In response to Jason de Haan and Anton Vidokle
What does it mean to receive a message? How do we recognize one when it arrives? What if reading means learning to change the way we think of messages, their chemistry, shape, environment, and propensity for proliferation? The exhibition of work by Jason de Haan (Oh for eyes! At night we dream of eyes!) and Anton Vidokle (The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun) is deeply concerned with signals and their receptors, with the coupling of the message with its receiver. In The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun Vidokle introduces us to Alexander Chizhevsky’s heliobiological theories of recurring interstellar signals, including his cosmist studies of aero-ionization and the effects of solar flares on human health. Similarly, crystal healing therapy, as it is framed by de Haan, explores the potential of the natural frequencies of minerals to communicate resonant healing properties to bodies and spirits. In Spirits Looking at Themselves, haunted mirrors positioned to face regular mirrors offer resident spirits the opportunity for self-reflection, the chance to recognize the framework that posits an outside to their encapsulated condition. The semiotic studies initiated by these two artists depend on the conceptual roles of intervals and scales. The interval works by distinguishing signals and forming patterns through time. Consider, for example, the duration involved with the forested ring finding its beloved in de Haan’s Future Age, or the sequence of postcards from the Black Hills written about the same recurring dream in Black Hills at Night. Changes in scale permit us, through visual or temporal magnification, through encounters with deep time or shifted frames of significance, to discern patterns in the way signals are sent and received. Vidokle’s film requires that we scale up from the aero-ionizing halo to the accretive behavioural changes that drive the larger revolutions of whole societies. De Haan’s slowly vaporizing fossils (Swallow all the Brains) require a consideration of geological time and its relationship to microscopic molecular interpenetration as a function of regular respiration.
My work responds to these intervals and scales, to the importance of learning to think more expansively about messages, about the kinds of signals that are all around us, but disguised by conventional modes of apprehension. What happens when the scales get shifted, when the intervals are tuned differently? My poem “Spectrum” explores the semiotics of a sunburn. It does this as a means to both respond to the “signals” inherent in Vidokle and de Haan’s work, but also as a means to enact an engagement with shifted modes of perception sympathetic to and inspired by the work of these two artists. What if sunburns were trying to tell us something? What if we could learn to read them? Who might they be a message from? The sunburn occupies a complex cultural, biological, and medical position. Widespread social interest in tanning and the therapeutic effects of the sun have historically waxed and waned. Sun exposure is a major risk factor for skin cancer. However, it has also been associated with strengthened bones, reduced risk of heart disease and reduced risk of other cancers. It has been used as a treatment for various autoimmune illnesses. In addition to being necessary for the production of vitamin D, sunlight also makes us feel good—it triggers the release of serotonin and endogenous opioids such as endorphins. Despite mutagenic effects, ultraviolet light is an important component of general health in ways that are still being understood.
The sunburn can be read as a message from the stars, our star, written into (at least temporarily) the kinked staircase of our genes. What does it say about the complicated matter of thresholds, about too much and not enough, about science and pseudoscience, about this world and the cosmos beyond? The capitalist Anthropocene has enabled industrial practices that have damaged the ozone layer and led to increased ultraviolet light penetration. These anthropogenic effects have augmented the signal of the sun, turning up the volume on its message. This poem, in its various sections, is an attempt to listen closely, to read the sunburn’s visible and cultural spectrums. In doing so it includes responses to and engagements with the subject and messages of Vidokle’s film—principally Alexander Chizhevsky and his theory of the influence of sunspot activity on historical processes—and de Haan’s geological, paleontological, and spiritual experiments with signals and their receivers. Like bursts of radiation, these artists enter, refract, and alter the poem.
THE SUN CAN KILL YOU
I am radiantly happy. The people around me squint in the blaze. I feel this way even as cutaneous pigments empurple small bonfires around which carnivorous communiqués edit my bearings. The line between tonic and poison is the line between tonic and gin. Cancer is always a risk of reading too deeply. Through my head the sun wanders with its surrogate ashtrays suddenly ermine among bloom-freighted cocktails eyelashing the dermal contiguity of vaulted esteem. In times of pleasure we must decide again and again how to undress our blisters. A room is always brightest under its shades.
My worst was in freshman year. I was mowing the yard on our riding lawn mower. We have a big yard, so I spent three hours doing it. The tops of my hands got incredibly burned from being exposed on the steering wheel all day. It was a terrible location. Imagine trying to wash your hair in the shower without letting the hot water touch your burned hands.
In the raw centre of the year, we have a large yard. I spent three hours in its back. No price for an
autumn day ends the wheel. It is a terrible place that requires only one set of hair. The image of the
shower with hot water returns to wash your hands. This affects what they burn.
