Beyond the Pale
Janet Owen Driggs
To go “beyond the pale” is to move outside the acceptable, the safe, and the known. The exhibition Beyond the Pale presents artworks by artists who step outside the bounds of Western scientific thinking in their efforts to know and interpret the world. Although the exhibition does include a near-magical broom, its title has nothing to do with buckets. Instead its “pale” derives from “paling:” the fence posts that would once have enclosed a village or a fort, but which are now more commonly used to “impale” Hollywood vampires.
How do we know what we know? How can we know what is real? What are the invisible forces that operate in our world, that cause the planets to rotate and the birds to migrate? And what is truth anyway? While these questions have entranced Western thinkers for at least 2500-years, for the past three centuries or so we have been absolutely certain that science does, or will very soon, reveal the answers.
Information acquired by observation and experimentation, data recorded and analyzed by scientists – since the Scientific Revolution, these have been the tools that Western culture has used to separate fact from faith, reason from superstition, and logic from emotion. For more than three hundred years, science has defined the territory inside the fence.
But it was not always so. Before the Scientific Revolution, religion occupied the central space. For a thousand years or more, Christianity determined what was true inside the Western fence, and labelled everything beyond it as “heresy.”
(As an example, consider the motion of the planets. Taking a literal approach to the Bible, for most of its life the Catholic Church understood planet Earth as the center of creation, around which all other celestial bodies moved. Known as “geocentrism” this idea was accepted as the Truth in the West for around sixteen hundred years. By the early seventeenth century however, improved lens technology enabled astronomers to build on the work of Nicholas Copernicus and prove “heliocentrism”: the astronomical model in which the Earth revolves around the Sun.
In 1616, to protect its geocentric description of reality, the Church declared that heliocentrism was heretical, and subsequently forced Galileo to choose between dying in flames at the stake or renouncing his work. It finally relaxed the judgement of heresy in 1822 but did not declare the heliocentric model to be correct until 1992.)
When it is the dividing line between truth and not-truth, a fence is a dynamic thing. It may take generations but, as the migration of heliocentrism from heresy to truth demonstrates, movement happens. If contemporary indications are anything to go by, after approximately three centuries of stasis, the fence is moving again.
While fact-based evidence still packs a punch in the fight to know and understand the world, its authority has decreased in the past two-decades. (Indicators include rejections by some politicians and members of the public of overwhelming scientific consensus regarding humanity’s impact on the climate, and the safety of vaccines.) With scientific method dislodged as the ultimate route to true knowledge, what else might come to occupy the territory “inside the pale”? The artworks presented in Beyond the Pale look, leap, and dance around the fence to suggest other possible ways of knowing.
If modern science is “the effort to understand, or to understand better…how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding,” then Louis Pesce’s Temple of Contemplation points to its deep roots in Euclidian geometry and the religious practices of Ancient Rome. [i]
The Classical Greek world understood reality as an orderly system of perfection, or cosmos, the opposite of chaos. Seeking to identify that order, Euclid created The Elements, a mathematical treatise that has “influenced scientific thinking perhaps more than any other text in the world." [ii]
In contrast Ancient Rome understood the natural world as acomplex system of interrelationships between gods and humans, in which natural phenomena were believed to be physical expressions of divine will. Wanting to know the will of the gods and thus avoid divine retribution, the Roman state appointed priests to observe natural phenomena and interpret the will of the gods. One such category of truth-seekers, the augurs, studied birds in flight.
Creating a space large enough to hold one person at a time, Temple of Contemplation is constructed using paper birds that Pesce has folded, contemplatively, from pages of The Elements. The temple columns, which carry the traces of old folds, are made from opened origami; while still-folded birds indicate the sky above. Echoing an augur’s templum, the sacred space through which they viewed the birds, Temple of Contemplation invites the exhibition visitor to “make his or her own observations and interpretations as the Roman augurs once did.” [iii]
Direct communication from the divine also features in the Christian faith. Summoning shades of St. Teresa of Avila, for whom a mystical encounter produced pain “so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease,” Veronique d’Entremont’s grandmother, who speaks in tongues, has described being “Slain in the Spirit:” “It’s like an orgasm from Jesus. My body went all limp-like, and I couldn’t move……I felt this warmth come over my body.” [iv] [v]
While seventeenth century sculptor Bernini, a devout Catholic, famously depicted St. Teresa in the throes of ecstasy, pierced by an angel’s golden spear, d’Entremont takes a rather more skeptical approach. With The Gift To Speak; The Gift To Hear (2018), the artist has rooted two slender metal rods in concrete, mounted a gilded tin-can to each rod, and joined the cans together using long wires strung with soda-can tabs. In Reaction Formation (2018), a speaker embedded in concrete and a television showing electrical static, are joined by a net of telephone cords that hangs from a golden sconce.
