Scott Donovan: You’ve said the world is full of people who don’t realise they’re dead. Are you talking about actual zombies or someone you might encounter at IKEA or an MCA fundraiser? How can you tell the difference?
Carla Cescon: It all started five years ago, when I had to do some work through the community facilities section at a local council. I had a conversation with a man who worked there (and it was the first of many, unfortunately) that was totally one-sided due to his lack of exchange. It wasn’t that he was dominating the conversation but it was painfully obvious that he wasn’t listening, and he was repeating the same things pretty much over and over. A frozen expression stuck to his face the whole time, only his eyes slowly moved here and there. He never smiled or laughed. I felt a little overwhelmed and zapped of energy after that first meeting with him. I never knew that someone with absolutely no communication or people skills could manage to hold on to a responsible position in a work place that dealt with the public. So he became my prototype for this theory of a type of death people have while they are still breathing, a death of feelings or something like that. And it was in the same work place, and I wonder if it’s by sheer coincidence, that I met the caretaker who was a self-proclaimed ‘ghostbuster’. I ended up spending most of my working days going down to the basement listening to the caretaker’s latest ghostbusting escapades, and marvelling at how someone so alive seeks out the dead while upstairs there was someone so dead seeking out the living. So I believe in zombies, just not strictly adhering to George A Romero’s manifestation. Thinking more along the lines of the traditional mind/state altering Voodoo trance making its way into a contemporary, capitalist and overmedicated consumerist society. Making themselves at home inhabiting a world where money and power is the god. And where souls are sold to an ideal of accessibility and convenience.
SD: I had a similar neo-zombie experience with an ex-flatmate’s mother – listening to her was like falling into quicksand and wishing you could sink faster. The ghostbusting caretaker sounds a lot more interesting. What did he get up to and was he operating in an official council capacity?
CC: No, his true skills were ignored, there were too many lights, locks and chairs that needed repairing. He was quite often placed into the role of afternoon tea man where he would have to go get the milk and cakes. But in the basement he told me about this really difficult job in the Blue Mountains. A house filled with really angry spirits. There was one that would sit in the car with the lady who resided at the house. She didn’t know it, but when her friends happened to see her driving down the street they would ask her questions about the gentleman in the passenger seat. Anyway, he reckoned that he needed a team for this one. I asked him if I could be a member of the team but he said I didn’t have enough experience. I knew I had none, so I didn’t push it. After that I went home and started work on a film called Witness.[i] I started thinking of the power of energy, in particular the body’s energy – how it can make you feel you could do anything. In the film I thought about ideas associated with reanimation. You know, not letting go of something’s potential just because it’s dead. Bringing it back to life, infusing it with energy in some way, I had footage of an extremely large rat that died in the parking lot next door. So I decided to use that, I used basic visual effects to make it look like you could see its life force energy.
SD: As you know I live above a psychic, an elderly Scotsman who makes a living communicating with the dead and predicting the future. He doesn’t seem very prescient in his own life, such as knowing when my water heater was about to explode and flood his place downstairs or when he is going to lose his front door keys for the millionth time, but clearly must have some special powers because he’s always busy and has quite a few regular clients. I mention him because you have also tried to contact the dead – most notably the Ramones – using various means such as drug-fuelled trances, hunting for subliminal messages in television static, and even by Australia Post.[ii] The exchange, as with your zombie council worker, has always been one-sided – a deafening silence from beyond the grave. I was wondering if you think this kind of metaphysical inquiry is worth pursing or if we are doomed to grope around in the dark forever while Scotsmen get rich on our insecurities?
CC: Anything is possible, isn’t it? I think I get caught up in everything to do with the rituals or special skills people may have, ways of getting information you may never get otherwise. There is so much conflicting stuff said and written about what happens when we die. Scanning electronic visual phenomena in the work about the Ramones was an accessible way to look for signs of life after death. I thought of it as an experiment, you know, get a sense of what it feels like to be a devoted fan and try the experiment while sleep deprived and also with the aid of stimulants. My friend used to like reminding me that I was looking and listening to the sound of the beginning of everything. He’d say, ‘Carla, you know white noise is the sound of the Big Bang’. My reply would be that it’s a good place to look for dead musicians. So I’m not sure what the outcome of these experiments will be, there is a lot of work to do, but I think we should make a pack, if one of us dies the other should be given a sign.
SD: Well, I do like the sound of the Blue Mountains ghost so maybe I’ll come back as a phantom back-seat driver. What’s you’re rego number?
[ii] This installation was called Night Crawlers & Shape-shifters: 100 days and nights in search of the Ramones (Artspace, 16 March – 14 April 2007).
Originally published in Runway, Issue 13, Dead, Autumn 2009, pp.26-29.