Your abundant adequate
afternoon ample artificial
autumn available beautiful
blazing blinding brilliant
broken burning bursting
cheerful clear clouded
cloudless cold constant
continuous daily dappled
dazzling diffused dim
direct dusty early
endless enough eternal
everlasting excessive fading
faint fierce filtered
first fitful fresh
full gentle glad
glaring glorious golden
good harsh hazy
heavenly hellish hot
incoming indirect intense
last late less
like liquid little
lovely low mellow
midnight mild more
morning much natural
new occasionally open
oppressive pale partial
perpetual pleasant possible
pure quiet radiant
real red reduced
rich scorching sharp
soft sparkling splendid
steady streaming strong
sudden sufficient sweet
thin tropical unbroken
unclouded uninhibited uninterrupted
vivid warm watery
weak white wintry
yellow your abundant
ETERNAL NOTE OF SADNESS
Visible from France on a sunny day, the White Cliffs of Dover are made from dead bodies of broken glass. Covered with scales of transparent calcium carbonate, a species of plankton lives in seawater suspended in its own greenhouse. Protected from ocean salt and harmful wavelengths of light, these single-celled algae produce a small amount of carbon dioxide. At the right concentrations this pressurized gas can hum against the window panes at detectable frequencies. The loudest point is at the end of the organism’s life, when its heavy skylights cause it to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Increasing pressure intensifies the sound. Over millions of years, the glass plates shatter on the seafloor, tiny arpeggios spilling their small pipe-organ drones into the slow notation of chalk. The plankton sing as they assemble the cliffs.
My honeymoon—the first one—we flew south for a week over the holiday weekend. I hadn’t seen the sun all winter. Laid on the beach too long in the first place and when we opened the trunk so we could chuck our beach gear in, I must’ve tossed the car keys in along with the towels. It was a Sunday, so most of the businesses were closed, and it ended up taking another three hours for the locksmith to come. By then, I had had about six hours of full-strength sun. I was in the emergency room later that night with sun poisoning. I was toasted and ended up covered in blisters. “Don’t touch me” was pretty much the only thing I said for the remainder of the trip.
The same wavelengths set south. We flew for pedestals to not see the winter. Earmarked and tedious,
threw dead giveaways between the seats and towels. As I think most livelihoods lock, we ended up
on the outer hours getting pivotal. Until then it was full of sun. I was in the emergency star. Finally, I
covered the boiled bubbles. “Do not touch,” said the only way for another.
I don’t get burned. I just get very, very tanned. After I go to Mexico sometimes I don’t recognize my face it’s so tanned. Living in Arizona, I was sun-phobic. If there was a way to cross the street to avoid standing in the sun, I’d do it. I wore hats. The Arizona sun will fry you where you lay. I once found a penny on the ground and tried to pick it up for luck. I burned myself as bad as that guy in Indiana Jones with the medallion palm print.
Do not burn. How much more rugged? After studying Mexico, in Arizona, I’m bright. In order to
achieve a decline, does not desire wear hats? Faultfinding headquarters bear with. When iron does
not cast well, I try to collect a glad penny on the ground. It is the same character flaw in his sweet-
FREEDOM OF ABSORPTION
Methyl ParabenUrine 9.25 ng/mL
The hole in the ozone is a signal boost. We speak over it. All day it watches from canopy cracks, bouncing from the hoods of cars painted with the luminous shells of sea creatures. A generation of spray tans and whip creams make it easier to jig the locks. Sunscreen is a mole. Its parabens are esters derived from fossil fuels. We slather ourselves in distraction, but the phone call is coming from inside the house. Melanomas write with sunlight soaked up from the same old same olds.
Once I had a burn so bad that the T shirt I slept in was glued to my skin in the morning. I still remember what it felt like to take that shirt off.
I tore it apart.
It was cloudy, but I burned anyway. A binary message dripped down my back. Like a city that is otherwise a victim of its rivers, my sweat smells the way it does because of the creatures that live in it. Out of the heat, my shirt dries white with salt. I have about three shakers full inside me right now. On the skin where the burn glistens, there is a microbe shaped like a club that sends its own messages to the outside world from within a reflective pool of perspiration. Found in pig saliva and in the fruiting bodies of truffles, this chemical signal can influence how much someone likes a haircut, or a smile, or the unconscious habit of slightly revealing the tip of a tongue. With warm shoulders still full of obscured sunlight, the beacons continue well into the night, microbes alive at the pool-side switch. I am a city whose roads are merely widened trails cut by animals looking for salt.
Metabolic typeface (Microscope image of my crystallized sweat under full sun)
First day we were there, my cousin took us to the ocean. We stayed there half of the day and I was so burnt I had to sleep with a wet towel on me. I got blisters all over and then I peeled. My mom was afraid I had a condition where a person no longer feels any pain. When the skin is burnt so badly the chemistry of the skin changes and can react strangely. Many years later I still have some light colour difference between where I was burnt and where I was safely covered by sunblock. I guess I was sort of tattooed for life.
