Kara Uzelman: Extra Sensory Perception Experiment with the Grateful Dead
Kara Uzelman’s recent work has led me to accept an uncanny premise: objects hold secrets. Like any relationship, that between North America’s settler population and the worlds it colonized set forth a range of emotional energies, from warm nostalgia to scabrous trauma. Though well-equipped to describe places, names and events, written history tends to let such embodied sentiments dissolve into time—or if you accept the premise of Uzelman’s work, into the objects that have attended these histories.
For the last few years, Uzelman has been trying to incant these forgotten memories. To do this, she has built many jerry-rigged radio systems made from objects found in rural Saskatchewan, where she lives and works. Extra Sensory Perception Experiment with the Grateful Dead, 2016—a commission for the Remai Modern’s website—finds her taking a different though related approach. Within a short radio play, the piece re-animates two histories of hope and disillusionment: the little known history of LSD research in Weyburn Saskatchewan, and the consciousness-transforming ethos of The Grateful Dead. Only six minutes long, the resulting audio feels at once momentous and elusive, like an important sentiment stranded on the tip of your tongue.
Recently, Uzelman returned to Saskatchewan after stints in Vancouver and Berlin. Her homecoming was precipitated by an intuition that the secrets buried in German soil weren’t hers to take. This is a chronic dilemma of the uprooted, and a particular problem of those who have moved by choice rather than circumstance. For people who enjoy the privilege of global mobility, treasures found in far-flung places always feel stolen.
In 2013, Uzelman sent her work back to Berlin for an exhibition at Sommer und Kohl Gallerie. There, she showed a work called Earth Radio, 2013. The piece joined craggy artifacts found in Saskatchewan—amber bottles, a horse shoe, bones, abstruse wooden tools, a Molson Canadian beer can—to a small radio, by way of a few modest wires. Set atop a low plinth, this apparatus looked like an archaeological dig site crossed with the kind of ham radio a child might construct to commune with aliens. I imagine the objects emitting reticent warbles and soft static chatter. By no means would this subtle result indicate emptiness. Superficial appearances always seem muted, when contrasted with the volumes of information hidden behind them.
Metaphorically, this radio transmitted repressed energies latent in the implements connected to it—energies implicitly connected to the people who used these implements, as well as the environment and cultures they were used upon. Being that Saskatchewan is a place deeply riven by colonial violence, this radio must have channeled substantial torment, along with the more romantic memories that the white settler population often associates with rural life.
Maybe it seems far-fetched to ascribe this mediumistic ability to such a crude and humble device. If so, consider Uzelman’s predecessor Joseph Beuys, who after alleging a transformative experience in rural Germany, perceived elemental energies in materials like felt, fat, and copper. Uzelman works in this tradition, which joins historical curiosity with metaphysical imagination. To borrow a phrase from the anthropologist-come-artist Susan Hiller, her sculptures are tools for moving beyond “the provisional texture of reality.”
Given this transcendental interest, it makes sense that Uzelman found her way to this commission for the Remai through research into LSD experimentation. In the early 1950’s, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally absorbed a dose of LSD through his skin. After the ensuing trip, he relocated to Saskatchewan. Sensing that the drug might alleviate the pains of alcoholism and schizophrenia, Hoffman and his Canadian colleagues spent years attempting to integrate LSD into mainstream psychiatry. Their efforts proved futile, however, when the research was cut short amidst conservative paranoia, and as the American military took interest in the potential of psychedelics to incapacitate enemy forces.
Now, over four decades later, Uzelman’s Extra Sensory Perception Experiment… re-animates the emancipatory spirit that motivated this research. Visitors to the Remai’s website find a video of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. When a digitized voice begins speaking, it seems that we’re listening in on a therapy session from some alternate dimension. Because the audio provides only a vague impression of the scene, didactic text has to fill out the context. Here we learn that the work was inspired by the LSD research in Weyburn. Further, the text informs us that we are listening to a fictional experiment, wherein “2000 audience members” at a Grateful Dead concert have been instructed by scientists to send telepathic signals into the minds of research subjects, fast asleep in a laboratory. At times, the play’s dialogue is shaded with allusions to grade school science fair experiments. In these moments, the feeling is of charm overlapping with non-confidence.
