Sunday, March 2, 2014

Holy Christ, there's nothing left.

Transformations II, in progress.

Well what do you want them to like you for,
that's the question to ask
Would it help you if everyone knew your face,
if that face were only a mask?

- David Wilcox, Sex and Music

This weekend I spent a lot of time working on my ongoing mask project: Transformations II. I also continued the seemingly endless website revisions on the (hopefully) soon to be relaunched, Dorothy Day Guild website. I judged the New York City Science and Engineering Fair. I also went to see Robocop.  That's a pretty random cocktail, even by my standards.  Do you ever have have the feeling that some mysterious thread is woven through a set of things like that? I told my collaborator on the Day website as I was leaving for the movie that it seemed like the least Dorothy Day-esque way imaginable to spend an evening. Afterward, in spite of quite a bit of fun with automatic weapons fire, I wasn't so sure. I think she would take an interest in the questions it raised (but couldn't quite address in the context of an action movie). What makes us human? What is the endpoint of the reductio ad absurdum of militarism and the search for power and money? How do we stay human in the face of the world's brutality? How do we understand and face the consequences of our actions?  It's not academic. I've interviewed at  defense contractors. My cell tracking work is slated for integration with an autonomous firing system, though the lasers are aimed 'only' at hapless worms on a microscope slide. When does your work get away from you?

That's at least somewhat related to another motif: masks. They've been much on my mind lately because of my carving project and for other reasons. Masks are resonant symbols and have always interested me both literally and metaphorically. Masks can be metaphorical in a lot of ways. Robocop's armored body is a mask, as the pretty raw scene this post takes it name from shows. The armor masks the fact that physically just about everything human is gone. The disembodied hand attached to the bag of internal organs drove me berserk with its implausibility. But maybe it was too resonant an image for them to pass up, the hand is almost as much a home for the soul as the heart, or the head.  In the context of the movie it too is a mask, providing the desirable illusion that there is physical humanity left.

Robocop, like most popular entertainment is about triumph over adversity. The machine almost eats the man, but doesn't. Even a severed head has a soul that can triumph over the weakness of steel and silicon flesh. But I've been thinking about the darker outcome. I've been thinking of the ability of masks to consume their creators, for the manufactured self to displace the real.  Since I've been working on my project a Japanese co-worker has been asking me periodically how I'm feeling. She tells me there are many stories about mask carvers loosing their health, even their soul because they pour too much of themselves into creating a masterpiece. As someone who's said that your life should be the greatest piece of art you create, its a thought that gives me pause. What does that mean exactly? What does it feel like to be eroded away till there is nothing left? How do you know if you are wearing a mask?

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