Brought to the sea, we’re not our blood relatives. After some time, we had half a dream with a wet
towel. This place received peeling. My mother was afraid of my fitness it feels it cannot cut. Chemicals
change the skin to be sick in amazing. After some years, I still have differences between where I’m
sure that I’m burning and covered with bathing. I guess I was drumming.
LADDER MADE BY LICKING
When I put food in my mouth, I am taking dictation. I am reading as I lick the glue on the envelope that holds the letter I have written about how you taste to me. Sweet. Bitter. Sour. Salt. Umami. Small nipples carpet tongues and soft palates, the cheek and upper esophagus. Receptors line creases in the lungs sensitive to the tripwire taste of infection. An enzyme appears on sour-sensing cells for the exclusive purpose of deciphering bubbles in a glass of beer. Metallic. Cool. Calcium. Oleogustus. There is a region of the cortex dedicated to the flavour of water warmed by the sun. In Mexico, as an act of humble devotion, a sect of Capuchin nuns wore a groove into the floor by licking the length of a courtyard with their tongues. If I have been certain of anything, it is because I have tasted it at the back of my mouth.
I got a pretty bad sunburn while on holiday in Greece. My grandmother, who has lived in Greece all her life, put yogurt on my burn. She told me the yogurt method was one her mother taught her when they would pick tobacco. My grandmother’s family is from eastern Thrace and was forced to move to Greece as part of the population exchange. They lost all their possessions and had to pick tobacco to make a living. They didn’t have long clothing and big hats to wear to work so every spring they got burnt. Yogurt was the answer. It was plentiful and cheap, and you could even eat it after.
With the rise of heat sick, on holiday. My grandmother, who had everything in this life made for the
burning of yogurt, said that the process was the mother who taught her muffled smoke. But in the
east, from the grandmother of my part to muddle, Greece is communicative. All properties from
smoke are alive. For a long time a lot of work is a summer. Then answers you.
I HOPE YOU ARE FEELING BETTER
By the time it appears, it has already happened. Dali’s lobster is a boiled telephone. Napoleon goes to St. Helena. The sun never sets on the British Empire so the whole thing burns to a crisp. At some point, aspiration owes its origins to recumbency, just as pigments don’t always come from ink but also shadows on the page. Warmth and dizziness are red flags raised on a moon whose real portents are footprints. Affection for refrigerants is incremental. Opioids pool among the lesser lengths of a psychic centre peeled the way an apple is fully grasped by being eaten. The lights stay on all night and no one sleeps. The stairs are swept. Thymine to Thymine. Uracil to Uracil. The sun doesn’t oblige us to do anything, only something. All the stems await their cells.
NOTE ON THE TEXT
“Heliograph” is a series that includes accounts of sunburns found online. The original English text was entered into Google Translate and translated into Greek, Latin, and Russian, then back into English. Greek and Latin were chosen because of their importance to scientific terminology. Russian was chosen because of its obvious relevance to Chizhevsky’s work involving solar radiation. The resulting, slightly edited translations represent radiated sunburn narratives, accounts exposed to the mutagenic forces of language, exposed to the associated refractions of messages moving between linguistic mediums.
“Eternal Note of Sadness” responds to Jason de Haan’s art work of the same name.
“Vitamin D” is a list of words in English in which the letter “D” occurs in every word four times. Not to be confused with Vitamin D4 (22-dihydroergocalciferol), found in certain mushrooms, this vitamer is the linguistic form of this fat-soluble secosteroid.
“Freedom of Absorption” was written in response to the class of chemicals known as parabens. Widely used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, parabens are common preservatives in sunscreens. There is evidence that they are endocrine disrupting chemicals, which means they can mimic hormones in the body, altering sexual development and leading to cancer. Parabens have been found to be associated with some melanomas. As part of an ongoing art project, I have tested my body for many common chemicals, including parabens. The epigraph to the poem indicates my urine level of methyl paraben.
“Salt Shroud” responds to Jason de Haan’s art work of the same name. In addition to testing myself for chemicals (mentioned above), I have also had my microbiome sequenced and parts of my body swabbed for bacteria. The epigraph to this poem refers to Corynebacterium, which is a common microbe that resides on my skin. It contributes to the scent of perspiration. The image that accompanies this poem was taken with a sensitive microscope at Brock University. It is an image of my crystallized sweat.
“Ladder Made by Licking” responds to Jason de Haan’s art work entitled Capuchin Tongues.
“I Hope You Are Feeling Better” appropriates and alters some of the language in the introduction to Alexander Chizhevsky’s (Tchijevsky) 1926 paper “Physical Factors of the Historical Process,” translated by Vladimir P. de Smitt.