This piece was written in response To:

Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop

by Ed Atkins

Courtesy the artist and the Jerwood/FVU Awards






A recurring nightmare about the apocalypse. There’s no consistent form, but the basic structure remains the same. Crucially: there’s the long moment of seeing it coming. Maybe the sky appears to burn first in the distance, soiled greasy flames rolling over the landscape. Sarah Connor’s nuclear holocaust. Or, you know, tsunami, etc. This nightmare is experienced so many times that eventually the dreamer sees the end of the world grinding towards them again and thinks I knew this was going to happen. Cassandra: a remarkably beautiful sleeper she was.[1] That dreamer was me and I was a hypochondriac around that time (or maybe just sick and anxious). I spoke to a homeopath, and she semblaked me this excellent question: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that because your brain thinks it is dying, it thinks the whole world dying? Because, you know, for your brain, death will be the apocalypse: the end of the universe.’ That cut the problem down to size. An apocalypse at the scale of a cantaloupe. (Still, that thought always summons a counter-image of exploding stars and galaxies, probably due to some pedagogical animation of synapses or neurotransmitters, gleaming with information).


Ed Atkins’s video Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop was made in 2012, the year we started saying ‘twenty-twelve’ rather than ‘two thousand and x’ in English. This switch had been preordained, because we had been talking about 2012 as the designated apocalypse year for some time. Atkins’s video is set in a film studio-cum-interrogation room, in which a seated, shapeshifting male figure recounts a monologic litany of associative facts and horrors of which the apocalypse is only one. The work is something of a bridge-work in the artist’s history, in that the speaker is represented alternately by a live human, face obscured by a green-screen headmask, and a hi-resolution CG character of the type that has since become a mainstay of the artist’s work. The claustrophobic video made directly afterwards, Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013), features the digital surrogate alone, at the bottom of a dark, undersea trench.


It’s true that a transition between an embodied human presence and a digitally constructed surrogate explains a desire to bear witness to material, and to pay attention to a newly abjected human body, imaged, and refracted, by machine-seeing. The avatar is a kind of shell, of course, and can be paired with the cadaver, a body-type that has served as a motif for Atkins. The artist’s voice summons such imagery through violent, yet cold, descriptions of death – throats are cut, tumours in the brain are catalogued before they explode. Mosquitos, too, are repeatedly mentioned, and thematically the work circles the body like a preying insect – there’s a certain disinterested tone to the words that borders on the misanthropic; mosquito sees only body, but doesn’t give a fuck about ‘people’, as such. But the monologue is also circling a void, as though attempting to making a case for some difficult-to-articulate condition, signalled by the fact that each section begins with the word ‘or’. OR a woman who killed her entire family with a razor blade whilst sleeping. OR pestilence. OR dreaming about murdering a person. OR haemorrhage. But part of the seduction of Material Witness is that it simultaneously, and sensorially, catalogues other forms of material missing from HD digital animation. Scene changes are accompanied by skeuomorphic analogue sounds, musical fragments and clicks. The image is ‘interrupted’ by dust motes, interference and faked film scratches. It’s a gorgeously and confusingly haptic work. Atkins speaks in the trustworthy tones of the reliable male narrator, and there’s a great deal of beauty that is absorbed alongside horror: puffs of pink smoke, animated glittering snow, certain tender words. The contradiction at the heart of the video is that it makes a case for materiality at the point of its elision.


I have terrible déjà vu. Have I written this kind of thing before? The apocalypse, dissolution, the ever-accumulating seas of .jpegs. It’s certain that I have. The ways that bodies always looked and felt different in relation to each new little tinkering with the technology. Each innovation accompanied by a new pathology. The way skin looked newly bad. A recent example: I watched an old movie on a super HD screen, a Merchant Ivory film, and it looked ropey as hell – it was SAD. It was A Room with a View. The interiors (rooms) looked terrible; the city of Florence, the poppy fields etc. (views) retained their terrible onscreen beauty. Around 2012 I was writing on this subject all the time: ‘Of course… dissolution has been heralded, positively and negatively, incessantly over history… Over the past few years, however, a skewed sense of pace has developed: did we miss it actually happening?’[2] I walked up Regent Street in London and every person I saw had their precious phone in their hand. The phones were ringing to say YOU ARE DEAD, of course, but no one was picking up.


