Gallery 400 Blog

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Existential Slapstick: An Interview with HALFLIFERS

Gallery 400's current exhibition, I THINK WE'RE READY TO GO TO THE NEXT SEQUENCE: THE LEGACY OF HALFLIFERS, will be on view through June 22. Curatorial Assistant Karen Greenwalt recently got the opportunity to speak with Torsten Zenas Burns and Anthony Discenza, the collaborative team that makes up HALFLIFERS. In the resulting interview, Greenwalt learned what HALFLIFERS is, what inspires Burns and Discenza, what underscores the collaborative's interest in speculative fiction and zombies, and much more.

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Image: HALFLIFERS, FEAR OF RESCUE, 1997, video, 10:00 min. (still). 

Karen Greenwalt: Who are the HALFLIFERS? How and when did you meet and how did you decide on the name HALFLIFERS?

HALFLIFERS (Torsten Zenas Burns and Anthony Discenza): HALFLIFERS is an ongoing, on-again, off-again collaborative project that we created long ago. We go back to 1989, when we met during a semester abroad at Studio Art Centers International in Florence while we were both in separate undergraduate programs. We were assigned to the same apartment, along with four other guys.

A couple years later, after school, Anthony moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area right around the time Torsten started his MFA degree at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where he was in the New Genre department doing a lot of video-based work that relied heavily on gesture, the body, and low-fi video processing. Anthony was living in a sort of industrial wasteland in West Oakland, and Torsten began to shoot video there. This gradually grew into an increasingly collaborative activity, which eventually led to shooting and editing whole pieces together in SFAI’s Studio 9.

At some point, around 1994, we formalized the collaboration and gave it the name HALFLIFERS. The word comes from the virtual limbo occupied by the protagonists in Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik. Halflife was a sort of consensual reality experienced by people who had “died” but were being maintained in cryogenic suspension. Torsten had lent Anthony Ubik while we were in Florence and it became a kind of touchstone reference for us. The first time we publicly used the name HALFLIFERS was for a 1995 screening we curated for the Video Lounge at the Knitting Factory in New York. The program was called HARVEST and it contained a selection of very processed, viscerally performed media works by friends and colleagues, including Kevin and Jennifer McCoy, Monet Clark, Virocode, and Jordan Biren. The curation was inspired by Jordan Biren’s video The Body.

KG: What is speculative fiction? What role does it play in your work?

HL: Speculative fiction is a term we prefer to use over “science fiction,” which we find often creates a more limited set of associations. While we are both heavily influenced by science fiction, the term tends to make people think about things like spaceships and robots, which we’re less interested in. Framing our interests as speculative fiction allows us to engage a much broader range of concerns, a kind of ongoing postulation of “what ifs” that encompasses both science fiction and art making.

KG: Your book, THE LAST KNOWN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE HALFLIFERS, catalogs key materials, sources, influences, and other touchstones as an alternative self-portrait. The imagery is widespread: from a Yoplait yogurt cup, to a zombie from George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, and everything in between. Can you speak more broadly about what has influenced and inspired you as a collaborative?

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Image: Cherry Orchard Yoplait yogurt, as seen in THE LAST KNOWN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE HALFLIFERS

HL: The book is a funny sort of experiment for us; it’s really the first purely appropriation-based piece we’ve ever done. Essentially, we were attempting to create a purely visual index of our own internal reference points. The book is full of all sorts of things that have either been used directly in our work—like the yogurt, which shows up in ACTIONS IN ACTION, or the Honda CRX, which was Anthony’s old car and featured prominently as a kind of spaceship in RETURN TO RESCUEWORLD—or that have played a really influential role in some way, like tulpoidal diagrams from Tom Bearden’s The Excalibur Briefing or Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy.

HALFLIFERS has always been a manifestation of the ongoing conversation between us more than anything else—a reflection of our own struggles with anxiety, our love of speculative fiction, our fascination with the idea of alternate levels of reality—all grounded against a backdrop of the kind of absurd/existential humor we use with each other in all our conversations. We think of this humor as a kind of buffer against the continual disorientation we both experience while navigating everyday reality, which often seems stranger to us than anything from science fiction. Maybe articulating this disorientation is the core of the HALFLIFERS’ project.

KG: Why zombies? Do these figures have a particular resonance in their ability to reflect on the issues of anxiety and identity?

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Image: Sherman Howard as Bub in George Romero's Day of the Dead, 1985, film (still).

HL: A key motif in HALFLIFERS has always been the idea of crisis; relating directly to this, we are interested in the notion of injury or mishap and the deterioration of the physical body, as well as of the self. We have always had a fascination with zombie movies and films like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as Dan O’Bannon’s somewhat more comical Return of the Living Dead, which were always finding their way into our conversations. Zombies became a kind of vehicle to further explore our interest in a compromised self; in this context, the idea of being “undead” works as a metaphor for being stuck in a kind of permanent crisis of identity. For us, the zombie is more a figure of pathos and abjection, associated with a kind of existential slapstick, than a figure of dread.

KG: Explain your filming process. How much is planned ahead versus completely improvisational?