Suggesting a child’s telephone game and a somewhat post-apocalyptic living room, d’Entremont’s sculptures occur as devices set up to intercept the vibrations of invisible forces. Perhaps they are meant to amplify spiritual sound waves for the disbelieving? Perhaps, after what d’Entremont describes as almost twenty years of conversations about “a family history shaped by some combination of abuse, mental illness or curse,” the forces and voices in question are not only spiritual, but also emotional, familial, psychological, and genetic. [vi]
For Jennifer Moon all such forces are best described as “beliefs,” or “belief entities,” which “take up residence in our minds and utilize our bodies to actualize themselves in this reality.” Emulating the expository style and aesthetics of scientist and media-personality Neil De Grasse Tyson, Moon and her collaborator Laub have outlined her ideas in the video 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey (2015). [vii]
“Drawing from queer life, science, self-help, popular culture, the extremely personal, and fantasy,” 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey adopts the narrative form of the hero journey – a traditional expression of the Western quest for truth – and invites the viewer to travel through cosmic space to “discover who we really are beyond our beliefs.“ [viii] A primary tool to be used on the quest, says Moon, is love, which “much like faith…does not stem from anything that we currently know or understand in the observable universe.” [ix]
Like a master baker folding fat into flour, Moon folds hard science into poetry and bakes a cake that rejects the traditional Western distinction between reason and emotion, thinking and feeling. By positively refusing the binary construction which underpins modern Western thought and invalidates non-scientific ways of knowing, the artist gives emotion, love, and magic (love being its own magic) as much importance as science in the quest for truth. And more. For while objective science merely reported on the nature of the world, Jennifer Moon’s love is a tool by which to“create new realities.”
Are new realities created by fundamental shifts in tangible matter, or are they a product of new ideas? Taking the position that the universe is a collection of natural phenomena which exist outside the human mind, modern science asserted that only its rational methodologies were capable of scrutinizing nature to reveal the objective truth. As a result, scientific consensus became the final arbiter of truth and non-scientific ways of knowing – including intuition, astrology, faith, folkways, and indigenous knowledge – became invalidated in the modern era; either dismissed as ignorance, trivialized as superstition, or demonized as witchcraft.
But the process did not happen overnight. Just as it is possible today to see signs that the authority of scientific consensus is being eroded, so there were many signs of its ascent to dominance. One such sign was Somnium (Dream), a 1608 text by Johannes Kepler, a father of modern science and one of the astronomers whose work helped to establish the veracity of heliocentrism.
Somnium relates the adventures and educations of Fiolxhilde and her son Duracotus, which culminate in a trip to the Moon. “Since my earliest childhood my mother had dragged me by the hand, or lifted me onto her shoulders” writes Duracotus, but the pair are parted through most of his teenage years. During the separation, he has studied the new science of astronomy with Tycho Brahe, while she has learned the mysteries of the celestial spheres from the Daemon of Lavania, the spirit of the Moon. "Many of the things that you have seen with your own eyes, or heard reported, or taken from books, he recounted to me just as you have,” Fiolxhilde tells her son, before they fly to the Moon on the Daemon’s power. [x]
For Helen Lessick, whose 1990 performance Kepler’s Dream was inspired by Somnium, Kepler’s story explores “our perceptions of nature through the prisms of science and art.” Contrasting “the perspectives of nature and culture, traditional domestic wisdom, and academic theories…Kepler’s tale reveals [that all] perspectives have merit.”
While Somnium is now valued as the first modern treatise of lunar astronomy and “a seminal work in science fiction,” it was also, as Lessick asserts, a powerful validation of matriarchal wisdom. [xi] As an advocate for both heliocentrism and the idea that science was no better than – indeed sat on the shoulders of – women-held knowledge, Somnium challenged the then-dominant understanding of truth in two fundamental ways. It is most probable that Kepler framed his narrative as a dream so that, if necessary, his challenges could be dismissed“ as a figment of an idle slumberer’s uncontrollable imagination.” As things turned out however, it was not Kepler directly but his mother Katherine who suffered most for his heresies.
