Thoughts on the Coronavirus Pandemic

I share these thoughts. I  am, in fact, a practicing physician, board certified in infectious disease and internal medicine, as well as a writer and artist.

I am hoping that the experience of Coronavirus will not be limited to the blow by blow details, the endless talking heads on the T.V. news, but, will be also read as a symptom of a pervasive illness to which we as a human race are in danger of succumbing. Some of us will die from the virus, others will fall ill and recover, others will watch, asymptomatic, but, saddened and wearied by our inability to help. I hope that those who do survive will see the world and their place in it differently, just as a person recovering from a long, potentially fatal illness sees differently. We are all in this together. We are linked to the planet and each other and animals and insects and all creatures down to the bacteria in our guts. Science can help us figure out how to get back into balance, but, a willingness to take a really hard look at ourselves and a sincere willingness to make a better future for everyone (especially everyone “other”) is fundamental. This is a wake up call. We may not have another chance.

“Moments there were, when out of death, and the rebellion of the flesh, there came to thee, as thou tookest stock of thyself, a dream of love. Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day shall mount?” last lines of Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

Superman–a story from Rikers

I write vignettes of my experiences as a practicing physician at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in NYC  here.  This is the latest.

Superman
He tells me that he want to come off Suboxone, the drug that is being used to treat his craving for narcotics. He tells me that he hasn’t taken it for two days and he feels fine. It’s is an odd story. I am incredulous. His history is complicated, but it seems he got put on methadone upon arrest when his urine came up positive for opiates on a drug test. In jail, this just happens de facto. Very few people refuse. Even if they don’t actually need it, methadone numbs the pain. He tells me he has never actually used heroin. He was only taking pain pills for a gunshot wound incurred the month before. I tell him we don’t know why some people get hooked on narcotics and some walk away. I can walk away, he promises. Again, I try to suppress my disbelief. The story is not impossible, but it is far more likely that there is a motive of secondary gain. Housing? A program? He doesn’t want to be moved from this jail–that is clear, but, what he really wants, it seems, is just to be off the drugs. How his treatment was changed from methadone to Suboxone, is buried in the chart. “I quit methadone– 110mg– cold turkey,” he declares, with pride. Then, he tells me his story. But, it is not at all the story I expect. I stop poking at my computer as he tells it because, suddenly, an almost mythological image arises in my mind of a little boy squatting in the shadow of a massive chemical processing plant somewhere in rural Illinois. “I was out fishing with my father, we used to fish all the time. It was hot, so he told me to go back to the car and get some water. But, it was so far, so I went to the chemical plant and there was a basin by the side of the building and it looked like it was filled with water. Crystal clear water, so I scooped some up with my hands and I drank it, and I think it was water. But, ever since, I never get sick. ” We are both dancing around what he is saying. It’s the Spiderman story. He has given himself a superpower. “Mind over matter,” he says by way of explanation. He has the will so he will do it. I look into his light green eyes, his hair, graying, in long dreads, and I can picture him as a little boy. I imagine all children believe they are magical at some point in their lives. It is a response to the powerlessness of childhood. And, I do not find it surprising that a man in jail would return to that story and remember what that was like when life was new and grass green and sky blue and all the possibilities present on a Saturday afternoon, fishing with your dad. But, now, he is in jail. The story takes him back, and I see him as he was, and I do not take away that hope. I do not disabuse him of this wisp of a belief, that he does have a superpower, that he has been blessed or chosen, that his fate is not just this. I, too, want to believe it. I tell him I do believe there are people who can do superhuman things. “It is like Star Wars,” I say, “the Jedi mindset. If you practice it, you can do it.” He nods in agreement, “if you think you can, you can”. “Yes”, I say. I take his vital signs, and though it is not a miracle, his are normal. There are no signs of withdrawal. So, I take him off the pill

