»How To Become A Fossil«, currently on view at Vienna Secession, presents the newest production of artist collective DIS, a docu-sci-fi TV pilot carrying the ominous title »Everything But The World« (2021). In a video installation on the building’s upper floor and an outdoor sculpture perched on a speaker right next to the entrance, the multi-authored work contends with the bankruptcy of the linear narrative of progress, of origin stories premised on conquest and subjugation and the self-fashioning rhetoric of a (now, or ever?) not so intelligent-seeming »Homo sapiens«.
As you walk past in front of the Vienna Secession these days, you might stop to listen to a voice yelling from a White Castle soft drink cup that’s been pierced through by an arrow: »There are 32 BILLION chickens killed a DAY on planet earth. 31 BILLION! Future beings will no longer find dinosaurs – in a million years the last lasting fossil records will be CHICKEN BONES«. This voice belongs to writer, musician and dancer Brontez Purnell, who has taken on the role of an employee at the fast-food chain White Castle, in a new genre-defying video work by the New York-based DIS collective (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro). The self-declared TV pilot entitled »Everything But The World« forms the centrepiece of the exhibition »How To Become A Fossil«, installed on the upper floor of the building.
The title of the exhibition is taken from one of the earlier chapters of the pilot, in which it appears as the main topic up for discussion. The characters Branch and Banter (Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch) profess to have done all the research to provide a qualified answer to what may or may not be a serious matter of concern. In the style of a »How To« video, these two YouTubers walk around a lazy river on a farm (Trecartin and Fitch’s rural home in Ohio). They confront their followers »collaborators« with a series of questions which is first announced as a prepper’s manual for death, then some kind of Socratic dialogue parody, to finally morph into a somewhat morbid version of Two Truths and a Lie. The audience is left to face the task of identifying the false statement among the many proposed. At least there’s encouragement from Banter’s shirt, which reads: »Your Opinion Matters«. The interrogation concludes with one possible qualifier of fossil hood, namely that fossils have stopped believing in history. »They’re timeless«, Banter chirps.
The passage of time, figured as human history and told through its grand narratives, is a subject another ambiguous character returns to again and again, the Unreliable Narrator performed by filmmaker Leilah Weinraub. Chronicling the different fields of inquiry as they emerge throughout the pilot and stitching them together, she almost performs the role of a timekeeper herself – a not so linear, not always so accurately calibrated one. Speaking at times from the past and speculating into future, she embodies the antagonist of an omniscient and omnipresent god-like narrator. Instead of projecting a universal conquering gaze from nowhere, she tries to make sense of the grand schemes of history on disordered post-it notes (»DADDY«, »The Big Lie«, »The Trap«, »It’s Over«, a diagram of the arrow of time enclosed by a depiction of the cycle of time) strewn across the tabletop of her podcasting station. As she does this, she observes how another character equally tries to find her way through the thickets of human history: Sapien played by Omayhra Mota, the early human lifeform who first toddles through a desert-like landscape, exits through a bluescreen door and later reappears in a dance studio. Here, the character of Trainer tries to discipline her in the origin story of human civilization, constructed as a linear progression from hunter-gatherers, nomads, agriculturalists to modern citizens. Sapien re-enacts the choreography of this story in a clumsy dance, tries to jump on a chair, slips and falls. The story seems to hold little integrity.
In the annotated screenplay published as the accompanying artist’s book, »Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction« is written on a post-it, drawing a reference to Ursula Le Guin, who in her eponymous essay from 1986 makes a lucid critique of what she calls »the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic«. This mode defines technology and science as weapons of domination instead of cultural carrier bags. One of the reasons for why the bag theory might not be so popular can be found in one of her quips, »the Hero does not look well in his bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.« The Unreliable Narrator agrees: »You know when you’re like, ‘Damn, I look cute tonight’ and then you look at the picture of yourself 200,000 years later and you’re like, ‘No, that was a very dorkish look. I was not cute’«.
Intermittently, consuming this episode evokes the experience of watching David Attenborough portray the shoebill stork for BBC Earth, the feeling of light-hearted amusement slowly mutating into horror as you start to realize its cartoonish beak isn’t just a funny and slightly adorable jaw structure but in fact a lethal, flesh ripping weapon. In »Everything But The World« the camera isn’t pointed at a dorkish looking bird, but instead pans across different figurations of the human. Even so, your emotional response is confused in a similar way: should you laugh at the comical oddity or cry out in dread and disgust? For example, in a scene directed by artist Abdullah Al-Mutairi and shot remotely in Kuwait, you see two men performing the Sisyphean task of using leaf blowers to clear away sand in a desert. Set against a dystopian soundscape, this image becomes a hyperbole for the pervasive idiocy of techno-determinist solutionism.
