“I really think Elon Musk has a vacuum fetish.”
This is where forty minutes of conversation with Sam Keogh has brought me. The Irish artist, who divides his time between Dublin, London and Amsterdam and has just completed a residency at the Rijksakademie, this month presents his new solo show Kapton Cadaverine at the Kerlin Gallery on South Anne Street. Like many of his earlier shows (Four Fold, Puke Performance, Mop), this new sculptural installation features the artist himself. Kapton Cadaverine sees Sam waking up in a cryogenic pod in a filthy room in a degraded starship. The walls are covered in arcane sculptures dripping with something icky and viscous. There’s crud everywhere. Keogh’s clothes are likewise stained and filthy and he embarks on a monologue that lets us know he’s been in this room for some time.
Waking up from a cryogenic sleep on a starship should ring familiar for anyone who’s ever watched sci-fi films like Alien or, more recently, Passengers. Keogh cites this latter flick and two other recent sci-fi blockbusters (The Martian and Interstellar) as deeply influential in the making of Kapton Cadaverine. These are films that the artist finds problematic in their world-view, particularly in relation to their stereotypes of heroic masculinity and how these connect to white, Western privilege. Over the course of Keogh’s performance in Kapton Cadaverine, it becomes clear that the gunk on the walls is sperm, the result of two years spent alone on a floating starship.
“I talk about how Matt Damon never masturbated in The Martian, and how you never see these strong male characters doing this thing which would reduce their power, reduce their heroism or their virility.”
For Keogh, the presentation of hyper-masculinity in films like Passengers and The Martian, the (as he describes it) “sexless, heroic, stoic male protagnoist”, is only one layer in a complex value system that connects to deeply rooted and problematic power structures in our society. The artist points to another questionable aspect of Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, one far more sinister than his refusal to masturbate. This is his resolve to (to quote from the film’s trailer) “science the shit” out of his critical situation. That is, use the magic powers of science to get himself out of a real pickle. It’s true that in the face of what look like pretty dire circumstances (he’s been left behind on the parched landscape of Mars without enough food to survive the length of time it would take for a crew to return to save him), Damon’s character is surprisingly buoyant about his chances of survival. For Keogh, the film is inflected with what he calls “weird Silicon Valley tech utopian optimism”; not coincidentally, the script is based on a book written by computer-programmer-turned-novelist Andrew Weir.
“These are films that don’t actually want the future. [The thinking is] we can just solve the problems of the present as engineering problems. It’s a particular mapping of engineering problem-solving methodology onto contemporary problems. What the engineering view lacks is an understanding of how power works and an understanding of the history of subjugation and privilege as well. And [this tech utopianism] is only ever rife in places that are quite culturally homogenous anyway, like Silicon Valley, which is kind of the epicentre of that thinking.”
He references Interstellar as another film that doesn’t want the future. The movie ends [SPOILER ALERT] with Matthew McConnaughey, in the face of the death of the Earth, having successfully recreated one small pocket of society on a starship that escapes the apocalypse.
“They’ve just replicated present-day middle class Texas and that’s the world you’re presented with has having been saved. And the space station is not big, maybe it can accommodate a few thousand people, so where are all the other billions of people on earth? In all of those films, I think what they want is the present to be able to continue in an untroubled way. When these films were made, between 2014 and 2016, things were really kicking off – Black Lives Matter, all of these movements were more connected and vocal than they’d been in a very long time, and that meeting a reactionary response from Trump and the alt-right… I think these films want a return to a time when you could imagine the future was untroubled and it seems to be a specifically straight, white, middle class Western version of an untroubled future.”
Kapton Cadaverine is the first installation in a new body of work that will culminate at two biennials this year: EVA International in Limerick and Glasgow International. As part of his research, Keogh journeyed to the heart of the tech hyper-optimism he finds so problematic. He landed in Silicon Valley with no driver’s licence and no data on his phone, disconnected at the beating heart of the Internet.
“I was walking on these sidewalks which were completely clean because nobody walks on them really, unless you’re a Mexican immigrant working in a garden or in the service industry or for whatever reason you can’t afford a car. I didn’t have Internet either because I didn’t buy data, so I was walking around going from Starbucks to Starbucks and it was the most embodied I’d been in a very long time.”
While there, Keogh met up with Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, cited as one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century. Friedman was a strong advocate of free-market capitalism, a libertarian and Republican, and a vocal critic of Keynesian economics. His grandson Patri works as a Google software engineer, and espouses his grandfather’s political and economic beliefs. Patri Friedman is also the head of the Seasteading Institute, an organisation set on founding ‘autonomous sea states’ that can act as testing grounds for new political models. Keogh uses the word ‘models’ with air quotes to emphasise his reservations about the concept. He also points out that these autonomous sea states would be tax havens.
“Patri was quite charismatic and enjoyable to listen to. He’s sitting there cross-legged on this multicoloured Google chair in the California sunshine in this purple velour leisure suit, with long hair in a purple velour scrunchy, and it’s like ‘yeah, this makes sense’. I don’t mean I thought it made sense, but that it didn’t seem strange that he was saying these things in that environment. It’s so clement, everybody has so much money and he’s just, in this California hippy way, experimenting with different ideas. With that weird optimism he has, there’s no understanding of race, class, gender, unequal distribution of wealth, or how inequality relates to freedom under capitalism, because under capitalism the more money you have, the more free you are.”
So, Elon Musk and the vacuum fetish. I ask Keogh if he can pull out some common themes from his body of work, which has included shows about Oscar the Grouch, vomit, bog bodies and the murder of Gianni Versace.
“The through-line would be death and grossness and trash and abjection… [abjection being a revulsion for anything that breaks the body’s sense of its own boundedness, compromises its sense of wholeness – like a broken limb or a seeping wound]. I think that these fantasies of space colonisation and of uploading your mind onto the Internet, even the fantasy of the AI taking over after the singularity and destroying all humans, comes from eschatological Christianity, as Meghan O’Geiblyn suggests, this dream of the destruction of the human body, a hatred of the human body as something that is messy and unbounded and necessarily connected and responsible to other human bodies. So, Elon Musk is making this thing called a hyperloop, a vacuum tube from San Francisco to LA which gets you there in 45 minutes or something. He’s making this thing and he wants to die on Mars. I think really what he wants is to be exposed to a vacuum until he’s dead. Because you don’t really leak into space, it leaks into you and it seals your body into itself so you expand but you also freeze. You become this perfectly preserved thing because there’s no oxygen, so there’s no bacteria, so your body won’t ever degrade. That’s kind of what I think about the Medusa myth – the heroes who went looking for Medusa actually wanted to be turned into stone because it solidified their masculinity. And what’s masculinity? Well, partially it’s this idea that the body is impermeable, it’s completely solid and singular, it’s never penetrated but only ever penetrating other bodies and in that way it’s active rather than passive, it’s violent rather than being the surface upon which violence is met. I think these kinds of fantasies of the future and technology are often gendered in those ways and have these things not very far underneath their surface.”
Words: Rachel Donnelly