The End of Touch

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“Social distancing,” is a term we hear a lot recently. Although this phrase has emerged in the context of the Coronavirus, the fact is that we have already begun to practice it pervasively through our use of technology. The loss of life, economic value, productivity and the state of emergency, which for many of us is not new, but simply an amping up of the anxiety we’ve been feeling for the last three years, will come to naught if we do not see this as an opportunity.  Now is the time to seriously consider what is lost and gained as communication and “touch” become virtual.  I want to extend the term “touch” to encompass types of  existence in which having a vulnerable body is not something that is merely an inconvenient or horrible reality, one that must be dealt with, but an integral, valued aspect of living. In this way, I would extend “touch” to ecological systems. Our gut biome “touches” us. We “touch” our Earth, this only home for embodied creatures. To create and unlivable planet is to create a place without touch.

In 2007, Cyril and I put out an interactive narrative called Reconstructing Mayakovsky. (how I long to make this as a feature length VR!) It is 90,000 words of text –a proper novel–that is accessed through various “mechanisms”  including an “archive” based on internet links, that is necessarily, slowly accumulating 404 errors. I wrote it in response to 9/11. Inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian Futurist poet who killed himself in 1930 at the age of thirty-six, the novel imagines a post-nuclear war dystopia where uncertainty and tragedy have finally been eliminated through technology. It really asks what is lost and gained as the world becomes virtual. There is a very funny and very sad scene–you will have to play around to find it! in which the protagonist (VeraX) husband gets a blow job from a woman in “Real Time”, the toxic, almost unlivable world outside the virtual. There is also a fake investment video for the virtual world “OnewOrld” (so called because all difference, those inefficient drags on memory, have been erased–I will not go into the hegemony of what I call “Pixar aesthetics,” but you know what I mean) which decries the fact that “the human has become the weakest link in defense systems.” I did not make that line up, it’s a line taken straight from the DARPA website. You can access it here. The image above is from the manifesto I wrote. In the way of all good manifestos, it is over the top hyperbolic and poetic and aptly hysterical.  The design, created in collaboration with Pelin Kirca, replicates Roentgen’s original report of the discovery of X-rays in a German medical journal (accessed through that transcendent technology The WWW).  I love this image. X-rays make the body virtual, but Roentgen’s wife’s wedding ring, remains opaque, impenetrable.

The rise of big data and AI to provide answers to important questions, ranging from public policy decisions to whether your insurance will pay for a certain medical treatment, presumes that all that we need to know can be communicated into terms that disembodied beings can make sense of–the poetic, the intuitive, concepts like wonder and remorse are gone. (I  am a physician. I started out in molecular biology so I recognize both the incredible importance as well as the limits of science.) The emergence of emojis on FB at the same time that Oculus Rift became available to the consumer public is not serendipitous (nor is it an evil orchestration), it merely reflects the underlying understanding that there are aspects of human communication that need to be modified, commodified, codified so that machines can read them. But, to capitulate to the necessity of operating systems and RAM, is to capitulate to a loss of those aspects of being human -the nuances of voice, the tension in a neck, the half-smile, the body leaning toward you in conversation, which is part, is a fundamental (this is old brain) and incredibly pleasurable part of being human.

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The danger of touch has a history. Those who grew up in the 80’s when the transmission of a mysterious, deadly illness, now called AIDS, was still in question, remember this history.   Queerskins: ark, our newest VR experience,  revisits the story of Sebastian, a young gay physician estranged from his rural Catholic Missouri family who dies of AIDS in 1990.  In it, the mother reads his diary and allows herself to imagine him alive and in love. We filmed Michael DeBartolo and Chris Vo who play the lovers with Intel Studio’s 3D volumetric capture technology. There is very little dialogue in this. It was critical for us to tell the story through bodies and body movement because, on a meta-level, this work is about the dangers and pleasures of touch and embodiment. The last line of the dialogue is Sebastian’s who says “Touch me.” This segues into an intimate and at times very sexy pas-de-deux between the two men, beautifully choreographed by Brandon Powers.  The backdrop of the coronavirus puts the exhibition at risk, but also heightens awareness of the very question we are exploring.