Technology alone doesn’t explain this tragicomic human predicament, the missing puzzle piece is a capitalist system premised on the protection of private property. In the pilot, private property is epitomised by the trope of the castle, which appears in three different manifestations: as the Castle Doctrine or defence of habitation law, the Caetani Castle in Italy, and White Castle, apparently the first fast food hamburger chain in the world. The Castle Doctrine forms the linchpin of the chapter featuring Ron Kuby, a civil rights attorney whose representation was famously requested by Jeff »The Dude« Lebowski held at a Malibu police station in the film »The Big Lebowski« (1998). Cinema aside, Kuby recounts his actual defence of Joe Matos, a homeless man arrested for injuring two college students with a knife after the two had kicked the cardboard box Matos was living and sleeping in on a drunken night out in October 2018. The camera follows Kuby from his law office to a seamless white studio setting as he gives a crash course on the Castle Doctrine, while two people in bluescreen suits roleplay his reflections in the background. In short, this doctrine can be traced back to 13th century England and affords the maximum protection to people within their own home, granting them the right to use deadly physical force against intruders without legal prosecution. The catch in the case of Joe Matos, is the question of what constitutes a home, and what happens when one doesn’t legally have a castle to retreat to. In the end, he pled guilty to lesser charges, his cardboard construction did not fulfil the legal requirements of a home.
And so he lands, feet sticking out of his cardboard box, on a square at Caetani Castle in the medieval village of Sermoneta. A tour guide conveys a digest of Silvia Federici’s »Caliban and the Witch« in a heavy Italian accent, as she leads a group of tourists, assembled from personifications of different subcultures (e.g. goth, BDSM and cyberwitch) and a knight, through the premises of the castle. Here and there, augmented reality QR codes launch Web3 content that bleeds into the frame to illustrate social reproduction theories and analyses of continuing enclosures through witch hunts and slavery. Down in the dungeons, the goth tourist tries to decode a light beam using his iPhone, but fails to do so, the guide answers in Italian: »It’s easier to see the witches of the past.« The scene flips into a WitchTok featuring a bardcore cover of Shakira’s »Hips Don’t Lie« by Fatima Al Qadiri, whose sonic signature of polished synths and otherworldly drones scores the dramatic backbone of the entire piece.
The narrative tenacity of her composition is particularly compelling in the White Castle chapter, amplifying the passionate outrage of 38-year-old Sagittarius, Mark, the White Castle employee who launches into a searing, full frontal attack of a shallow conception of eternity based on linear notions of time, the inextricable history shared between the invention of clocks and the disciplining of wage labour, and the feedback loops between White Settler colonialism and capitalism. All the while, his customers are parked in front of the ordering system intimidated by this unexpected backlash disguised as customer service. Mark, that is Brontez Purnell, ends his mic drop moment by parading through his little drive thru castle to »Sugar in my Pocket« a song by Purnell’s band Younger Lovers. The Unreliable Narrator, who has been busy plotting out the insanity of human history, it’s infatuation with »the end« and grand stories on post-it notes, breaks out into a sacrilegious litany: »Why are you mad? No, why are you mad? Why are you mad?«
While she continues, the room – previously eclipsed by the action on screen – crawls back into attention. A plaque on the backrest of the viewing bench spells »No Homo« and orange light sweeps in from outside the building through tinted window gels and burnt shutters. The installation materializes the writing process of a screenplay, which was continuously reworked in an almost surgical way over the course of two years. Lauren Boyle tells me that the first session took place in December 2019 and final edits were made in summer 2021, postponed by the impact of the pandemic. Along the way, the former working title of »NO HOMO FOREVER« was shed and redacted to a memorial plaque adorning the bench, and the topic of wildfires, which never made it onto the screen, appears as the ambient setting, subtly mediating the viewing experience. At times, in this sinister and ominous setting, where it becomes difficult to read who is addressed by the »us« and »you«, one can almost taste the threat of overidentifying the human with what the writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter so poignantly termed the Western bourgeois configuration of the monohuman. However, if this is in fact a pilot, and more worlds among the many possible are yet to come, the science fiction of this gadget lover might have the chance to move beyond the obsession with his own reflection and against the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy. No human, no world is a noun.