Shortly after Somnium was finished, the unpublished manuscript aroused what Kepler described as “whispers, harboured by stupid minds,” which identified Katherine Kepler with “my Fioxhilde.” [xii] As historian Gale E. Christianson explains: “To make matters worse, Katherine Kepler was well known for her vile temper and generally cantankerous disposition, not to mention the fact that the aunt who had cared for her as a child was burned at the stake as a witch.” [xiii] In the fetid hysteria of Europe’s seventeenth century witch hunts, Katherine Kepler was arrested on suspicion of practicing witchcraft. She died in 1622 “from causes directly attributable to the rigors of her imprisonment.” [xiv]
Somnium participates in Beyond the Pale in two primary ways: first in Kepler’s Dream (2019), the video document of Lessick’s performance celebrating the 1990 summer solstice. And then as a “score” for a 2019 spring equinox performance by the Cypress College Dance Ensemble, which responds to Lessick's kinetic broom sculpture, Sweeper (2018).
Suspended from ceiling-mounted motors to a point about three-feet above the floor, Sweeper’s long-handled brooms rotate in a continuous circular motion. Whether it is a product of centrifugal force or the constant pressure from air and dust, the brooms’ straw bristles have become bent in a manner that suggests both long use and – irresistibly – the animated movies Cinderella, Snow White, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.A complex invocation of domestic labor, celestial movement, and the possibilities of magical transformation, Lessick’s Sweeper conjures with a dominant narrative that still positions women, especially wise, powerful, cantankerous women, firmly beyond the pale.
The Rebel Body (2019), a video by Johanna Breiding, made in collaboration with Shoghig Halajian, and including an interview with Silvia Federici, explores the value of that mysogynist “belief entity” in establishing and maintaining the modern pale. Asserting “that the ghosts of human rights violations are preserved in the landscapes that surround us,” the video begins in the Swiss city of Glarus, where Anna Göldi, the last European executed for practicing witchcraft, was decapitated in 1782. [xv]
An older unmarried servant from a poor family, Göldi belonged to a class of women who had been vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft for the previous three-hundred years. As Federici explains in her celebrated book Caliban and the Witch,although modern capitalism was replacing medieval feudalism during this period,its triumph was not inevitable; for resistance to both feudal bonds and the capitalist order was being organized throughout Europe in communal networks, often led by women.
In a world that framed its ideas about a created universe in terms of good and evil magic, the “modernizers” used witch-hunts as “a weapon by which resistance to social and economic restructuring could be defeated.” The persecution and execution of tens of thousands of people, over three quarters of whom were women, undermined unity among the commons and “destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe.” [xvi]
Akin to the“Terror” that sought to impose new structure, new power, and new thoughts in post-Revolutionary France a decade after Göldi’s murder, the European witch hunts disciplined and punished “subjects considered deviant from the [new] social order.”
While The Rebel Body engages Federici’s rigorous academics to expose that process,the project does not privilege the academic assumption that true knowledge is based on objective evidence. Instead, in addition to her discussions with Federici, Breiding engages Glarus residents and visitors in seemingly-casual conversation. Interlaced with shots of the sweeping alpine landscape, the resulting flickers and glimmers of narrative and analysis take the viewer on a journey through time, place, and memory, which suggests that we cannot truly know what remains of Göldiin Glarus today.
Turning to more recent physical and cultural genocides, the work of Olivia Chumacero and Sarita Dougherty brings North American and Bolivian indigenous perspectives into Beyond the Pale. Their work represents ways of knowing the world that have survived modern efforts to erase the brown bodies who carried them. The challenge that these ideas pose to the foundational assumptions of modern Western society is suggested by the following extract from A Poem by Olivia Chumacero. [xvii]
“The no legged
the crawlers the winged
the hop jump
and swim away
The two four six
the droopy the clinging
the Stay put
We’re all the same”
Far from the human exceptionalism that underpins modern Western culture, the poem speaks of a non-hierarchical worldview in which “nature” is all of us, rather than a resource for human use.