I’d like to end these thoughts with a poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”. I feel nowadays that only love and poetry are the only antidotes to this feeling of it being the end of the world. Rilke wrote this exquisite poem about seeing self in other and light as particle and wave. Art as physical and transcendent matter. Touching with the eye. The last line is utterly arresting. And, it means everything. So, yes, this can not be the new normal. We must change our lives. archaic Torso of Apollo

 

 

 

Final Rehearsal Queerskins: ark

In August we flew to Intel Studios in LA to film Queerskins: ark using their 3D volumetric  capture technology on a 30 ft stage –the largest in the world. Here are some beautiful photos by Asya Gorovits of Michael DeBartolo and Christopher Vo in final rehearsal in NYC.  We have made something that creates a kind of dialogue between your body and that of the virtual human characters. It’s intimate, wondrous–a new kind of “touch.” Coming soon!

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Our installation for Queerskins: ark will feature wearable “queer skins” by costume designer Loise Braganza

kate moss slip 2Queerskins: ark VR (co-produced by Intel Studios, currently in post-production) harnesses emerging technologies, including Intel’s 3D volumetric video capture technology , 360˚ stereoscopic video, drone-assisted photogrammetry, and spatial sound, to tell the story of a Catholic mother living in rural Missouri who reads the diary her estranged gay son has left behind, and allows herself to imagine him alive and in love.  Entering the mother’s imagination, the visitor co-creates an intimate dance between the lovers through their own body position and movement. In this way, ark explores the tension between material historical embodied reality and transcendent virtuality.  It asks visitors to consider what is lost and gained when touch and interaction become computer-mediated. The magical realist aesthetic of the VR will be extended into a physical installation that will incorporate spatial sound, video, photographs, objects and unique handmade costumes/undergarments designed by Mumbai based designer Loise Braganza. By putting on one of these wearable “soft machines,” visitors confront their own relationship to sexuality, gender, and physical body size and shape. 

 

Revisiting #Reconstructing #Mayakovsky #Manifesto #art #love #revolution

A friend says she is going to MIT hackathon to absorb youthful techno-idealism. I wrote about techno-idealism in 2008 with our first work, and, well, things, didn’t work out so well… . Reconstructing Mayakovsky is an experimental game-novel which tells the story of a near post-apocalyptic future where the Earth is mostly uninhabitable so everyone’s bodies are kept alive, stored like sardines, in hives, while their minds roam in virtual realities, guarded by a super computer called The Oracle. It  came out in 2008 and still pretty much works thanks to the robust coding of my artistic partner Cyril Tsiboulski. This is the first thing we made together and I still think it is awesome. Fake investment video, an archive stuck in time–accumulating 404 errors, a hand drawn animation done in collaboration with Pelin Kirca, a concrete poetry generator, an audio soundscape/thoughtgame/podcast of all 90,000 words of text. And this manifesto–the graphic design for which was taken from Roentgen’s first published scientific report of x-rays. I think it is still pretty damn on point. And, funny. Hope some day now that 12 years have past, to find an actual publisher for the text of the novel. At the time, no one had any clue what it was we’d made.. www.reconstructingmayakovsky.com

Beta-Testers Needed for Ark–the newest Queerskins #VR experience

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Michael DeBartolo and Chris Vo in rehearsal for dance sequence in Ark (photo by Asya Gorovits)

Attention NYC’ers -we are beta testing Ark –the newest Queerskins VR experience, co-produced by Intel and shot this summer at the largest volumetric capture stage in the world.

In Ark, a devoutly Catholic mother living in rural Missouri finds away to overcome (for a time) her grief and herself, by imagining the son she has lost to AIDS, alive and in love. Brandon Powers choreographed an exquisite dance for this and Cyril Tsiboulski has created a groundbreaking interactive experience. You do not want to miss this. No experience necessary, in fact, we are looking for newbies! 

January 20th (MLK day) 1 PM to 5 PM near Grand Street stop on L train in East Williamsburg. The whole thing will take maximum 30 minutes of your time. Please  respond to this post to reserve a time so you don’t have to wait.

Thank you!