HL: Very little is planned ahead. We’ll know that we have some sort of situation in mind—although by “situation” we may be merely referring to a site that interests us, or a particular object—but that’s about it. Nothing is scripted or storyboarded in any way. For us, entering into the space of shooting is really about entering a space of play, very analogous to the way in which children play, where language, functionality, and cause and effect become unanchored and fluid. The virtue of video has always been its lack of preciousness; we can just let the camera run, do our thing, and hope that it results in something we find interesting later.

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Image: HALFLIFERS, ACTIONS IN ACTION, 1997, video, 10:30 min. (still). 

KG: Do you view your work as performance? Are the videos documents of your performances? Or are they autonomous works?

HL: While our video work certainly relies upon a kind of performance, it’s in no way intended as a document of a performance. Rather, we use improvisational strategies (alongside other motivating factors, i.e. re-communication, booze, etc.) to construct alternative spaces, re-imagined mental/physical processes, and sculptural micro-worlds.

KG: How did you conceive of this exhibition? How do you see the works by other artists engaging with your own history and practice?

HL: This show began about two years ago, out of a discussion with Gallery 400. At the time, we had just completed a two-disc DVD set that was a compilation of pretty much everything HALFLIFERS had done. In February 2011, we staged a one-night launch party at the Berkeley Art Museum, which was put together by Steve Seid at the Pacific Film Archive. We had multiple works projected simultaneously, zombie-head portraits of ourselves made of cake and fondant housed in sculptural gravicles, and we also screened work by an array of other video artists we had known and/or worked with over the years, including Anne McGuire, Jordan Biren, and AnimalCharm.

By happenstance Anthony was in Chicago in May 2011 and ran into Lorelei Stewart, Gallery 400 director, who had been program director at New Langton Arts in San Francisco when we did our first big sculptural installation, I.S.L.A.N.D.S., way back in 1997. Talking with Lorelei about the DVD and the Berkeley Museum launch party led to a discussion about the possibility of doing some sort of HALFLIFERS project at Gallery 400. We had the idea of somehow turning over the HALFLIFERS project to other artists to respond/re-imagine/re-interpret. We tried to devise a speculative framework through which this might take place, which posited HALFLIFERS as an unknown entity from the distant past whose “transmissions” had recently been unearthed and were the subject of inquiry. This idea evolved into inviting a group of artists and writers who had some past relationship to us to participate in an exhibition in which they responded in some way to aspects of the HALFLIFERS’ project. We gave everyone a copy of the DVD compilation, along with complete freedom to respond however they wanted. This exciting exhibition and catalogue project is the result.

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Image: HALFLIFERS, I.S.L.A.N.D.S., 1997, mixed media, New Langton Arts, San Francisco (installation view).  

KG: What is the role of publications in your practice? Is this a new interest or have books always been a part of your work?

HL: It’s definitely a new thing for us; we’ve never done anything like this book before. We weren’t originally thinking of it as a book, but as an actual photograph or image. But we couldn’t decide on what this image would be or how we wanted to construct it. We sort of wanted to do something that had a really different feeling of agency to it than all our other work. We had so many conversations about what the work would be in such a short period that we're not even clear on how the idea of a “photograph” turned into a book; though we can say we discussed it as a “manifestation kit” of visual material that could somehow be used to reconstitute the HALFLIFERS.

KG: Both of you make art outside of HALFLIFERS. How has working as part of a collaborative influenced your own individual practices?

AD: For me, some of the underlying approaches to working with video that Torsten and I developed in HALFLIFERS really played a big role when I started making my own video work in the late 1990s, even though the content and concerns of that solo work are very different than what HALFLIFERS produces. Even now, when I am less engaged with video in my own practice, HALFLIFERS has continued to act as a kind of foil for my solo work, a place that’s fueled more by my interior personal dialogue with Torsten than by a dialogue with contemporary art practice. In other words, it’s a lot looser and more personal than I allow myself to be in my solo work.

TZB: It’s a way of extending my life. Over the years I have been engaged in some potent long-term collaborations. If I go to Home Depot to secure props and costume elements for a video or sculptural project, the trip to this variable site is different every time for each collaboration that I am involved with. The same prop item is recast and charged with new meaning and potential. Everything is refreshed over and over again . . . new perception is activated. There is a solo version of myself creating Demoformances on Earth A, Earth C has Darrin and me exploring cos-play fictions, Earth M has Christian and me choreographically responding to mobile set-ups and fictional bodies, Earth Y has Virocode and me performing appropriated televisual characters and their textual delivery systems, and finally the oldest collaboration on EARTH Z has HALFLIFERS engaging in a never ending loop of speculative conversation, anxious healing rituals, and manifested splatstick.

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Image: HALFLIFERS, AFTERLIFERS: WALKING & TALKING (EXTEN-DEAD), 2004–08, video, 23:00 min. (still).

KG: What’s next for HALFLIFERS?

AD: Anything is possible. Perhaps a full-scale replica of us, rendered in beef jerky, that can be vacuum packed and launched into space?

TZB: Neon portrait of Lance Henriksen! I would love to see several “Index” pages from our piece THE LAST KNOWN PHOTOGRAPH OF THE HALFLIFERS re-translated for neon and deployed into an unknown international ice hotel.

Karen Greenwalt is currently a PhD student in the art history program at UIC and a Curatorial Assistant at Gallery 400.