’s video. Whatever the reason for it, her absence screams of despair. She was doomed and knew it, but she resisted domination even though she’d never known anything else. In Dave’s 2016 video, nothing resists anymore. Not even the mighty ocean clogged with trash.
It’s like he senses giving up and dying won’t do any good. And senses not giving up, like Tyke, won’t do any good.
Helpless contradiction. I see it driving this man crazy. He paces like a zoo inmate, he hyperventilates. No more hiding in the shadows in the corner. Now Video Action is a struggle without end, driven to recklessness by a sense of its own helplessness. And so all the loudloudloud, shocking contact, rallying cry: noise isn’t just about physical, collective power but also about meaninglessness, powerlessness. Powerlessness together. We’re as powerless as pelicans with oil-slicked wings.
“on some level, we know this, that we are part of a web of connections. yet we are trapped in linear narratives that tell us the opposite: that we can expand infinitely, that there will always be more space for our waste, more resources to fuel our wants,” Dave writes. “one overused cultural narrative, indoctrinated by organized religion and implemented in most hollywood action movies, tells us that humans are ultimately in control of the earth and that, no matter how bad things get, we are going to be saved—whether by some god, by the market, by philanthropic billionaires, or by technology.”
Video Action acts out, sounds out, the opposite, the truth. Everything is vulnerable. Video Action is multispecies helplessness sounding out. And screams of a human body sickened by the horror of its deadly power and the strain of its weakness.
Performing Video Action makes Dave feel acutely fragile. He feels sick, he trembles, doubting everything. Instead of pretending to overcome it, he exposes it and forces it to overcome him. He screams his breaking in a breaking voice that makes louder-than-loud contact as it dissolves in noise. And the sound makes us tremble in our hidden places. Bones and stomachs, roots of hairs, above all those tiny membranes which burst so easily although our skulls encase them. Sounding out the happenstance that we’re as weak as those we dominate. It’s frightening even to him. Dave Phillips who longs to do something for our victims and feels as helpless as the victims.
Is this a self-defeating contradiction? And what about the extent of the disaster? It’s not just animals; we’ve drowned out everything, consumed almost everything, too weak to quit. CHANGE CHANGE CHANGE no longer appears. Now Video Action’s video ends with ?. And we no longer hear Dave’s heartbeat . . .
It’s himself that he vomits out so violently. The part of him that’s only human. Whatever inner thing it is that most humans believe sets us apart from other beings, generating the illusion that their bleeding isn’t our bleeding, their screams aren’t like our screams, and so their suffering isn’t suffering. The part of him that is consumer.
This isn’t just a practical matter like not eating things with pain receptors. It’s an existential coup. If a founding myth of consumer-capitalist cultures is our right to consume everything that’s not ourselves, then Dave is fighting to purge himself of his own world. “a sonic ritual, a catharsis, an audio-visual exorcism or a subjective type of shamanist healing” is what he wants from Video Action.
The problem is, he’s what he is—a chimeric voice including the voices of dead dogs, the silence of dead elephants and mowed-down plants—because, in part, as he writes on his homepage, “dp is guilty of hypocrisy.”
If Video Action is to be Video Action, he can’t break away from the machines whose lifeblood is electricity. Extracting and consuming electricity causes global warming, pollution, habitat destruction: death to nonhumans. He strains to bear witness to nonhuman anguish with his body, his art, everything he can think of. But what sustains the life of a human body? What’s art but impressions on dead plants, on flesh, in air and light made for humans out of human hopes and prejudices? Video Action bears witness to the impossibility of bearing witness to nonhuman anguish. Noise, as it resists making sense, sounds out that impenetrable truth. But art’s anthropocentric history and consumerist potential are Dave’s grievous inheritance. “i protest . . . but i am a part of it.”
It hurts. It makes him sick. Pacing like a prisoner at a loss. Because nonhuman agony is personal for him. It feeds the wild endeavor which is his most hopeless one, feeding on every contradiction in this rampant mongrel of an artwork—self-exorcism without suicide.
How do we end what we are and still go on?
TRAPPED IN FRACTURE
dp lives that contradiction. Displacing humanness from the defining center of his being. To live without a center. Screen: DE-ANTHROPO-CENTRALIZE. The decision to live in conflict with himself. So strangers can bleed into him as he bleeds out through them.
It means never knowing exactly what he is, never feeling at home in what seems to be his skin. It means holding together a constant breakdown. Living at the edge of dissolution, falling apart and snatching at bits of selves that aren’t all his. Video Action is his self-abjection.
He lets vanished dogs’ voices swallow his own anguished screams to the point that we can’t make him out. His act in Video Action is his all-consuming effort not to understand nonhuman suffering, not to do the feeling for them or replace nonhuman suffering with human suffering, but to let the ghosts of their suffering consume him.
That’s why I know this is no bullfight. Video Action doesn’t make a spectacle of human cruelty and nonhuman blood. It is one man’s submission to consumption by abjection. The agony of a rat, an elephant’s despair, the torment of pigs give birth to images and sounds which touch this man so deeply they become traumas of his own. Traumas irreducible, irrational. He can’t bear them. He does so anyway. Because he must.
Not for money. There’s no money in a thing like Video Action. He must because when something affects you that deeply, you can’t help but go through it again and again. Instead of cheap obliviousness, Dave Phillips inundates us with consuming hyperawareness which, far from being convenient, confuses everything. This is what listening is.
When you really listen to someone, you let them affect you deeply. To the point that you are changed. A mind in the throes of change is disturbed. It questions things that once seemed basic. No longer feels like itself. Contracts insomnia.
“what i try to pass on to my audience is a certain awareness, a certain criticalness, and what i call for is a certain empathy . . .” Empathy is his affliction. This deep affection.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong is a columnist with Manque Magazine. She was a nonfiction finalist for the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize and a nonfiction winner of the 2019 Selcouth Station Press Environmental Chapbook Competition. She is also the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press); and her novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House) was a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, and nominated for the PEN Open Book Award. Her stories and essays appear in Entropy, Quail Bell, Waccamaw, Chaleur, The Hypocrite Reader, and several other venues.