There’s a sense of purpose in 2012, when you are registering a technical tsunami. Now you can’t move for this kind of thing. Sick to the death of the sight of everything – fucking hell.[3] It feels like a loss, but I don’t want to get stuck in that undersea trench again, because the trench is complicated – it’s a form of grieving for myself and my own body, and the world, and it’s very hard to find a way out. But to overemphasise only the technical effects of Material Witness today would also mean getting stuck in that digital trench. Of course we were becoming more technical than ever, and that meant we were prone to forms of ethical failure. Micro gestures, made whilst sleepwalking. We didn’t kill anyone (or did we?) but we allowed our intellect and affect to be displaced into technical assemblages[4] which made us so intimate with machines and corporations that we were effectively part of them. We’ve lost some political dialogue by using our surrogate bodies to talk only to other surrogate bodies in a secluded ideological trench. ‘Whatever community we share now is the one that constantly sabotages itself: the anticommunity of networked souls.’[5] The anticommunity is the sick network, where we reside sometimes. These things remain important to discuss. But equally embedded in Material Witness, and what keeps it alive in 2016, is a profound rumination on witnessing death, and on being an alive thing that knows it is dying.


17’55” in to Material Witness an aerial camera sweeps over a beautiful landscape. We’ve seen fragments of this shot before in the video, accompanied by a fulsome orchestral chord (trombones, flutes, everything) but only brief snatches. We’re close to the end of the video, and finally we are allowed to pass smoothly over sparkling blue and aquamarine rivers and soft greens, as the grand chord breaks and the strings peel away into a contemplative, melancholic melody. It’s the kind of stock footage that could be used in an ad for anything – a Lexus, a visit to Canada – and yet each time the music swells and I see rivers and fields I feel a catch about to rise in my throat, as if tears are about to come for something. Every time this tricks me into thinking that we’re going to escape. As in Alive (1993), the movie about the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, and who have to eat the bodies of the dead to survive. The entire film is a landscape of apocalypse at a local level. Death, burning dead winter, cannibalism, the inhuman. But my God, the final scene when two of the survivors find a valley of grass and water, and the strings swell. I could cry just thinking about it. Hope, they say, is the most fragile of all human emotions.


So the phones are ringing, down in the trench, to say YOU ARE DEAD, but at the same time, we know that death has already happened, and some knowledge of this keeps us capital-A Alive. Thinking beyond death is a political act. Thinking beyond the human is a political act (for really, who exactly got to be one the first time around?).[5] Frank O’Hara describes how, midway through writing a poem for someone he was in love with, he realised that he could simply call the person, such that the phone would enter the space of poetry and thereby (he jokes) kill literature. What is possible is that the message our disembodied selves need to pick up on our phones is a kind of love poem that tells us we are dead, our little worlds are over and it’s a relief. It was already over in 2012. But the apocalypse we had been thinking about was at a small scale anyway, so we figure out how to be alive from here.




[1] Quote from Ed Atkins, Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop (2012)

[2] Laura McLean-Ferris, ‘Dissolution’ in Art Monthly, Vol No. 350, October 2011

[3] Quote from Ed Atkins, Material Witness OR A Liquid Cop (2012)

[4] Evan Calder-Williams, correspondence with the author, in discussion of Calder-Williams’s forthcoming essay on a theory of sabotage, to be published in 5.3 of Continent.

[5] John Kelsey, ‘Next Level Spleen’ in Artforum (September 2012)

[6] Paraphrased arguments rehearsed by Rosi Braidotti in The Posthuman (Polity, London, 2013)


is a writer and curator based in New York. She is Adjunct Curator at Swiss Institute / Contemporary Art, where she has recently organized exhibitions with Nancy Lupo and Olga Balema. She is a contributor to Artforum, ArtReview, Art-Agenda, friezeMousse, Rhizome and Flash Art International, Recent exhibitions include Our Lacustrine Cities (2015) at Chapter NY, and Columbidae at Cell Project Space, London (2015).


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