Initially produced during a 2017-2018 residency at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Chumacero & Dougherty’s installation for Beyond the Pale highlights the profoundly non-Western ways of engaging the natural world that these ways of knowing have birthed. Flanked by a fragrant screen of native flora, the installation includes Chumacero’s video When Light Married Water, Dougherty’s plein-air painting, El Arroyo No Está Seco: Laurel Sumac, Black Sage, Mulefat, and Moss (2019), and El Codice de Cambios, an illuminated manuscript that the artists made together.
Each part of the installation recombines aspects of the perspectives that we can label “modern” and “indigenous.” When Light Married Water for example, contrasts the Huntington’s approach to cultivating native flora with that of “the First Nation people, the Tongva, and their thousand-year practices of gathering and land management.” El Arroyo No Está Seco uses the modern commodity form of easel painting to depict native flora at the Huntington and “reveal layers of beauty, survival, pattern, and community.” And El Codice de Cambios, which is informed by Mayan and Aztec Codices as well as the European manuscript tradition, narrates the artists’ experiences at the Huntington, depicts plant medicine and fauna found at the site, and identifies the lands' phases of ownership.
“Nature,” writes Dougherty, “is not an ‘other’ outside of ourselves as the Western Landscape painting or Botanical Illustration cannon might suggest, but intrinsically connected to every aspect of our being.” [xviii]
The identification of “humanity” and “nature” as two distinctly separate, unequal, and oppositional entities is a fractal of the many binaries that gird modern Western perception. Along with such other constructions as “cultivated vs. wild,” “civilized vs. savage,” and “rational vs. intuitive,” it has built a fence that contains people, ideas, and actions which support the dominant social order, and excludes those whose ideas, actions, and bodies deviate from it.
Identifying Rarámuri (Tarahumara), Cajun, Irish, and Bolivian ancestors, among others, Chumacero and Dougherty know the fences that these binaries have erected and they walk through them in their work and their lives, to “illuminate the concept of relationship [with nature] and…guide our existence in ecosystem.” [xix]
History suggests that people never actually know things, we just collectively subscribe to hypotheses about the nature of reality, and the most effective ways to begin to know it. While a politician’s professed lack of faith in climate science may indeed be self-serving, the artworks in Beyond the Pale suggest that the “post-truth” phenomenon is more than just a political ruse. Exploring the subjugated, the excluded, the trivialized, and the beheaded, these artworks indicate that the fence posts are moving again. Is this, as UK scientist Kathryn Langley said recently, a long overdue “fightback from the intuitive realm”? Is it an opportunity to participate in reimagining the social order? Either way, the question must be asked: what will now occupy the privileged space inside the pale, and who will decide? [xx]
[i] C. Morris, editor, Dictionary of Science and Technology, Academic Press, Inc, 1992, (San Diego, CA), 1926.
[ii] D. J. Struik, A Concise History of Mathematics (Dover Publications, 1984), 51.
[iii] L. Pesce, artist statement for Beyond the Pale, January 2019.
[iv] The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel by Teresa, translated by D. Lewis, 1904, third edition, (London: Thomas Baker), www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8120.
[v] V. d’Entremont, artist statement for Beyond the Pale, November 2018.
[vii] J. Moon, 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey, 2015, https://vimeo.com/145188107
[viii] J.Moon, artist statement for Beyond the Pale, January 2019.
[ix] J. Moon, 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey
[x] J. Kepler, Somnium(completed 1608, published 1634): https://somniumproject.wordpress.com/somnium/iii/
[xi] G. E. Christianson “Kepler's Somnium: Science Fiction and the Renaissance Scientist,” Science Fiction Studies, # 8, Volume 3, Part 1 (March 1976). www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/8/christianson8art.htm.
[xii] M. Nicolson: “Kepler, the Somnium, and John Donne,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 1940): 259-280. www.jstor.org/stable/2707087.
[xiii] G. E. Christianson, “Kepler's Somnium.”
[xv] J. Breiding, “The Rebel Body,” accessed February 17, 2019, http://johannabreiding.com/work/the-rebel-body/.
[xvi] S. Federici: Caliban and the Witch (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), 103.
[xvii] O. Chumacero, “A Poem,” Everything is Medicine, accessed February 18, 2019, https://everythingismedicine.wordpress.com.
[xviii] O. Chumacero & S. Dougherty, artist statement for Beyond the Pale, January 2019.
[xx] K. M. Langley, (Research staff, Haemostasis Research Unit, University College London), in Facetime conversation the author, February 10, 2019.