The work that first confronts visitors in the basement of San Francisco’s Alter Space gallery fixates on hashtags. A synonym for hashtag is “octothorpe,” and that synonym’s only etymology is an “etymology without merit,” according to a blog called Shady Characters (Houston, “Miscellany № 74: Zombies Always Make a Hash of Things”). That false etymology asserts that the term and icon come from cartography where the symbol represents a village surrounded by eight fields. Invented etymology or not, that name and purported conception have become tropes of zombie folklore. The surrounding fields become infiltrated with zombies en route to a zombie takeover of the village/house in the center. The pattern and folklore are evident in zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, which could be shorthanded using a hashtag representing the living people trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by zombies. That vision is foregrounded by Pfau and Comitta’s introductory work:
Read from left to right, a “hut” (among other things) is in the center of the first octothorpe (initially surrounded by 8 fields). The next octothorpe continues a shape poem wherein zombies begin visually and linguistically infiltrating the fields before ultimately taking over the “home” square. This drama unfolds exclusively through linguistic ‘characters’ on fields of language. The cannibalism of living-dead eating and ‘turning’ the living is at the heart of Pfau and Comitta’s project.
The octothorpe as setting for this drama in which mishmashes of modern linguistic characters act out a symbolic drama articulates the politics of Zombie Variations succinctly, if cryptically.
The moment that I entered Alter Space, the gentleman ‘working the front desk’ was occupied with sweeping the light-maple-colored wood flooring of the white-walled ground floor, creating little piles of dust and debris to be discarded. Dead skin, dander, all manner of cast off particles, all collected for money. Turning trash to treasure. Between brush strokes, the greeter/sweeper pointed me to the co-founder and curator who was in the rear room, conjoined to the peephole gallery/bathroom. I was promptly directed into the peephole gallery. Instrumental music darkly echoed at the bathroom’s threshold while inside the dark, painted-black bathroom, words in peepholes balanced the weight of the music.
The bathroom and soundtrack fade quickly on reemerging into the white FWIW exhibit.
Already next to the rear staircase in the rear room where the greeter now demurely pushed the push broom, crshhh, crshhh, crshhh, I thus moved downstairs into the darker basement, where a dimly-lit-except-for-lighting-illuminating-the-art room segues, via black-tarped ‘hallway,’ into another dark room prominently featuring a solitary black prison cell. The dark basement with the prison cell in the rear corner offers the most overt nod to Alter Space’s re-imagining/re-tooling/re-envisioning of the building’s past life as a dual-level leather/bondage store.
Looking at the hashtag display, zombies flooded the octothorpe and my consciousness, as a distinct scratching sound began to percolate overhead. Crshhh crshhh crshhh, they were raking my brain. Zombies, trying to infect my consciousness, scratched at my cortex. The sweeper had moved to the rear room of the ground floor, pushing his push broom, crshhh crshhh crshh, a zombie on the prowl, echoing in the chamber of my brain.
Diagonally opposite the octothorpe series, there is a 15-minute video loop. Apparently filmed in one shot, Comitta performs a reading of the Zombie Variation script. The video lent coherence to the multi-media exhibit when scrumptious brain morsels like this were served: “Language is a friend with benefits gnawing at the tongue. Language is a virus from outer space. In English, 26 zombie characters come alive. Zombie Abby, Zombie Becky, Zombie Calvin.” Or here: “And when did your language go viral?” These statements reinforce the statement of the animated octothorpe characters because Pfau and Comitta engage with the pun on “characters” and Zombie Variations is, on one level, about words and the layers of meaning words have and how those meanings affect their translation from a ‘canvas’ to a brain and back out of a mouth or a hand.
Artists animate characters. Whether working with or against the modes that have come before, art is predicated on an awareness of history and the “vocabulary” of different art forms if only because art criticism dictates that it is so. Pfau and Comitta appear to be artists seeped in both literary and visual art traditions as they overlay the two on one another throughout this exhibit.
With the visual drama unfolding in front of me, directly overhead, overlaying itself on the video soundtrack, zombies clawed at the door of my farm: crshhh, crshhh, crshhh.
