The screen flickers between close-up images of graphite stained fingernails, bands of light oscillating over windows that snap open and shut, and eerie Martian landscapes. All are punctuated by the peculiar audio drones and pitches, an avant-garde soundtrack composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen. So constructs the twenty minute psycho-drama directed by the Quay Brothers in the year 2000, In Absentia.
The short film follows the story of a woman, albeit lacking specific details. She is shuttered up in an institutional-looking manor. She obsessively sharpens pencils and writes letters, filling the pages with sentences laid atop sentences so that the meaning is indiscernible. She ritualistically places broken pencil tips outside her window. She drops the letters down a grandfather clock, whose base is visually filled with similar letters. Because she chooses not to postmark them? Because she is not allowed to? Because she is imprisoned? Because the letter recipient is dead?
Excerpt from film
These gaps in detail are left to simmer. Instead, the Quay Brother present a demonic animation roaming a hallway. They sometimes switches to a barren, wind-swept landscape dotted with indiscernible, hulking technology that suggests space travel.
They layer multiple horror tropes into this quiet, uneventful, but definitely nightmarish world. The manor is a haunted house — or perhaps even more specifically, a haunted asylum. The woman walks that thin line between mentally ill and demonically terrifying — viewers are conflicted about whether to pity or fear her. The entire set is haunted by bands of light that only temporarily illuminate the viewer’s frame.
The Brothers give us plenty of room to wallow in the uncertainty of this postmodern piece. Demon or human, alien or human, phantom or human, sane or insane…the viewer is left without concrete answers. In 2000, people had yet to experience social media or the ability to watch YouTube on a touchscreen phone. But the Brothers still incorporated some of the core anxieties about technological communication — how do we communicate? Do the tools we use to communicate connect us or isolate us?
The audio is peppered with the sound of the woman laughing. Quickly, that laughter is distorted and begins to sound like chimpanzee screeching, then all together alien. She traces words so carefully with her pencil on paper, following each stroke of the pencil with her finger, but when the viewer witnesses a shot of the page the letters are completely muddled. In both speaking and writing, her message is corrupted — the mediums, these human technologies meant to enable communication, betray her. She is trying to communicate and she fails.
The alien/demonic presence can be tied to the technological obsessions of the time. Starting in 1998, NASA’s New Millennium Program was launching probes to Mars and satellites into Earth’s orbit. Our reality was expanding with new, imagined worlds outside of Earth. The barren Martian landscapes of In Absentia point to the obsession with the mysteries of space. There seems to be a desire to explore this final frontier and make meaning out of what we can’t understand.
While the woman is seated at her chair, there are moments when a third hand slides up her back or across her shoulder. She is shown several times swatting and gripping at her neck, as if she continues to feel a ghostly touch in the otherwise empty room. Her internal world is haunted (suggesting the ambiguity of her sanity) while her external world is also haunted by those space age mystery landscapes. It is a hybrid haunting which expresses itself in various canonical forms: ominous alien light flickering over mysterious landscapes, a literal clay demon roaming the hallways, and the horror of possessed insanity.
Ultimately, the film dedicates itself to a real woman: “E.H., who lived and wrote to her husband from an asylum.” The Brothers said in an interview that they only later learned that audio creator Stockhausen’s “mother was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in an asylum, where she later died.” This directly connects the film to an important core piece of postmodern horror: body horror. The physical body become the irrational site of insanity, possession, evil — all societal fears channeled into an unsocialized body.
The Quay Brothers made their film eerie and horrific with gothic lighting, uncanny close ups, minimalism, and the vague suggestion of insanity, imprisonment, demons, aliens — the ambiguity is quiet and assured. Emerging in the the video art scene more than ten years later, Ryan Trecartin’s work is distinctly a product of current culture. Both artists embroil the viewer amidst many of the same themes despite dramatic stylistic differences. Trecartin’s shots are shaky and often hand held, shedding any professional aires, while the Quay Brothers so obviously labored to get big, serious shots. Trecartin immediately makes use of in media res — dumping the viewer into the middle of action, no explanation. In Center Jenny, the initial shot is explosive: a car is being destroyed by people wearing green screen outfits, chattering manically in a green lined room. Girls with heavy handed make up screech and chatter, their voices synthed up and pitched to other-worldly as they roam a decrepit warehouse.
Center Jenny follows several groups of girls who are all named “Jenny.” Each group is a reality television type archetype taken to the extreme — the Taylor Swift good girl, the Bad Girls Club drama queen, the boy-obsessed pretty girl, the Queen Bee, the girls who basically just background fodder hoping to get a personality assigned to them. They exist on various levels and are trying to level up to become a more potent “Jenny.” Everyone wants to become closer to the “The Source” — the Center Jenny, the ultimate, perfected Jenny.
