Electronic media has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, however we’re more caught up as a society in some areas than others. Death customs, for example, have changed little despite the fact that our friends and family are now occasionally still present beyond death—the Instagram account still accepting followers, the Facebook profile that appears as an option to invite for an event. Birthdays, “memories,” invitations to interact and share that linger far beyond the grave.
That this phenomenon can be compared to encountering ghosts is not a novel idea, however recently I experienced a celebration of a life that veered so close to a conjuring, an actual invocation of spirit, that I felt a bit unsettled, even as I marveled at the life surrounding me.
For how do we account for the artists who have recorded nearly every aspect of their lives in electronic media? Their voices, their movements, bodies, words, colors. Bring all this together in the period after death, when the after image of their life still lingers, and the result is very nearly an apparition, a lost soul still bound to the earth.
The event pulled together the vast artistic output of a Denver artist, musician, and one of the few genuinely unique human beings one could ever encounter. He spent his life in a frenzy of creation, it seems, and he threw his being into his work, body and soul. The Artist is Present, and it is exactly that fusion of performance and art that lends his work its now uncanny liveliness.
The vast space was lined with his paintings. The clothes he made and wore himself adorned half-destroyed mannequins, his Basquiat-like notes and scraps lovingly preserved and displayed. His video art played against the wall, face often obscured by masks but then occasionally bare and startlingly alive. His music sounded throughout, filling the spaces between all those who considered themselves a friend or a fan in his life.
His presence was clear. What proved most uncanny, however, were the moments when a grieving friend held their phone to a mic, and let his voice play to the room. He left masterly voice messages, moving through poetic speech and unhurried reflection with amazing casualness.
So here is a voice, belonging to the deceased. Here is his body (of work). Here are his friends, his clothing. Here, then, is his spirit.
I did not know him well. Saw him on occasion at art shows, music shows. And like many, I can mourn not just his life but the fact that I didn’t truly understand him, and that perhaps there was more that could have been done to help him.
I left the event however, with the distinct feeling that the chance to know and understand even a small part of the phenomenon of this human has not passed. The artist is present, he lingers in the media left behind: music, poetry, paintings, videos, scraps of existence that defy categorization but which are, inarguably, art. Something for nearly every sense, preserved in the electronics we, perhaps, underestimate.