If you “look up” animate in the Merriam-Webster app for the iphone, the first definition is of the adjectival form and it is: “having life: alive or living,” while the secondary definition is “to make (someone or something) lively or excited: to make (something, such as a drawing) appear to move by creating a series of drawings, pictures, etc., and showing them quickly one after another…” bringing the ink of a pen to life is a reanimation akin to the turning of a zombie.
Push proom practices praxis: crshhh, crshhh, crshh.
I’m probably yet to make a piece of art that wasn’t just as good on the internet, but perhaps someday.
Loose threads and valences of meaning are dangerous and ever since my senior year in high school I’ve apparently been unable to control my meaning, especially when trying to lose control of my grammar. I once had a teacher tell me he liked what I was trying to do with a piece of writing that had no punctuation but that I had made errors the teacher “didn’t think I meant to make.” I got a B+. Animate that grade at your peril.
Pushing proven practices pathologically: crshhh, crshhh, crshhh.
I write food for the zombies. I hope you enjoy eating my brain.
Push proom practices praxis: crshhh, crshhh, crshh. I feel you scratching at my skull.
Tom Comitta and George Pfau straddle the gap between the Bay Area and Los Angeles just as I do and in a series of animations, gaps are foregrounded.
Pfau and Comitta refer to an animation sequence of theirs as a “Transition Drawing.” In so naming them, Pfau and Comitta also acknowledge that the work is similar to so-called “Exquisite Corpse” creations of artists within the surrealism movement during the first half of the 1900s. An exquisite corpse drawing is generally one where the first artist draws a portion of a character (the head, for example). The second artist is then given the original sketch with the majority obscured by a simple fold and tasked with adding to the hidden original with a body section created by their imaginative drawing (part two would then be the chest). The process is repeated until each participant has drawn a section of the character, at which point the drawing is revealed, in total, to the participants (one person’s head, another’s chest, another’s legs, feet, etc). The resultant figure is the “exquisite corpse.” In Pfau and Comitta’s iteration however, the artists instead took turns “furthering the evolution of the icons/characters/letters that came before.” The space between icons is a change in perspective, a translation that the viewer can ‘see’ happening by virtue of the space between.
While in 6th grade, some friends and I ‘created’ a game that we could play in class. All that was required was a piece of paper, a pencil, and two or more willing participants.
The game began with a small stick figure drawn somewhere on the page. That figure was engaged in an activity, generally athletic in nature. Once Player One had drawn the figure in action, they passed the paper to Player Two, who then converted the leisure activity drawn by player one into an immanent doom scenario by adding something to the drawing that would immediately kill the figure unless a miracle transpired. The next player, whether it was Player One again (in a two player scenario) or Player Three (in a larger game), was tasked with subverting the immanent doom scenario, thereby saving the stick figure’s life and enabling the figure to proceed with their activity. The next player re-subverted, putting the character back in danger, etcetera. These drawings were done with the most minute and intricate penmanship our 6th grade motor-function could muster, leading to dozens of additions on a single page. That swirling imagery yielded a robust story that was often re-articulated to players and non-players alike, thereby becoming its own artifact of storytelling, a lingua-franca shared by the artists and ultimately translatable into “English.”
Our finished works while playing ‘the game’ resembled the “non-linear” Transition Drawings of Pfau and Comitta:
Our middle school version of these drawings, however, slanted strongly sinister as the whole story became one of undying.
Our drawings also had much in common with the works of Rube Goldberg.
crshhh, crshhh, crshhh plying at my parasympathetic system I feel you taking my words conjured in my brain into your brain, as fuel.
My brain spends every other weekend in Los Angeles, and my conversation spends part of each day there. If you could draw me, I might look like a little stick figure, soul flitting through physical barriers and impossible doom scenarios, existing most palpably in the ether. That, perhaps, is the case with many American lives in 2016.