The film uses extremes and maximalism to strip down the process of social norming, social cohesion, groupthink, and the way we construct identities. There’s a long process in which one “left of center” Jenny (meaning, non-conforming) is hazed by higher level Jenny’s and eventually re-inducted into the higher level group once she is rendered docile. Her eyes glaze over completely white and she gapes at the screen as if lobotomized. Obviously, she gets a cute makeover, too.
Another girl, with dramatic purple contouring, straight black hair and 90s Vans lounges on what looks like a makeshift MTV music video set: lawn furniture under multi-color lights in a warehouse. She leans back on a hammock as the lights flicker and her friend undulates to uncanny music — it looks as if aliens had found a time capsule from the coolest teenager in the early 2000s and tried to reconstruct the aesthetic. And that wouldn’t be off base for Trecartin; at one point, the girl looks up into the camera and drones, “The only thing I’ll ever study is Human Era Hazing and how awesome it is.”
There are several points in the film when the Jenny’s refer to the “human era” and the “Earth version” of various things, suggesting the MTV teenage cool girl and the gaggles of Jenny’s aren’t just extreme versions of culture today. The Jenny’s are futuristic, their uncanniness — the way the viewer can recognize social norms and identity archetypes but still feel so overwhelmed by the unfamiliar vehicle — stems from their literal alienness. They are not human; they are something else, approximating all human culture through the lens of our most popular media.
This crystallizes towards the end of the film when a group of Jenny’s, waiting to level up or to be assigned a personality, meet a character who describes how they evolved from “animations,” which evolved from humans. This suggests that the Jenny’s are constructed from human archetypes and media, explaining why each Jenny acts like she’s in a reality TV fever dream while also being obviously aware that she is performing. The Jenny’s operate more as a collective hive than as individual, heterogenous humans — another indication of their archetypical identity. At one point, the MTV cool girl even screams at her friend — “Bitch, you’re not real! You’re just in my system!” Her friend fires back, “I am you, get out.”
Trecartin doesn’t use any traditional horror motifs — no gore, no jump scares, no supernatural activity. The the warehouse functions somewhat like a haunted house, with its sprawling, mysterious, inaccessible nature. The girls are alien animations, and the audio would surely meet Stockhausen’s standards for being avant-garde and creepy. But Trecarin’s real horror takes the form of a cultural mirror; the Jenny’s are the most derivative parts of our culture, norms, and socialization reflected back to us.
According to Jeffrey Cohen’s monster theory, horror villains represent the cultural anxieties of the particular era; the monster shows us how “our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality” created it, and also demand to know why we “have created them” in the first place. (20).
In Absentia presents isolation, insanity, and being subject to an outside influence you can’t control — whether demons or alien — as being horrific. Center Jenny is the product when the landscape of In Absentia ferments for thirteen years. The world is controlled by non-human aliens, the Jenny’s are mentally unhinged by human standards, and rather than living in isolated, lonely existence, socialization is totally oversaturated.
The most horrific thing for the Quay Brothers was the inability to communicate — your ability to speak and correspond becoming totally corrupted. The Jenny’s learned how to correspond and coordinate to an extreme degree — they are 2D copies of each other, a society of beings that are at once mimics and solipsistics. The chief curator and associate director of the New Museum, Massimiliano Gioni, described the subject of Trecartin’s videos as “the act of communication…We’re all trying to communicate, and what we communicate about is less and less relevant. When I watch his videos, I feel a speeded-up version of what we’re all doing.”
Patrick Langley wrote that Trecartin “enacts a literal illustration of the electric mania of modern life.” But since we rarely perceive it to be as wild and desecrating as it actually is, when presented with an extreme portrait we are shocked and horrified. We are confronted by the biggest postmodern boogeyman: that we are not special, unique, sacred, or different. Langley goes on to describe “the instability of Trecartin’s vision of human identity” expressed in his films:
“Our engagement with culture is rendered as a form of enmeshing or interbreeding. Empathy is metamorphosis: when a character identifies with an idea or person, they adopt their vocabulary or physical characteristics. Trecartin’s films reject the binarism of real and virtual, male and female, self and other, gay or straight, rationality and madness, surface and subtext, style and content, time and space.”
Trecartin imagines and renders an extreme postmodern society. Identity is boundless, completely fluid and up for grabs. Whether through extreme isolation or extreme socialization, the Quay Brothers and Trecartin end up at the same point. They warn us about total loss of self, knowledge, and reality — we are swept away by alien possession or merged into a manic hive mind. In either case, both artists seem to suggest we are loosing something human. Confronted by the postmodern void, do we become isolated shells or oversaturated replicas?