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Virtually Real

Mary Lucier

Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

I am an anomaly in my field: a technological artist who doesn't own a computer. I was an anomaly as a child, being the only kid I knew on the block without a television set. My parents didn't get a TV until after I went to college in 1961, and that was because my grandmother gave it to them. My mother was afraid we wouldn't read.

Our entire family was anomalous in that we didn't even own a car until sometime around 1952. It was a '48 Ford. As many of you will remember, 1952 was the year the shape of automobiles changed from bug-like to longer, sleeker, two-tone. I guess my mother was afraid we wouldn't walk.

I was so humiliated by our gray, buglike '48 Ford that I used to hide in the well between the seat and the dashboard every time my father drove me downtown or to a football game. Fortunately, we lived right across the street from the school, so I didn't have to be driven to class or to proms and, besides, my boyfriend's father had a very cool Packard.

Eventually, my father bought a two-tone green '53 Chevrolet, also used, but no longer embarrassing. The shift was right on the steering wheel first, second, third, reverse. That's the car I learned to drive on, and to this day I've never really understood the need for more than three forward gears and reverse.

On rainy days, when I couldn't go out or ride my bike or go swimming or play, I remember hounding my mother. It's a familiar refrain: "Mom, I'm bored." She'd reply, "Read!" Me: "I'm too bored to read." Mother" "Draw!" So eventually, I did a great deal of both, along with exploring the backyard jungles, catching night crawlers, and playing Doctor with all the neighborhood kids.

There was one piece of electronic magic in my life, however, which made an indelible impression, and that was an enormous Magnavox console, consisting of a 78rpm turntable enclosed in the upper left hand cabinet, and a radioactive-green radio dial on the right side, with AM, FM (which required a special antenna that we did not have), and, my favorite, Short Wave. Underneath all this in the console, at a perfect height for a ten to fourteen year old girl seated in rapt attention four inches from the cloth grill, were the most magnificent loudspeakers I'd ever heard.

I neglected to mention that we lived in a drafty old Victorian house without heat on the second floor. In the winter we'd open these rather beautiful, ornate cold air registers in the ceiling, which were supposed to allow the heat from below to rise into our frigid bedrooms, but which mainly allowed my brother and sister and me to spy on one another or to overhear all the quarrels and secrets we shouldn't and needn't have been exposed to. As a result, I developed quite a taste for voyeurism for viewing life through a rectangular metal frame with vertical slats and curious patterns and a picture that was sometimes nothing more that an empty sofa and part of an armchair. When I was not reading or drawing or exploring or building something peculiar, I'd just as likely be lying flat on a cold floor, peering into the depths, straining to hear some drama being enacted just out of view below; or I'd sit up late at night, long after everyone else had gone to bed, with both hands and eyes on that luminescent radio dial and my body pressed close to those fabulous loudspeakers, scanning the dial nonstop until I could recognize Hank Ballard and the Midnighters or Ray Charles or Fats Domino or Etta James or Laverne Baker or Elvis, by just a few bars, via stations that came in only at night, illuminating a landscape from Nashville to Cleveland to Detroit and beyond.

But the real thrill was listening to Short Wave. The staticky squawks and rhythmic bleeps, punctuated by fragmentary bursts of mysterious speech, made up another, more bizarre landscape that I fantasized as space and time travel. Hunkered down there against that machine for hours on end, cross-legged on one of my mother's somewhat threadbare Oriental rugs, I experienced a deep crisis of faith. In the same spirit with which I used to pray intently to God, or at least Jesus, "Please, oh please appear to me or give me a sign," to make Himself known so that I could partake of a transformative miracle, become a believer, and leave behind, once and for all, my deeply ingrained agnosticism and my dreary small town life, I tried to will that carpet to fly.

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] Short Wave radio, Jules Verne, Tom Swift, 1001 Arabian Nights, Grimms' Fairy Tales, Mowgli the Jungle Boy, Dracula, Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Alexander Nevsky, the Bible itself a massive, illustrated King James version with pictures so horrifying, I trembled to look (irresistibly) at the Red Sea closing over helpless horses and terrified men in armor with spears and eyes raised hideously heavenward this was my television. A technology primarily of the imagination. An imagining of a technology.

How I got from there to here has everything to do with my sense of the enormous mystery surrounding the very stuff of life itself: its molecular composition, the phenomena of light and sound waves, the technology of nature earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, evolution, extinction, and a continuing quest to resolve that unanswered crisis of faith, to find a non-corporeal medium of travel that could dematerialize the physical body, reconstituting it as a series of electrical impulses, an aggregate of magnetic particles, a compendium of bits and bytes, bridging an incomprehensible past with the unknowable future.

Pure spirit.

Talk presented on January 6th 1995 at the Miami Art Fair, on a panel entitled "Art on the Eve of the Millennium."

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Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

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