In this radio play, dialogue itself is a bit player, along with whirring, squeaking and shuffling noises. What the audio describes most vividly is that which was either not meant to be, or which cannot be communicated. We are given no evidence to the success or failure of the telepathic experiment—only the banal ambience of the laboratory.
Looking at Uzelman’s past work, one can find purpose in her foregrounding of ambient noise over clear narrative. This strategy is consistent with an emphasis on the materiality of communication that has been a recurring theme of her work. In addition to the radio made from rural artifacts, she has constructed quirky antenna devices out of wood and tin cans. There have also been wall drawings and sculptures riffing on semaphores—large mechanical towers used to communicate codes to oncoming trains and ships.
At a modest six minutes long, Extra Sensory Perception Experiment… is only a shard of an alternative history. In this sense, the piece is analogous to Uzelman’s sculptures, in which archaeological fragments, and sculptures mimicking such antiquated objects, are displayed out of context in white cube galleries. This audio piece is also linked to her past work through the theme of optimism and disillusionment, represented here by both the doomed LSD experiments and the Deadheads.
By the 1980s, the Grateful Dead had become defacto messiahs. Fans followed them across America like devotees—a cultish behaviour that put pressure on a band already strained by fame and drug addiction. When a number of fans were killed at a concert, a dark lining formed in the Dead’s panglossian aura.
These stories provide a rich subtext to Uzelman’s work. Access to this content requires homework, though. This is even truer of the LSD experiments, which are a historical curiosity within Saskatchewan, and largely unknown outside of the province. Put another way, there is a noticeable gap between the actual audio piece on the Remai’s website, and the larger narrative that appears to a viewer steeped in prior knowledge. This isn’t a criticism, so much as an acknowledgement of the piece’s contingency on a wider frame of reference. Like so much research-based artwork, it requires extracurricular activity to come alive.
While writing on Uzelman tends to frame her as a kind of back-to-the-land inventor, I’m more interested in her work’s dual relationship to imagination and futility. In contemporary art, failure is no longer only a regrettable consequence of bad planning. On the contrary, it has become a tried and true method. The reasons for this shift are complex, but can be generally ascribed to a suspicion towards power within the critical and academic discourses around art. Like a self-deprecating attitude, though, this courting of failure both resists the authoritative voice, and produces a new kind of authority as part of an established aesthetic within contemporary art.
I’ve found is that in Uzelman’s work, instability is not only a comportment, but a resonant and meaningful relation to her content. It’s hard to imagine her rickety radio sculptures picking up a basic AM signal, even as our imaginations might bestow them with an ability to channel the energy of buried objects. Extra Sensory Perception Experiment… performs its own failure when the audio ends abruptly, as soon as the study subjects fall asleep. We never learn if the telepathic signals make contact. It’s as if the writer of the scene herself drifted off, forgetting to include the most important part of the narrative. This combination of faith and impossibility is echoed tragically in the work’s subject matter. During the psychedelic research in Weyburn, researchers worked to emancipate patients, only to have their hopes dashed by conservatism and co-optation.
It seems that the experiment in mass consciousness fictionalized in Uzelman’s piece might lead mass empathy—a natural side effect of joining so many psyches within a shared experience. Uzelman aerates such hopeful sentiments with soft pessimism. On the brink of futurity, her strange radio play goes quiet. Only it’s specific kind of silence, charged with traces of concord’s fragility.
Mitch Speed is an artist and writer based in Berlin. A contributing editor at Momus, he writes regularly for Frieze, and has contributed to Flash Art, Camera Austria, Artforum, and Turps. He was co-founder and editor of Setup, a journal of contemporary art and writing published by Publication Studio. His work can be found at www.mitch-speed.com