By Shana Dumont Garr, Cohort ’22
I met the artist-philosopher and IDSVA alumna EL Putnam when she was in Boston for her 2023 solo exhibition, Pseudorandom, curated by Dr. Leonie Bradbury, cohort ’11, at Emerson College. The exhibition featured video art installations and performances created during the COVID-19 pandemic centering on themes of motherhood, feminism, and collaborations with computers via programs she wrote.
We met to talk about her ongoing collaborations with Mike McCormack, an experimental fiction writer and author of six books. McCormack defies the conventions of the novel format in his fictional works set in his native West Ireland; for example, his 217-page novel Solar Bones consists of a single sentence. His forthcoming metaphysical thriller, This Plague of Souls, was named a most anticipated book for 2024 by The Guardian and The Irish Times.
Putnam and McCormack’s shared interest in science fiction led them to meet for regular conversations that enrich their respective artistic practices. They experimentally foreground humanity in technology in the hopes that art can manage the challenging reality of the present. What follows is our conversation.
SDG: EL, thank you for meeting with me today, it is lovely to see you! You’re working with Mike McCormack on an upcoming project, and you have worked together in the past and performed together.
EL: Yes, we collaborated on An Invitation for Arts in Action with the University of Galway, which received a great response. We created this performance in the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, but our work together began before the pandemic. At the time, I was also processing the grief of my dad’s death, and due to the impact of the virus and lockdown, on grief generally. Many of our meetings were sitting with each other in the dark.
At the time, everything was online. It correlated with my experiences of my father’s death, just prior to the pandemic. Since my father died so suddenly, I missed his final days on a ventilator and said my final goodbye over a video call. This created a different grief cycle when I arrived just prior to his funeral, so Mike and I centered the performance on grief.
SDG: I am so sorry for your loss. How did grief feature in that performance?
ELP: We did not sentimentalize, and explored its Dionysian aspects. As part of the experiential process, I poured honey directly on the glass, which appears to be the camera lens, and spread my fingers through it as Mike’s voice could be heard speaking, with my voice echoing his:
Deny the feeling of our hearts properly broken
We have to keep grief alive
We would not want it to become a waning faculty
We need to be vigilant about this
We need to keep grief alive
SDG: It is incredibly powerful.
EL: I don’t use narration in my work, but I like the way Mike brings it in. We share an interest in the concept of West Ireland as the setting for a sci-fi landscape. Mike wrote a short story about the time-honored custom of hiring women to cry at a funeral, or professional keeners. By bringing in technical innovation, the story steeped in tradition is told without romanticization.
SDG: Are the mutual influences on each other’s work muse-like?
ELP: There is a lot of mutual trust. We will use the concept of a fictionalized cyborg to re-present and de-familiarize the setting. We let each other do our own thing. It’s what happens between there, and not formalizing that process.
SDG: What does the work entail?
ELP: A lot of conversations. We meet and talk. The meetings give us ideas, and we each pursue them with our respective mediums. We get out of the introverted form of art-making. As we worked on An Invitation he asked me, “What is the color of your grief?” I looked through photos I took after my dad died, then pixel-sorted the images which included bright autumn leaves. The words red, orange, and yellow come through early in the performance and I use these colors in some of the generative animations included in the work.
SDG: An answer based on temporal and geographic means.
ELP: Yes. Our current project is still in process; we will be presenting the work at the Mart Gallery in Dublin during September 2024. We want to create something bigger with concepts that come out of things we have addressed in the past. The socioeconomic history of Ireland is central to the project. Mike has a personal history related to The Asani Plastics Factory in Mayo, Killala, which his godfather helped build. He’s been watching it for decades. While touted to be the thing that would boost the region’s economy, it failed twenty years after it was built. Now, the government is trying to site a data center there, bringing in fiber optic cables via the ocean and wind turbines. The government pushes this use of the site despite huge environmental impacts. Now we want to make it a mythical origin story.
SDG: Fantastic. What form will this take?
ELP: We envision it as a web-based work because it offers a scale that we can really stretch out. I think most contemporary websites miss the potential for how the web can present art and electronic literature. Today, it reaches to recreate the lived experience. I am not interested in a realistic simulacrum of what I see in real life. In the 1990s, there was a particular kind of clunky, mysterious, veiling, and that clunkiness is still there in some corners of the internet. We want to bring this to the performance. An Invitation and my later performance that emerged from our collaboration, Rituals for Circuits, are a prelude to this.
The setting is crucial. While the performance facilitates the virtual and will be presented on the internet, tactility supports this, such as a place in the bay where the fiber optic cable comes in. Local fishers, including the Clare Island fisherman organization, and others whose livelihoods are connected to the bay protested the laying of the cable. When I presented the first performance about the Killala site, Rituals for Circuits, people understood on a philosophical level, such as Ukrainians in the audience’s connection to Chernobyl. I bring in embodied actions, and Mike roots his words in the geographic context and responds to my actions as he develops a character, based on my gestures.
My actions amplify or manifest the body: the scent of sulfur, the act of breathing, to underscore the fact that we are not machines. I slowly pull red and blue electroluminescent wires (the colors reference both human veins and fiber optic cables) from within my dress, rub a fist-sized pyrite stone on a larger flat stone I found on the beach, and put a table on myself so its subtle movements betray my breathing. It is about making explicit the interconnection of process, body, and objects.
SDG: What is the effect of amplifying the human in the technical?
ELP: It is a process of entanglement. The plastics factory was promoted as the savior of the region’s economy, but issues with the oil crisis, then a shift away from “dirty industry” caused it to shut down. A primary message is to get away from solutionist rhetoric which leads to an all-too-familiar cycle of let-downs. It’s history repeating itself, from the impact of British colonization to the nineteenth-century famine. We have faith that this will translate from the local to the universal. Our work does not condemn and romanticize the phenomenon but rather uses speculative fiction to draw you in, phenomenology to bring viewers into a narrative, and then we see what happens.