Rube Goldberg is dead but when I view his inventions, I see him alive, on stage, performing stand-up comedy.
crshhh, crshhh, crshhh
If a pun is a joke exploiting different meanings of a word, a rebus is a sort of visual pun. Or perhaps it is an un-pun, as the image means exactly one thing. Part of Zombie Variations is a series of Rebus’ painted along the lines of classical painting schools. Each painting’s ‘meaning’ is a rebus of a zombie movie title. So perhaps these rebuses are supposed to be puns after all, as each strives to mean more than the interpretation of its meaning. The paintings, puns or no, are placed between the larger pieces of the Zombie Variations exhibit, interrupting the exhibit like panel breaks in a cartoon. Though perhaps they are not the breakage but rather the thread that creates unity in the exhibit.
Pfau and Comitta also created an app. It features a series of letter-derived rebuses that can be articulated to form new art visually and poetically. They also made a work in the exhibit that exhibits messages using their app language, and which features a tablet on which to test out the app, although the tablet may be little-used as people don’t like to touch art in exhibits for fear of being chastised, although perhaps the fearless visitors of a zombie exhibit touch more art than the average museum visitor.
I feel myself again rendered within the exhibit by virtue of its having an app, as I travel daily to LA ears and “my words” wander the internet to screens distant and varied that I cannot imagine.
The deeper I move into social media, the better I appreciate this new language of rebuses. Imagining them interpreted then re-articulated and sprouting new valences of meaning comforts me as I try to get my feet back on the ground each morning.
Whether toggling from one artist to the other in the Transition Drawings, or forcing a meditation by viewers on the octothorpe (itself an ‘unreal’ thing), Pfau and Comitta are asking viewers to look at language and to think about how people communicate-communion-commune-cohabitate. We eat the body of Christ. We cleanse our palate with his blood. Then we go home to watch humans play football for money and viciously inflict brain damage on one another to our giddy delight!
crshhh, crshhh, crshhh putting key to screen for your reading pleasure as the leftovers of my brain leak out of my ears
Words can only be so sterile. Words have multiple meanings. Why attempt to write a conventional essay? It can only be so dead before somebody reads it and brings it to life again. Heaven forbid someone cites that conventional essay and breathes new life into its dead argument. The bible is one of the oldest and most hotly contested pieces of literature. One would think that by now we would have beaten that old horse to death. Perhaps we killed it and beat it back to undead.
Comitta and Pfau are running in another direction by citing the past. Whether through the ‘vocabulary’ of established schools of art re-appropriated into rebus’ of zombie movie titles (themselves a sort of vocabulary) or through creating apps, these two artists self-consciously use alternate meanings and subvert definition. Pfau and Comitta recognize the power of the dead things I am punching with my fingers in a particular order to give a meaning that I mean in particular but which means something else by the time the characters are pulled back off the screen by the greedy eyes of the living. Or is it the living dead? I’ve over-subverted my metaphor.
crshhh, crshhh, crshhh
Pushing back to the surface of Alter Space, San Francisco sunlight dripping down the white walls, I was struck when my guide reminded me that there were several exhibits on display and cautioned that I not conflate them in my writing. I was struck because I thought it a rather pointless comment.
FWIW, the exhibit inhabiting the white space upstairs, is vastly different visually and thematically from Zombie Variations. FWIW is heavily predicated on found-object artworks that force viewers to take critical looks at their J Crew shirts that have been recreated in watercolor, or the recreated, (false?) wood grain of office desks that have also been re-created in watercolor. Then there is a beam that formerly held up a building but which now is tethered at a slant to the wall and holds up one functioning light at an unusable height. Of course I knew there were multiple exhibits on display!
Then I wrote this piece and realized that while I understand Alter Space and these exhibits more profoundly now than I did when I started, I am more convinced than I ever could have been convinced I would be that the multiple exhibits might simply be one exhibit. After all, found objects given new life=undead.
crshhh, crshhh, crshhh
For more information on Alter Space visit- www.alterspace.gallery
Houston, Keith. “Miscellany № 74: Zombies Always Make a Hash of Things.” Shady Characters. Shady Characters, 30 May 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
By: Casey Dyson